It has been said that the Church is not a museum of saints, but a hospital for sinners. Yet, most of us would much rather pretend to be a saint on display than call for an ambulance.
Week after week, many of us walk into a church, sit by people we have known for years and yet would never dream of sharing our innermost struggles with. While a large part of this is our pride, another factor is a Church that seems unwilling to talk about certain uncomfortable issues, choosing rather to ignore them, try to cover them up or simply reject people who bring them up.
There are many issues the Church as a whole needs to address, such as creationism, activism, environmental stewardship and many others. But there are many more issues that individuals in the Church are dealing with—issues that the Church Body should be talking about. In Galatians 6:2, Paul urged the Church to “Bear each other’s burdens,” so maybe with more grace and love we can turn on the light in the darkened rooms of each other’s hearts and let our churches become safe havens for the uncomfortable things we have to deal with.
Many of these issues need to be dealt with professionally first. But that should not be the end of it. Research shows just listening to someone and showing them you genuinely care for their situation can be a huge part of that person’s healing process.
This is far from a comprehensive list—these are a few of the issues many people in churches around the world are dealing with, whether they admit it or not. And as people increasingly leave the Church, often over issues such as these, it is becoming more urgent that the Church talk about how to care for every one of its members.
At AA meetings and therapy sessions, talking about addiction makes sense, but for some reason, it’s not a topic most church people want to hear about. Certain addictions are definitely more socially acceptable to talk about than others. For example, it’s OK to bug Frank about his smoking, but John’s alcoholism is more hush-hush.
And yes, in many churches, a person’s addictions can become fodder for gossip. However, if the Church were to first approach one another as family, then addicts in the Church might feel safer to be vulnerable about their struggles. Often, they just need to be loved and feel safe enough to know they can expose this part of themselves in a community where the addiction isn’t crushing them every second.
Sex and sexuality tends to be a loaded topic in the Church. Certain corners of the Church have been very vocal in their broad condemnation of premarital sex, but that’s where the conversation (for lack of a better word) tends to stop. We rarely engage the topic of sex on a personal, individual level. There’s a generally accepted idea floating around that, once two people are married, they enter into a carefree, blissful lifetime of sexual fulfillment that needs never be discussed in any meaningful way.
There are strong believers struggling with their sexual identity, brokenness and frustration in churches across the world, and among their Christian friends and families, they don’t dare say a word about it.
I know of a few people in my life who love Christ and want to abstain from sin, but they are struggling with sexual sin or sinful desires. There are married couples for whom waiting to have sex turned out to be the easy part, as both parties brought into their marriage a series of expectations that turned out to be flawed. There are very few people they can share this with, but that also means they carry this burden alone. If many churches stopped treating sexual issues as a personal choice, where it could be turned on or off like a light-switch, then maybe we could start to create more safe places where people can share their burdens with each other and find out they’re not alone.
In many churches today, there are Christians, even pastors, who are struggling with doubt. They have absorbed all the recommended apologetics. They have cried out in prayer. They are struggling to believe that God is good or that He’s there at all, yet they continue with the motions. They put on the smile while setting up the coffee table. They mouth along to the words in the worship songs, but it all feels hollow to them. I know this because I’ve been one of these people.
One of the most vital ways the Church can handle doubt is to stop acting like everything about faith is obvious. The Church can recognize that we all have doubts from time to time, but we cling to a hope that’s beyond rational explanation. Churches can also stop trying to hide the hard parts of the Bible under the rug or downplay the significance these ethically questionable parts play in a person’s doubt.
Those in our midst who deal with mental illness, either personally or second-hand, are typically silent about the struggles they experience. In our society, there still exist a lot of stereotypes about mental illness, and because people either don’t want to deal with it or they’ve been hurt, they will choose to avoid opening up about it. The problem is, if these issues go untalked about, then they often will go unresolved.
In some churches, people who do reveal their illness will go without professional help in lieu of prayer. When prayer doesn’t work, the person dealing with mental illness feels like a failure or like they don’t have enough faith. The Church needs to create an encouraging environment where people can be directed to right help and then receive spiritual healing alongside their physical healing.
There are droves of lonely people in the church, and that includes senior pastors and priests. The isolation comes from a lack of identification and identification comes through open communication. When we can be vulnerable and honest with one another, we understand each other in a profound way.
A lonely person may walk in to a church alone and leave alone each Sunday. Although they appreciate the free coffee and donuts the fellowship hall offers, what they really want is fellowship. Taking time to get to know the people around you and then reaching out to them outside of the church will allow for a greater, more stable community.
Of course, every church is different and while one church may be stronger in one area, it may be weaker in others. These are just a few issues that we as the Church Body need to be willing to address. And as we talk about them, we must remember to address them with humility, understanding and grace, keeping in mind our role as fellow hospital patients, not museum curators.
Freelance writer, blogger, full-time husband and father of three. Zach is also co-founder of Theologues.com, a website for Christians to grow in learning about their faith. You can find him on Twitter or his blog.