Discernment / Faith / Spirituality

When the Church Fails Us

We recently received an email which I wanted to answer, but decided it deserved more than the brief response which would fit on the Dialogue page in Critique. It raises questions I hear quite frequently as I travel and speak, and touches on issues which are deeply felt in those who wrestle with them. It’s about when the church fails us.

The email we received:

I cannot extol enough your efforts to inform / enlighten Christians about the cultural realities of our times and our responsibility to be thinking, compassionate people in the midst of a watching world. The editor’s note in [Critique #6-2004] was particularly refreshing to me because I have long struggled with, on the one hand, a desire to be civic minded and culturally engaged and, on the other hand, cynicism and despair over the world we live in and the direction we seem to be headed in collectively and individually. Feeling alienated, for the most part, by political and religious groups whose responses don’t quite fit my own, Critique has been my lifeline and reminded me that I’m not alone in seeking to balance my convictions as a Christian with a sincere interest in understanding the world views and values of my secular neighbors (both those in my neighborhood and those abroad).

As someone who was raised Catholic and came to appreciate the evangelical and reformed faith in college, I have a difficult time embracing a denominational “label” and finding fellowship in numbers. I crave the companionship of like minded individuals but too often encounter the “stereotypical” campy Christian whose thought life seems more superficial than my secular neighbor (I know this is harsh but am trying to convey my frustration with established groups I’ve courted). I’ve found stimulating intellectual curiosity in PCA (Presbyterian Church of America) circles, but many who were sorely lacking in social consciousness / compassion / cultural engagement. I still feel at home worshiping in a Catholic church but disagree with many fundamental points of their theology. Maybe fundamental is the key word there—I’m more fundamental in my faith than many Catholics / Episcopalians and get discouraged by the “all over the map” quality of their theological discussions, but most evangelical churches lack the element of participation that I appreciate in a church service (through confessions of faith, responsive psalms, saying the Lord’s prayer, regular communion) and I leave feeling empty. So my question is, where do I belong?

Since reading Critique is the only time where I consistently feel understood, accepted, affirmed and challenged, I thought I’d ask, though I suspect there’s no real answer—it seems that this side of heaven we are all left to struggle with the inadequacies of our human efforts—the “longing” is the clue to something greater to be hoped for.
Kristin Davis
Peoria, AZ

My response

I appreciate your thoughtful, eloquent letter, and am very grateful for your gracious words about Critique. Thank you.

It can be very lonely living as Christians in this sad world, even for those of us who have a church home. I find that relatively few evangelicals seem genuinely interested in engaging their culture, though many are willing to denounce it. Uneasy about the direction of society, a frantic passion for safety has led them to withdraw into a Christian subculture which has its own dialect, softball leagues, music, and yellow pages. In this subculture, the preaching may address personal devotion, church life, and morality but often fails to creatively address the reality of life in our postmodern world. For those of us who want a church which wrestles with the implications of Christ’s Lordship across all of life and culture, who recognize that the approaches to evangelism and apologetics developed in decades past fail to engage the heart yearnings of the postmodern generation, and who desire worship which has both deeply ancient roots and a living, thoughtful diversity in creativity which captures hearts as well as minds, it can be lonely.

Perhaps such loneliness is part of our calling in a post-Christian culture. C. S. Lewis has a wonderful section in The Screwtape Letters where Wormwood, a senior devil, says that the forces of darkness face their worst defeat when a Christian looks around for evidences of grace, finds none, and yet still believes. One of the evidences of grace we naturally tend to look for is a church in whose worship we feel most alive and in whose fellowship we find a living community actively engaging our world with the gospel. When no such evidence of grace can be seen, may we be the sort of defeat Wormwood most despises and fears.

As a child I was raised in a church which taught that culture was worldly and so must be avoided. In high school I began asking questions and expressing doubts, and when it became clear that such talk was not welcome, I kept them to myself. But they didn’t go away. My doubts were deepened in college as I discovered that many of my non-Christian friends were more interesting than my Christian ones. Or that watching slides of paintings through the centuries in art appreciation evoked a more profound spiritual experience than anything I had experienced in church. One of the saddest things in this sad world is how narrow many Christians’ horizons are. “The Christian is the one whose imagination should soar beyond the stars,” Dr. Schaeffer said. I suspect that both you and I would feel much more at home if that was exhibited more readily in the church.

Of course, in the end, even the best church experience will still be fragmentary and incomplete. It’s just a question of how fragmentary and incomplete our experience happens to be. I suppose that is a mercy, always reminding us of what awaits at the return of the King, always reminding us of the need for humility, always prompting us to walk by faith in dependence on God. Still, it can be a severe mercy.

One option we must be careful to dismiss is withdrawing from the church. It is the church who is Christ’s bride, in whom the Spirit dwells, and through whom we receive the indispensable grace of Christ’s presence in word and sacrament. Our local church may seem to fail us in all sorts of ways, but to walk away is to leave the family that our Elder Brother died to redeem.

It is tempting to withdraw from the church and meet with like-minded friends at home, listening to tapes, perhaps, and “being our own church.” I’m not very sympathetic to that sort of thing, because it is too easy. Being in the church forces me to love people I find unlovable and would never invite to my home church. That too, is a grace.

It’s interesting that when the prophet Jeremiah wrote to the Jewish exiles in Babylon, he warned that they would be disappointed by some of their spiritual leaders (see Jeremiah 29:8-9). They would need to be discerning, since some of the prophets speaking in the Lord’s name were telling lies. The church echos with false voices today, as well. Leaders who develop theologies from obscure texts, discover interpretations which explain for the first time in two millennia what the apostolic writings mean, or concentrate on minutia of doctrine as if a scholastic approach to theology is the final measure of sanctification. It’s tempting to walk away.

It is also discouraging to attend without having our spiritual dryness and loneliness met by much that refreshes in worship and community. That too can tempt us to walk away, but instead I have tried to embrace the discouragement. So much of the postmodern generation finds evangelical Christianity unattractive and tends to distrust the institutional church. Thus, in my discouragement I can feel, to some small extent at least, some of what they feel, and this too is a grace. A grace I can embrace in the hope that it will make me better able to identify with a generation who is yearning for spirituality and meaning, but which finds the church failing to exhibit a faith which speaks deeply to their heart and mind.

Nor are we all called to be reformers of the church. We are called to be faithful, and need to be content with that. Those who seek to be a reformer without being called to it end up being little more than agitators, always acting on their discontent. Jeremiah Burroughs says “Christian contentment is that sweet, inwards, quiet, gracious, frame of spirit, which freely submits to and delights in God’s wise and fatherly disposal in every condition.” There are few things I find more convicting—and attractive—as that. I display precious little contentment, and have come to realize that growing in it will require situations in which discontent is my natural tendency. And where better to be faced with discouragement and discontent than the place we naturally expect to be redolent of grace, mystery, and shalom?

A few churches, for a variety of reasons, have become abusive towards their members. Often this involves demands for conformity in areas in which Christians should be allowed freedom, and the pressure can be oppressive, the atmosphere stifling, and the impact destructive. In that case, we must find another congregation, even if it requires a substantial commute.

It is interesting that your spiritual pilgrimage (at least the part you mentioned) involved the Catholic, Presbyterian, and Episcopal churches. Ransom’s Board of Directors, who are among our closest friends and without whom we would feel utterly lost, all are members either of Presbyterian or Episcopalian churches. All these particular churches happen to be evangelical and embrace a reformed understanding of the Scriptures, but they are quite different, and none is perfect. If we use Acts 2:41-42 as our guide, we can list four summary characteristics of the church: apostolic/biblical teaching, faithfulness in life, faithful observance of the sacraments, and a structure of accountability and discipline. In some places our choices might be very limited. All we can do is to choose one that comes closest to fulfilling these four. In making this choice, I think it is wise to keep Francis Schaeffer’s advice in mind: if we insist on perfection or nothing, we will end up with nothing. And nothing, when it means being cut off from the grace of Christ’s presence in word and sacrament is a nothing of devastating proportions.

On the other hand, there is much we can—and should—do in such a lonely and spiritually dry setting. We can, for example, set aside time intentionally to be with people who share our concerns. This could involve a visit to L’Abri for a period of study, or the planning of our year to attend a carefully chosen conference. The Francis Schaeffer Institute at Covenant Seminary in St. Louis hosts a series of conferences and seminars each year that would be worth considering. L’Abri hosts conferences annually as well. And we list our speaking schedule on our web site homepage as we travel to various sites across the U.S., and occasionally, in Europe. Such conferences can also take us to places where we can worship in churches which are like an oasis, a respite from the lonely dryness. I am often tempted to complain that brief respites aren’t much in the cosmic scheme of things. Then it’s good to watch The Passion of the Christ again, and remember that respites in this fallen world aren’t something I have any right to expect. My true respite awaits the welcome the King will give us when heaven and earth are renewed, forever.

In 1981, Margie and I moved our family to Minnesota partially for just these reasons. We knew no one in Rochester, but knew that there was a L’Abri here, and so were certain we could find the sort of community we needed. A fellowship of Christians who took laughter, listening, and ideas seriously, sought to actually flesh out something of the reality of community, embraced culture and art as a good gift of God, were eager to engage the world thoughtfully and creatively with the gospel, and where we could be nurtured as well as use our gifts. Though we have never been formally part of L’Abri Fellowship, we have never regretted that move—though it involved some serious costs. To this day our dearest friends include L’Abri Workers Larry and Nancy Snyder, and there are few people with whom we feel more closely at home. Having friends that share our vision, hold us accountable, discuss ideas, books and movies, pray with us, challenge our prejudices, and both laugh and cry with us over the follies of this life is a priceless grace. A grace even though we don’t see one another as often as we’d like; we are able to be together only occasionally as both couples’ work and calling is different. A grace that doesn’t dissipate by our regular times apart, because it provides a rootedness that gives birth to hope.

And we have resources that few Christians have enjoyed over the last 2000 years. We can order tapes, for example, gather a group of inquisitive people into our living room, listen to them and spend the evening in discussion. One series that comes to mind as I write this is by Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian: “The Church: How to Believe Despite Christians.” His sermons can be ordered online (http://www.redeemer3.com/store/). A growing number of small groups use Critique as part of their curriculum for study and discussion, which is one reason why we include questions for discussion in each issue.

We can also pray that God will lead us to the kindred spirits in our area. People who would be interested in forming a small group for Bible study, community, prayer, and cultural discernment. “Don’t start a big program,” Dr. Schaeffer said. “Don’t suddenly think you can add to your church budget and begin. Start personally and start in your homes. I dare you. I dare you in the name of Jesus Christ. Do what I am going to suggest. Begin by opening your home for community.” And though he wrote that in 1970, it is still good advice today. It can take time to form such a community, but by God’s grace it can happen.

Every place we have lived we have prayed for that, and have always found kindred spirits who wanted to be part of it. It’s never perfect, of course, but it has always been stimulating and challenging. The small group of which we are a part now is of real significance in our pilgrimage towards spiritual maturity in Christ. Right now all the members of our small group happen to be from our Presbyterian church, but that hasn’t always been the case. Often they have come from a variety of churches. Some we have met at conferences; some have responded to our spreading the word that we are hosting a book or movie discussion. Often non-Christians have been part of our small group as well, usually some who have first been in our movie and book discussions where we have earned their trust.

Another thing Margie and I have prayed for regularly over the years is that our living room in Toad Hall would be the safest place in Rochester. That those who join us there would sense that safety, and thus feel free to say anything, knowing they will never be attacked, belittled nor despised for saying something with which we would disagree. People made in God’s image need a place to raise their doubts, challenges, and questions, explore their dreams, share their stories, and seek forgiveness yet one more time for the thing over which they have repented so many times before. Establishing a safe place is not something we take for granted, but something for which we must pray and work. And when we fail, as we have, we have to repent and begin again. There are few truly safe places in this broken world, even in the church. We can do little about that, but what we can do, we will: make our home a shelter, a place of safety not from the world but in it.

There is risk in all that I propose here. If we open our homes in warm hospitality, we may not have time and energy to give to all the programs that need workers. In sharing people’s lives we may find ourselves listening to their music or their stories in films, some of which may be the sort of popular culture banned from many Christian homes. We may befriend some disreputable people, and discover that not all our brothers and sisters are sympathetic. Some may even prefer that we not hang out with their children, whom they are trying to protect from such things. But the risk is acceptable, I believe, because it is part of what it means to be faithful, and because Christ accepted that risk before inviting us to follow him.

Still, though this is a long response, it isn’t much of an answer, because you are correct: there is no final answer to the question you pose. We live in a badly broken world, and that brokenness infects not only the world and us, but the church as well. Sometimes, truth be told, she seems to fail us. Still, she remains Christ’s bride, and so we must remain faithful to her if we intend to be faithful to him. But just because we aren’t called to reform her doesn’t mean we can do nothing. We can with God’s help search out like-minded friends and begin carving out something of a community of believers who want to live under Christ’s Kingship in every area of their life, actively engaging our world and culture with the gospel, even at cost. It won’t be perfect, but it can be authentic.


The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment by Jeremiah Burroughs (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust; 1648, 1964) p. 19.
The Church at the End of the 20th Century by Francis A. Schaeffer (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press; 1970) p. 107.