As a pastor for over 30 years, I have ministered to hundreds of people both inside and outside the church. Over the years, it seems that I hear about more and more people who were burned by the church and who no longer attend church. I have heard comments like, “They are just a bunch of hypocrites!” Or, “I have given up on organized religion.” Or, “I was deeply hurt by the church and I will never go back again. I don’t need a church to worship God.”
My response to people who used to go to church and no longer attend; my heart goes out to you. I know that sometimes the people who are supposed to love you the most can hurt you the worst. I know that people in the church are far from perfect. And I know that sometimes the people of the church do not represent Jesus very well. Too often we become critical and judgmental when we should overflow with grace and love. Sometimes we focus more on “thou shalt not” than “For God so loved the world.” I too have been hurt by the church in the past. And I have had church people be very unkind to me and my family. So, why do I stay in the church? Why haven’t I given up on the church? Because, as imperfect as the people of the church are, I realize I am imperfect too. Yet, I am compelled to live out the love of Jesus in my life and to do so, I have to do it where that love is challenged, stretched and tested. So many of the sayings of Jesus in the Bible were about “one another.” Love one another. Forgive one another. Bear with one another. Be patient with one another, etc. There are so many “one another” sayings of Jesus because Jesus knew that the life we live must be lived, not in isolating ourselves from imperfect people, but learning to live together and work together and get along with one another. The church gives me many opportunities to offer grace to those who don’t deserve it because I am shown grace when I don’t deserve it. It gives me opportunities to love someone that is hard to love. That someone might not be the guy on skid row, but the one with the shirt and tie sitting in the pew.
I have always said, “We might as well learn to get along in the church here on earth, because we will be spending the rest of eternity with each other in heaven.” It could very well be that life in the church, learning to get along with people (even hard-to-love people), is boot camp for serving in God’s kingdom in heaven.
So, what do we do with all the disappointments and hurts and hypocrisy that stems from living within the church? We learn to forgive one another. We learn to bear with one another, be patient and extend grace to one another. And hopefully, we will learn not to live hypocritical lives, but authentically follow Jesus to become less and less like hypocrites, and more and more like Jesus. There is a chorus we sing in church that says,
From glory to glory He’s changing me
Changing me, changing me
His likeness and image too perfect in me
The love of God shown to the world
My goal as a pastor is that people who have been burnt by the church can come back and be a catalyst for the Spirit to set the church on fire with passion, love and forgiveness, by showing grace and mercy toward one another; and bringing God’s healing to the church and to the world. God specializes using flawed people to do glorious things in the world. None of us have arrived yet, but we press on toward the goal of working and living together, becoming more like Jesus and together becoming the “body of Christ,” the Church.