Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Letters to My Non-Churchgoing Friends (#8: Disappointed with the Church?)

[I'm writing a series of columns for the Community Press newspapers dealing with common reasons people give for not being part of the church. This is the eighth such letter.]

Dear Friend:
I've been talking about common reasons people offer for not being part of the church. Today, I want to deal with a reason often given by those who leave churches and don't come back. "I was disappointed by the church," they say.

Whether their disappointment in a previous congregation stems from unethical practices, feelings of being ignored or marginalized, or from being hurt by someone in congregational leadership, I feel badly when people are disappointed. I listen to them sympathetically. No one wants to be hurt, especially by the church. All churches should be fellowships of safety and welcome.

Having been disappointed by the church myself, I try to remind these hurting people of two things: (1) No church is perfect. Because, as I've pointed out before, the church is a fellowship of recovering sinners, there will be times when we disappoint one another. (2) Not all churches are the same. For every congregation in which the penchant for hurting others is endemic, you can find dozens whose members strive to live in Christian attitudes of love for God and neighbor.

But it should also be said that some people become disappointed with a church not because of a church's sins, but because of their own. They want the church to bend to their wills on matters of personal preference.

For example, I know of a church that lost several member families in a dispute over the color of new carpeting in the sanctuary. They wanted red and the building committee voted for salmon. "I was very hurt," said one of the departing members, which was really her way of saying, "I was ticked off that we didn't get our way!"

In recent years, homosexuality and other sexual expressions outside of marriage have become more accepted in our culture. I'm frankly glad that longstanding forms of homophobia are dying. Any time we think of people in dehumanizing terms, God isn't glorified.

But with this trend toward acceptance of more and diverse sexual expression, many profess disappointment that most Christian churches continue to say that the practice of homosexuality is contrary to God's will. Most churches welcome all people to wrestle with their sin and hear the Good News of forgiveness offered through Jesus Christ. That includes people who profess an orientation to homosexuality.

But churches aren't free to change God's mind on this subject. God has said that sexual intimacy is to happen within the bounds of heterosexual marriage. The Church--my own "liberal" Evangelical Lutheran Church in America included--has refused to alter what God has revealed in the Bible.

Jesus says that sin isn't just about what we do or say, but also about what we think. And the Bible tells us that all have sinned. From this, we can extrapolate that no one is guiltless in sexual matters. But if your disappointment with a church stems from its unwillingness to label right what God has called wrong, chances are you'll be disappointed for a long time.

Whatever the source of your disappointment with a church of which you may have been a part in the past, I hope that you won't let it keep you from finding a church home. There's no such thing as the perfect church. But when you find a church disappointing you, I hope you'll ask yourself this question: "Am I disappointed because God's will has been violated or is it because my will has been denied?"

And, even if you find the church guilty, ask yet another question of yourself: "Should I leave this church or can I stay, keep loving these imperfect people, and pray that they will keep loving me in spite of my own imperfections?"


[To see all eight letters thus far written, go here. There will be more installments in this series.]

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