I'm having a heck of a time finding a place where I feel a fit at church these days. There are many people there who love me very much, and I love them in return. Yet I'm not sure they totally 100% love the real me, or just the orthodox part of me that I'm willing and brave enough to show on Sundays and Wednesdays.
While I'd like to think I have enough grace to love all parts of their souls and lives, even their flaws, they surely wear the same facade of righteousness just to play it safe. And so we go on, week after week, loving each other which is the easiest thing in the world, because really, the only parts of ourselves that we show are very lovable!
This topic came up recently in our Wednesday night discussion group, and it turned into one of those open windows where I took a bit of a chance to see what would happen.
Classmate: I think our church is an open place, and the members are open with one another. We share our lives.
Me: I don't think that's true.
Classmate: What do you mean?
Me: I think most of our lives, especially the struggles, are almost completely hidden from our church friends. Take divorce, for example. At least five couples in our group have been separated and divorced over the past few years, and none of us saw it coming. Because they never opened up to any of us about the problems in their marriage. For all I know many of you are having those types of struggles right now. Or maybe Jamie and I am. But the history shows that you'd never know and we don't talk about it here.
Classmate: What can we do about that, though? If they don't choose to be honest and share their lives, how can we know if they need help?
Me: That's just the thing -- I think we've created an environment that makes it almost impossible to be honest about these things. It's like there's a list of sins or problems that we're not allowed to talk about at church.
Classmate: (Challenging) Give me an example.
Me: Let's start with sex, since it's probably the easiest and most obvious. Do you think there are men in this church who struggle with lust, pornography and adultery?
Me: No probably, I guarantee it. With more than 1,000 members in this church, I guarantee you that there are triple-digit numbers of guys wrestling with pornography. I'm one of them, but it never gets talked about here.
Female classmate: (confused) Triple digits?
Me: At least 100 guys. Sexual temptation and struggle is almost written into our DNA, but after more than 30 years attending church I can't think of a single time I personally witnessed a man testify to his struggle with sexuality. We don't talk about it, and that silence makes it seem that nobody is having this problem. So 100 guys are left to feel alone with no support system until the problem grows large enough for painful consequences to set in.
Classmate: Okay, I see what you're saying. Are there more things on this list?
Me: Substance abuse, greed/stealing, addictions of various types. How many times have any of you seen a public or even classroom/group setting where a person confessed to one of these things? The only struggles that seem to be okay to discuss at church are depression, joblessness, and "not living better for Jesus". Meanwhile we wrestle with all of these other very real issues on our own.
Classmate: But what would change that?
Me: Somebody would have to be very brave and step out in trust that they could talk about this type of thing in vulnerable confession, and that the group would respond in love. If it worked, it might make it easier for the second person to come forward. If not, then we'd prove we aren't a safe place to come with problems, and we can forget about getting deeper than the happy-looking surface level in this building. I think it's tragic, and that Jesus would say this is a place for the sick and the hurting. How sad that this is the last place people want to bring their real problems.
When this was over, four different guys came up to me after class to talk privately and say this felt more "real" than anything they'd experienced at church in a long time. Another guy called me on his cell phone as he was driving home.
I'm 34 years old and have still never had a close enough friend whom I felt I could trust with tough problems. Perhaps more importantly, I haven't been the kind of friend to anyone in a way that would let them trust me with their own struggles.
No, I'm not in some kind of personal crisis mode right now. My crisis was systemic, looking at the church and not seeing it as a place where my generation can come together with their whole selves.
And I fear that if that doesn't change, there won't be much of a church left for my grandkids. If that's the case, I hope that there's some other support system of friends and loved ones who can help them when the time comes.
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