You Can’t Say That at Church

–Daniel S. Ferguson

When I was in high school, I came up with a brilliant way of breaking a long-standing rule about church. I had been told forever that certain words and actions weren’t allowed in church because the space was somehow sacred. But I really didn’t want to have control my mouth in church because I really didn’t want to control it anywhere else, either.

So I came up with something that I thought was clever (and perhaps it was). I said, “Forget not cursing in church. I figure that if I curse outside church, I should certainly curse inside it, lest I be a hypocrite. Indeed, I perhaps should curse most of all here.” Yes, I was a teenager who said the word lest. It really is a miracle that I ever had friends or dated girls back then.

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was on the cutting edge of a major, if stalled, movement in Christianity: opening up communication in church.

For decades, perhaps longer, church had always been an environment noted by its silence rather than its expression. Church was a place to smile, shake hands, sing hymns, nod heads, and read Bibles. Private sins were kept quiet, struggles with faith kept hidden, and fractured relationship kept under wraps until they finally exploded from the pressure.

About any number of topics–from sex to politics, even to some aspects of theology and Christian living–there was a general understanding that we simply don’t talk about those things at church.

Make no mistake: the social pressure to maintain a veneer of silence is what drove so many in my generation away from church. (Click to Tweet)

So much so that blogs like this one and podcasts like The Liturgists get a ton of viewership and contribution, simply because they talk openly about issues that were often hushed in churches. My generation fled church and is fleeing church, not because God is unattractive to them (many keep their faith), but because the church they knew was not a safe place for them to be open about anything that mattered to them.

Like me, they were brimming with doubt, wrestling with addictive sin, and failing in Christian living, but were (at least socially) expected to show up to church as if completely sanctified and holy before descending into Monday’s struggles all over again. And they just couldn’t bear the tension, nor stomach the hypocrisy they felt in themselves, so they left.

Some churches address this well. I encourage other churches to learn from their example. Here’s what they do right: they don’t lead from excellence.

They all have excellence. But they don’t lead from it.

Here’s what I mean. They put their best forward when it comes to worshiping God and taking care of people. They use their full talents to perform the functions of church with true excellence.

But when it comes to their expressions, they don’t lead from personal excellence. They lead from personal brokenness. They don’t try to portray a sanctified life. They try to live one, in all of its murky messiness. That doesn’t mean covering up fractures and failures; it means putting them on full display, knowing that Christ favors light over darkness.

The churches that do that well? That emphasize that? That demonstrate that? They’re the ones capturing my generation back.

In the words of Toby Morrell:

“I think what we’re doing is opening up a door where people go, “‘No, I own my faith. I’m wrestling with God.'”

And that’s what captivates me and people like me. We are far more interested in the journey than the destination, which means that we don’t want to hide the struggle and make it look like we’ve already arrived. We want to Instagram the selfie of us broken down on the side of the road twenty miles from the next gas station.

We don’t want anything covered up, anything glossed over, anything politely ignored. We’re sick of all that. We want the mess. The mess is real.

And it’s not just my generation, either. The Bible wants the mess, too. Paul says that as we talk about Jesus to non-believers in powerful, meaningful ways, “they are convicted of sin…as the secrets of their hearts are laid bare. So they will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, ‘God is really among you!'” (1 Corinthians 14:24-25).

Jesus especially wants in on the mess. He says, “Whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed, and whatever is concealed is meant to be brought out into the light” (Mark 4:22).

That’s what the church is for. Openness, not closedness. Brokenness, not some projection of perfection. (Click to Tweet)

I’m so happy that I’ve seen churches start to do this, but the movement needs to pick up. We have a lot of ground to cover and a lot of lost time to make up for.

But before I go, I want to mention that there is something Jesus said to keep secret: good deeds. This is the part the church (and really any human) gets wrong so often. We naturally want to project our best and hide our worst, but Jesus says to do the opposite. Jesus says to lead from brokenness and do your good deeds in secret.

That sounds self-damaging, but imagine this. Imagine that someone really wanted dirt on you, so they start digging around into your private life. Imagine they hire private investigators to follow you around. Imagine they wiretap your phones and monitor your internet history. Imagine they track your bank accounts. They’re looking for anything and everything to bring you down.

Imagine a life where the only things people could dig up on you were good deeds, and that the wrongs you’ve done were already public. (Click to Tweet)

That would heap burning coals on their head. Hard to live out, but oh-so-beneficial in the end. We should all strive to live that way.

So churches need a reversal. We maybe should stop talking so much about what we’ve done well, even if it’s really good stuff, and maybe we should talk more about where we’ve messed up and how much we need the grace of Jesus.

That would allow people to be open and honest about the struggles in their life in order to approach the magnificent grace we believe Jesus offers. And there wouldn’t be any dirt under our rugs, so to speak. That, I think, would bring a lot of people back to church.

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