An Open Letter to Everyone Who Hates Organized Religion

I know you’re out there.  I’ve talked with you.  In fact I’m thinking of a few of your names right now.  And we have had these conversations.  But for the sake of any others who might read this I want to say a few things, and I am open to hearing what you might have to say as well.  You can check my facebook to leave a comment on this post or message me.

More than likely one of your problems is that churches make stupid choices, take people’s money, and then tend to hurt people and cause problems in relationships.  First of all, let me say, I totally get it and I’m with you.  You’re absolutely right.

I am a pastor.  I have made stupid choices, I have hurt people (and been hurt by them) and yes, it’s true, my salary is covered by money that people give to the church.  So, I can’t argue with any of those points.  And I wouldn’t dare.

If you’d allow me to tell a story for just a minute I will try to come back to that.

I was in my thirties before I agreed to become a pastor.  A part of me had felt like that might be a good job for me for a while.  I didn’t want to because (and I actually argued this to people) churches are bureaucratic machines with a bunch of hypocrites in management.  If you want to get hurt, join a church!

So right after college I joined a missionary organization instead.  I figured there I could get paid to do the simple work I wanted to do without really having to be all tied up in a church. After a few years of being in that world I left after the loss of my mother.  I struggled with a pretty long season of deep depression and some days had a hard time getting out of bed.  I did however begin to limp from time to time into church.  And it was relationships in that church that helped me to grieve and eventually to heal.

Now, it wasn’t all happy and fun, a few years later that church actually had a split which hurt a lot of people.  I’m not going to try to pretend that churches don’t hurt people.

In fact, a few years further down the road, one of the second deepest wounds I suffered was because of – yep, you guessed it – a church.

And yet, I’m still a pastor, and I am still deeply committed to the church.  I have experienced friendship and enmity, hope and tragedy, incredible beauty and terrible ugliness all inside the walls of the church and all because of other people who are a part of this thing we call the church.

I wanted to tell you those things so you would understand where I come from.  Yes, I agree the church can truly be an awful place to be, and I don’t want to challenge that perspective.

But I want to ask you to consider being a part of it anyway.

Here’s why.

The Church is full of liars and we need your help

If you are one of those people who can’t stand the fakeness of church, we actually could use your help.  The church in America has a tradition of at least a half century of pretending everything is nice and pretty and clean.  In church you often hear stories that sound like this, “I used to be a terrible person, but God has fixed me.”  You don’t hear stories as often that sound like this, “I still struggle with some truly horrible things, yet I believe God is saving me.”

Because of this we can tend to put pressure on ourselves to pretend that life is nice, clean, and neat while marriages are breaking apart, addictions are destroying lives, and depression and anxiety are eating us alive.  It’s a cultural thing that needs to be changed, I’d like to think you can help change it.

I know some of you say you believe in Jesus, but you hate the church.  If that’s true, then consider coming and being a part of us.  But don’t just join that culture of make believe.  Challenge it instead.  Come to church and tell us that you believe the gospel that Jesus saves sinners, and it’s a good thing because you are one.  Some of us might recoil a little bit at that kind of raw honesty.  But don’t give up on us.  If you really do love Jesus, help us be a people act like they know him.

We are pretty arrogant and we need to be cut down a peg or two 

We can be pretty prideful.  I mean the stats on white evangelicals (which is the category I sort of fall into) in America is terribly depressing.  I saw an article the other day that said that most of us believe that poverty is due primarily to laziness.  I mean, my parents and my grandparents were all hard workers, so I wouldn’t know, but I’m guessing if your parents and grandparents were lazy, you had a harder time than me.  Worse than that, I’m guessing if your parents or grandparents couldn’t cross the railroad tracks for fear of their lives, you might have had a harder time than I have.

But according to statistics, we think that if you’re poor it’s all on you. If you do happen to struggle with poverty, we really need you to come and educate us.  I actually do believe many of us will want to help you however we can.  When you build relationships with us we will see that you aren’t lazy but that you just drew a different hand.  We want to help, but we need to learn from you.

If you will indulge me for just a minute, consider that there even exists a “white evangelical church.” I think that very phrase runs a little bit against the teachings of the New Testament. The apostles wanted to build a church that was multiethnic and crossed every socioeconomic boundary.  In fact, there is way more in the New Testament about how to treat the poor than there is about how you vote, read the bible, or what your morals are.  Ok, rant over, let’s move on.

We need to change the types of programs we have

I believe with every fiber of my being that the church should serve its community well.  The sad reality is that many churches serve the people who come into their doors.  This is a little bit understandable.  I mean, you get 7 upper middle class people in a room and say “what sorts of programs should we build?” And these people only have their own perspectives.  But if you are able to gather a broader demographic into that room, I’m betting you will be able to come up with all sorts of ideas that you wouldn’t have thought of.

Now, if you are a person who believes in Jesus, again I will ask you to consider joining us and helping us to come up with better ways to serve our communities.  I am betting you have better ideas than we do.  I mean, our most popular idea is Vacation Bible School.  I would like to see us do better, and I really think we need your help to do that.

Now let me return to the ugliness that happens in the church.

I said I would try to get back to that. According to what I have heard from many of you, this is the main reason you shy away from us.  Again, I’m not going to pretend it isn’t real.

But let me ask you this, have you ever experienced heartache, relational troubles, or lying and hypocrisy in other places?  I am betting you have.  I sure have.  I think all of these things are just a part of the human condition.  The truth is we all tend to tell self protective lies sometimes.  We all sometimes put on a pretty face at parties or other functions.

You might be thinking, “it should be different in church.” Yes, it should.  It isn’t always, but it should.

I think you should consider coming anyway and here’s why.

The guy who wrote most of the New Testament was a guy named Paul.  Paul once said that “God saves sinners, of whom I am the worst.”  This is the core and most foundational belief of every church.  I want to challenge you to find one that takes this seriously.  I want you to find a church where the people confess that they actually are sinners and that is why they hope in Jesus.

At Bismarck Community Church, we can be messy.  We sometimes argue.  But we care about each other anyway.  I fully expect to be hurt again soon.  In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone gets mad at me about something I said here. (actually I kind of would, I intentionally left politics out of this post).  But I expect that if I am wrong I will admit it, and that if they are they will admit it.  Or at the very least I expect that we can learn to live together with our disagreements.

And that is exactly the point.  We live together with our disagreements.  More than anything else, way more than being moral, way more than being a “voting bloc,” far more than pulling off the best VBS ever, even more than making converts or disciples, the church is called to be a school of love.

Love is not a thing that always feels good.  In fact, I believe it hurts as often as it feels good if not more.  (Great, now love bites by Def Leppard is going through my head).

Church is place where we can experience incredible beauty and close friendships while we honestly deal with struggles, disagreement, and disappointment.  While we may not be able to agree on a million things we can agree on this – we all make mistakes, we all do bad things and we all defy God from time to time, and yet in spite of all of this God loves us deeply.

If you find a church that believes the gospel, show up and live the gospel out.  Be honest about your struggles, be real, be broken.  And the people there will surround you, sharing their own struggles, their own brokenness, their own inclinations to defy God and to hurt one another.  And together you will remind each other of the beautiful hope that we have.  That we can continue to limp together toward growth because Jesus died to save us from ourselves, from our petty disagreements and to restore us to what we are supposed to be.

Find a people that know what they are supposed to be, is struggling every day to get there and trusting in the grace of God alone while they do it.  And I believe you will have found a place that feels like home.