Praise and worship of God is the order for Sunday mornings and really anytime for those devoted to God. Those who are His, know He is the only One worthy of our adoration. The church is ordained by Him and is special enough to be called His bride. Its value is unmatched, except by God Himself. Yet, according to George Barna research, with 10's of millions of born-again Christians who have left the traditional or institutional church and the million or so that is added to their ranks each year, not all is well, far from it. In truth, the crumbling state of our contemporary church is a dead serious issue and should have denominations quaking in their pulpits.
On any given Sunday morning in most any institutional church, the people enter a building with smiles, engage in a round of greetings and perhaps a couple of brief, positive conversations. They sit passively in their pews and follow the bulletin that outlines the upbeat, corporate service that often begins with a hymn, then perhaps announcements, a second, superficial greeting of those sitting close by, Bible reading, prayers, offering, sermon and other activities often led by a sole leader. At the conclusion, the smiles continue as some make a beeline for the parking lot, some have a couple more brief, positive conversations, and a few discuss church business or follow up previous talks that have a modicum of depth.
Below the surface a lot more is going on. But to see it one has to, and I'll date myself, "Put on your thinking cap!" What is going on? What is missing from the above Sunday morning example? What are you missing in your church experience. Of course, there are individual services, as well as periods of time, where all seems well and one is happy with the way things are going when church is assembled. But that will not last, especially as one gets older, becomes spiritually mature and is better informed.
Before getting to what is missing, it is necessary to understand what else is going on. It is dissimulation. It means concealing or disguising one's thoughts, feelings or character. I am not saying there are no genuine smiles or that every single person conceals everything. But the majority of people in the majority of American churches do conceal their negative thoughts, feelings and characteristics. Dissimulation seems to have become a way of life for most Christians in our country. For them there exist subjects, experiences, truths and realities that are off limits in conversation with each other and in which prayer requests long ago morphed into "unspoken" requests (though on rare occasion they are warranted). Examples of taboo subjects include: anger, fear, money, sex, spiritual questions, doubts, and boredom, marital and family conflicts, anxiety, depression, and especially and foremost avoided are those things having to do with one's own sin nature. An example of such would be the rampant porn addiction that affects leaders and laity alike. The result of dissimulation is manifold and, I believe, connected to why so many are leaving the institutional church.
Dissimulation misses and ignores the present imperative, requiring "confessing your sins to one another" portion of James 5:16. I have little doubt the idea of confessing to others strikes fear into a lot of people. Many will claim there are a thousand roadblocks (containing some mixed faulty and truth-filled thinking) to doing it, like: I only need to confess to God, God is in control of everything, no guarantee of confidentiality, concern with what others will think, being judged, fear of rejection, loss of position in church, difficulty with humbling oneself, etc. The price to pay is too high, fear is too strong and no one is going to be the voluntary guinea pig. This resistant thinking is friends with a lifestyle of "play it safe," which is the opposite of the courage God expects in living for Him, even to the extent of losing one's life. Christian's safety resides in the next life, not this one.
Some will say, "Well you can't have confession on Sunday mornings in a large crowd of people." Really, can't? It's not the first place to start, but... Some may continue to say, "You can have the openness in a mini-church" (or other small group). Speaking to these small groups, save a few, experiencing some minor depth of mutual self-revelation can seem monumental and feel sufficient, so there is the temptation to leave it there and not push the envelope. Of course, any beginning is good, but it is only a beginning. Most don't know and have not experienced a group unmasking that, if properly handled, leads to church as God intends.
Christians who engage in dissimulation quash the Holy Spirit, cannot offer genuine relationships or participate in authentic community. They cannot experience the depth of full acceptance, belonging, or unconditional love, except to a limited degree. The Holy Spirit is relegated to a few peeps and scripture is applied only to what the individual allows or the corporate body permits, and that, without the necessary and intended checks and balances created by God that should exist in the church; that is, in part, the voices of everyone contributing to the building up of the church rather than the voices of a leader or two. That's what it takes to grow oneself and the church--a plurality of relationships. Every church body has a form of personal relationships and a general sense of community, but today most all are far, far from His design. As a professional counselor, I believe that at the root of most non-biological mental illnesses is the inadequacy of past and present relationships. Church is meant by God to be the healing force, first to its own members and second to the the world (by our inviting example) to come and find rest from their burdens and pains of life in an environment of life-giving support and nurture.
The alternative to concealing oneself is mutual self-revelation, that is what James 5:16 is partly about--being open, honest and truthful in living one's life out in the open, just as the Bible openly displays its characters. Consider this partial Facebook posting I recently read:
Jacob was a cheater, Peter had a temper, David had an affair, Noah got drunk, Jonah ran from God, Paul was a murderer,
Gideon was insecure, Miriam was a gossiper, Martha was a worrier, Thomas was a doubter, Sara was impatient, Elijah was
moody, Moses stuttered...
And we could easily add to that list other far from perfect, biblical characters. Why does God display the dark side of these men and women? Because that is the example of how we are all to live - in the open, not hidden lives; revealing and not cutting off despicable parts of ourselves. We are not different from one another, we all have a living, active and treacherous sin nature. Why do many Christians agree with that, but publicly act as if that nature was dormant?
For those of you who feel compelled to defend the church from these words, I feel as you, but I will not hide from a discussion of the problems, nor from people, historically and contemporarily, who have incorporated secular principles from culture, religion and business and transformed the church into something unbiblical, especially when I so frequently hear from and see in my clients the silent pain of spiritual crisis and the suffering that results from the repression of feelings and thoughts, from a lack of deep, genuine, healthy spiritual relationships and from the absence of the powerful healing force of authentic community where Christ truly has first place.
I want to see the church thrive, not just try to survive. At this unique time in America, Christians everywhere need to engage in discussion about what church is, means, how it functions and what God is saying to the church today. Seismic activity has hit the church and hurricane winds are threatening (at the time of this writing, the East Coast has had both within a couple of days). Shall we heed the signs and fiercely march toward changing what we can or just hunker down and hope God and others will take care of it all?
What can you do? Here are a couple of starting places.
1. Talk to your small group about the in's and out's of unmasking and self-revelation. First, be informed yourself.
2. Determine you are going to reveal some aspects of yourself, for starters, despite whether or not others agree to do the same. Educate them on what is and is not helpful to you regarding their responses.
3. Form a discussion group of three or more people and study and talk about church, or to say it differently, discuss with each other what you want to give and receive from your group.
4. Consider study materials, such as the writings of: Frank Viola, Neil Cole, Melt Rodriguez, and Tony and Felicity Dale. I warn you that if you are open to what they have to say and ponder it as you look at scripture, you will not be the same.