By: Dom Ruso, Lead Pastor at the180
There are days when the way people speak about their faith in Jesus or post about it on social media makes me struggle with being part of this family of Jesus followers.
It may sound surprising for a pastor to say that, but over the past few years I've seen and heard things done in some churches that have left me speechless and embarrassed. In those moments I've said, silently but clearly, "I hate this church stuff."
Are there others?
Maybe you've had a similar experience. Or perhaps you know someone who just can't imagine that Jesus' words could be twisted to mean things so painful and degrading. A few weeks ago someone who found out I was a pastor said, "Church is the place where weak-minded people go." I guess we all have reason for questioning the meaning or relevance of church.
Over the past few years many of my friends who once had a connection with church have slowly walked away and moved on with their lives. They have remained thoughtful about spiritual things, but church in the traditional sense just feels irrelevant.
As I've listened to their struggles and tried to make sense of my own, I've always sensed that there was something deeper I needed to learn.
I'll never forget the day where I realized that someone in the Bible, a book people in church claim to read, also hated the church. I thought, "Wow... someone I can associate with!" This guy was sharp. He was a thinker, a leader, and he got things done. His name was Saul. Some parts of his "hate journey" have been documented in a book called the Acts of the Apostles. At one point, we are told that he made murderous threats against the church.
In my own journey, I've seen countless friends make their hatred public as well. For them, the best way to deal with the foolishness they associated with church was to walk away. Years ago, when I was still in seminary, I too considered this option but then something happened. I had an encounter with a thoughtful mentor who said, "Dom, church would be great if it wasn't for people."
After a laugh, I realized how true it was that people, no matter where you go, are part of both the joys and challenges of community. It hit me then that the church has a problem that every other type of community has to deal with: people.
I soon realized that walking away from people in church due to painful moments of "hate" was not going to make things better. In fact, I realized that change could only come with a renewed commitment to love people who were different than me.
G.K. Chesterton once wrote about how Jesus tells us “to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because generally they are the same people.”
That Jesus Guy
Depending on your experience with "church people," you may still be high on the hate scale. Maybe you're frustrated or angry. I've been there, but I now know that staying there is not the solution. Saul, the king of hating the church, was awakened to the fact that he too could not stay committed to hatred. In fact, his transformation occurred when he came into contact with a mysterious love.
We have a moment recorded in Acts 9:4 where Jesus gives Saul a surprise visit and says "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" Or, put another way, "Saul, why do you hate these people I've called to be my church?"
Jesus never waits to hear Saul's answer. Instead Saul is called to let go of his hatred and to see love as a transformative way forward. This momentous shift came with a symbolic name change: Saul would become Paul and this new, loving approach would come to shape the growing church up to this day.
Over the next few years Saul, now Paul, would be put in prison, ridiculed and even whipped for his new commitment to shaping a people who gathered as the church. Oh the irony that from the passion of someone who hated the church came beautiful and inspiring letters inviting us to be the kind of church that allows people to let go of hate in favour of love.
You & the Church
When I think about how hate continues to lead to confusion, or when I see the way our world is filled with pain and brokenness, I return to the reminder left to a church (not to couples getting married) to embody a new kind of love. In one of his letters to the church in Corinth, Paul wrote:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.
Sure, there is always the option of walking away and looking for a place where we can avoid "people," but there is also a way forward in which we commit to love - the kind of love that can only fully emerge with people and for people, because of how Jesus took hate and transformed it to love.