Well, here I sit, wondering what I am going to write to let everyone know that I am rethinking my personal church sit-out. It’s funny because I have about three blogs ready to post that further communicate my disdain for the church.
Then, last week I read an interview with Eugene Peterson, author of The Message and someone I highly respect as a pastor, thinker and writer. It has somewhat immobilized me because in this interview he critiques pastors, the way the church manipulates people with language and marketing, and also our own approach to the Christian life. Then somewhere in the middle of the dialogue the interviewer makes this statement to Mr. Peterson:
But many Christians would look at this church and say it’s dead, merely an institutional expression of the faith.
There it is, I thought. The perfect chance for one of my heroes to give me clarity on what he thinks about the church. For once and for all I will have the definitive answer for everyone who asks me, “Why don’t you go to church anymore?” Eugene Peterson is an authority and certainly if people won’t listen to me they will listen to him. I wasn’t quite prepared for the answer:
What other church is there besides institutional? There’s nobody who doesn’t have problems with the church, because there’s sin in the church. But there’s no other place to be a Christian except the church. There’s sin in the local bank. There’s sin in the grocery stores. I really don’t understand this naïve criticism of the institution. I really don’t get it.
Frederick von Hugel said the institution of the church is like the bark on the tree. There’s no life in the bark. It’s dead wood. But it protects the life of the tree within. And the tree grows and grows and grows and grows. If you take the bark off, it’s prone to disease, dehydration, death.
So, yes, the church is dead but it protects something alive. And when you try to have a church without bark, it doesn’t last long. It disappears, gets sick, and it’s prone to all kinds of disease, heresy, and narcissism.
In my writing, I hope to recover a sense of the reality of congregation—what it is. It’s a gift of the Holy Spirit. Why are we always idealizing what the Holy Spirit doesn’t idealize? There’s no idealization of the church in the Bible—none. We’ve got two thousand years of history now. Why are we so dumb?
Did that bastard Peterson just call me naïve and dumb? Hold on there Mr. Smarty Pants, but you haven’t been what I have been through. You cannot understand my frustration with this institution. Who are you to interrupt my peaceful, non-church life and cause me to rethink the church?
Oh, I could argue with him on several points. But the part that sticks out to me is where he says the institution of the church is like a bark on a tree and it protects what’s on the inside. Without the bark, the tree becomes sick.
The church has been described as a family. So when I think of my family as an institution, as bark for protecting those within it, I can see this illustration more clearly. If my children were to step outside the family declaring they could make it on their own, they would be susceptible to all types of troubles. The family is designed to protect each other and that is what we should be doing.
Yet the “church as bark” analogy has its own problems. What if the protection it supposedly offers is weak? What if the bark (the structure) is damaged so therefore it is not designed properly for protecting or caring for those within it?
Then the final part hit me. Peterson says, “Why are we always idealizing what the Holy Spirit doesn’t idealize?” Is that what I am doing? Am I idealizing this institution? Are my unmet expectations the only thing causing me to stay away from church? Do I need to simply acquiesce to the church despite its flaws?
Like I said, I am rethinking the church.
Here’s a link to the interview with Eugene Peterson in Christianity Today. It’s good stuff!