Why You Shouldn’t Give Up On The Church

 

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This article was originally Published at RelevantMagazine.com.

I grew up in the church. No really, I grew up in the church. I am a PK and spent countless hours in church and doing church activities. I am a church native and familiar with all its quirks and cultural oddities, with all its strengths, and with all its failings. As the son of prominent evangelical pastor, John Piper, I not only saw the inner workings of my own church I was exposed to church leaders from around the world and saw the good and the bad from their churches too.

Many people like me, who grew up immersed in church, have given up on it. Church is archaic, domineering, impersonal, hypocritical, irrelevant, contentious, petty, boring, and stale. It’s institutional instead of authentic and religious but not relational they say. I have seen all this in church and can agree that each accusation is true in instances. A PK sees all this up close and far too personally and feels each fault even more intensely. It really is enough to make one want to bail on church.

And I had my chance. Despite growing up steeped in sound Bible teaching and a loving context, I grew up empty in my soul. I believed but didn’t fully believe. I obeyed but kept parts of my life for myself, bits of dishonesty and secrecy. I knew Jesus and knew He was the only way to be saved from my sin, but I didn’t give my life to Him. In the end it blew up in my face and I was faced with the decision: stay in church and work through my mess or leave and be free. I stayed.

While leaving was an option, it was one that I looked at and saw emptiness. Sure, the church can cause a lot of pain and annoyance, but it’s where Jesus’ people are connected. And really, that’s what it is about – Jesus. That’s what made it so clear to me that staying was best.

The church is a messy place by nature. That’s what happens when a bunch of sinners come together anywhere. But it is a messy place designed by God to be his face to the World, and all those sinners reflect Him in unique ways. Nothing reflects God to the world like the church does. No, we don’t “do” church 100% correctly, and we never will. No, church is not a perfect place. Yes, church displays the sins of all its people very publicly. But none of that changes what it is or can be.

To leave the church is to hurt yourself and to hurt others. I don’t mean hurt like a slap in the face (though in some cases it’s a bit like that). I mean hurt like malnourishment. We were created by God to connect with others and, in that connection, reveal more of Him to each other and to the world. When we depart we deprive ourselves of those aspects of God others reflect and we deprive them of those aspects we reflect. Leaving is starving our souls and others’.

Solitude is wonderful. But many things in life, maybe most things, are better enjoyed with others. Including God. That’s why we’re called to worship with others, to study with others, to pray with others. And church is the outlet for that, an imperfect outlet, but the outlet nonetheless. God wants us to experience Him to the fullest and that is done with others in song, in study, in reflection, in prayer, in tears, in confession in celebration – with others, doing church.

Leaving the church is escapism. You may find stresses relieved and conflicts avoided. It may feel like a breath of fresh air to leave behind traditional stuffiness and legalistic hypocrisy. Even now, I often want to slap the stupid out of the church. It can be such a maddening collection of people. (And I suspect I contribute to the stupid that needs slapping just as often.) But none of that changes what it is: the organism of God’s presence and kingdom in the world. It is His means of connecting people to the gospel, to hope, to life. No matter your frustrations and hurts, it cannot be abandoned. You need it now whether or not you know it, and someday you will have a need nothing and no one else can meet. And the church will be where Jesus shows himself to you.

 photo credit: Bradley N. Weber via photopin cc

How Do You See The Saints?

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Have you ever said or thought this Bible verse:

As for the saints in the land, they are the annoying ones, in whom is all my irritation.

Or how about this one:

As for the saints in the land, they are the ones who are just so slow to change, who I get so tired of trying to help.

There are a hundred variations on that verse. We have special variations for our teens, and those who don’t look like us, those we’ve had a conflict with, those who talk too much, those who make a beeline for us every Sunday when they see us, those who make a beeline away from us when they see us, those….you get the idea.

Sometimes it’s good to be reminded of the actual Bible verse:

As for the saints in the land, they are the excellent ones, in whom is all my delight. PS 16:3

The NASB uses the phrase “majestic ones” in this verse.

Yeah but Mark, you don’t know my church. “Excellent ones?” “Majestic ones?” Ones “in whom is all my delight?” Not quite.

But that’s the way God sees his children. As the excellent ones, clothed with his Son’s righteousness. As the apples of his eye, the ones in whom is all his delight. God said of Israel: “he who touches you touches the apple of his eye” (Zechariah 2:8). How much more does he love his blood-bought children – every single one of them – warts and all, weaknesses and all. He loves us despite our foibles and failures. He sees us in Christ and he is transforming us from one degree of glory to another.  God sees us as his redeemed ones, his children, joint-heirs of Christ, his new creations, holy ones, his chosen race, a royal priesthood, and his very own possession (1 Pe 2:9).

CS Lewis said if we could see each other as beautiful as we will be in heaven, we’d be tempted to worship each other.

If God sees his children as excellent ones and takes great delight in each one, shouldn’t we? And especially if God sees you as one of his majestic ones, shouldn’t you do the same others?  The next time you’re dreading going to your small group, think “They are the excellent ones in whom is all my delight.” Or when that brother who is always struggling asks you for prayer think, “You are one of God’s majestic ones.” The next time you’re tempted to be annoyed at your spouse, thank Jesus for giving you one his excellent ones and ask him to help you delight in them.

Ask God to help you see the saints as he sees them. Sure they are weak. Sure they mess up. Sure they might not always to be easy to be with. But they are God’s excellent ones in whom is all his delight. And you can delight in them too.

Do Prodigals Feel Welcome At Our Churches?

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We all know “prodigal” kids. Maybe you are a prodigal kid. The kid who grew up in church, went off to college, and proceeded to make a royal disaster of his life. The church girl who got pregnant at age 17. The pastor’s kid who started hanging with the wrong crowd and picked up a heroin habit.

In his kindness, God often brings a prodigal to the end of his rope. No money. Living on the street. Kicked out of college. A string of broken relationships. Tempted to eat food that is intended for pigs. You get the point. And when prodigals bottom out, they often return home and to the church.

When a prodigal returns to your church, what sort of welcome will he receive?

See here’s the thing about prodigals: they have baggage. (Of course, we all have baggage, we’re just a little better at hiding it.)

The prodigal needs to get a smoke in between the singing and the sermon.

The prodigal has tattoos that may not be “church friendly”.

The prodigal has a girlfriend who isn’t modesty approved.

The prodigal smells like beer.

The prodigal wears a t-shirt of a band that would not be played on a CCM top 40 station.

Will we stay away from the prodigal until he gets his life back together? Until he starts attending small group, stops smoking, and ditches the girlfriend? Until he starts talking the talk and walking the walk? Will we talk about the prodigal behind his back? Will we point out the prodigal to our children as an example of what happens when you disobey your parents?

Or will we embrace him? Laugh with him? Invite him over for dinner? Tell him how happy we are to see him? Take a real, concerted interest in his girlfriend? Shower him with love and affection and gratefulness?

The way welcome prodigals back to church says a lot about our knowledge of God, and a lot about our awareness of our own sinful tendencies, and a lot about our understanding of grace. And the way we welcome prodigals back to church has a significant impact on whether that prodigal keeps coming back to church.

But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate. (Luke 15:20-24 ESV)

Are Millennials Less Godly than Previous Generations?

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Young people are leaving the church at an alarming rate. At least that’s the narrative you hear over and over again. As the narrative goes, these godless, self-centered, me-first, consumerist millennials are abandoning the church, the body of Christ, for individualistic spirituality. No more will organized religion suffice for them. They are forsaking the faith of their fathers. We should be concerned, very concerned!

Assuming that young people are, in fact, leaving the church in droves it raises a question: are millennials more godless than previous generations? It seems like obvious answer is “yes”; they’re leaving the church after all. But such a question deserves closer examination.

In decades past America was a traditionally churched, religious nation. A significant portion of society was religiously involved, and church was a cultural centerpiece. Those who grew up in explicitly religious families and contexts attended church out of habit. It was expected that come Sunday morning they would scrub behind their ears, put on their nice trousers and tie, and off to church they’d go. The power of cultural expectations was enormous. In entire swaths of the country a person was a pariah if he wasn’t a churchgoer. But no more. Sure, the Bible belt still exists, but the cultural pressure to be in church week in and week out has waned to near zero.

Along with waning cultural pressure, the respect for institutions has diminished among young people, and with it the respect for institutional leaders. While the good Reverend McGillicuddy might once have been a community icon and an authority figure in people’s personal lives he is no longer. Neither are churches community hubs (at least in white communities). Young people don’t look to institutions or their heads for instruction. The trust isn’t there.

And there is a reason trust is missing for the institutional church. For decades a gospel of moralism and legalism was taught in numerous churches. People attended because it was the “right thing to do” and a way to “get right with God.” The expectations placed on members were a particular brand of morality built around which things we don’t do (drink, cuss, smoke, watch certain movies, listen to certain music, etc.). It was a burdensome law, one nobody could keep. Many didn’t even try though they acted like it on Sundays. And while everyone knew it they kept on doing it. Except now young people won’t pretend any more or follow an institution so full of fakery. They don’t trust the hypocrisy and they reject the moralism.

So what is it young people are leaving behind? In many cases they are leaving a faux godliness. Millions of lost people, people hanging their hat on morality or mere attendance, populated the pews of the church in previous generations. They were just a lot harder to pick out than those who brazenly walk out the door, so hard we can’t even be sure how many there were.

To answer the question, no, millennials are not more godless. They’re just more obvious. People suffer from the same sin condition now that we have since Eden. This generation’s expression of it is to reject the hypocritical, cultural Christianity of yesteryear. But the hypocrisy that was subtle before, while easier to ignore, was not godlier. It was no more connected to the gospel and to regeneration that is walking away from church altogether. Yes, be concerned that young people are leaving the church, but be more concerned why. In many cases it isn’t because they reject Christ; it’s because they never found him at church either from the pulpit or the pews.

[Disclaimer: Writing anything about “the church” is risky, as is writing anything about an entire generation of people. It requires writing in generalities and broad strokes. This is not intended to lump all churches, church-goers, and millennials into the same boat but rather to speak to tendencies and trends over the years.]

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Church Is For Messy People

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We tend to get dressed up for church. Depending on your denomination, getting dressed up might look like wearing a suit and tie or a dress. Or, getting dressed up might look like wearing your best pair of jeans and a collared shirt. We clean up before going to church. We shower and we brush our hair. We want to, at the least, look like we have it together. For the most part, we don’t go to church wearing yoga pants or sweatpants. We don’t roll out of bed and go straight to church.

I distinctly remember one Sunday when a man said to me something like, “When I look around, I see all these people who have their lives together. Meanwhile, my life is a mess.”

Church should be a place where messy people feel comfortable. When I say “messy people”, I don’t mean people who are willfully engaging in unrepentant sin. I mean people who are seeking to follow Jesus, but who often find themselves struggling, and falling, and failing. I’m talking about the weak, weary, and worn out.

  • I’m talking about the couple who is seeking the Lord, and yet their daughter is not a Christian, and is living with her boyfriend.
  • I’m talking about the young man who is following Jesus, yet also deals with deep depression and suicidal thoughts.
  • I’m talking about the woman who loves Jesus, yet also finds herself regularly struggling with homosexual desires.
  • I’m talking about the teenage boy who is trying to live for Jesus, yet also struggles with cutting himself.
  • I’m talking about the woman who has followed Jesus for many years, yet can’t come to church anymore because she is racked with arthritis and fibromyalgia.
  • I’m talking about the older single man who is faithfully following Jesus, yet regularly struggles with despair because he isn’t married.
  • I’m talking about the woman who walks with Christ, yet can’t seem to overcome her struggles with being overweight.
  • I’m talking about the young woman who is new to following Christ, and isn’t quite sure how to handle her struggle with bulimia.

How can we serve “messy” people? How can we make “messy” people feel welcome in our churches? Several ways.

Don’t act shocked when we see sin. Unfortunately, we tend to act shocked when certain sins or struggles come to light. We aren’t surprised by pride or anger or impatience. But we are shocked when someone says they struggle with suicidal thoughts or homosexual desires or the desire to cut themselves. We are shocked when someone’s child gets caught with drugs. But we shouldn’t be shocked. Even as Christians, we still have a sinful nature. That sinful nature manifests itself in many different ways. We shouldn’t be shocked when we see sin. If we are shocked, it means we haven’t come face to face with the depravity that lurks in our own hearts.

Regularly acknowledge our own sins, failures, and weaknesses. The truth is, nobody has it all together. All of us are desperate sinners in need of a mighty Savior. All of us are sick patients in need of a wise physician. I don’t struggle with an eating disorder, but I sure as heck have a whole lot of other struggles.

Regularly revel in the mighty power of Jesus. We should talk about our sins and struggles, but we can’t stop there. We are weak and empty, but Jesus is mighty and full of grace. There is no struggle bigger than Jesus. There is no sin that cannot be conquered by the risen Savior. There is no failure that cannot be covered by the blood of Christ. We need to constantly remind ourselves that Jesus is bigger and better than we can imagine. The gospel is the power of God for salvation and sanctification.

Would “messy” people feel comfortable in your church? Or would they feel like there are certain struggles that they need to hide? The gospel allows us to openly confess our struggles. The gospel also gives us hope that our struggles will not define us. The gospel allows us to be “messy” and hopeful at the same time.