Lord knows how many times I have tossed churchly keys and thrown myself on a couch of religious despair. I have felt the expansive loneliness of not being able to turn apprehension about the church into prayer.
I’ve been embroiled in the ups and downs of church my whole life. I know how religious sausage is made—both the ingredients and the process. As an insider to the church, I know all the yuck of what we are made of and how we fail to deal with it righteously. Despair, dejection, hopelessness, impotence, irritation, anger, and depression have knocked on the door of my heart with great persistence over a long period of time. To be fair, there are of course wonderful moments in ministry where we see light bulbs of insight shine bright, healing come with its joy, and deliverance from evil relieve the victim and spread hope and peace to their family and friends.
However, viewed from any number of angles, the church is in oodles of trouble. Modern forms of media make it impossible for the church to hide her sins, her hypocrisy. The church’s easy dismissal or even dehumanizing hate for those she deems to be wrong adds to her failure to look and sound anything like Jesus. Compelling or even plausible reasons to consider faith in Jesus and to attend church are, for many, hard to find. Jesus seems eclipsed by the dark shadow of bad religion.
That said, after long years working in the church, both sinning and being sinned against within her, I still believe in the body of Christ—the church. Why? Because I believe in Jesus now more than ever. Jesus summons and establishes the church, his body, the ones elected to keep the movement going started by Jesus.
I am captivated by Jesus’ intrinsic goodness and his inherent wisdom, and by the fact that his power was always selflessly exercised for the good of others. I am motivated to embrace his movement by the notion that even right now he is living the most consequential life imaginable as he stewards humanity and all God’s creation to its intended fulfillment. I find it stunningly compelling that he invites me, and you, and unchurched doubters—with our sins, reservations, errors, and confusions—to be in on that story.
It Has Always Been This Way
Messed-up church is the way it has always been. Church history does not unfold like a series of ups and downs that one might trace on a line graph: up at the resurrection, down at Doubting Thomas, up at the church fathers, down at Constantine, up at the Reformation, down in our day. No, the reality of church life is that it unfolds like train tracks, protracted stretches of both/and, of simultaneity, of good and bad religion all mixed up together in local churches and in individual people.
The problematic elements in the body of Christ have been in play since, with twelve close friends, Jesus roamed Nazareth, Galilee, Judea, and Samaria. That band of followers, and the historic body of which Jesus is the head, has never been perfect. Skeptical onlookers would have always had ample reason to reject Jesus because of the close company he kept.
The church does not need to be perfect for the purposes of God to advance. But that is not an excuse for the church to be an agent of darkness or abuse that forces unbelievers to grope for the God who is actually very close. Perfection is not the goal—rather, the goal is to be people whose lives suggest the plausibility of the Christ-story.
Bishop Todd D. Hunter leads Churches for the Sake of Others (C4SO), a diocese of the Anglican Church in North America. He is a past president of Alpha USA and former national director for the Association of Vineyard Churches. His books include Christianity Beyond Belief, The Accidental Anglican, and Deep Peace. Recently, he established The Center for Formation, Justice and Peace. He is the author of What Jesus Intended.