Disillusioned with Church (Such as It Is)

It seems like more and more I talk to one person after another who is disillusioned with the church. You might think that the people I talk to are those who have already walked away from it. Most of them are, yes. But alarmingly, there is a growing chorus of frustration from those in the church now, but who may not be for much longer. Meanwhile, here I am as a pastor, seemingly a purveyor of all that is church, listening to and watching the frustration. I wonder how I contribute to it.  And I ponder even more deeply still, How do I raise this sinking Titanic that is the North American mainline church? Is there any hope?

First, let me say that I share the same frustrations with the Church that so many people have. Let me give you a taste:

  • I agree that the Church tends to be way out of touch with the real needs, thoughts, and aspirations of many everyday people.
  • I too, find the Church to be many times insincere and inauthentic about our motives and our shortcomings.
  • I hate how judgmental and narrow-minded church folks can be.
  • I’ve been deeply hurt by the stories of people who have come into churches I have served and walked away feeling unwelcome and even looked down upon.
  • I get frustrated when Christians (including myself) fail to do what we preach and fall terribly short from Jesus’ standard of love, grace, and integrity.
  • I cringe at the parochial and often hateful attitudes of churches and Christians towards any beliefs, standards, or ways of doing things that don’t fit into their little boxes.
  • I am deeply embarrassed by fellow clergy who use their sacred office of trust to exploit and abuse people and the churches they serve.
  • I’m ashamed at how often churches seem to only care about their own viability instead of truly caring about the life and healing of the world around them.
  • It exacerbates me that many churches would rather decline and die than embrace new, effective means of being a wellspring of life for the needs and well-being of their neighbors.
  • I keep wondering how churches can truly be Holy Spirit-filled, alive, Christ-centered, exciting groups of people with lots of love and grace to give away, versus the typical, hum-drum, dry, bone dead institutions stuck in a rut of traditionalism and fruitless routine.

I could go on and on, but you get the point. And I’m sure that somewhere in this list, I’ve probably scraped against some of your hang-ups and frustrations about the church, such as it is these days. It’s not a pretty picture.

Now let me also say that in the mire and mediocrity of many local churches, some beautiful things happen all the time that never get picked up in the news or in everyday conversations. Every week, I witness lives that are touched and changed by Jesus Christ through the everyday ministry of his people. I see churches reach out and serve their neighbors in quiet, non-presumptive ways. At the cutting edge of many social justice struggles, you’ll find people of faith leading the charge. I remain deeply humbled by the generosity, sacrifices, and selflessness of the people I serve in order to see our church love, reach out to, and include new people into our church family.

So, there is always so much, even within many small, seemingly insignificant churches that would inspire us all. I’ve seen it. And I never cease to be amazed by it.

But even then, there are major, systemic issues that the church in North America needs to address. These issues infect and threaten every congregation, and if we continue in our apathy towards these issues, we risk losing entire generations of people, if we haven’t already. They risk missing out on good news of Jesus Christ. And we in the church risk the blessing of loving and being loved by these generations of people.

It would take lots of different blog posts to detail the systemic issues that give reason for our mass disillusionment with church (such as it is.) And there are some excellent books which detail the issues. I encourage you to read them.

So, I’d like to propose a remedy that might help congregations and denominations of Christian churches to “get it right” again, to be the Church which Christ intended us to be. I’m not saying here that even if we were perfect that there wouldn’t be people who would still reject Jesus Christ and his Church. There always have been, and there will be until the end of this world (such as it is).

But, we can do some things that would keep people who genuinely believe, want to believe, or used to believe from being further damaged or disillusioned by the church. So, here is the remedy:

1) Individual Christians, congregations, and denominational systems must be willing to listen to and acknowledge the grievances people have with the current state of the church. We must stop thinking that they are wrongheaded reprobates and validate their hurt-filled, disappointing experiences.

2) We must take full responsibilities for our shortcomings and faults, lament them, and mourn for the countless lives who have been hurt, disillusioned, and damaged by the church.

3) We must take purposeful, fearless steps towards being a more authentic, sincere church. This can happen in one of three ways:

  • We do the hard, painful work of reforming local congregations through strong pastoral leadership working alongside faithful lay people.
  • We start new congregations whose DNA purposefully resembles a Christlike way of worshiping, living, and serving.
  • We provide hospice care for dying congregations who refuse to reform.

None of these options are easy, but one of them is necessary for every established congregation. Every established congregation must either reform, launch new faith communities, or die a dignified death. That may sound harsh, but it reflects my strong, growing conviction that no church can carry on in business-as-usual mode. To do that jeopardizes everyone.

In the mean time, I have some encouragement for those of us who get disillusioned with the church but aren’t giving up on it. First, the Church, the true Church, will never die. Local congregations may come and go, but Christ’s Church will survive and thrive. Secondly, the Holy Spirit is giving God’s faithful people vision, strength, and love to keep forming and reforming the Church, even if we find ourselves in far-from-perfect local churches. So don’t give up or walk away. You may reform what is there, help begin something new, or provide hospice care for a dying church. In any case, Christ can work through you to be his Church.

For those of you who have already walked away, know that a growing chorus of us hear you loud and clear and dislike what you see as much as you do. I would love the honor of having you provide your insight, wisdom and any help you might offer to create authentic communities that reflect who Jesus is.


Filed under Church Culture and Leadership

6 Responses to Disillusioned with Church (Such as It Is)

  1. Edmund Metheny

    It must be particularly hard for you to feel disillusionment, given your position as an official representative of your denomination’s organization, and official head caretaker for a church. You have built the foundations of your life upon the organization of the church, and to feel, even briefly, that the ground on which you have built may be somehow inadequate or flawed must cause you great pain. Before saying anything else on your post, I think it is important to honor your bravery in being willing to look straight on at a problem that many people have, but few people choose to discuss.
    Disillusionment with some aspect of the church predates Christianity – one need look no further than King Josiah and the Deuternomic reforms which took place around 622 bce, or many of the words of the OT prophets to see that it is common enough to be mentioned frequently in scripture. Disillusionment is also a frequent topic in the Pauline epistles.
    All this to say that it isn’t a new thing.
    If I recall, Mother Teresa’s diaries revealed a woman who struggled often with doubt and disillusionment. One could look at much of Jesus teachings as having at their heart disillusionment with Judaism. The writings of the Apostolic Fathers, the Council of Nicaea, the Protestant Reformation, the foundation of Methodism – all these came in part as a reaction to disillusionment – committed individuals who sensed that something was wrong with the organization and operation of the church and set about to fix it.
    All this to say that disillusionment is neither uncommon, nor necessarily a bad thing if it can lead to improvements.
    I think that you have said about all there is to say on the need for reform. I am going to make just a brief comment. Christian denominations such as Methodism face a branding issue at the moment. Larger Christian organizations such as the Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptists are largely responsible for the “public face” of North American Christianity as seen in the media. That is a hurdle that you will either have to overcome or simply abandon – you can either undertake to change the way Americans think of Christianity from a minority position, or you can determine that the fight isn’t worth it, concentrate on reform at a more local level, and put off the public opinion fight until later.
    Now, having made a lot of comments on disillusionment in general, I’ll get down to the specifics you asked for and, in respect for you and your willingness to look at the tough issues, I’m not going to hold back.
    1) I think it is time that you revised your holy scriptures to bring them in line with current biblical scholarship. If it were up to me I would, for example, remove all of the Old Testament laws and regulations that you are no longer required to keep – maybe sticking them in an appendix, for example.
    2) You need to accept and embrace the fact that certain parts of your belief system are mythological and/or allegorical in nature – Adam and Eve were not real people, for example – and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing or a problem.
    3) Spend more time doing, and less time talking. Though I am an atheist, I nonetheless appreciate seeing Christians out there working to make the world a better place and admire people who will walk the walk and not just talk the talk for an hour on Sundays. I don’t appreciate people who show up at my door with literature, yell at me on street corners, or impose their belief system on me (I acknowledge that Methodists are not known for their literature distribution, or their leather-lunged street preachers [though that was not always the case!]).
    In conclusion, thank you for a wonderful and thoughtful article. I look forward to the discussion as it develops (if I haven’t frightened everyone away with my heretical ideas!)

    • Hello Edmund- Thank you for your very thoughtful, thorough comments. As always you give me a lot to think about! I very much affirm the perspective you offer that disillusionment with religious establishments is not a new or isolated thing. I think it often serves like the irritation of sand within an oyster. Out of frustration with irritating, painful things come some beautiful pearls, and in fact, the great reform movements (many of which you mention) come out of seasons like these. All that to say that I’m hopeful that out of this season will come a church more authentic and sincere.
      As for your specifics, I’ve got some thoughts:
      1) Jesus gave us the perfect model for interpreting the law. We see it especially in the Sermon on the Mount, where he challenged us to not focus on the letter of the law but the heart of the law. At times that even makes things more intense, not less intense. For example, the law says, “Don’t commit adultery.” But in reality, the real wrong is lust itself. (Agree or not agree, but you get the point.)
      2) As for questions around the literalism of, say, the Adam and Eve story, once again, we’re debating Fundamentalism, not the whole of Christianity. Most Christians are content to view the Adam and Eve story as an allegorical understanding of how humanity has fallen from grace. And what’s interesting is that I can preach about Adam and Eve to both literalists and non-literalists, mention nothing about if this is literal history or not, and it would preach the same. It’s the same truth, the same reality because we see the same things playing out today in our world and lives.
      3) At my church, we have a new phrase we kick around to keep us going-ATNA: “all talk no action.” We don’t ever want to be accused of that by anyone!
      Thank you, again, Edmund for your encouragement and the conversation. It and you are a constant blessing to me.

  2. Jody

    Chris I’ve been wondering if the systemic problem is that there IS a system??

    • Hmm… Well, I would say that non-denominational/”non-system” churches reflect many of the same issues. Perhaps the “system” at hand is a much broader one, say, Christendom! Granted, Christendom is crumbling apart at an exponential rate, but its values still stain congregations and individual Christians, hopefully, for everyone’s sake, not too much terribly longer.

  3. Pingback: Lessons Learned While Staying Home from Church | Pastor Chris Owens – - Musings, Rants, and Reflections

  4. Walter

    Where is that picture taken? If I might ask that unqualified question.

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