My roommate Steph asked me a week or so ago how I got over my cynicism at the church and Christians, and I decided I wanted to write about that.
I think some of my cynicism was a natural part of just growing up and making my faith my own - a part of the developmental process. I grew up in a pretty conservative and sheltered missions community overseas, and even though my years in the US were spent in public schools, I was still very much the "good girl" that never rebelled and was very much within one kind of very emotional and pious spirituality. It wasn't bad (in fact I'd say it was good) but it was one-sided and needed deepening.
Arriving at Bible College was not a shock to my system as it was to some, because I'd always been someone that loved to grapple with questions about faith and theology on my own and in discussions with friends and my Dad. I'd also had great teachers of theology at our school overseas. I wasn't taken aback that there was more than one way of thinking within Christianity, or that the church had problems and had developed over time.
However, I faced an evangelical atmosphere that was even more conservative than that I'd grown up in. At that time the school had pretty conservative lifestyle rules, many of which had nothing to do with anything scriptural or theological, they were just hangovers from the fundamentalism of evangelicalism in the US that I'd never really encountered before. I (along with half the other students) reacted and pushed back against (and broke) the rules. A lot of people push back against evangelicalism after studying church history. For me, early church history may have been what actually helped in the end. It was the reality of evangelicalism, fundamentalism, and the general Protestant church in America specifically that disillusioned me. I could see things that I disliked and could pretty quickly throw out theologically - and yet their affect was all around me still, in church practices, the social norms in Christian bubbles, the way we talked, and the rules of the school.
By the time I graduated from school I was quick to judge evangelicals and American Christianity and was distancing myself from it. It was helpful to have an unconventional church that didn't look cliche and conservative to me.
Those years after graduation were interesting. I was in a secular workplace but didn't like associating myself with Christians because I disliked the same things about Christians that my co-workers did. I had a hard time being around anything churchy because the lingo drove me crazy - I over analyzed everything and saw it as all being SO culturally evangelical rather than essentially Christian. I questioned how the Church could look SO unlike Jesus... and wondered if it was even worth it to stay in at all. I tried to be reasonable but my cynicism bled into my interactions with friends and family. I think I probably offended some of my old teachers and friends too, and I have apologized to some.
So back to my roommate's question. How did I get over it?
In some ways I didn't, I suppose. It's not like I just love evangelicalism now. Most of my intellectual opinions about things are the same... I still push back against a lot of the same things.What is different is that I am (most of the time) not bitter about it anymore, and it doesn't push me away from Christians or the Church. Why not?
At that crucial point when I saw the church as SO broken and so unlike Christ and I questioned whether it was even worth staying in a body that was far from it's Master, I was driven to look through scripture and find out if I really was obligated to the Church. I set about reading the New Testament in light of this question - what did Jesus and the apostles expect of the Church?
I was amazed, the message was consistent everywhere. Christ died.... not just for us as individuals but for the Church as a body.
Eph 5:25This slaps me in the face, because it's not as if Christ didn't know what His people would become. He knew what we would be, He knew what we would do, He knew how flawed His people and His Church would be, and yet his death was "for her, that he might sanctify her." So Christ's death and love for the church is in spite of her great flaws, and she is holy not because of her own holiness but because of His redemption. I understood this on a personal salvation level but hadn't ever applied to to the continued flaws of the Church as a whole.
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.
The convicting conclusion I came to is that the Lord that I serve and love has a great love, and it is the Church. Those who love Him will love what He loves. If the sin and flaws of the Church do not drive away a perfect, sinless Father, they have no right to drive me (a flawed sinner) away.
It was evident as I read on that the call of Christ on those who follow Him was to always love and serve the Church. From His words to Peter on the beach of "Do you love Me? Then feed my lambs" to Paul's willingness to be "poured out like a drink offering" in his service to the growth of the church, the NT clearly reflects a deep care for the Church as a body, even when it is flawed and broken (which it already was, even at that time).
And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.
Let me quote Tony Campolo here:
I would urge you to consider this fully, and to think about the words of St. Augustine: "The church is a whore, but she's my mother." That statement brilliantly conveys how I feel about church. It is easy for me, like so many of the young Evangelicals I know, to note the ways the church been unfaithful as the bride of Christ. ....Why, then, do I encourage you to participate in organized religion and commit yourself to a specific local congregation? Because, as Augustine made clear, the church is still your mother. It is she who taught you about Jesus. I want you to remember that the Bible teaches that Christ loves the church and gave himself for it (Ephesians 5:25). That's a preeminent reason why you dare not decide that you don't need the church. Christ's church is called his bride (11 Con 11:2), and his love for her makes him faithful to her even when she is not faithful to him....Young people often tell me that they are wary of the institutional church because they believe it is filled with hypocrites. Well, it is. What these people fail to understand, however, is that it is because the church is filled with hypocrites that they'll be right at home in it.... We believe that everyone is a hypocrite, if by "hypocrite" we mean someone who does not live up to his or her declared ideals and does not practice what he or she preaches. Most of us in the church recognize that we fall short of our goals, but we acknowledge our shortcomings and have come together to help one another overcome our failures.
This is the central truth that has lessened my cynicism. It didn't happen in a moment, but after coming to the conclusion that Christ loves the Church and thus I am called to love it too... from that point on all the flaws I see may rankle me but they don't cause me to give up. I suppose some of it is simply coming to agree with what Tony says.... I understand that as a very flawed human being, I am a part of a broken group of people with no room to stand outside judging as though I am any different. As the years go on I find myself more able to love the beautiful things about the Church instead of simply being aghast at what is imperfect.
I still push back against some ridiculous evangelical things and of course I don't believe we should just put up with flaws but work to change them. I find relief in church history and in understanding the development of things. I find relief in liturgy and creeds, in things that are ancient instead of tied to my current culture. I find relief in understanding the real people and faces that are a part of that flawed church. They are imperfect but they are beautiful, and I love them, and they have loved me.
Soo... perhaps I am not over my cynicism, and perhaps I never will be. I am less bitter, though, because in some ways the things that cause cynicism only show that the love and grace of our God to love a people like us is greater than I can comprehend.
And here is Derek Webb to sum it all up, but please ignore the weird images the creator put on this YouTube video. This is called "The Church".