When did church become a dirty word, a place to avoid, a haven of hypocrites?

It is evident that there is a movement in American society away from organized religion. In 2012, the PEW Research Center calculated 20% of the American population identified as “religiously unaffiliated.” These are not atheists, or agnostics. They have faith, they pray, they engage in spiritual practices but do not have a strong connection to any religious groups or Christians denominations.

This may seem strange to people in our corner of Indiana, a place where every small town has, at least one church, and where the phrase “God and country” flows freely in our public lives. Every time I talk with members of my church, they are surrounded by church goers in their lives, either from their own church, or from another church.

Yet, there is a place, similar to our own; a place where Christian practices dominate society: the Bible Belt. Dean Inserra is a pastor who found himself called to be a pastor in the Bible Belt. Initially, wondering if this was going to be an easy call, preaching to the choir, so to speak. He quickly discovered that the Christian practices like public prayer before football games and regular church attendance on Sundays were not attached to actual Christian beliefs.

“With an awareness of God and our sins, but not the gospel, one is left with only country music theology, hoping God will let us into heaven one day, after we have some fun on earth.” (https://religionnews.com/2019/04/01/cultural-christianity-and-the-gospel-why-a-pastor-made-the-bible-belt-his-mission-field/) People could recite Bible stories, explain the morals behind them, and talk about who Jesus was, they were not moved by it to express the love and grace of God in their lives.

This is one major approach to faith that is associated with church in our society. People view churches as hollow facades, filled with empty rituals. If it is empty, why should they walk through our doors when they can hear the same things we say about God in the country music, or Christian radio? Why should they sit in our pews when they can pray or read the Bible other places? Why should they ask hard questions about God when we are likely to shout doctrine down their throats, or give pious platitudes that make them feel guilty for asking in the first place?

This is the point where you will push back against this statement with specific examples from your congregation as to how spirit-filled and formative your congregations are. Yet, how much do you know about how people who are walking into your congregation for the first time are experiencing your congregation’s life?

Often, this is the point where many feel I should begin lambasting the godlessness of our culture for fighting against the Christianizing of American society. Yet, with Easter just a week past, we have entered a time where the women who told the disciples about Jesus’ resurrection began a movement that drew members from all levels of Roman and Jewish society into communities of purpose and vision. They did not need to make Roman society Christian, they did not need to pray publicly, they did not need the trappings of society to match their faith, because their faith was too important to be used as political currency.

The blame for the horrible name the church has in our country is placed solely on the church itself. We have done this to ourselves. This is either because we have focused solely on the legalistic and rigid aspects of faith that give us a secure sense of our own rightness, or we fall completely on the unconditional love of God that affirms us and welcomes our questions. The former having the divine certainty of blind faith, the latter has deconstructed faith for us and left the reconstruction up to us. Those churches who stand firm in legalism denounce and exclude any who attempt deconstruction. Those churches who leave reconstruction up to the individual have no theological meat for people to sink their teeth into. The end result is churches either exclude those who are try to think for themselves, or fail to provide spiritual nourishment for people in their spiritual journeys.

In this season of Easter, church can be reclaimed if it dies to the “either/or” of legalism vs. deconstruction. Each is helpful, each is harmful. We need the law to give us the shape of many things. We need the questions that deconstruct to understand the law and its limitations. If we can hold these two things in tension, the church has a chance, until then, it will remain a dirty word.

Happy Easter.

The Rev. Justin Smoot is pastor of Mt. Zion Lutheran Church, LaGrange. Contact him at justin.h.smoot@gmail.com.

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