Disillusionment is a serious illness of the soul. It tends to persist over a long, indefinite period of time and often involves multiple recurrences. And it can be virtually invisible to people who meet you, so much so that people in your local church might not even realize you’re infected.
And we may not realize the epidemic we’re up against. I’m not sure we’d know if our sanctuaries were overflowing with people in the throes of disillusionment… because many of us are phenomenal actors. Working without a script, we ad-lib our way through the Sunday morning church routine with Oscar-worthy performances. We know how to work a sanctuary. How to walk down the red – or sometimes tacky, multicolored Berber – carpet shaking hands, kissing babies, and giving people quick squeezes. We know how to flash a winning smile and how to project just the right tone of voice when we offer hellos and greet with “How are you?” We know to call people by their first names and to try to make personal comments that make them feel important. We can be schmoozing machines. But despite our professional Christianity, despite our wealth of brownie points within the volunteer pool in our local congregation, we are deep in the fight to release false impressions of reality, to own that we are hurting and that our church is full of polished but still fatally flawed and unhealthy people. I don’t know why our own dysfunction is so surprising. We expect slip-ups from other groups of people – lawyers, car salespeople, politicians, or celebrities, but when it comes to the church, we’re complete suckers. Or at least I am. I don’t know why I think anyone with the ability to match their clothes, read the Bible, and teach without stuttering also must have a pure thought life and be impervious to temptation. I don’t know why I think anyone with a great singing voice, a standard acoustic guitar, and a little rock and roll must have an amazing devotional life and a carefree marriage. I don’t know why I think people who have mastered the art of passing out bulletins have risen above anger management classes, gossip, and parenting problems. And most of all,
I don’t know why I think that just because people come together and buy their own building in the name of Christ, they will always – without fail – act like true representatives of Christ.
Could I get any more unrealistic? Sometimes I wonder how my experience with church would change if I could just make a few mental adjustments. What would happen, for example, if I honestly admitted that I am likely to encounter one or more of the following church flaws? At some point, church people may…
- not always appreciate my giftedness, my skill sets, or even my service to the church.
- not always take the time to understand where I’m coming from.
- not always care about some of the things I value most.
- not always offer the kind of support I need when I need it.
- pressure me to live up to their expectations.
- turn my mistakes or grief into material for gossip.
- act in a way that seems “fake.”
- get caught up with the wrong priorities.
- exercise power to exclude or dismiss.
- do things in their personal lives that make me admire them less.
- make bad decisions that end up hurting the church.
- seem to ignore, misread, or misapply certain portions of Scripture.
- not notice when I’m absent or sick or hurting.
- make me feel judged or abandoned.
Is it possible that just by changing some of my expectations, I could influence my own ability to contentedly engage Christian community? If I simply realized that every church or group of people – no matter how exciting or brilliant – is infested with all kinds of flaws, would I respond to their failures differently? Would I draw different conclusions? Instead of seeing apparent failures as a contradiction of all the church stands for, instead of seeing them as reason to throw out institutionalized church as a whole, instead of seeing them as evidence that the ideals of God himself might somehow be tainted, what if I just thought, Yes, I’m disappointed. This is further evidence of human ability to make unhealthy choices. But this is not surprising. And while we grieve it, we can choose to limit the time and energy we give to despair. We can seek to learn from our pain and failures, and to apply our learning to living more fully in the future. Along these lines, I’ve decided that maybe the church should introduce a type of “premarital counseling” for people considering commitment. Here’s how I imagine it would work. You walk into a room. There, sitting behind an official-looking desk, is an especially wise counselor wearing a very serious pair of glasses, pen and clipboard in hand. You feel a little uneasy.
Wise Counselor introduces himself and then gets right into the session. “So, tell me why you think you want to commit to this congregation.”
You freeze. You know there are absolutely tons of things you love about this congregation, but you’re worried you won’t be able to convey the true breadth of your adoration in a couple of concise, convincing statements. “Well, I really appreciate the emphasis on the Word of God,” you say, hoping that calling the Bible the “Word of God” will get you a few extra points. Wise Counselor doesn’t say much. Just an “uh-huh” as he checks something on the paper in front of him. Apparently he wants you to say more. “And I really enjoy the people. The community, I mean fellowship, is so important to me.” You chide yourself for almost forgetting to use the word fellowship. Wise Counselor nods. You go on. “Not to mention I love the worship. The song leader is very talented. She really knows how to invite the congregation into the presence of God.” You allow yourself a quick smile, feeling like you’ve touched on all the religious bases. Wise Counselor raises a suspicious eyebrow in your direction. He sets aside the clipboard with the evaluation that you may have just failed and stares at you. He seems to be purposely trying to increase the amount of awkward tension in the room.
Wise Counselor leans forward. “Now tell me some of your church’s flaws.”
“Um…” You stall while analyzing all your possible responses. If you say you think your church has no flaws, you will certainly seem like you’re caught up in blind love. But if you say it has too many, it might seem like your love is insincere. You gulp. You try to hold still, but you know you are visibly squirming in your chair. “What if the pastor fails you? “What if the nursery leader runs off with the head usher? “What if the church uses your tithe to buy thousands of burger flipper souvenirs for their upcoming message series ‘Serving It Up God’s Way’? “What if it gets to the point that you can’t invite your pastor and your worship leader, your board members, or your Sunday school teachers to the same Christmas party because of how much they distrust and dislike each other?” Your mind is spinning in a million directions.
Do you love your church enough to stick with them through all of that? Do you love them enough to love them even when the emotions run low and the feelings of excitement have worn off?
Wise Counselor’s voice is increasingly louder. The lights above his desk seem especially hot. “Are you in this for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health?” As he spits out these last words, Wise Counselor’s fist slams down on the desk, creating a small earthquake that disrupts all the papers. Slowly, out of the corner of your eye, you begin looking for the nearest emergency exit. Then, just as suddenly as it rose, Wise Counselor’s voice softens. “I’m not trying to scare you away or anything,” he drawls in a mild-mannered tone. You manage to nod even though you wish you could curl up in the fetal position. Wise Counselor continues, “But you can’t let anyone tell you that committing to a church is all fantasies and fairy-tale endings. You can’t think that once you become a member things are going to magically fall into place, that every day is going to be one more day of happily ever after. “Committing to a church isn’t easy. It takes a lot of hard work. You’re not perfect. Your church isn’t perfect. A lot of imperfect things are going to happen along the way. Sure, you’re going to have your exhilarating highs, but you’re going to have some rock-bottom lows too. “You’re going to encounter some flaws in the church that you never knew about or suspected. You’re going to see that the church doesn’t really value all the things they claim to value.” Wise Counselor smiles. “Once the honeymoon stage ends, then what do you do?” You don’t even try to answer this one. Thankfully, Wise Counselor likes to hear himself talk.
You might think about leaving the church. But if you do, just remember, every church has its own set of flaws. Sure, you might find another church that seems attractive, that seems to excel in the areas where your church falters, but beware! If you join another church, you won’t find the perfect church; you’ll just find a completely different set of flaws.
“Scared? Good!” You’re noticing Wise Counselor has a flair for the dramatic. “But, thankfully, you know Who to run to when you’re scared. Ultimately, you see, your commitment is not to this one local church. In fact, your commitment is not even to the global ideal, the Church at large. Your commitment is to God. And as long as you nurture your relationship with God and you draw closer to Him, you will also find the ability to sustain your relationship with your local church.” And then, with one statement – “We’re going to give you a couple of weeks to think this over” – Wise Counselor’s spiel is over. He hands over a waiver to sign so your church can prove that someone has explained the potential risks involved in joining their congregation if you decide to do so.
Christians sometimes set themselves up for disappointment because they are not prepared for the moments when churches, which are made up of flawed human beings, let them down. It can be helpful to see our relationship to the church as being like a lifelong relationship to a spouse or even a parent, child, or sibling; to view it as a relationship that will include both “for better” and “for worse,” and expect to stay committed anyway. Excerpted with permission from Beyond the Broken Church by Sarah Raymond Cunningham, copyright Zondervan 2014
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Do you agree with the author’s suggestion that churches might not even know if some of their attendees are disillusioned due to the expectation that everyone interact according to social norms? What do you think are some of the most common mistaken expectations people might have of their faith communities? How do you think the average person looks at their commitment or relationship to the church? I’d love to hear from you about how to operate with wisdom and maturity when dealing with disappointment and disillusionment in the Church! Join the conversation on our blog! ~ Laurie McClure, FaithGateway Women