The Christian church is a bit of a controversial space.
Always has been really.
Christ himself ruffled a lot of feathers.
But are the feather rufflings of 2021 Christians along the same lines? Or are the ripples caused by the church actually capsizing boatloads of people and doing more harm than good?
It’s a question I ponder often, despite not having been a church-goer for a good six years now.
Before anyone panics that I’m “unqualified”, let me insert the disclaimer:
I spent a long time on the inside looking out.
30+ years in fact.
I claimed Sunday School attendance stickers as a child, taught Bible-in-schools as a teen, ran student choirs, performed at outreaches and memorized entire books of the Bible.
I got swept into a church cult, fell out the other side (bounced hard but mostly recovered), then went on to actively work in missions for over a decade.
I tasted everything from raging Pentecostal, to demure Brethren, to questionable tribal theology, to fundamental Baptist, to solemn Catholicism, to structured Anglican, to ‘let’s sit in an open field and eat roasted goat for breakfast while we talk Jesus’…
I am somewhat well versed on life within the church.
Yet one thing strikes me when I look back across my eclectic journey, my experiences on both sides of the table, and the common struggle of today’s churches to attract people to step inside:
When we’re experiencing church from the inside looking out,
We have no idea what it’s like for those on the outside looking in.
I’m not talking about how engaging your welcoming team is or how slick your tech presentations are.
I’m talking about what others see when they look at the church itself – that entity that is both a place and a people.
When those peering into the widows do not hold the same background knowledge or values that you take for granted, what do they make of your actions? When they don’t hold the unspoken yet supposedly common knowledge of “the inside”, what conclusions might they draw based solely on initial impressions?
Is depression allowed inside that space?
What about suffering for which there is no explanation?
Can one come with questions? Can a person bring big ideas and enthusiasm?
Will a newcomer deduce they must shrink and fit into “the way we’ve always done it”?
Is the church merely a sphere in which narcissists thrive, using faith as a weapon to hold their victims captive?
Or is there something deeper, messier, yet more real, at play?
What do we see when we look – really look – at the organisation that is church?
No church looks perfect from the outside (let alone the inside), but most people are less concerned with robotic perfectionism and more interested in finding acceptance, opportunity for growth and real connection.
So I ask again: what do we see when we look at the church, both from the inside and the outside?
We all have our messy church stories.
I have sat in a church pew and watched a pastor physically rip apart a Bible that was the “wrong” translation.
I have watched a leader stand up on Sunday morning, announce to a shocked congregation that he’d be leaving and the church would fold as of immediately, then walk down the aisle and out the door like a groom jilting his bride.
I have observed brainwashing and abuse and patriarchal garbage being dealt out like poisonous gifts for which those on the inside should be grateful.
No wonder church can look bizarre – if not downright dangerous – to the outside.
But before you rush to Tweet #notallchurches, consider this:
We can’t deny the reality of what another sees.
Each of us looks at the same picture from a slightly different vantage point. That’s simply the reality of being many different bodies, even when classed as a collective.
We can’t change what others see, but we can change how we see.
We can choose to look – both at the inside view and the outside view – with open-mindedness, humility, and a desire to change and grow for the better.
The secret abuse, the infighting, the obsession with being hierarchical…
It’s time to stop pretending these don’t exist.
It’s time instead to take a good hard look at the picture.
It’s time to ask how we’re doing church, why we’re doing it, and what it is that we need to be brave enough to change.
Some churches are rampant with narcissism and conspiracy, judgement and patriarchy. For others, altruism and authenticity are both still in play.
But however it looks for you, the most important thing to remember is that this is how it looks for you.
Not everyone enjoys the same view.
So let’s lay down our preconceived notions and inherited viewpoints, and set aside the personal preferences we’ve layered up over the years.
Let’s spend less time polishing windows and more time pausing to look and see – really see – what others see.
Emma is an Italian-South African with a New Zealand passport and an international heart. She spent years training student choirs and co-running a puppeteering business, before working for a humanitarian organisation in New Zealand (7 years) and Papua New Guinea (3 years). Currently a nomad living between various countries and towns, Emma's deep joy is in writing, music, cooking up an Italian storm, and taking time to listen to people’s stories.
Read Emma's creative expressions at http://www.girlkaleidoscope.wordpress.com or https://pngponderings.wordpress.com/2016/09/02/finding-the-beauty/
Emma’s previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/emma-mcgeorge.html