(RNS) After 36 years of serving churches as a pastor and consultant, I came to a startling conclusion the other day.

Not startling to you, perhaps. I might be the last person to get the memo. But the conclusion drew me up short.

My conclusion: Religion shouldn’t be this hard.

An assembly that exists to help people shouldn’t be so willing to hurt people — by declaring them worthless, unacceptable, undesirable or strangers at the gate.

An assembly that should relax into the serenity of God’s unconditional love shouldn’t be so filled with hatred and fear.

An assembly that should do what Jesus did shouldn’t be so inwardly focused, so determined to be right, so eager for comfort, so fearful of failing.

An assembly that follows an itinerant rabbi shouldn’t be chasing permanence, stability and property.

An assembly whose call is to oneness and to serving the least shouldn’t be perpetuating hierarchies of power and systems of preference.

Faith should be difficult, yes, because it inevitably entails self-sacrifice and renewal. Life, too, is difficult. Dealing with Mammon is difficult. Speaking truth to power is difficult. Confronting our own weakness and capacity for sin is difficult.

But the institution whose sole justifiable purpose is to help us deal with those difficulties shouldn’t be making matters worse.

When we bring our burdens to church, we shouldn’t find ourselves feeling intimidated by the in crowds, caught up in conflicts about who is running things, budget anxieties, jousting over opinion or doctrine, or relentless demonizing of whoever is trying to lead.

Yes, I understand that church is a human institution and therefore it will participate in humanity’s brokenness. But church should be seeking to redeem that humanity, to heal that brokenness, to show better ways to live. Instead, we celebrate our own cruelty and bigotry. We fight against the very transformation that God seeks.

Maybe I’m the last one to see this dilemma. The millions who are fleeing institutional Christianity in America aren’t escaping bad doctrine, shoddy performance values or inconvenient calls to mission. They are escaping the institution itself.

It doesn’t have to be this way. God certainly doesn’t want it this way.

I think, for example, of the performance anxiety that infects most churches. We needn’t worry so much about pleasing constituents on Sunday. Worship isn’t a Broadway show; it’s a glimpse of God, not a celebration of style, excellence and self.

I think of our leadership conflicts. Pastors aren’t CEOs hired to maximize shareholder returns. They aren’t impresarios rewarded for putting on great shows. Pastors are flawed creatures called to help other flawed creatures bring their neediness to God.

Church should be a safe place — safe to be oneself, safe to make one’s confession, safe to love whoever one feels called to love, safe to imagine more, safe to fail. Instead, church often is a dangerous place, where people feel guarded, self-protective, hemmed in by tradition and expectation, required to obey rules.

Church should be different from society. Instead, it plays by the same rules: get mine, be first, be right, punish the weak, exclude the different, reward the wealthy.

Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of “Just Wondering, Jesus” and founder of the Church Wellness Project. Photo courtesy Tom Ehrich

Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of “Just Wondering, Jesus” and founder of the Church Wellness Project. Photo courtesy Tom Ehrich


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Our society needs healthy faith communities. But neither society nor God has much need for religious institutions grounded in right-opinion, self-serving and systemic danger.

(Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of “Just Wondering, Jesus” and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is  www.morningwalkmedia.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.)

10 Comments

  1. Earold Gunter

    Tom, Well put. I think if religions could only act in this manner, the conflict between themselves, and between them and the secular world would fade away into just bad memories. I am not a believer, and would consider myself an anti-theist. However I would gladly drop the anti part if religions would just stop trying to force their beliefs on anyone else. Stop the violence, stop the indoctrination, stop the proselytizing. Believe what you want to believe, but leave others alone.

    • Duane Lamers

      Earold, religions are based on principles that followers consider fixed. To say that, generally, religions try to force their beliefs on others is simply not true. There is a glaring exception, though, with much strength in the MIddle East.

      Show me where any religion in this country is attempting to force everyone else to abide by its beliefs. The major conflicts these days are centered on the attempts by the liberals controlling the federal government to force their secular beliefs on everyone else. Why should the federal government think it has the power to force every employer to buy someone’s contraceptives?

      Liberals among us have everything backwards. They accuse Cathoics of trying to deny contraceptives to others. No! They are trying to protect their own right to abide by their consciences and religious tenets as the Constitution allows and protects. People can get contraceptives as they’ve always been able to get them. If the taxpayers should provide this, why can’t I insist that the taxpayers also supply me with my chosen brand of beer or pay for my fitness center fee? Not to mention buying my 72% cocoa chocolate bars or shrimp scampi?

      Indoctrination? What about the government’s insistence that we are responsible for global warming–a warming which isn’t even scientifically demonstrable–and that coal mines should be shut down and that incandescent bulbs cannot be manufactured. Liberals’ idea of freedom is the control of everyone to abide by their decisions regarding what is good and bad. Religious groups do not exercise this control.

      I’m amazed at the utter lack of intellectual insight and rational discourse exhibited by liberals who post in these parts. I also note that when they are faced with objections they cannot counter, they simply disappear or go on to other subjects. This is a sign that they know they have “no there, there” when it comes to political or philosophical discourse, that they have nothing firmer than an emotional grudge against any idea they cannot rebutt.

      Conservatives maintain that contemporary liberalism, not that of a half-century ago, is a totally bankrupt “philosophy” not worthy of that name. This judgment is exemplified by the behaviors I note.

      Earold, we wish that the liberals, the secularists, would leave everyone else alone. Instead, they bend the power of goverment to do their will. Nothing democratic nor Constitutional about any of that.

  2. Good article that I would agree with in terms of its analysis of institutional church today. Would also be interested, Tom, in what you see as the reaction against this by those who are seeking authenticity in their faith. Is the growing house church movement or abundance of new church plants, etc., a real Spirit-led response to this current state of affairs? It may be a normal or expected situation that church, like any other institution, can degrade into what you describe in the article. Churches can have life cycles too and become self serving, rigid and manipulative. But correction can come none-the-less, especially when talking about the life giving God we serve. So, do you see any hope here? This article begs the question of, “So what now?”

  3. Great post! Yep, institutional church does seem to be this way and becomes even more so up the food chain to judicatory level, alas. Yet another reason why to embrace social media as a way to be and do church “in the trenches” and as community that’s not necessarily carved up by denominations and hierarchies within them. Not that I have a strong opinion or anything.

    • Meredith, if you have no strong opinion, why are you even concerned? What can be found in social media that represents anything of a rational attempt to explain the nature of existence or the requirement for society to form some sort of framework to enable it to survive?

      One can justifiably paint an ugly picture of the human condition just from the utterances we find in social media. It is clear from much that many people say that they are drifting about, having no foundation for anything they believe other than their own personal, narrow judgments based solely on what pleases them. “The Church of What’s Happenin’ Now” ! Flip Wilson’s unforgettable parodies.

      Someone should make t-shirts proclaiming “I am lost, haven’t a clue, and couldn’t care less” and sell them to this crowd.

  4. Religion’s main problem? It’s really boring.
    Why bother with something that’s this boring and that you have to pay for? At least at the gym you get to see results if you keep coming back; with religion all you get to do is sing stupid songs.

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