Loneliness and the Church

There’s an interesting post today at Experimental Theology called Loneliness and the Church.  I’ve read it a couple of times, and I’m still not sure what I think about it.  Here’s an excerpt:

In short, we need to think of churches as moral rather than social communities. When I go to church I need to have ethics on the brain and not intimacy. This, I think, is a huge problem with many churches. People go to church to have their relational needs met. They don’t go to get morally challenged or changed. Thus, if I have a good social time at church then church is great and fulfilling. Conversely, if church is a lonely affair I stop going and think it sucks.

The goal of church, to my mind, is to be better, not to be known. Of course, in the effort to become better I become known. I’ll need to confess and ask forgiveness. I’ll need to give an honest moral accounting of myself. And so on. These things promote community and camaraderie and even friendship.

On one hand, church is not a social club. On the other hand, it’s actually more – it’s family.  Shouldn’t we feel like we belong?  Shouldn’t we feel as connected as Paul says we are?  Is church primarily about becoming more moral people?  Is Christianity primarily “sin management” or perhaps working your way to some higher state of holiness?  Even if it is, which comes first?  Are we drawn by the Spirit (present in the Church) closer to God, or do we have to get closer to God – as the author suggests – to get closer to people?

Of course, your answer will depend upon your theological foundation; at least I think so.   Lutherans, for example, hear the words of absolution within the first few minutes of the liturgy. Other traditions never hear absolution; they keep folks working till the moment they die (and Catholics keep them working even after that).  How we feel about the origins of morality determine whether we’re interested in the subject at all.

What do you think?

On attending church

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” – Luke 18:9-14

On my way to church this morning, I was contemplating my sinfulness, and contemplating how I seem to do this regularly as I drive to church.  It’s not intentional, I just can’t seem to avoid it.  It is an interesting phenomenon – by the time I’m half-way there (my drive is usually about 20 minutes), I have become aware of a number of my weaknesses, shortfalls, issues and, yes, sins.  I’m sure I’m not aware of all of them, but that would probably be too much for me to handle.

I’m not talking about dealing with guilt feelings; this is not a necessarily emotional experience.  No matter what state of mind I am in when I leave the house, by the time I arrive at the church, I am totally in touch with the fact that I am indeed a sinner, and that I depend wholly on grace.

Prior to the last few months, I don’t recall ever having this frame of mind while going to church.  In the past, if I thought about it at all, I went to church as a “saint saved by grace” rather than a “sinner saved by grace.”  I would walk in knowing everything was cool, I would groove to the worship, sit through the sermon, talk to friends and go home often not remembering what the sermon was about. In other words, I would leave as unaware as I went in, perhaps not that much unlike the Pharisee in the parable.

The Church as Creation of the Gospel

Over the last year or two, I have come to believe that the church does not exist as merely a gathering of the saints – a “King’s kids” family reunion, as it were.  The Church is truly created by the Gospel:  It is first and foremost a gathering of sinners –  those who are “being saved” (1 Cor. 1:18).  We are attracted not by the music or the preaching or the aesthetics of the building but as sinners we are attracted by the Gospel; for without the centrality of the Cross the rest is without substance.

Without an awareness of my need for grace, the proclamation by the Priest that

“Almighty God have mercy on you, forgive you all your sins
through our Lord Jesus Christ, strengthen you in all
goodness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit keep you
in eternal life” (Book of Common Prayer)

or its equivalent would not have any meaning, and neither would the Eucharist (communion).

So, this was what I was thinking about as I drove to church this morning.  Whether my recent Sunday morning sin-awareness is a gift from God, an attack from Satan or perhaps due to the fact I am now knowledgeable about the liturgy, it serves the same purpose, to prepare me to worship.  Definitely counter-intuitive.

Today’s sermon

Perhaps not coincidentally, the sermon (based on 2 Samuel 11, the David & Bathsheba incident) was about sin and the Gospel; specifically, our need for a personal awareness of our sinfulness.  It was the first sermon I’ve taken notes on in years.  Here are some of the key quotes:

  • The Gospel is never about someone else; the Gospel is always about you (me). Yes, it’s about God, but what he meant was that a non-personal Gospel is no gospel at all.
  • David’s admission, “I have sinned before God” is full of hope, because it is full of God. Again, awareness of our sin brings hope for forgiveness. Without a personal awareness of our sin, the Gospel doesn’t become personal, either.  An intellectual awareness that “all have sinned” does us no good.
  • Sin doesn’t take much imagination. No one’s sin is all that interesting- there’s nothing new under the sun. However, forgiveness – God’s mercy – is new every morning. Whatever we think about our sin, it’s not all that exciting to God.  However, God is very creative in showing ways to forgive us and bring redemption. (Romans 5:20)

As I began this post, I was aware that a commentary on Luke 18 has the potential of putting me in the Pharisee’s role; conceivably even an awareness of sin can make oneself proud.  Hopefully I’ve avoided doing this.  I have just started meditating on this issue, so my thoughts are kind of random. However, this seems to fit in with Luther’s teaching on Law and Gospel, which very few non-Lutherans (or Lutherans, for that matter – seeing as I was raised Lutheran) understand, as well as his concept of  “simultaneously saint and sinner.”

All I know is, I’m very, very appreciative of the Gospel.

Resolving Church Conflict

Someone once said, “Where two or more are gathered together, there will be conflict.”  As someone who has been involved in ministry and church leadership for over twenty years, I think there is some truth in this.  While I would like to believe a good church would be conflict-free, with everyone “in one accord,” the New Testament reveals that even the Apostles were not immune to conflict.

Conflict is not necessarily a bad thing; Paul exhorts the Galatians to confront heresy, and tells the church at Corinth, “…there must also be factions among you, that those who are approved may be recognized among you.”  Conflict can be the result of sin, but it is often the reality of our “seeing in part;” sometimes we just have differing points of view.  Disagreements and discord are simply a part of the human condition; as long as the church is comprised of humans, there will be conflict.

In a 2000 survey of 14,301 churches by Faith Communities Today, 75% of churches reported having some level of conflict in the five years prior, with 25% reporting serious conflict.  A follow up study found that over two-thirds of churches experiencing conflict reported a loss of members as a result, and about 25% suffered the loss of a leader.

While conflict can be beneficial, it has the potential to be damaging to both the church and the individuals involved.  Often it seems the real damage results not from the issue in conflict, but by how the conflict is handled.  As with any adversity, conflict can either make us better or bitter; how we approach conflict may be the factor that determines whether a church is strengthened or shattered.

What not to do

The worst thing that a pastor or leader can do when he or she recognizes there is discord is to ignore it exists.  Conflict doesn’t just go away – people do. People usually don’t leave churches because they see something they like better; they leave because they are unhappy where they are. And, if those who leave are in close relationship with others in the church, they often aren’t the only ones who leave.  Certainly there are people who simply can’t be pleased, and they will come and go.  However, discord of any nature can be poison to a church.

The next worst thing a pastor can do is to take an authoritarian approach, either by “pulling rank” and issuing his verdict on the issue, or by enacting a “don’t talk” rule.  Besides being un-Biblical, it won’t work for everyone and these attempts to silence the opposition will only add fuel to the fire. Again, unresolved conflict will not simply go away; however, people will go away, and possibly lead others to follow. The only way to deal with discord or conflict in a church is to address it, as Paul said, so “those who are approved may be recognized among you.”

Conflict is not sin

It is important for churches to recognize that conflict is not put in the same category as sin; many churches err by attempting to be Biblical in following the process outlined by Jesus in Matthew 18:15-17. Matthew 18 specifically deals with someone who “sins against you,” not someone who simply disagrees with you.  Calling on Matthew 18 automatically presumes that one side of a dispute is in sin. That being said, a process that facilitates communication and has reconciliation as its goal is essential.

If two people cannot resolve an issue by themselves, it is wise to suggest the use of a third party to act as a mediator or facilitator.  The results of a poll conducted by Christianity Today indicated that of congregations which found themselves in conflict, 78% waited too long to seek outside assistance. Many churches simply don’t recognize the seriousness of the conflict until it erupts.  The use of a mediator to work through issues differs significantly from the Matthew 18 approach, which is focused on convincing someone they have sinned and encouraging them to repent. A mediator remains neutral, taking the side of neither party. In both cases, of course, reconciliation is the ultimate goal.


It is essential that a mediator be completely impartial (and remain so), which often becomes difficult in church settings. If the third party has an opinion on the issue or has a stake in the outcome, he or she might favor one side. Often the dispute is between those in the congregation and the pastor and/or leadership; in these situations, it may be impossible to find a true neutral party within the church and someone completely outside the church should be called in.

Going even further, it may be wise to bring in someone from outside the denomination, to completely avoid any potential conflict of interest (conflict isn’t bad, a conflict of interest is).   A mediator should not come in any position of authority – not even a hint of it.  A mediator’s job is not to “fix” the problem or decide who is right or wrong; a mediator is a servant, whose job is to facilitate communication, resolution and reconciliation.  There are church consultants/mediators who will issue their “findings,” acting more as an arbitrator or judge.  This may resolve the issue, but it likely won’t result in reconciliation. Rather, the “losing” side will likely leave, or just “smolder” within the congregation, poisoning those around them.

The goal is reconciliation

I can’t emphasize enough the principle that reconciliation – restoring understanding between people in disagreement – should be the goal in resolving any dispute between Christians.  As Paul wrote in II Cor. 5:16-19:

So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.

I know countless people for whom reconciliation has never happened. I find it difficult to understand how churches can continue where there are unresolved issues, especially when the wounded are left behind as some sort of “spiritual roadkill.”  It is a very poor testimony indeed, and more than that, should prevent us from continuing our worship activities.  Consider the words of Jesus in Matthew 5:23-24,

“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.

Church conflict is a fact of life, whether resulting from sin or from differing viewpoints. Conflict is not necessarily a bad thing; however, every conflict has the potential of resulting in sin and suffering if not handled properly. If we really believe that we have been given the ministry of reconciliation, it behooves us to look at issues of conflict in church as an opportunity to see God’s grace at work as issues are resolved and relationships are restored.

For more information on mediation, visit Innovative Conflict Resolution.

Episcopal issues

In the last couple of months, I have become a regular at a local Episcopal church, and absolutely love it.  The liturgy is very meaningful, the music seclections are well chosen, and the sermons keep to the message and are always right on point.  At this point in my life, this is what I need (and yes, I’m aware that I’m focusing on my need here, and don’t apologize for that).  Furthermore, everything had, so far, been scripturally sound. That’s one of the benefits of liturgy.

However, the Episcopal church as a whole has problems, which has resulted in many congregations leaving the church. The main issue is over the fairly recent decision to allow gay priests. Now, there’s a move within the EC to broaden the definition of marriage to include gay unions. George Clifford writes in the Daily Episcopalian,

The next step in that unfolding narrative of grace is to expand the concept of marriage to include a gay man marrying a gay man or a lesbian marrying a lesbian. This timely, grace filled step rightly extends the Christian concept of marriage to people whom the Church for too long has marginalized or demonized, the very categories of people with whom Jesus spent his ministry. The Church wrongly has attempted to foist a life and love denying form of sexuality – heterosexuality – upon people whom God created with a different gender orientation. Consequently, their gender preference has too often caused gays and lesbians to deny their very identity or to express their sexuality in promiscuous, exploitative, or other destructive ways. Same-sex monogamous marriage inherently promotes healthy lifestyles, models the union of Christ and the Church, and can powerfully mediate grace to all whom they encounter.

George calls for the complete dismantling of the marriage rite, creating one blessing of any and all unions, regardless of whatever.  Besides completely ignoring Biblical teaching, including Romans 1, the logic is just wacko. This is one step away from blessing adulterers or worse (“… but he was born a pervert!”).

I agree that homosexuals have been treated badly over the years, and that they should be shown the same grace that we show any other sinners – which includes all of us. I don’t have a problem with that; I have welcomed gays and lesbians in church.  However, there is a great chasm between extending love and grace and supporting a lifestyle that is clearly against Scripture.  Suppose I was a compulsive adulterer – it is my nature; it may even be genetic, for all we know.  Why shouldn’t this behavior be condoned?  Why not show the same “grace” to that kind of sin?

As Karl Menninger once asked, whatever became of sin?  Or as Paul asked, should we sin more so that grace should increase?

It pains me that this kind of mindless pseudo-theology could drag a major denomination into heresy.  And yes, this is a major heresy, not just a civil rights issue, or an issue of which sins are worse than others. You see, Paul has identified marriage as holy not just because it is ordained by God, but because it is also a type of the relationship between Christ and the Church.  “Behold, I tell you a mystery,” Paul says concerning the issue.  To me, this goes right to the heart of the nature of the Church.

After finding a church that, for the first time in years, makes me want to get up early on a Sunday morning, I am deeply saddened by this issue, and pray that people listen to the Spirit of God, not the spirit of this age. I’d hate to have to go off in search of a church once again…