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I have an ambivalent relationship with my religion. Maybe you do, too?
I’m a follower of Jesus. Like it or not, I’m part of the tribe called Christian. Many days I don’t like it much at all.
Don’t misunderstand me. I love Jesus and the people of Jesus. I even love the church. Most days… (If we’re in agreement on what we mean by the word “church.”) But I’m torn.
So what is it that makes me wince?
It’s probably not what you think.
Unlike some, I’m not troubled by the idea of sin and salvation. I’m intimate with what the old preachers called “self-righteousness.” I can turn any good thing into a way to feel better, stronger, more right or more spiritual than you.
Trying really hard to be more loving hasn’t changed me much. The moment I pull it off, I feel that special inner warmth. “See, I am a wonderful person!” This haunting attitude is not going away on its own. The Christian story that we are in need of a Savior makes sense to me, quite viscerally.
The Bible is another stumbling block for some. There are messy and violent parts. Paul (and the whole 1st century) had a difficult relationship with women. There are nagging questions about authorship, and dates and translation. For some people these questions are deal-breakers, but I’ve grown comfortable with the tension.
Where I grew up, literal inerrancy was the standard. The Bible was perfect, without error in any way. Then I spent a lot of time with college professors who tried to deconstruct everything. I got caught up in this debate until something occurred to me.
Only a weak, inflexible God would need scripture to be a single monolithic whole pointing uniformly in the same direction. A cosmic Vice-President for Human Resources might write it that way.
But a God whose entire gig is redeeming the broken, who allows history to unfold along the twisting pathway of free will, weaving all the threads together toward ultimate restoration, that God is quite capable of working with a jagged, multi-faceted scripture.
So oddly enough, I believe the Bible is exactly what God wants it to be. It enfolds differing perspectives, stories of the natural world from a pre-scientific point of view, scandalous episodes, a few questions without answer, and ancient perspectives that are clearly culturally informed, all while perfectly serving God’s purposes.
Neither does church history derail me. It’s awful, don’t misunderstand.
Predictably, the church has a long-time crush on power and will marry it almost every time it gets the chance. Without fail this leads to marginalization, oppression, and abuse.
It makes me sick. But history says this isn’t unique to the church. It’s what humans do. See my initial comments about sin.
Wherever some powerful cleric prostituted his gold cross for personal gain, there were also faceless, nameless followers of Jesus walking another direction.
Under a splintery cross of self-sacrifice, they gave their time and hearts to hold back disease, fight for justice, feed the hungry, or get a copy of the Gospel into a neighbor’s hands.
They even gave their own lives to save their neighbors when the Hutus, or the Nazis, or the militant Islamists, or the communists—or even other Christians with different theology—came to take them away. These faithful ones lived the way of Jesus when it cost them everything. That’s part of church history too.
Unlike some, I don’t struggle with belief in God, or the importance of spiritual community, or the idea that there is such a thing a truth. Those are important questions. I’d be happy to take any of them up with you if you’re still with me after everything I’ve said so far. But those questions seem academic to me in light of where my struggle lies.
Here’s what embarrasses me.
The real scandal? Let me tell you a story.
I was a young team member at a large church many years ago. In the course of planning events, I needed to reserve the church kitchen. What’s a youth event without food, right? (It’s the youth pastor hanging out by himself, that’s what.)
But the kitchen was the personal kingdom of a long-time church member. Over the years he had built for himself sharp and enormous influence. Use the kitchen without his permission, or fail to clean it up correctly, or and you would pay the penalty. You should have seen the fireworks when I hosted a junior high tie-dye party in that spotless kitchen!
The Kitchen Lord would spout angry speeches at board meetings. He installed locks on the cabinets only he had the keys to. We would spend extra money to bring food in for youth events rather than use the kitchen, just to avoid him.
He was out of control, but no one seemed to be bothered by it. “This is just how he is,” they’d say. “You learn to work around it. We’re so thankful to have someone who cares as much as he does.” No one ever challenged his behavior. This man was a life-long Christian, a several-decade-long member, and leader in this church. No one was asking, “Why isn’t he growing? Why isn’t he becoming more like Christ?”
This, to me, is the shame of the Christian church. It’s not the scandals the media find shocking. It’s not asking people to believe in miracles. It’s this:
If we believe knowing God transforms us, why aren’t we seeing it happen?
Why do we put up with the same old programs and events that bring about no life change? Why do we allow people like the Kitchen Lord to go year after year without anyone inviting them to grow?
Are we becoming more marked by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, goodness and self-control? Are we becoming more content and less striving, more gracious and less judgmental, more interested in the plight of the people around us and less self-centered? Are we becoming more like Jesus?
If we aren’t, that is the biggest argument anyone could make to set Christianity aside.
It’s time for the church to stop telling other people what to do and how to live. We have no credible platform for that message. Not until we start growing up ourselves.
This is why intentional spiritual living matters.
Are we serious about living a new way?
This is why intentional spiritual growth matters to me. The old word for this is “discipleship.” A disciple is an apprentice in a new way of living. The life of Jesus doesn’t just rub off on us. By grace, we’ve been made new, our sins are forgiven, and we have a new identity and new destiny.
But we still get to choose the attitude we live with. We get to choose the way we treat the people around us. We get to choose how we spend our time. All those things add up to who we become. God won’t grow us up if we’re intent on staying spiritual children, petulant, demanding and self-centered.
So, I’m committed in my own life to seek a deeper relationship with Jesus. In this relationship, I give God access to change me, but I don’t leave it at that. I actively participate. I want to practice what I learn from Jesus because I believe it really is possible that I can grow and be changed.
What about you?
20 thoughts on “Why being Christian embarrasses me”
Well said! I have often said or thought the same thing, but I’ve never put my thoughts into such clear and concise words. Your tips for growth are right on, and I truly appreciate you not just leaving it without direction for change. I love reading your posts; keep them coming!
Wow, someone has actually learned what The Gospel is really about. I have been trying to teach this for many years now, and have been asked to not return to several churches, most of the time the statement made to me is” even though we have never known you to teach anything wrong, we cannot have what your teaching contradict what is taught from the pulpit” I made the mistake once of asking a pastor “If what I am teaching is the truth, and it contradicts what your teaching, who is not teaching The Word?” I was escorted out of the building.
That’s an interesting reaction, David. It seems like to me that the modern American church struggles with two reactions.
Churches that are more legalistic and focused on right behavior often don’t help people grow spiritually because their focus makes everything into an issue of performance. The more we live in the realm of performance and acceptance, the farther we get from Grace, and thus from a real understanding of Jesus and his role in our lives.
Churches that are more focused on being loving and accepting often don’t help people grow because their fear of being seen as legalistic limits them from offering any sort of tangible, do-able guidance in how to live as a follower of Jesus.
I’m wrestling and working through this issue as I study, read and interact with other folks thinking about all of this. How can we offer clear do-able practices that make our faith concrete, and allow us to try, learn and grow, but do so in an entirely grace-based way that doesn’t push us into performance-acceptance and legalism?
I know part of what I struggle with is that Jesus said that The Gospel is so easy to understand that a young child can understand it, then, most churches add a whole list of rules or “bylaws” that you must follow. I have often asked what is it about “Loving God first, and Loving your neighbor as you do yourself” that is so complicated. When Jesus stated that was His new commandment He also said that in so doing that you would fulfill all of the Law and the prophets. At first it took me awhile to wrap my brain around that, until I reread both the Law and all of the prophets, from the old testament, then it occurred to me something interesting(I actually heard it my whole life but didn’t understand it until a few years ago) All of the Law and the Prophets outlined Jesus and HIS redemptive work, to re-establish our relationship with God, the entire plan is summed up in the “new commandment” . But man has complicated it to the point that The Gospels effectiveness has been washed and diluted to the point that the world no longer sees HIM, but sees a pathetically ineffective church that doesn’t know who their leader is and doesn’t understand that HE is now and always has been standing right beside each and everyone of us waiting for us to turn and acknowledge that He is there and that it is so simple to live the life that He wants to see His children live.
I agree with you, Marc. I find these posts thought-provoking and uplifting. Thanks for taking the time.
Hey Dave, thank YOU for reading and taking the time to comment. I appreciate that encouragement.
I do think you are right on the money. It wasn’t until I stepped outside of church going that I finally began to really grow. I can’t explain or justify it, but this is my experience.
That may be required for some people. Theologically, and Christ-follower is a part of the church. We are grafted into the body the moment we follow Jesus. But it may be the case that the local congregations we are a part of aren’t doing a very good job of encouraging our growth. I hope that changes. Frankly, I hope what I’m doing here can be a part of that change.
This is deep and very needed. If I’m not growing spiritually and sharing the Life I have been given, I stagnate. I think this may be a problem in the Church at large; lack of growth and vision for the work God has left for us. If we could corporately latch onto this, I think the Church would become a spiritual force to be reckoned with! Marc, thanks for being used of God
Hey Kenneth, thanks for stopping by the blog, and for your encouraging comments. I can’t speak for the church at large, but I know I’m hungry for this kind of practical revolution in my own life. Stick around–we’ll be talking about it more. In fact, I’m starting a series of posts that will dig into some of the practical ways this can happen.
The first week is here: https://marcalanschelske.com/following-jesus-just-believing/ The rest of the series will be coming out over the next three weeks. I would *love* to hear your thoughts.
Marc, our church leadership team is making an accountable commitment to grow spiritually as we do our best to lead our church community. Personally I am using this series as my own starting point for my journey. I love what you have shared…I see it as both “spot on” and “thought-provoking”. Thank you so much for the time and effort that went into this series. I am looking forward to working through it!
Gwen, I’m so excited for you. Having friends on the journey with you who encourage your growth and provide accountability is the rocket fuel in any process of change. I’d love to hear how the process goes or you.
Another thing, I’m thrilled that you’re working through this series. I would *love* to hear how it works for you, what comes up for you, your reaction, etc. When this series is done, I’ll be leading a class through this same material, and hearing how it hits you will help me do a better job.
I am happy to provide you feedback! You have probably already figured out that I ALWAYS have an opinion 😉 so I am glad to do that. It feels like a good way to “give back”.
Sweet! Looking forward to it.
Great article! I’ve been thinking for sometime now that when the main message of the church is self help (which is prosperity gospel 2.0), i.e. “learn to manage your time like Moses did,” transformation like you described won’t happen.
It that an actual message you heard? Moses & Time Management? I can’t think of much in the Biblical narrative that would give us clues to how he did that. I think you’re right, though. Real transformation is something God does. I *am* a big believer in intentional living practices, but I don’t think they create transformation. I think they cultivate the soil of our lives, and nurture the growth that God gives.
Yes, I have heard the “Moses & Time Management” message before. It was taught (I have a difficult time saying preached in this instance) from Exodus 18:13-26 when Jethro gave him suggestions on how to handle the cases among the Israelites. I, too, am a big believer in intentional living practices, such as the Gospel call to join the ongoing work of God through Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. However, I’m of the opinion you get these kinds of messages when the goal is to “apply the Bible to our lives.” That is such a cliche. I’d rather read a book by Franklin Covey than hear that kind of message. You’ll get much better information and application out of it.
Hmm.. I guess the time management lesson from Moses is “delegate?” True and helpful, I guess. But probably not the point of the text.