We all know someone, probably more than one, who used to be an active part in a local church, but no longer attend due to a “bad experience.” Anywhere. At all. Maybe they felt judged because of a decision they made or by their lifestyle. Maybe they felt shamed when they blew it, or invalidated when they struggled. Perhaps they felt forgotten, neglected or left out after they were no longer new and shiny. Maybe they didn’t agree with all of the church’s teachings. Or maybe they just asked too many questions. I know this list is incomplete. And I know that everyone who has been a part of a church has felt some level of relational friction or personal injury. Some drop out never to return, while many remain, determined to push through.
I’ve been reading Life Together, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It’s a brief book describing the unique Christian fellowship he experienced in an underground seminary during Hitler’s rule in Germany. As I read his book I think about the scores of people I’ve talked to who walked away from church.
I think there’s a lot of uniqueness to each person’s story, but two general themes rise to the top. First, is unrealistic expectations about what church should be. Yes, the community of Christ should be characterized by unconditional love and grace. At the same time, the characters in that same community are flawed and broken human beings. I’m not suggesting that the bar should be lowered. I am suggesting that the fact that people in the church should be acknowledged for who and what they are. Imperfect human beings attempting to live divine lives. Always remember that expectations are disappointments under construction.
A second reason is that the local church often possesses an uneven playing field. True enough, there are hierarchical structures embedded with a church’s governance. But if we’re being honest, we recognize there are unofficial hierarchies that are based on standards such as longevity of membership and dollars donated. There are cliques at work, especially in siloed ministries, that create territorial and turf wars over calendar availability, budget allocations, and the attention of talented volunteers. For some, these experiences can feel like the drama of high school, where bullies run the show and determine seating arrangements in the cafeteria.
When Bonhoeffer wrote Life Together, he was fully aware that the community Christ envisioned and the reality of the same were not the same. His words, which I cite in length, represent one of the most profound texts on the subject I have read.
“Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream. The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and try to realize it. But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams. Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and if we are fortunate, with ourselves.”
“By sheer grace, God will not permit us to live even for a brief period in a dream world. He does not abandon us to those rapturous experiences and lofty moods that come over us like a dream. God is not a God of the emotions but the God of truth. Only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God’s sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise given to it. The sooner this shock of disillusionment comes to an individual and to a community, the better for both. A community which cannot bear and cannot survive such crisis, which insists upon keeping its illusion when it should be shattered, permanently loses in that moment the promise of Christian community. Sooner or later it will collapse. Every human wish dream that is injected into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be banished if genuine community is to survive. He who loves his dream of Christian community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.”
There are those who love the idea of community and seek to foster the conditions of perfect fellowship where everyone looks, acts and thinks the same, eliminating any possible diversity which would threaten it. Then there are those who unconditionally love their Christian brothers and sisters. The churches that seek the latter and not the former are the churches that will remain.