Episode 49: How’s It Going At Church?

DESCRIPTION: Jack reads an essay called How’s It Going At Church?. It tackles the question of whether the church member views his own church in some idealized way—as he thinks the church is supposed to be—or whether he sees it as it actually is. It raises lots of important issues and questions that you may have had call to consider yourself.

Joe surveys how things go at church and is dismayed at what seems to be a high percentage of members whose commitment to the cause is lacking.

Perhaps you are like Joe, too.

And this scares Joe, as he thinks it ought not be this way.

Perhaps you are like Joe, too.

He has noticed all this because he believes in the cause and is regularly trying to be involved in making things happen, and finds that it’s often difficult to find enthusiastic, hands-on support for the activities and programs. And even attendance—that most basic signal of involvement—seems to be considered optional for too many.

Perhaps you are like Joe, too.

But Joe rarely spends much time trying to solve this, other than simply by encouraging others to be more involved. He doesn’t spend very much time trying to understand why it is like it is, and is fairly content to sum it up conveniently as something like a “lack of commitment” or a “lack of faith”. And also, he’s a little wary of “judging” in the matter because of his view of Matthew 7:1 as he hears it explained at church.

Perhaps you are like Joe, too.

But Joe does have a brain, which he got from the same place everybody else got theirs. And his brain seems to be hard-wired like most other people’s brains—to try to make sense of things. And Joe finds that he wants to have some sort of easy-to-grasp, overall view of the church—some sort of convenient big-picture understanding of the institution and his involvement in it.

Perhaps you are like Joe, too.

And Joe doesn’t analyze his own thinking very often, but if he did, he would see that he’s generally torn between viewing his church in one of two ways:

  1. What he thinks it’s supposed to be, based on his understanding of the Bible, or
  2. What it’s actually like.

And if he would give it some thought, he’d see that he has developed a cognitive bias in this dilemma—that he leans more towards viewing his church in the ideal, rather than in the actual. And it’s not a very complex and detailed and analytical view, mind you, but just something of a quick sketch of an idea. And it’s useful to him to have a ready-made way to size things up.

Perhaps you are like Joe, too.

And this default view he has developed generally goes unchanged, even as he weekly faces the ups and downs of his church experience and the disappointing commitment deficit of so many of his fellow church members.

Perhaps you are like Joe, too.

And he just wants it to get better. And maybe he even nudges people here and there to that end from time to time. But if he were to stop and think through how it goes overall year by year, he’d see that there doesn’t seem to be much long-lasting improvement.

Perhaps you are like Joe, too.

But Joe doesn’t want to give up his ideal assessment of the church in order to view it as the disappointment that it regularly is. If you were to prod him about this in a discussion, it wouldn’t take long to see that he would consider an assessment like that to be unfaithful or negative in some way. So he keeps trying to steer his mind back over toward the positive and ideal view of things. And when disappointments occur, he shrugs his shoulders as if they are simply anomalies or aberrations, and not to be considered typical of the institution.

Perhaps you are like Joe, too.

And Joe does not want to see what he is doing as self-deception, even though, if you were to pin him down and press him on the matter, he would admit to you that his overall view of the church is certainly more positive than the track record warrants. He’s at least honest enough for that. But once you let him up, he’s going to be very likely to try to forget what he admitted, and go back to his old view, defaulting to that ideal vision of what goes on. “I don’t know,” he says. Even though he does.

Perhaps you are like Joe, too.

But if Joe were to sit down to try to figure it all out—to try to discover why the actual organization doesn’t fit his view of what it should be, based on how he understands the Bible—he would quickly discover that he is not well-equipped to handle such a detailed investigation. The church has not provided him the training for such, and he finds himself quickly overwhelmed and lost in the texts, and he needs a pen and a legal pad, or maybe even a computer spreadsheet, to keep up with all the questions and topics and relevant Bible passages and such. And that’s simply not the kind of Bible study he’s accustomed to. It doesn’t even feel like proper study to him. It’s not devotional in nature. It’s not about his own “relationship with God”, as is so much of his Bible work. And he is quickly distracted from it, and never seems to get anywhere. And his church experience has trained him to stay away from whatever feels awkward or unusual.

Perhaps you are like Joe, too.

And this is where things get really tricky—where the dilemma in how to view the church gets particularly crucial. If Joe keeps on viewing the church in some idealistic fashion—or near-idealistic fashion—he’s going to keep assuming, more or less, that he’ll get the answers he needs from church—and if he doesn’t get it right away, he’ll get it eventually. (And he may not figure out that he would have assumed the same thing 20 years ago, and still can’t explain the conflict between the ideal and the actual.) And he’ll be tempted to over-invest in the popular “mystery” idea, as in, “It’s a mystery, bro!“—which is normally accompanied by an over-investment in kicking the can of understanding down the road, as in “Farther along, we’ll know all about it!“. And if you had Joe as a captive audience on a long car ride, you could get him to think back about what a long track record there is at church with these two mindsets—the mystery thing and the farther along thing. And you could get him to see that there are many things he could have figured out by now if he had not taken these two ideas for an answer at church. That is to say, that Joe could have turned to the Bible long ago to see what answers it might yield on such questions.

But that would just present some more dilemmas for Joe. For one thing, his church always says it’s a Bible-based church. If he starts finding answers in the Bible that he can’t find at church, then what does that say about the church?

Further, as I mentioned before, it makes for quite the emotionally-awkward shift to go from church-as-usual as his primary source of spiritual information to personal Bible study. Church is doled out in bite-size pieces, almost always designed to be easy on the mind and emotionally comforting. But with Bible study, Joe is frequently overwhelmed, frustrated, and confused. And it’s just so intellectual in nature, and it just doesn’t feel right. His church experience has conditioned him to dealing mostly with emotions and moods, and it’s uncomfortable to shift to facts and language. It feels “cold” to him. It’s just not the same religious experience, and he can’t help but to find it alarming.

Perhaps you are like Joe, too.

But here’s a thing that Joe has probably never considered. The churches have changed considerably in the past 2,000 years since New Testament times, whereas the Bible texts (barring the question of translation) are still the same texts. The churches seem to think it’s their job to explain the Bible to people, with very few of them pushing the people to become major students of the Bible themselves. And fewer still seem very interested in wrestling with the scriptures, and making changes to their teachings and practices accordingly, based on what they find in the Bible. And I have noticed this again and again even in churches that will tell you they are “Bible-based”.

So Joe is torn, and with good reason. He’s known it all along, that his church doesn’t match up very well to what he reads in the New Testament. It’s fairly obvious, actually. And if he were to sit down and think about it, he might start to realize just how often the church throws out thought-stoppers to get him to quit thinking (and talking) about those differences. He would even see that while they might not always be thought-stoppers, those two attitudes of mystery and farther-along are often used exactly that way at church. And so are other thought-stoppers like “You think too much” or “You’re over-analzing it”. And he can even think of some times when they’ve come after him with attacks on his character when he would mention some Bible fact that was uncomfortable or inconvenient for the church. He’s been accused, “You just like to argue”, and “You’re a perfectionist in an imperfect church”. And sometimes, they’ve even tried to shut down his looking into this or that with the complaint, “You’re causing the weaker members to struggle.”

Perhaps you are like Joe, too.

But it’s the rare moment when Joe gets enough of this in his head all at once to form some new assessments of his church experience. Remember, most of the time, he keeps going back to that bias of idealism in his view of the church. And he owes a lot to the church. He loves the people, and the tradition. And he has considered it his “home” for some decades now. So he does not want to be at odds with the church at all.

Perhaps you are like Joe, too.

And he hasn’t yet figured out that there’s a fairly-consistent pattern here—that pretty much every time he steps outside the box of conventional church thinking, they try to stop those thoughts in some way, and rope him back in. And he’s never been one to push back very hard, and is generally convinced to let things like this go. And he’s not likely to remember much about the few peoples he’s met in his church years who did push back more often. He’s not going to be familiar with how, when they were frustrated and thinking about leaving the church, they were appealed to with something like, “You don’t need to leave; you need to stay and help fight for change.

He’s not going to see how this is often an appeal to a false hope. He won’t be inclined to suspect anything that tricky is going on. And he may well be likely to hear a phrase like “stay and help fight for change” without realizing that it assumes a fact not in evidence. That is, that it assumes that there is a “fight for change” underway. And Joe would not realize that this is exactly the thing he’s been uncomfortable with all these years in his disappointment with the church—that not only does it need to change, but that there’s nothing even close to a “fight” toward such an end! And if he were to realize and admit that, then he’d be faced with the very vexing question of whether it is then a lie or a gross error.

And this is where his conditioning is so useful in serving the status quo of the institution. When faced with this troubling question, he is very likely simply to snap back into the ideal view of it all, avoiding the question by whatever means are necessary.

Perhaps you are like Joe, too.

Today’s churches are, in almost every case, quite different from the gatherings in the First Century. And this is quite obvious, and would be hard to dispute in any honest, rational, and responsible way. And there seem to be two popular ways of dealing with this fact. One is what Joe’s church has taught him to do: to keep flipping back to the ideal view of his church, seeing it for what he thinks it should be, rather than for what it is. And the second is to view the changes in church from the First Century until now as the good and proper maturation/evolution/progress of The Church! This view tends to look down on the apostles and prophets of the First Century as being somewhat uninformed and ignorant compared to what “we” know today. And so, it would make perfect sense that such a congregation wouldn’t turn to the scriptures for its ultimate view on the state of things, but would turn rather to itself. And of course, it wouldn’t be comfortable putting it that way. Instead, it would claim that the Holy Spirit is behind its current convictions. That is, that they are what they are, because God himself as led them to be that way! And if that’s true, who can argue with that?

When I was about 19 years old, a friend and I challenged a traditional denominational preacher once on some differences between the teachings and practices of his church and what we found in the Bible. (He was not impressed.) He would write shortly thereafter in the church newsletter about an encounter with “two earnest young men, Bibles in-hand” who had come “presumably to convert me from the errors of my ways”. And he would say that we didn’t seem to understand any truth that we “couldn’t point to in the printed pages of the Bible”. And he said that we just didn’t seem to understand his references to the “witness of the Holy Spirit” in the here-and-now.

His whole view came down to a logical implication that he did not perceive. Whereas the scriptures say things like:

He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or change his mind; for he is not a human being, that he should change his mind.

1 Samuel 15:29. NIV


Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.

Hebrews 13:8. NIV

such churches are going to ignore that and assume that “The Church” has matured or progressed since the First Century, by the very design of God and Jesus!

And some churches are comfortable saying this outright, while others are not. And I should point out that even the ones that do, have a hard time resisting the occasional adamant appeal to the scriptures about how this or that should be! They’ll fight for one tradition from the texts, even while ignoring the texts to protect some other tradition that is contradicted by them! (And is this not the same behavior we see in American politics, where we have a written Constitution, and where there is much violation of it—and where there is always a voice somewhere insisting that it is outdated and obsolete in this or that way?)

Well, Joe’s church is one to be uncomfortable casting off the Bible completely in some sort of formal policy statement like that. Instead, they’re the sort to keep emphasizing that they are a “Bible-based church”. But taking that label on themselves does not answer the question, Just how Bible-Based are you?

And that’s a messy question. Anybody with half a brain can see that in order to answer that question (honestly, rationally, and responsibly), one would have to study the whole Bible with an analytical mindset. And we’ve already discussed how Joe’s congregation is not accustomed to doing that sort of work—and not even Joe himself, really, although he’s one of the members who is most apt to be troubled by the differences in what he sees in the Bible and what he sees at church. And so we can see the great allure of the strategy of just ignoring it altogether. Just keep going and trust that “God is in control”. And they won’t realize that this statement, too, while there is some truth to it, is also used as a thought-stopper sometimes. My point is that while God is certainly the ruler of all things on the grand scale, he has chosen not to be in control of what humans choose most of the time.

And this leads back to how we view the church. Is it a bunch of humans who are making their own choices, good or bad? Or is it some institution that’s being run spiritually by God, with everything that happens being somehow part of his highly-orchestrated and ideal plan—which is not to be questioned?

Well, in the First Century, they were constantly being taught to question themselves and their thoughts and actions. Here are just three examples, by way of showing that I’m not just making this up:

Now this is what the Lord Almighty says: “Give careful thought to your ways.

Haggai 1:5. NIV

Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you—unless, of course, you fail the test?

2 Corinthians 13:5. NIV

If anyone thinks they are something when they are not, they deceive themselves. Each one should test their own actions. …

Galatians 6:3-4a. NIV

But most of the modern churches, it seems to me, have fairly abandoned this self-examination as a way of life, and rely instead on some assumption that they are beyond the need for all that. Either that, or they simply don’t pay enough attention to the scriptures that they’d even notice such directives and count them as important!

So this is a huge question: Do Christians still need to examine themselves today? Do they still need to compare themselves to the standards taught in the scriptures, or is that old school? Is that obsolete?

Funny, but I find this message of self-examination deeply embedded in the Old Covenant and in the New Covenant. And so if it has gotten lost since then, is that because there is some NEW New Covenant that’s been instituted by God since?

Well, I submit that there is a new new covenant, but that it was not instituted by God at all. Rather, it is a make-believe covenant, designed to look enough like the New Covenant of God to fool those who aren’t paying attention. And this is why the churches are so active in keeping people not paying attention. They’ve drifted away from God’s New Covenant, and they just don’t want to be troubled with that fact. So they don’t want you paying attention to that fact, except to whatever extent it seems to serve their purposes.

And this is typical, worldly behavior. Again, it’s the same sort we see in Government, where there has been a massive shift away from the Rule of Law under the Constitution (which is not perfect, by the way), and yet where both sides in this two-party system frequently point an accusatory finger at the other while claiming that they’re violating the Constitution. It’s a big gaslighting party, like narcissists would do.

And I submit that the same thing goes on in an overwhelming number of churches today. And Joe goes to such a church, though he doesn’t really want to admit it. He’s troubled by what goes on, but he doesn’t want to admit that it’s that bad.

And perhaps you are like Joe, too.

Let me point out that if you make all the scriptures obsolete, then you have no basis for Jesus being born in Bethlehem, nor for there being a “church” at all, nor even for there having been some sort of atoning sacrifice made by Jesus. It is a text-based religion. And yet today, so many in the churches view Bible study as obsolete, or even “legalistic”. And even though Joe’s church wont’ go that far in its official statements, it’s still quite obvious to anyone who will care to see it that their Bible study is superficial and highly repetitive and selective—going over some passages again and again, while seeming to blacklist others.

So what’s Joe supposed to do? The church itself creates this dualism—this double-mindedness —by insisting that it’s a “Bible-based church”, while also making it plain to Joe by their actions that they want him on a very short leash in his own study and application of the scriptures, and that they will try to shut him down if he “stays and fights for change” in this regard.

I could sum all this up by saying that “They need to decide whether they’re going to be based in the scriptures, or based on their own views”. But isn’t it fairly obvious that they’ve already made that decision? Doesn’t the track record speak for itself? Or does it only count when they’ve made an official announcement in the assembly, and posted it on their What We Believe page?

Deep down, Joe knows. But he’s in denial about it. And there’s more and more in the scriptures to push him over the edge of decision, but he stays away from passages like that because he’s scared of what they might convince him to do. And there’s a one-liner in the scriptures that he just can’t seem to shake. It goes like this:

No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other.

Matthew 6:24 NIV

And they tell him at church to be sure to check the context of this passage, where he’ll see that Jesus was just talking about money. But Joe is not so sure anymore. And perhaps you are like Joe, too.