Over the past months I’ve been drawn into an ongoing conversation with people I care for very deeply. I am honored they are willing to talk, because I am a Christian and what they say would not be well received by many Christians.
My friends are believers—they can and do, for example, gladly confess the truth of the Apostles’ Creed. The problem is that attending church riles up within them deep hurts and wounds, painful memories of abusive legalism and pressure to conform. They tend to be discomfited by not attending but find upon attending that they leave feeling discouraged and sometimes deeply angry. When they attend somewhere they are known their Christian acquaintances tend to make unwarranted assumptions about them, revealing that in this place no one really listens and few really know one another. They find the experience unhelpful, physically tiresome, emotionally draining, spiritually disheartening, so they attend rarely if at all.
Can I hear such things without taking the easy way out? The easy way is, after all, so very easy. And the perverseness of my heart means I know all the permutations.
I can speak in tones that are all sympathetic while reminding them of the biblical command not to “give up meeting together” (Hebrews 10:5). Applying law is always so easy. Of course, such legalism always fails because the law can never meet the deepest needs of the human heart. To say nothing of the fact that this use of the text badly misconstrues its meaning.
Or I can suggest they ignore the irritating parts, concentrate on whatever feels good in the service, and think happy thoughts. After all, it could be worse. They could be trying to find their loved ones in the tsunami debris in northern Japan. Sentimentalism is always easy.
Or I can assert it is the institution’s problem, since corporate structures always mess up, sucking the creativity out of life, and substituting a bottom line (money or souls saved) for anything resembling true humanness. I find cynicism to be not only easy it is fun.
Perhaps there are more easy responses, and if there are, I have no doubt that in the brokenness of my heart I will uncover them. In the meantime I want to listen, with care. I want to be a safe place so that the affairs of the heart will be treated with the dignity and significance they deserve. And as I do I find I need help in understanding more deeply.
I wonder: do you share my friends’ discomfort over attending church? How would you express what you feel, experience, and yearn for? Or do you know people who have talked to you about their discomfort? (Feel free to leave anonymous comments if you prefer.)
Image: a still from Federico Fellini’s film 8½ (1963).