There’s no denying it: church can be hard work. And there’s a sense in which church is meant to be hard work. Any church is a collection of sinners – saved sinners, but still sinners – and so no local church is going to be perfect. At times church will bore us, exhaust us and even hurt us. But with the right mindset, it is possible to endure church – and even enjoy it! Welcome to your church survival guide.
HOW TO SURVIVE WHEN…CHURCH HURTS
Church can hurt. In fact, if you’re in a church for long enough, it will hurt. This might range from an unkind comment, to being seriously let down by someone you trusted, all the way through to being abused by someone else within church. If you have been abused by someone you trusted, I don’t want you to hear me suggesting that what has happened to you isn’t serious. Perhaps you need to stop reading this right now and speak to someone you do trust about what has happened. For most of us, though, our experience of being burned in church is lower level than that, though still hurtful. It could be that we’ve been hurt by poor leadership. Perhaps it was leadership that was domineering and bullying, or ineffectual and unsupportive, or insensitive. It could be that we’ve been hurt by other church members. It might be that someone betrayed a confidence, or let us down in some way. Or a brother or sister has been, frankly, vindictive to us, either as a one-off or as a pattern of behaviour. Our instinct when we’re hurt is to lash out, run away or perhaps to grin and bear it and pretend it doesn’t matter. None of these are effective ways of responding. Jesus knew his Church would be a place where hurts would be caused. He gave us a roadmap on how to deal with it: ‘If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over’ (Matthew 18:15). Often, we just don’t do this. Instead we allow resentment and bitterness to grow within us. These things need to be nipped in the bud – we need to give the person who hurt us the opportunity to see the effect of their actions, to say sorry, and to change. We need churches where we are willing to say, and to hear, ‘Friend, I’m feeling hurt by what you did…
Church is not there for your entertainment
Can we talk and pray about it?’ And then we need to be willing to forgive. Tim Keller once defined forgiveness as resolving not to bring the offence up again with God, with the person who offended us, or with ourselves. Often it is the final one of these that is the most difficult. Sometimes, there may be no means of moving on without leaving. But I would want to caution that leaving your church must be the absolute last resort, not the first option. Remember that leaving a church means cutting yourself off from your family, removing yourself from the body you belong to. And make sure you are not just leaving, but also joining – know which church you are going to move to; which body you are going to serve.
4 Tools for Your Church Survival Kit
THE PICKAXE OF PATIENCE
An essential tool for hanging on to slippery slopes when being buffeted by winds of frustration and icy blasts of personality clashes
THE FALL ROPE OF FORGIVENESS
Every mountaineer needs a secure safety rope in case of tumbles. Be quick to forgive when fall outs occur, it may be you needing to say sorry next time.
THE TORCH OF TRUTH
Be honest with those in your community who have hurt you. Rather than allowing resentment and bitterness to grow, shine a light on what has gone wrong, talk it out and move on.
THE COMPASS OF COMPASSION
Remember to orient yourself around love. Pray that when you attend church you won't just be there to receive but may be the answer to someone else's need.
HOW TO SURVIVE WHEN… CHURCH IS BORING
If we’re honest, most churches are quite odd. Take the concept of a sermon, for example. A major part of our services is a monologue. The only other context where 21st-century people voluntarily listen to a substantial monologue in their leisure time is when they watch stand-up comedy. And it’s fair to say that most of our preaching is (for better as well as for worse) not much like listening to 90 minutes of Michael McIntyre. It is not hard to see why some people might find church boring. It is just not what many of us are used to. But it might also be that we don’t find the right sort of things interesting. What do you think is actually going on at your church on a typical Sunday morning? Often we do not see past the surface level: Gladys is on the piano this week, Geoff is preaching on Leviticus, and the coffee is weak again. But if we scratch beneath the surface, something truly remarkable is taking place. Jesus promised that ‘where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them’ (Matthew 18:20). For all its faults and idiosyncrasies, your church is still a community that God has gathered and in which he is present by his Spirit. If the idea of that is boring, then the problem might be with us.
For all its faults, your church is still a community that god has gathered
Why did you go along to church in the first place? The writer of the letter to the Hebrews recognises the temptation to give up going to church. He commands his readers to resist that temptation: ‘let us consider how we may spur one another on towards love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another’ (Hebrews 10:24-25). Church is not there for your entertainment, as a consumer, but for you and others to find encouragement, as a contributor. If our ‘boring-ometer’ for church is based on whether we sang songs we liked, or whether the sermon was relevant or short enough, then it could be a sign that we’re going to church for our sake and not for the sake of others. Much of our experience of church has to do with the mindset with which we arrive week by week. It is almost impossible to overstate the positive impact we can have on others if we come looking for ways in which to be an encouragement. If building up others is one of our main goals, then there is every possibility that we can come home from church each week excited, rather than bored. Churches can all too easily end up amassing people who used to be full of zeal, but now are full of disappointment. Maybe we’re demoralised and wondering why anyone bothers. Maybe we’re tired of being asked to do more than we can bear, or we feel that our efforts are unappreciated, make no difference, or are never enough. We were on fire; now we’re burned out. To survive (and maybe even thrive) in church, it’s necessary to keep two realities simultaneously in our minds: what the Church is humanly and what it is spiritually. Humanly, the Church is a group of very flawed people who meet regularly on Sundays and through the week. People do not generally change very quickly. People make mistakes and there are tensions and disagreements. There are difficult characters. Spiritually, the Church is a group that God has gathered together to himself and to each other.
Sin makes a comeback
Sin has been out of fashion for a while. It sounds judgmental and old fashioned. Surely it’s much better to believe that everyone is nice and good. For thousands of years western societies were based on the Bible, according to which we are flawed. In religious jargon we are sinners. But the Enlightenment changed all that. It declared the goodness of human nature. Rousseau wrote, “Man is born good, but society corrupts him, and makes him unhappy.”Or so we thought. But now sin is making a comeback, thanks to science. Top scientists are claiming that science has discovered sin; that genetics, neuroscience and anthropology all point to a dark side to human nature.Steven Pinker who is Professor of Psychology at Harvard wrote, “Genetics and neuroscience show that a heart of darkness cannot always be blamed on parents and society.” In other words, the human capacity for evil is inborn. This is not an argument for the total depravity of humanity, but for the acknowledgement that there is a dark side.Our belief in human goodness has led us to think that we do not needs restraints and restrictions. We can be free and all will be well.So we have liberalised many aspects of life: sex, pornography, alcohol consumption and gambling. The outcome is fatherless children, unmarried mothers, widespread pornography, drunkenness and problem gamblers. We need to rethink our beliefs about human nature – urgently.Available from Amazon Paperback, Kindle and bookshops. liberal.delusionwww.theliberaldelusion.com
William Reville, Professor of Biochemistry, wrote“John Marsh cogently argues that the core belief in innate human goodness that underpins liberalism is false and unscientific and is now harming society. … I agree with Marsh that the liberal pendulum has swung too far in the freedom direction.”
Robert Henderson wrote in The Quarterly Review “I strongly urge people to read the book. The Liberal Delusion is important because it succinctly performs the task of pointing out that the liberal emperor has no clothes or at least very tattered and insufficient ones.”
Ann Widdecombe wrote in The Catholic Herald“The sweep of the book is vast: It traces the roots of our present problems to the Enlightenment…Marsh executes a splendid demolition of suggestions, propagated by Dawkins that great scientists deny the existence of God.”
Dr John Benton wrote in Evangelicals Now“I think the title of this book was chosen in the wake of Dawkins’s The God Delusion, perhaps indicating something of an answer. But actually it is a better book than that and it deserves to stand on its own.”
Your church is a miracle
CHURCH IS A MIRACLE
So there is something of a survival kit for your imperfect and flawed, yet precious and God-dwelled church. Remember who is there as you meet, and why you are there, and church will never be boring. Seek to be patient, to lovingly confront and completely forgive when you are hurt, and you’ll be able to survive the knocks from those around you. Hold together the human and spiritual view of your church, and you’ll remain both realistic and ambitious. After all, your church is a miracle. Next Sunday, look at those sitting around you. It’s amazing that you, with all your differences and sometimes disagreements, are sitting in the same room, serving the same God. Yes, your church is imperfect. But that makes your church all the more miraculous – those imperfections show just how powerful and loving the God who has brought you together must be.
Sam Allberry is an author and pastor in Maidenhead. His latest book Why Bother with Church? (The Good Book Company) is reviewed on page 101