Church Steals Jesus

Disclaimer: This post is about organized religion; specifically, my experience in Christian church leadership. If you don’t know me that well, I grew up in church. I volunteered in almost every role that existed, completed an undergraduate degree in Theology/Music, then did 7 years in a Pastoral role.

A good friend of mine shared a thought about church on Facebook the other day. Here’s what he said:

Don’t let your church steal your Jesus.

Simple, but it holds some truth (read on for an explanation).

I chose to comment.

Usually, I wouldn’t do that. Why? Because where I come from, pastors who leave vocational ministry can sometimes be written off as bitter or jaded. Myself, especially, because I have never been someone to simply follow all the rules without question or ignore issues for fear of upsetting people.

My comment:

Well shut half of them down then. The religious politics and unwillingness to lead with BOTH grace and truth will continue to remove Jesus from the equation, especially for those leaders who desire to lead in that way but are not adequately supported to do so.

No discussion followed. No comments…from anyone. To be fair, the comment was worded stronger than it should have been, but that’s ok.

I assumed the comment was met with shaking heads or possible eye rolls so I left it alone.

But here we are…so read onward if you are so inclined.

Notre Dame Cathedral in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

Notre Dame Cathedral in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

Grace + Truth = Growth

Have you ever read anything by Henry Cloud? He’s a psychologist and best-selling author. In his book ‘Changes That Heal’, he reminds readers that God is full of grace and truth. He’s both, at the same time. So if you believe that we are made in the image of God, you have to also believe that grace and truth have to co-exist in us and in our relationships with each other.

Grace is basically unconditional love and acceptance. It’s receiving something when you don’t deserve it.

Grace is the police officer that lets you off with a warning when you were caught speeding. It’s the spouse who’s been cheated on but chooses to respond with forgiveness and love. Grace is the mother who shakes her head and smiles at a child that is ‘decorating’ the walls with crayon.

Truth isn’t the opposite, but they are different.

Truth says you get what you deserve. Action = consequence. Truth says the police officer gives you a speeding ticket exactly equal to the speed you were caught doing. Truth files for divorce after adultery because the bond of marriage was broken. Truth means mom takes the wooden spoon to the child’s rear end ;)

How People Grow

Henry Cloud says that when both are put together, people grow. Grace + Truth = Growth.

When we are accepted for who we are but also held accountable for our words and actions, we can grow.

If children only received grace, they’d be spoiled. They’d never understand that actions have consequences and they’d never truly learn how to function in the world. But if they only received truth they’d be punished far too often and probably feel unloved, unwanted, and unable to really give and receive love with others.

The same principle of grace + truth must be applied in all human relationships, especially those within the church.

Entrance to Notre Dame Cathedral, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

Entrance to Notre Dame Cathedral, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

Church Steals Jesus

When my friend made this statement (“Don’t let your church steal your Jesus”), I’m confident that he was referring to how church issues can get in the way of a genuine relationship with Jesus (e.g. church politics, busyness of programs, interpersonal issues, etc.). Churches are filled with people, and us people have issues, so issues within churches are basically unavoidable.

If a person with a genuine relationship with Jesus consistently faces issues with people within the church (or the church organization in general), those issues can easily translate to issues within the person’s relationship with Jesus. I know this to be true because it happened to me.

My Personal Experience

I was a pastor in Newfoundland for about 7 years. For 3 years I volunteered with a team of people who planted (i.e. started) a new church, and for 4 years I was in a paid position at a different, more established church. In both roles, I faced issues, but the differences are in how the issues were handled.

Sometimes, issues were met with both grace and truth. People were loved and appreciated, but also held accountable for their actions (especially those who volunteered or gave leadership in some way). Sometimes, the accountability was too much for people to accept. In rare cases, we lost a volunteer or had people leave the church altogether.

Other times, issues were met with only grace. The decisions to deal with these issues were basically based on who was involved and what trouble could come of dealing with it. This is where the term ‘church politics’ primarily comes from. Rather than leading with grace and truth straight across the board, good politics would dictate that you choose your words and actions very carefully in order to keep the majority of people (or those with influence) happy.

In those situations, church leaders are often expected to accept the issues and move forward, rather than dealing with them appropriately. In my experience, this mindset focuses more on a happy church than a healthy one, and it kills the passion of those who want to see growth (i.e. grace + truth).

Healthy vs. Happy

A healthy church isn’t defined as one without problems, but it is defined as one where both grace and truth exist at the same time. This means that some people won’t be happy, because they will be held accountable, and that can be uncomfortable.

In a healthy church, leaders should feel supported when they have to face issues with the people that they lead. This doesn’t mean cracking the whip when someone steps out of line. It means you love your people too much to ignore the issues. It means leading with grace + truth; loving people and holding them accountable.

Moving Forward

Personally, I haven’t been part of a church for a while. I’ve had periods of being agnostic, even wishing I could be an atheist - wanting to truly believe that God didn’t exist and be happy that way - but that doesn’t seem possible for me. So I’ve taken a break from church, but not from a spiritual journey.

In defense of others who are in a similar position, I don’t believe the terms ‘jaded’ or ‘bitter’ are helpful or even fair and appropriate. These terms are often applied by people who think that saying anything even remotely negative about church is wrong or, at a minimum, selfish or pessimistic. In reality, the people who speak up about issues with tact and respect usually want to see positive change, and so they should be sought out and listened to rather than written off and avoided.

To be clear, when I commented on my friend’s post I didn’t expect a revolution. I simply wanted to share my thoughts because I feel like there isn’t enough open and honest conversation around the issues that exist within the church, especially this issue. Leaders shouldn’t be made to feel like speaking up is wrong, as if taking personal shots and growing a thick skin is somehow a twisted requirement for being in vocational ministry.

Grace and Truth is the only way to move forward. That means:

  • leaders loving their people and also holding them accountable

  • people loving each other and working towards growth

  • churches with problems that are openly talked about and dealt with

Touchy subject? Probably…but doesn’t change require tough conversations sometimes?

What say you? Grew up in church but don’t attend anymore? Legitimately interested to hear your story.