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Where I explain my problems with organized religion

December 31, 2011

For a while there, I was a youth minister.  More accurately, I was a DCE, or Director of Christian Education; that’s what it says on the degree and certificate.  This was the culmination of a life in the Church as a Missouri-Synod Lutheran, following my grandparents and my parents.  My family had always been very devoted to the church, serving on church boards, singing in choirs, and doing any number of other tasks within the faith.  My father served as the president of several congregations.  My mother did the professional page layout for church bulletins, and crafted the large seasonal banners that hung from the rafters of at least one church we attended.  It seemed very natural that I not only go into church service myself, but that I take the step of making it my career.

As you may be able to guess by all the past-tense, that didn’t go well.  For my own part, I was a bad match for church work. Don’t get me wrong… at the time I was doing it, I was quite devoted.  I loved working with the kids, I was strong in my faith, and I threw myself into it.  I’d been teaching Sunday School and directing puppet ministries for years before doing this, and I did my best to perform the duties laid out in my call.  There were just some additional duties, not quite so clearly laid out, that were just as important that I wasn’t as suited to.  A lot of the day-to-day ministry was difficult for me, and I had a hard time taking myself out to the homes of strangers; absolutely necessary in the position I was in.

I will not detail the process by which I left the church, save to say that it was far more the result of interpersonal church politics than any failing I had in service.  It was painful, and those involved spared no effort to make it more painful.  I did my best to endure the process with grace… I didn’t want to cause undue distress to those I had been ministering to, so the greater burden of taking responsibility for my leaving was placed on my shoulders.  Apparently, I “took it like a churchman.”  Yeah, that’s a quote.  How painful was it?

I haven’t been back in a church since then.  It’s not that I didn’t like churches, per se.  It’s that I no longer believed in their authority.  My parents, who had changed their membership to the church where I was serving, left when I did.  My father had been elected president of the congregation, but against the bylaws of the congregation, he was removed from any part in considering or enacting my removal.    That was the painful part… for them, and for me.   They separated me from any comfort or assistance, you see.  They figured it would make things easier.  You know, for them.

My parents have visited a church, here and there, since that happened.  They did not find a new church home, did not find a place to be members again.

My father passed away a strong and devout Christian, but with no church home.

(Pausing for a moment.  This stings).

That started an interesting path of thought, for me.  You see, the Bible lays out some very specific ways in which people are to be treated, particularly people who are serving with you in service to the Lord.  In the course of my education, I served a Practicum (service to a church while finishing my last year of classes), and an Internship (a year of service after graduation).  Interestingly enough, the people who I interacted with during both of those services, with a couple of exceptions, weren’t really following the Biblical models of treating people.  The Internship was particularly hard… sort of a “Dread Pirate Roberts” approach to leading someone into a lifetime of service.  “Good morning Scott, you’re most likely going to fail, here’s why you suck, now get out there and do Church things!”

There’s something that I have heard many, many times; both while I was a member and servant of the church, and afterward.  When I would talk to people who had been members of the church, and were no longer members, they would all say some version of the same thing.

“It wasn’t the church.  It was the people.”

Funny, but that was my experience too.  I had no problems with the teachings or dogma or rituals.  It was the people who turned the church life into a political exercise that gave me problems in the church.  Well-to-do members of the congregation, people on boards, even the church leadership.  They paid a certain amount of service to the teachings of the church, but there were always “certain realities.”  People with their own agendas would find their way into positions where they were in charge of decisions.  “Well, if we cut YOUR program, then we can give more money to the programs that my children are in.”  Not said with thoughtfulness or concern, but with a smile, followed by sticking out their tongue.  Yeah, literally.

Yes, I know that people are fallible.  We are all imperfect beings living in sin; that which we must not do we do, and that which we must do we do not.  The world is not perfect, but we must forgive and continue on, praying for the strength and patience to persevere.

I’ve noticed something even bigger, now that I’ve been out of the church for a while.  Some may say that I’ve fallen (and, by their standards, I have).  Others might call it “perspective.”  What I’ve seen, from this perspective, is that a large majority of very vocal Christians aren’t acting in a terribly Christian manner.  Oh, it may be what they were TAUGHT is a Christian manner, but here’s my issue.  It’s sizable.

As Christians, people have a single, perfect example of how to treat people.  One, just one.  A Christian treats people in a Christian manner when, and only when, they are modeling Christ.  It honestly is that simple.  Yes, that seems to boil it down to WWJD, or What Would Jesus Do, but that really is one of the core tenets of Christianity.

Christ was constantly active, he was inclusive, he was quiet, and he reserved his strongest reactions for only the strongest infractions.  He was firm with those who served under him, but he never hesitated to teach them, uplift them, and help them to improve and overcome.

He did not reserve his most pious moments for a two-hour period on the Sabbath.  That’s what he was all the time.  In my opinion, the measure of a Christian should be taken at two thirty-seven on a Thursday afternoon, not 8:30 or 10:15 on a Sunday morning.  A Christian should be displaying their highest ideal of behavior while stuck behind a sl0w-moving car during rush hour.  If your car has an icthus (fish symbol) on the back, you should be held to the highest of standards for courtesy and patience while you are in that car.

He did not put his time into cultivating the proper “social network.”  When he went to a new place, he wasn’t with the wealthy and influential. He was with the hated and despised.  He gave his attention to the outcasts, the prostitutes and tax collectors.  There are some wonderful churches out there that see the outcasts come in their doors – those who are not liked in their community.  Those of a different race or orientation than the majority of those in the church body, those with sullied or hateful reputations, even those with diseases that make them social pariahs.  Those churches are not the majority – EVERY church of every Christian faith should open their doors to those people, and every member of those churches should fall over themselves to be the first person to offer the “outcast” a cup of coffee.  Those people should not only be welcome in every church, but in the home of every Christian.

There seems to be this mainstream Christian culture out there that believes that, because they are Christian, they are automatically considered to be of a higher standard.  Their motives are pure, their actions are righteous, their opinions to be taken more into consideration because they are Christians.  They wear the cloak of Christ and wish themselves to be viewed through that lens.

Metaphysically speaking, that’s not a robe.  A lot of Christians forget, or are never taught, that when they take up Christ, they take up his cross.  It was never meant to make a single thing easier; not on this side of Heaven.

Being a Christian means that one is held up to a much, much higher standard; a standard for behavior and for personal interaction that is somewhat difficult.

I’ve known some Christians who measured up to this standard, and who strove to always do so.  Not many were in church leadership.

I have had friends who were not Christians pretty much all my life.  I know quite a few atheists and pagans, and purely on the measurements of behavior and social interaction, they have a LOT of Christians beat at the whole “modeling Christ” thing, hands down.

I’m digressing a little bit, but it does lead up to a point.

When someone enters service to the church (in the theology that I am most acquainted with), it is as the result of a “call.”  They feel a call to service, the touch of the Holy Spirit that they are to serve the church.  I felt the call myself.  In the faith in which I was raised, this leads to a dedicated education process, and eventually, a person who has felt the call of the Spirit is ready to be called by a church.

A church (again according to the faith in which I was raised) in need of someone to serve will prayerfully consider this need, examine available lists of those who are in a position to be called, and issue a call to that person, all with the guidance and aid of the Spirit.  If that person, after prayerful Spirit-guided consideration, feels that the calling church is where they were meant to be, they go, visit, interview, and consider the call with the congregation.  Again, guided by the Spirit.

The Holy Spirit, third portion of the Holy Trinity, is often under-rated but amazingly important.  (This whole thing is Lutheran theology, but it forms the basis for my thought process on the matter).  Where the Father creates and the Son redeems, the Spirit sanctifies.  It is by the will and the act of the Holy Spirit that sinful man can come to know Christ and follow him.  It is from the Spirit that the church receives authority.

One guided by the Spirit, therefore, would be one who is empowered to bring people to Christ.

(Departing theology, rocky waters ahead).

So, if someone claims to be a Christian, and yet acts in a way that repels people, they can not be empowered by the Spirit.

If a member of church leadership acts in such a way as that they drive people away from the church, or worse, away from Christ, they can not be empowered by the Spirit.

If a church body(no matter how large) routinely engages in practices and behaviors that drives people from the church, or worse, away from Christ, then that church body has no true divine authority, because it can not be empowered by the Spirit.

There is a sentiment that I have heard more than once… heck, a lot, really.  When a particularly heavy-handed, smug, overconfident Christian has laid down their pile of rote condemnation, and the response is “if people like you are going to be in Heaven, I’d rather go to Hell.”

There are doctrines to explain how this doesn’t mean the Spirit isn’t there.  “It’s the failing of the person, not the Spirit.”  “Some people aren’t chosen, so they aren’t going to be convinced no matter what.”  I prefer to think that a Christian has a duty to be the absolutely best possible conduit for the work of the Spirit that they can be.

I don’t believe in standing on street corners and telling people they’re going to Hell.  That very rarely works, you know.  These days, less than ever.  I don’t particularly believe in walking door to door spreading the word of Christ.  I don’t think that evangelism should be a verbal process at all; at least, not at first.

In my opinion, a Christian displays their Christianity best by behaving properly, treating people well, always doing their very best at their every endeavor, and doing so with joy and a peace that passes understanding.  It isn’t by having a fish on the back of their car or by telling people that they need to repent.  A Christian shouldn’t even identify themselves as a Christian except by modeling Christ in their behavior and demeanor.

How does that bring people to Christ?  Because when someone witnesses that peace and dedication, when someone’s life is falling apart and they’re looking for someone who seems to “get it,” they’re going to look to the properly behaving Christian and ask “what do you have?  How are you doing that?”  That is when the process becomes verbal.  That’s when you share the name of Christ, and the lessons of his love.  You build that lesson on the strongest possible foundation; a Christ-like life.

I’ve seen church leaders who could do that… my life is richer for having known them.  They’re in the minority, in my experience.

What passes for Christianity today upsets me greatly.  It was never, not ever, supposed to be easy.  It was never supposed to be a political power; Christ told us that it would make us unpopular if we espoused it.  Like love, it should not be proud, it should not boast.  Even Christ didn’t usually pray in public – when he had to pray his most earnest prayer ever (“…let this cup pass…”), he did it quietly in a garden, away from everyone.

It should be something that non-Christians look at, just from the behavior and demeanor of those who practice it, and say “you know, I think I want that in my life, whatever it is.”  What it seems to be, however, is something that repels by its arrogance, exclusivity, and the hatred practiced by some of its more vocal “proponents.”  It’s driving people away.

It drove me away.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. December 31, 2011 10:30 am

    Sadly, the only Christians I see and hear are the ones going “Homosexuality is a sin” despite never find anywhere in the bible that says so. The political viewpoints stretch outside of church and into congress. Recently an article was out about a senator or congresswoman had to resign due to the scandal of her infidelity. The Congressional response? It was the Gay’s fault for wanting equal right for marriage and making marriage a joke. So a woman cheats on her husband (I don’t give a damn if she did or not..like you said, we are fallable), and somehow it is a large group of people who just want to be treated equally faulted?

    In my opinion, Christianity is slowly choking itself. Without the youth to replenish the congregation..well, you get the picture.

    Here is not going into theology per say because you know me Scott:

    Here is the kicker: In my own opinion of Jesus, he asked people to challenge how they thought. I mean, how else did Christianity derive from Judaism? He saw a problem with how the religion taught people how to act, and he challenged it. He was an ancient time reformer. The reason he gave a basis to how to treat people because of how he saw how people were treated by his own and the Romans. To use the prostitute example, a man will enjoy a prostitute in bed, but then will condemn her in public. The prostitute only wants to earn money to buy bread in the best way she can…the same thing can be said today more or less. Granted there are safety concerns to consider, but the whole outlawing of prostitution has more to do more with “moral” social condemnation than anything else. Because of that condemning, Pimps and other worse characters feel they can do as they wish to these women regardless of the best interest.

    In Alabama, a friend of mine taught at a few colleges in English literature and I am always amazed at the short-shortsightedness. Rather than sitting down and considering the behavior described in literature, they will come out with “God said this and God said that” I was always under the impression that God only gave us guidelines to follow, but our actions are our own. I think that is the ultimate failing of some of the people you described: They feel god is guiding their actions, but it is actually them using their free will without any regard to god.

  2. Twisted Joe permalink
    December 31, 2011 12:50 pm

    Your view of churches and mine are very much in line, as we of course both knew, given our discussions. One of the things that occurred to me in reading your post is a new thought about the nature of “fire and brimstone” preachers. I’ve long believed in the idea that the “fisher of men” metaphor was well chosen as to catch fish, you have to make the fish want to come to you. If you simply jump in and start screaming, you’ll catch nothing.

    But I also saw another way of looking at the “you’re going to hell!” bible-thumpers. What occurred to me is that all too many organized Christian denominations are trying to call people across a tightrope over a pit and saying, “look down at the pit, look at it and fear it!” instead of telling them to focus on the other side, that they can make it across and to have faith. While some might manage to cross a tightrope under such conditions, it will be extremely few and those that do so will manage under the worst of conditions. Under these conditions, is it any wonder that so many fall or refuse to even try to cross the gap?

    As for the matter of the spirit, I’m not sure if you meant that they are devoid of the spirit or just willfully refusing to yield to it. For my part, I’m of the mind that they are the latter as I believe we all are led by God to be better than ourselves, to reach higher and do more. But we all are ultimately weak and pathetic (yes, all of us are pathetic at times), and so all too often we reach for the path that seems the least difficult or the least threatening. Sadly, many of us sometimes even reach for the path that gets us the most, rather than yield the tiniest bit to the spirit within.

    Of course, perhaps the saddest statement of all is that even while the church teaches that a church isn’t a building, but it’s people, so many within make the same comment you mentioned earlier, “it isn’t the church, but the people that are the problem”.

    In any event, I hope that one day you, I and other spiritual refugees might find some place of our own. I guess we’ll just have to cross the wilderness to do so and pray for manna along the way.

  3. Steve Stein permalink
    December 31, 2011 7:06 pm

    Scott,

    I am 100% in agreement with everything you said, and I am going to copy your quote below and put it on the dashboard of my car.

    “In my opinion, a Christian displays their Christianity best by behaving properly, treating people well, always doing their very best at their every endeavor, and doing so with joy and a peace that passes understanding. It isn’t by having a fish on the back of their car or by telling people that they need to repent. A Christian shouldn’t even identify themselves as a Christian except by modeling Christ in their behavior and demeanor.

    How does that bring people to Christ? Because when someone witnesses that peace and dedication, when someone’s life is falling apart and they’re looking for someone who seems to “get it,” they’re going to look to the properly behaving Christian and ask “what do you have? How are you doing that?” That is when the process becomes verbal. That’s when you share the name of Christ, and the lessons of his love. You build that lesson on the strongest possible foundation; a Christ-like life”

    Thank you for your straight talk.
    An Avid follower of your blog….
    ~Steve Stein

  4. SarahM permalink
    December 31, 2011 9:46 pm

    Scott, this post very much defines why Joe and I chose you and your wife to be our childrens Godparents. You share with us a love of true “Christian values” and not the twisted, judgmental and overly-politicized beast that organized religion has become. For years, despite (ok, BECAUSE of) being raised in my small Catholic school, I didn’t want to set foot in a church. I was angry and disillusioned from the way the people running our church had used their power for actions I didn’t feel were remotely Christ-like, or in keeping with what I felt was what God’s plan really was for his church. The very word “values” has been warped into something synonymous with prejudice and self-righteousness, instead of sticking to an ideal of love and compassion towards all people, from all walks of life. It warms my heart to see that, despite your negative experiences with organized religion, you are the strong, good-hearted person that you are. ((hugs))

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