"I believe in God, but I don't agree with organized religion."
"Isn't the church supposed to be anybody who believes in Jesus? Why do we need an institution to believe in Him?"
"The church burned me, so I don't go anymore."
You've probably heard this sort of thing on more than one occasion. You may even say it yourself. When I was a teenager, the men running the youth group compelled me to become the worship leader. I was sixteen. two years later, when I realized I had serious sin issues to deal with, I told the youth pastor of my decision to step down from leadership. He tried everything to get me to change my mind until finally he said, "If you stop leading worship now, you'll never lead worship again." He told me I would lose the gift. I tried attending meetings once or twice after this happened, but I couldn't handle the stress of people trying to force me back on stage. As a result, I stopped going to church altogether for a long time.
That's my burn story. I think just about everybody has at least one story telling of how someone in the church hurt them. Some are more subtle, like feeling overlooked and unloved. Some are just puzzling, like how my brother was kicked out of a youth group for smelling like smoke. Still others are horrifying, like the stories of molestation and other abuse.
In the last decade or so, I've seen a growing number of people tell me they love God but hate the church. At first, this sounds as logical as liking a band but hating their fans. "Lord, save me from Your followers," and all that. A few years ago, I worked on a film with director Rik Swartzwelder. He and I got to talking one day about the Emergent Church movement. He told me, "It seems like this whole thing happened because some people were hurt and decided they had an axe to grind with the church. But I wonder if what they're doing is going to turn out any better."
So what should followers of Jesus do? Should we respond to the failures of men by rejecting the church or by understanding and seeking a biblical church with good leadership?
To start, I think we should read the Bible and see what Jesus said. In Matthew 28:19, He told His followers to make disciples. That doesn't mean to simply make converts, dunk them in water, then move on to the next unbeliever. Jesus spent years pouring into the lives of his disciples, teaching and correcting them. For that to happen, the disciples had to gather. I think Jesus always intended to establish the church. He told His disciples of it when Peter proclaimed Him as the Messiah in Matthew 16. In chapter 18, He told them how to deal with conflict among believers, telling them to present a case before the church if the offender refuses to repent. Most importantly, Jesus repeatedly told His disciples to treat each other with humility. He did so in Matthew 18:4, John 13:14, and Luke 14:11.
Many of the epistles in the New Testament are instructions on how the church should function. Paul opened his letter to Titus with guidelines for appointing church leaders, or elders. James 5 says elders are to pray for those in sickness. Paul also told Titus and Timothy to teach sound doctrine to the church and warned them against deceivers.
I especially like 1 Peter 5:1-5 as a guideline for good church leadership. "Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed, shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. You younger men, likewise, be subject to your elders; and all of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, for 'God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble.'"
There are those who today would say the church shouldn't have leaders who hold office, that there's no hierarchy in God's church. I would agree that the church shouldn't have leaders acting like princes, lording power and influence from "the people". I don't think it should be a matter of control, but rather of servant-leadership, following Jesus' example.
A biblical church will have members and leaders who demonstrate humility and participation. I feel like this would be a good time to quote C.J. Mahaney from a section called Just Being Together Isn't Sufficient in his book Humility. "I hope you're meeting regularly with others for fellowship and accountability, but please know that for this to be a means of grace and growth in your life, two things are required as an expression of your faith.
"First, humbly recognize your need for others. I'm convinced that left to myself, if I'm seeking to grow by myself, I'll only be deficient in discerning the sin within, and I'll therefore experience only limited growth in godliness. That's why I need the care and correction of my wife and fellow team members, and why I must pursue their care and correction. I need help, and so do you. You can't effectively watch yourself by yourself; you need the discerning eyes of others.
"The second requirement for effective small-group fellowship and accountability is that you and I must aggressively participate. Don't assume that by merely attending a group, by merely associating with those who are godly, you're therefore satisfying God and growing in godliness. That is deception."
Participation is scary, though. It means letting other people into your life and having the courage to join people in theirs. After my own bad experience, I left the church and treated it with much cynicism. Only when I asked Pastor Craig Brown why anyone would want to become a "member" did I finally understand the importance of participation. He said, "Let me ask you a question. You have a lot of spiritual gifts, don't you?" I told him I did. Then he asked, "But you don't have anyone in authority over you teaching you how to use those gifts effectively?" I laughed nervously and admitted I didn't. Not only that, but I realized I had no place to use those gifts in a way that would bless others and allow for others to bless me. That's when I knew God wanted me in a church.
What about you? What's your experience? What do you think about the Bible's emphasis on the church meeting together? Are you like many, struggling to act with humility and aggressive participation? Know this: you're not alone in your pain and confusion with the church. The question is whether or not you plan to do anything good about it.