Church can be toxic. There is a wide spectrum of churches and not all would fall into that category in the same way. Yet, in many instances, because of the way church operates and because of the way some of its core teachings are understood, it often becomes a breeding ground for false appearances.
Keeping up appearances
I recently heard a sermon that mentioned those who doubt. It highlighted some of what I’ve been writing about in this short series: why church leaders make it difficult for themselves, and everyone else, to be honest.
While the preacher started by saying that it’s ok and even normal to doubt, he quickly went on to describe doubt as a slippery slope to sin. He even described it as a struggle with sin. For this pastor and many more like him, doubt is an “acceptable” phase that any serious Jesus following person should grow out of as quickly as possible. In the end, the christian with doubt is painted into a corner as someone who is likely struggling with sin, is potentially rebel, is in need of help and possibly repentance. There are many problems with this way of discussing doubt. For now, I bring it up simply as an example of why many pastors and christian leaders can’t be honest about their own faith and life.
We can impress the people we lead from a distance but we can only influence people up close. And when we get up close, people see our warts and they see our mistakes and we don’t like that.Rick Warren
Being afraid to be seen as we truly are is not unique to christianity. The reason I’m picking on the church and church leaders here is because it’s been a big part of my world and mostly because the church has much to say about taking off masks and being authentic. (*this is not a reference to COVID19 masks. You should wear those when asked to)
Once you’ve been in the church long enough you realize that there is a kind of game being played. I don’t mean this in the sense that people are intentionally playing the game of church but rather that we quickly pick up on the queues. The do’s and the dont’s. You learn the key words and phrases to use in order to belong. Use the wrong words or indicate that you might think differently about something and you risk being sidelined.
For leaders, the closer you are to the people in the church, the more you run the risk of letting your guard down and being seen for who you truly are. This would actually be a good thing but for reasons mentioned in the the previous post, to much is at stake.
We are surprised when seemingly out of nowhere a couple we thought was doing great suddenly separates. We’re surprised when we hear that someone has been abusive toward their partner. Some of us work hard to stay on top of the pedestal we think we are standing on or stay carefully hidden behind the walls that protect us.
When my wife and I mentored other couples we wanted to let them into our lives, up close and personal. As much as possible we would have them over early enough so they could see how we interact with one another and our kids. We would let them witness the family routine, the good and the bad. Then, when the kids were in bed and we started talking, we did not only ask them to tell us how they were doing but we let them into our story as well. We shared our conflicts and our arguments. What caused them, what we did about them and how.
This was our attempt to show that we did not think of ourselves, or want to be seen, as ‘up there’. We may have been the pastors at the time but that didn’t really mean anything in and of itself.
If we’re focused on keeping appearances we lose ourselves. We play into the game. What do these people value? What do these people reject? What must I do, or not do, to be accepted here? What things can I say and what things should I avoid saying? Who’s in and who’s out? We calculate, we adapt and we talk the talk.
I think one of the reasons we work so hard at keeping up appearances is that we often fail one another when it comes to being loving, gracious and merciful toward one another.
One last reason why your church leader is likely not telling you the whole truth is a result of everything else I’ve mentioned so far. The Church is a well guarded community. There are fences and walls lined up everywhere. It knows deep down that it is meant to be a place of love and freedom but it has gotten itself wrapped up in games and politics. I know. I’ve been a part of it, and still am (I think), and I can play that game quite well myself. I’m tired of it though and I hope to help nudge us along into a deeper relationships with ourselves and with one another.
Finally, we need to cut ourselves, and others, some slack
The principal of loving your neighbour as yourself is key. This idea doesn’t belong to christians but it is at the centre of christian teaching.
Here is where the principal often breaks down: 1) the church feeds on guilt and shame and can be very poor in its ability to help people grow beyond those. This makes the whole notion of loving yourself and others much more difficult; 2) love your neighbour as yourself becomes “love those who are like yourself”.
Love your neighbour as yourself. First, cut yourself some slack. Then, cut your neighbour some slack. Once that is done, we can walk together and grow. I’m certainly not perfect, you’re not perfect and your religious leader sure as hell ain’t perfect either. The more they can be free to be imperfect, the better leaders they will be. Cutting ourselves some slack allows us to love properly.