Recent statistics indicate that the divorce rate among so-called Evangelical Christians is the same as in the wider culture, about 50%. Statistics also show that the suicide rate among Evangelicals is also not that much different than among the rest of the population. Another study indicates that the suicide rate is higher among Protestants than among Roman Catholics. It goes without saying that the rate of mental illness is the same in the Christian community as in the wider world.
And yet, in my experience at least, you would never know that there was a struggle or an issue or a concern in any of our churches from Sunday to Sunday. When I was a pastor, first of smallish Presbyterian congregations, and then of a very large international church, I would look out Sunday after Sunday on row after row of perfect people, families who had no troubles, men who had no issues, women who had no heartaches. I felt like I was the only person who struggled with lust, I was the only person who battled with depression, I was the only person who felt like a failure as a husband.
Moreover, when I took steps to be vulnerable, about my struggle with depression for example, several of my elders visited me the following week and suggested that I take a long hiatus from ministry. I managed to carry on for two more years, but finally could not cope with their undermining of my ministry and resigned.
Or the time I chose to be vulnerable with the pastor of the new church we were attending after the previous fiasco about long-standing struggles I was continuing to have related to my experience of sexual abuse when I was a teenager. Imagine my shock when I learned he shared my conversation with my wife to her and my distress. When I arranged to meet with him and confront him for breaking confidentiality, I was told that since what I had to share with him was about my marriage that he assumed he could and should tell my wife. So much for pastoral confidentiality, or concern.
Or the ongoing conversation that I have had with a pastor that I personally like. But ever since I indicated that things were very difficult in my life right now, he sidesteps any further conversation about what might be going on or how I might be doing or how he and his church might help. And in the meantime, I understand that this church is in the process of removing me from their support.
There is something very wrong in the church today. It is almost as if Christians and their leaders have no idea what to do if their carefully formulated spiritual platitudes are proven empty by reality. And while I can point to several individuals who, in my case, have been the very love and compassion and mercy of Christ to me in a very bleak time, they are the exceptions that prove the rule. Most people don’t want to know. And others, when they do know, are quick to explain why the fault lies with me, and that if I just did this or that, or ‘trusted the Lord’ more, or ‘repented’, or just ‘cast the devil out’, or ‘memorize these verses’, that this situation you’ve gotten yourself in will be fixed. Last time I checked, the position of ‘Judge of the Universe’ was already taken; but one might not ever realize it given the presumption of so many in our churches today.
Sadly, our churches are studies in realized eschatology gone amuck. So fixated on the victorious life are we that we contemporary American Evangelicals are prone to deny life as it actually is. When our churches are full of all the perfect people mentioned above, it is very difficult to break into that picture as a sinner, or a man in a broken marriage, or a woman who is anorexic, or a man so depressed he’s suicidal, or a couple whose only son is schizophrenic, or the guy who’s just been diagnosed as bipolar, or the woman who is drinking too much, or the man who is addicted to pornography. Our churches have no category for any of these people, except for ‘unwelcome’. And heaven forbid any one of our good church members are actually struggling with any of these issues. They must either keep quiet, or they are exposed as hypocrites and shown the door. We are hardly much different from North Korea, whose leadership repeatedly makes examples of those who supposedly do not toe the party line. Except we Christians say we do it in ‘love’.
There is tragic irony here. According to the upside-down world of Jesus, there are no good people in heaven. Only sinners. And that is because only sinners know that they need a savior.
Where that leaves all the good people in our churches is something to ponder. But at the very least, nothing less than a revolution is called for in the way we understand and do church. The old cliché still works for me, in that the church is to be a hospital for sinners rather than a museum of saints. Museums are necessarily tidy. Hospitals become messy very quickly.
Most churches are very tidy places. Messes are considered scandals to be covered up or heaved out the door.
But most of the people that I know are messes. Including myself. And these people are not hearing or experiencing or finding any good news in our tidy places of Christian worship that we call churches.
The sad fact, the tragedy is that contemporary Christianity (with exceptions) is doing precious little to address the suicide rate, the divorce rate, the mental illness rate, the sinner rate among its many congregations, much less in the wider society. Most churches have other priorities. And by introducing spiritual hypocrisy and confusion into the mix, our churches are probably making a bad problem worse. Standard operating procedure has been to treat each moral or relational failure in isolation, and as the person’s fault, be it moral catastrophe or lack of faith. But if the statistics are correct and half or more of our congregations are struggling with one thing or another, then a case can be made that something else is going on. At the very least, our current church posture and remedies are laughably inadequate.
The only hope, as I see it, is for our churches to see their raison d'être, their reason for existing be to adopt Jesus’ priorities and undertake ministry as Jesus did and taught his disciples to do. For whatever reason, this is a concept almost impossible for us contemporary Christians to grasp. Give us anything else to do but this, we seem to demand. We will build buildings, send missionaries, support causes, anything but love our neighbor. But the fruit of our self-absorption as Christians and churches is here for all to see. The emperor is parading around buck naked. The sooner we acknowledge it and take the painful steps of repentance, the sooner we will begin to see just what the power and love of Christ can do when we are finally set free to engage with our reality.