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Church Is Useless

“Church is useless.”

I might have expected such a comment from my 24-year-old nephew who insists that living with his parents in the room he’s occupied since birth, whose passion is playing FPS (First Person Shooter) games and whose sole means of gainful employment is a part-time job at a local restaurant. But my nephew, as far as I know, has never said that. Though he was “raised in the church,” he doesn’t attend with any regularity. But as far as I know, he’s never said the church is useless.

Instead, the quote came from a 28-year-old—let’s call him Michael—who has a really good job, is married to a very successful marketing executive and who has nothing in common with my nephew except that he was also raised in the church.

Even more, Michael reads voraciously—philosophy and theology mostly—and is an animated and challenging conversationalist. Michael engages me with his thoughts on topics ranging from Reformed theology to the mystics to C.S. Lewis. He has a keen mind and a willing heart and he loves Jesus. But he has no use for church, as he recently told me over coffee.

“Really?” I replied, trying to be extremely casual and non-reactive. I’ve read You Lost Me. I’m hip to the Millennial spiritual angst that has enveloped so many 18-29-year-olds, so the last thing I wanted to do was act surprised at a statement that, for many spiritual-but-not-religious young adults, sums up their attitude about an institution I appreciate, value and—okay, I’ll say it—love. At the same time, I was intensely curious, and I wanted to know why Michael felt the way he did. So I asked him to tell me more.

Michael looked at me with an expression that said, “You really want to hear the truth?” And while I was admittedly feeling just a little defensive, I really wanted to know. I wanted to learn.

“Okay, here’s the story,” Michael began. “My wife and I do go to this church near our apartment every once in a while, and the pastor’s okay, but it’s the people who go there who really put me off. They smile and talk as if they don’t have a care or problem in the world, or they talk about politics like the only view you could possibly have as a Christian is conservative and Republican. And forget about being a church that welcomes gays. It frustrates me, because I know they all have problems. We all have problems. But why can’t they admit it and talk about their issues, and regardless of their personal views, why can’t they welcome others without judgment? Isn’t that what church is supposed to be?”

Okay, I got that, and I was feeling just a little vulnerable, which is to say I was feeling a little guilty. So I quickly created a diversion and asked Michael what he and his wife do on Sundays when they aren’t darkening the door of this judgmental, hypocritical neighborhood church.

“We’ve got a group of friends we meet with and pray with and worship with,” he replied. “I can be real with these people, and they can be real with me. We study the Word and we talk about our problems and doubts and fears. Some of our friends are gay, and they are as welcome as anybody. The church—and by that I mean the traditional church with buildings and budgets and perfect people—doesn’t know what this kind of transparency is about. That’s why to me the church is useless.”

I pondered Michael’s statement in lieu of his experience in this one particular church, tempted to advise him to keep looking until he found a church that displays the qualities he is looking for. But I knew better. I suspected his experience wouldn’t be much different even if he and is wife were to visit a dozen other churches. He’s a smart guy and, as I said, he loves Jesus. So I don’t think the problem is Michael as much as it is the church itself, which in Michael’s eyes just can’t bring itself to be real and transparent. So he and his wife are choosing to abandon the church even as they seek a new and different way to gather with other like-minded people to practice their faith.

As Dan Haseltine of Jars of Clay wrote in his blog recently:

I am pretty weary from years of pretending to be more of something than I am. I am tired of carrying evangelical expectations on my shoulders. I have never been so sure of my faith that I was able to find a true home in the church communities where we played most of our shows.

Now, Haseltine isn’t a Millennial, but he’s a thoughtful, creative, committed Christian, not unlike Michael, who is tired of the show. But like Michael, he loves Jesus, so he finds himself in a kind of “middle space” between a Christian culture that smacks of hypocrisy and a secular culture that resists God’s presence and influence. Michael wants a life filled with wonder and spiritual meaning, and from what I could tell during our conversation he’s doing fine on both counts—without the church I love.

Despite my admiration for Michael’s intentionality regarding his home gatherings, I admittedly have a hard time with his “church is useless” assessment. I get it that the church is full of hypocrites. Heck, I’m one of them, if by “hypocrite” you mean someone who acts like life is good most of the time, when sometimes it’s not. And I know that most of the people I talk with at my church are no different than I am. But my wife and I go, not out of duty, but because we know our lives are better when we do.

For me personally, I appreciate our pastor, who is teaching me by word and example to be transparent in my relationship with God, even if my relationship with others could stand a shot of authenticity. Whether it’s habit or desire that gets me there (probably it’s a little of both), I am willingly a part of what Ray Ortlund calls “the God-created rhythm for weekly flourishing.”

I have no intention of trying to convince Michael he needs to get into that divine rhythm in a traditional church setting. If he can get it by sitting in a living room with a bunch of friends, that’s okay. In fact, it’s better than okay. What Michael and his wife are doing—by opening their home and including those who don’t feel welcome by any church they’ve found so far—is exemplary. So much so that I believe God is pleased and will bless them. In fact, he already has.

To be continued…

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