I am often frustrated with the church. I find myself drifting away for periods of time and then wandering back. I am too unorthodox in my theology to be in the mainstream of Christianity, so I linger at the margins. I am often uncomfortable with the theology of the ancient creeds and so I remain silent when they are recited and I am equally uncomfortable with the theology of 21st century happy-clappy praise songs, so I do not join in. For me, the experience of worship should be challenging, not entertaining. It should help us grapple with poverty and injustice, war and oppression.
Through the past half-century, I have experienced the church in many settings—as part of a struggling inner city parish, a growing suburban congregation, and a tiny small-town church. I have been a part of churches with many ethnic roots: German, Slovak, Norwegian, and African-American. Over the years, I have been a part of the church’s engagement with social, political, and economic issues. As I came of age, I witnessed the church struggle with integration and civil rights, and then watched it segregate itself every Sunday morning for worship. I have seen it wrestle with the evils of war, and watched it feebly respond to U.S. military involvement in Vietnam, Central America, Afghanistan, and Iraq. I have seen the church grapple with women’s social, political, and reproductive rights and their equal right to ordination—which far too many churches still deny. And most recently, I have watched the never-ending debate over the role of gay and lesbian people in the church and their frequent exclusion from equality in the body of Christ and its leadership.
On nearly every one of these issues, the larger church has found itself on the tail end of the struggle for peace and justice. It has rarely been a leader in these movements and all too often has been a distant follower. I have watched churches test the wind on nearly every social issue and adopt positions that will offend the fewest number of its members—often in the name of ‘unity.’ I have observed that many churches rise to speak boldly and prophetically only after the matter has been resolved by society at large and the issue has been settled everywhere but in the church.
Increasingly it seems that the church has become an irrelevant force in the world. Too many churches seem focused entirely on personal salvation rather than addressing the everyday evils of violence, power, and systemic injustice. Too many congregations focus solely on themselves instead of the suffering and needs of their neighbors. Too many pastors find it difficult to speak the truth, challenge the faithful, and rock the boat. In nearly every country the church too often serves as a chaplain to the policies of the state rather than a prophetic voice calling for peace and justice.
I wish the church was different. I wish it was more faithful in its calling. Yet I take heart that there are faithful people and communities who, though small, are engaged in the work of God on earth. Jesus often used images of a tiny minority who could accomplish great things—a bit of yeast in a large loaf of bread, a pinch of salt in a great kettle of soup, a tiny mustard seed scattered in a well-tended garden, a feeble lamp in a vast darkened house.
So I often feel alone, on the margins of the church. I find it increasingly hard to be true to Jesus in an institutional church that by its silence validates war and economic disparity around the world. And so I wonder why I stay. Continue reading