You can’t miss them. The angry young twentysomethings, thirtysomethings and … well, let’s just admit the ages range all the way up to Boomerville. They’re the angry ones who have problems proceeding with the rest of their congregation because, as Spencer Chamberlain from the band Underoath put it, “Ninety percent of Christians turn their back on people and make you feel uncomfortable and awkward” (see his interview in RELEVANT’s print edition from the May/June issue).
The authors of the RELEVANT interview put it this way: “Young adults are leaving the Church by the masses … they’re just mad.”
I was raised in the Church. I grew up surrounded by the same pious hypocrisy everyone else experienced as well as the sincere, loving concern of people for whom Jesus is their reason for living. Going to church for me is like one big family reunion, complete with the grandparents who snipe at each other after 50 years together, the crazy cousins who have never heard the word “no,” the repressed uncles who have never heard the word “yes” and all the other dysfunctional people we call a church family.
I’ve watched my pastors read one book about how Christians should live under authority and take it to mean Christians should only do what their pastors allow them to do. I’ve seen congregations turn in on themselves and vomit out those who decide that the book of Acts isn’t just a church history lesson but an exact blueprint for the Christian life. I’ve been on the receiving end of some of the harshest speeches I’ve ever experienced, coming from those who claimed to know what Christianity really looks like (i.e., completely opposite to me).
I’ve sat—mostly as a semi-clueless observer—through church splits, congregational fallout, pastoral departures, friends being abused by fellow congregants in the most egregious fashion, backstabbing, bickering and pretty much every other issue anyone has with the Church.
I’ve sat. And sat. And I sat, even when every bit of my flesh was screaming at me to ditch this disaster like a bad case of leprosy. Just walk away and leave these people to their own devices. I don’t need this kind of stress coming from modern-day Pharisees, and I definitely don’t need their organized religion to have a relationship with God.
I think Chamberlain is voicing the viewpoint of his generation: “If you’re supposed to have a personal relationship with God, then don’t organize it.”
And that is precisely where the whole “personal relationship with God” idea falls flat. It’s become something different from what the originators of the phrase intended—one might even hypothesize that it has become a modern-day catechism of sorts. Question: What is Christianity? Answer: A personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
Look for it in your Bible though, and you’ll notice that Paul didn’t use it much—or at all—in his evangelizing. You may also notice that he didn’t say much about the “personal relationship” in his writings to those already saved. In fact, most of his, and the other authors of the epistles, instructions deal with first, getting your heart to resemble God’s and second, living in loving harmony with those who are trying to do the same.
Yes, God knows you as an individual and created you to delight in you. But trying to wing it on your own is like my eyeball trying to have a personal relationship with my husband. Your personal relationship with God only reaches its full potential in the context of corporate relationship combined with a private, individual one.
Jesus sees the Church as his Bride. When you disrespect his woman in the mass media, you might be asking for the same treatment down the road. I knew a guy in high school, a real bleeding heart, who devoted his affections to a girl too damaged to benefit from them. She probably didn’t mean to grind his love in the dust, but that’s what ended up happening, and the process hurt him so badly that he didn’t know how he’d go on living. Since I was still a girl myself, I lacked the insight I have now into her character and only felt indignation on my friend’s behalf. I’ll never forget how he reacted when I voiced my feelings. I think I called her a jerk—and he looked at me across the table, eyes blazing and said in a voice of passionate warning, “Don’t you ever call her that again.”
At the time, I thought, "OK, so you’re both jerks and you deserve each other," but I also experienced a wistful desire that someone would defend me with such undeserved fervor.
Now I know that Someone will. The thing is, He feels the exact same way about everyone else who calls on His name. We should exercise a little more caution about insulting the one He loves. While we’re at it, we might also want to take a second look at her. After all, Jesus knows the Church better than anyone. He knows she’s far from what she will be, but he still think she’s worth coming back to. As “little Christs” (the original meaning of the word “Christians”), we should consider emulating Him.