Frustrations with the Church
For over a quarter of a century, I have been involved in a ministry designed to reach out to people with faith problems and/or no faith in God at all. My experience has been that it is not that difficult to convince most thinking people that there is a God and that God is more than "something out there." It is also not too difficult to convince most people that the Bible is unique and that Jesus is the Son of God, although in smaller percentages than the existence of God. What is exceedingly difficult is convincing the skeptic that the Church represents anything worthy of their consideration.
Part of this problem is the ignorance prevalent among most people of what the Church is, but even a greater stumbling block is the distortion of what the Lord intended for the Church to be to the bureaucratic legalistic power structure that it has become for many of us. This has happened in all branches and phases of all religious bodies including the Restoration Movement, and if it is ever changed it will have to be changed by students of the Word who are willing to read what God says and follow it. The price of doing this has always been high, and it is high now. Like the prophet of old we will have to be willing to say "As for me and my house, we will follow the Lord," realizing that vicious attacks, threats, and ostracism by the religious establishment is sure to follow.
What I would like to attempt to do in this article is to describe some real frustrations that I have had with the human religious establishment that I suspect many of our thinking readers share. I would, then, like to suggest some practical ways of dealing with these frustrations in the hope that others will want to join us in accomplishing a restoration of the Church that Jesus died to establish, and that the Bible describes, from what has evolved in recent years.
Frustration #1. Emphasis on structures instead of people.
When Jesus stated "my kingdom is not of this world," he stated something that even his disciples could not comprehend or believe. Their dream had been a kingdom like the one of David and Solomon, with wealth and splendor and magnificent edifices that would make them the envy of their neighbors. There was no way that they could really accept the death of Jesus because it meant the death of their physical kingdom.
Nothing has changed! With poverty, hunger, disease, war, neglect, broken families, abused children and women, and mental and spiritual illness all around, millions of dollars are poured into brick and mortar structures which do not attempt to address any of these problems. A large number of us are frustrated to see a huge percentage of our donated money go to a building with a huge parking lot and elaborate furnishings which sits empty all but a few hours a week. I am convinced that the generous funding of service programs by many individuals is because they have grown so frustrated with seeing their donated money go to irrelevant buildings and the maintenance of these edifices that they divert a sizeable part of their contribution to practical works.
I do not believe that the solution to this problem is to pull our support from the local leadership, the idea that something is solved by pulling away is destructive and divisive. The solution is to make sure the building is in use seven days a week and to build a program of involvement that utilizes the resources we have. Members and leaderships must make full use of the building or recognize it as a white elephant and sell it. If a building is not in place, a careful study must be done as to whether the work can be done without the backbreaking cost of brick and mortar. There are places in this country where an acre of land cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. To spend that kind of money when the work can be carried on in rented facilities is distasteful at best. There is no evidence that the First Century Church was involved in the real estate business, and we do not have to be either.
Frustration #2. The low priority of evangelism.
When I first became a Christian, it was strongly impressed upon me that I was to win others to Christ. Everything the congregation did was ultimately linked to the goal of bringing others to Christ. Benevolence was done freely and without strings, but care was exerted to make sure the person's spiritual needs were also being met--not just their physical needs. When someone was ill and the Church looked after their needs and the needs of their family, spiritual needs were also addressed.
Today we have people whose sole mission is to identify and label other believers for what they believe or do or, do not do. We have periodicals attacking individuals or groups which have absolutely no evangelistic considerations at all. Somehow we have a whole segment of the religious community that feels that "go preach the gospel to all the world" is a command of such low priority that any other issue takes precedence over it. Acts of benevolence, ministering to the sick, counseling, and challenging false doctrines are carried on as entities that are self-contained. Those carrying on those works devote 100% of their time to these activities and as a result the Gospel is never preached by them. Many of these works are intrinsically destructive in nature. If 100% of our effort is devoted to keeping the Church pure, identifying false teachers, and the like, we have automatically excluded ourselves from soul winning. My experience is that congregations whose orientations are of this nature never grow. The negative nature of the perceived mission of the Church is self-destructive.
I would like to suggest that the Lord had a secondary motive to the great commission. I believe that Jesus knew that if we were primarily committed to winning others that the activity and the joy of seeing others changed by the power of the Gospel would crowd out division, hate, envy, and selfishness. When our focus gets away from evangelism these things rush in to fill the vacuum, and splits and petty controversy are the results.
Frustration #3. Politics.
Several years ago I received a letter from a great Christian man who was the president of a Christian University. In the letter he offered to have some of his faculty work with me so that I could speak in a way that would not be offensive to Church of Christ members. His intentions were good and I appreciated his concern but my primary question related to the last item we discussed. I believe I can speak in such a way that the atheist, the agnostic, the unchurched, and the "turned-off" will listen. If I use the cliches and phrases deemed acceptable by traditional congregations of the Church, I will lose the skeptic and he will no longer be open to me. In that situation I must speak to the lost even if it is politically unacceptable to my brethren.
I have been warned not to speak to certain groups or to attend certain conferences. I have been told that attending a certain conference or having an article in a certain publication will enhance my palatability to the Church members. Randy Mayeux said it best:
Do I become a chaplain, an institutional caretaker for church of Christ people who want a church of Christ church done in church of Christ ways, attracting and accepting and putting to use only other church of Christ people?" (Image Magazine, May/June, 1991, pp. 11)
The answer to that question is obvious. If reaching the lost is the kind of priority to me that it was to Jesus and the apostles, I will have to do those things and say those things that will be most effective in the outreach. If that is politically catastrophic--so be it.
Virtually all attacks by one preacher on another or on a program of work are politically motivated. Public speakers are frequently so careful about this situation that they fail to speak up when critical issues come up. Many critical subjects are avoided because of their controversial nature--even if the issue is a major concern of many Christians. A few terrorists in the Church should not be able to hold the whole brotherhood hostage to their belief system and malicious exploitation of political fear. Leaderships must exert their biblical autonomy and stand for the Lord. If this does not happen, one man or one group of men end up effectively controlling the whole brotherhood. To some extent this is happening in the Church and it must be stopped.
A lot of Christians are standing at the crossroads. The next 25 years are critical! If the frustrations continue to build the Church will shatter into a billion ineffective fragments each holding a "right" view by their own definition. As the groups splinter on issue after issue, they will become smaller and smaller until nothing functional is left.
The biblical pattern of unity must be restored. We must put our focus on the real issues and challenges and keep Jesus Christ as our universal standard. Worshipping physical structures, dropping evangelism as a priority item and continuing our political games must end and will ultimately end. Our semi-autonomy has preserved us to this point, and the quiet worker who ignores the man-made nonsense and keeps serving Jesus has sustained us. Do not give up on God! We are all frustrated including Jesus Christ, but there are enough of us to make a difference.
--John N. Clayton
Back to Contents Does God Exist?, Mar/Apr 97