Many people have “churchphobia.” It is a sometimes rational, sometimes not, fear of The Church. You have heard people say things, such as, “The walls would fall down if I ever walked into The Church,” or “Churches are only good for marrying and burying people, and I am not interested in either one.” Churches have gotten a bad rap in modern American society, some of it well deserved. Dan Kimball wrote a book titled, “They like Jesus, but not the Church” chronicling this very phenomenon. Clearly churches do not seem to be the safe places they esteem themselves to be.
Because churches are supposed to be safe places. Churches are supposed to be places where people come to engage with the living God, to encounter Jesus, experience forgiveness and find real relationships. Churches are supposed to be places where people can be safe, where everyone is accepted and love is offered freely. But that is not the perception of society. Churches are viewed as, above all else, judgemental and exclusive. And while The United Methodist Church proclaims itself to have “Open Hearts, Open Minds, and Open Doors,” every four years they argue, protest, and demonstrate about a range of issues that usually leave those outside The Church thinking, “Why would I want to be a part of that?” And so they don’t become a part of that.
It is no secret that one of the fastest growing segments in our population is the de-churched. These are people who used to attend church but for one or many reasons simply no longer attend. Some may still hold on to faith, others may have never really had it. They would cite any number of reasons for their disinterest in church, but the most troubling is because of the way they were treated. They have chosen to leave the church because someone, or perhaps many people made them feel unwanted, unneeded, or less than. Or they were made to feel simply wrong. They didn’t “fall in line” with the way things were done, or they didn’t believe the same way, or dress the same way or act the same way.
What’s amazing to me is that Jesus encountered this same behavior. I am surprised that Jesus wasn’t one of the de-churched, or de-synagogued in his day. As we read in the first several chapters of Mark, everytime Jesus was in the synagogue, he didn’t fit in. The first time in chapter one, he enters the synagogue in Capernaum and everyone was amazed because he taught the scriptures with authority. He taught it like he meant it, like it was important and something people should hear believe and do, almost as though he had written the words himself. They had not seen such a thing. And what happened next? Somebody got up and tried to shut Jesus down. Somebody actually stood up and tried to run Jesus out of the building. You see, even Jesus got heckled and ridiculed and told where to go.
It was actually a man possessed by a demon (yep, right there in the middle of the Jewish church, among the saints of the day was a man possessed with a demon.) I know we don’t like to talk about such things, as though not talking about them will make them not exist, but Jesus knew they existed and didn’t just talk about him he talked to him. He told the demon to “Shut up and get out of the man.” I know there are many times when I wish I had the boldness of Jesus to just tell someone who is talking out in church to just “Shut up!” But you see, the first time we see Jesus going to this little pre-christian church and begin to speak, all hell broke loose.
The second time it was a different scenario, a more devious group of rabble-rousers, the religious folk, were there to try to trap him in religion. (By the way, I think if the Church got it right, Dan Kimball’s book would have been, “They like Jesus, Just not Religion”.) They wanted to see if Jesus would do anything as bold as to heal someone on the Sabbath as though God would desire us to perish instead of live. Jesus of course did the healing, revealing that God was interested in doing good at all times, even while at church, contrary to popular opinion. So the Pharisees began to plot against him. So far the “church” experience hasn’t been all sunshine and roses for Jesus either.
The next time we see him in a synagogue is back in his hometown. By this time he has had his name spread around the countryside, and he shows up to teach at his local “church.” And while His teaching is powerful and His message on point, while some were amazed at His miracles, the overwhelming report was, “Who does he think he is? Isn’t this the carpenter’s son?” Instead of being proud of a local boy with an American Idol style welcome, the “Church” made sure he didn’t rise above the rabble. The New Revised Standard Version says, “They took offense at him.” They were offended that Jesus would come into their synagogue with a message from God that they hadn’t heard before. And the saddest part is where scripture records, “He could do no deed of great power there… He was amazed at their unbelief.”
There in the synagogue, in the Church of their day, Jesus was amazed at their unbelief.
Perhaps that is still the problem. Our Churches are still filled with demon possessed, the religious bigots, and the non-believers. Maybe that’s why they like Jesus and not the Church. But here’s the thing, when Jesus is proclaimed, when the message of Jesus is proclaimed, when Jesus shows up at the Church on Sunday that is the best place for the non-believers, the demon possessed, those in need of healing, and even those steeped in religion to be. Not because it keeps them away from the rest of us, but because it is there where God can break through.
If we read the rest of the book we know that he healed the demon possessed, he healed the sick, many of the Pharisees and religious people became his first followers, including the most prolific Apostle Paul, and even his own family became followers as his brother James was the leader of the Church in Jerusalem, and his brother Jude wrote one of the books of the Bible! So there is hope for all those in the Church. It is Jesus.
And for those who feel shunned, or put out or not worthy of being among the Church goers, consider that Jesus was made to feel the same way. But he would not let that keep him from being all that God called him to be or doing all that God called him to do. In other words, he would not let people interfere with his relationship with God, and neither should you. Why don’t you choose to go to Church with Jesus this week, knowing that even if some cast a disapproving eye your way, you are in good company. They would do the same to Jesus.
You just might find that in whatever Church you attend there are true believers, skeptics, agnostics, those being converted, and those who are resisting God. There may be some who are eager to hear the Word, and some who are eager to hear the word Amen. There may be some who desire to connect with God, some who desire to connect with friends, and some who are just looking to connect. There are conservatives, liberals, and everything in between. But most important, there are people who need the same thing that you and I need, the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus didn’t go to “The Church” because he needed to, he comes to “The Church,” because we need him to.
So while “churchphobia” is a growing disease, Jesus is still the cure. And while he is readily available at most Churches, the de-churched and the unchurched will not go there for their prescriptions. So we must consider doing what Jesus did. He left the synagogues, “the Churches” and took his message to the people.
John Wesley did the same thing and started a movement that flourished. Then it became a church that has floundered. Perhaps we need to rethink Church again, and follow Jesus and John out of the buildings and into the streets. If this is what it meant to be de-churched, maybe it would be a good thing.