I recently read in Stephen King's book On Writing (yes, THAT Stephen King) that he's "always believed in God, but has no use for organized religion," and that his childhood room contained all kinds of awards for Bible memorization.
I think that this pretty much describes many folks' approach to the church as a whole. As children, they were taken to church by parents or other relatives, and they believe. As adults, they reject the idea of organized religion, church, and the like, but retain their belief systems and have some sort of relationship with God.
I have wondered about this many times over the years. After all, I spent about a third of my life as a Pastor, I taught in Seminary, and have gone to church most of my life. Why don't people like it?
What's wrong with it? Is there something wrong with the spiritual aspects of the religion itself, as the atheists tell us? Is God maybe not real, and therefore all the worship us idiots give Him is pointless?
Well, remember that most of the folks who say they've "left the church" still do retain their faith. In other words, they still believe in God, even though "church" has some pretty bad connotations for them. Some do not, of course, and I am truly sad about that.
Thinking back to when I was a pastor, and thinking back to what folks told me when they said they had left other churches, here are my thoughts:
1. People leave churches because they are hurt by them. It doesn't have to be as significant as what recently happened in so many Roman Catholic churches--they were molested by people who should have protected them, but there are many ways churches hurt people. They hurt people by using them. They hurt people by intentionally acting against them, such as when someone makes a bad life-decision (in the minister's eyes), and they exercise "Church Discipline." Churches are often unfair in the exercise of this so-called discipline, and they discipline the weak and those unable to defend themselves. So you've found a sinner in church. Don't get so overheated. You're a sinner yourself. You will both answer to God, not the minister, and the minister himself will stand there with you, not to accuse you, but as a fellow sinner.
2. People leave churches because they are "used up." They are volunteered out, tapped out, and empty of resources. When the leadership of any given church sees this, they usually exhort the person who's suffering this weariness to give more--resources, time, energy. Finally the man or woman leaves, bitter, tired, disillusioned.
3. People leave churches because they are tired of the evil in them. So many times, evil is misidentified. Evil is not the single mother who made a series of life choices that ruined her. Evil is power used to crush the small. Evil is bowing to money. Evil is the leadership wrecking someone else's life / emotional life in order to assert itself over that person. Evil is looking at people as "giving units."
4. People leave churches because they see that the leadership is unfair. The money in a church leads to power in the organization, and that power conveys favorable treatment. This is terrible, but it is disgustingly common.
Thing is, Jesus taught against every one of these things (for his blistering sermon on evils in the religion of his day, "written on asbestos and delivered in a tin envelope," see Matthew's Gospel, Chapter 23)
He forgave and encouraged the Woman taken in adultery. He alone saw how she felt, and lifted her up.
He spoke against the use of ostentation in religion as a mask for fraud and theft ("Woe to you, Pharisees, who take widows' houses, and make long prayers...Stop making my Father's house a robber's den").
He denounced the use of power in religion as a means of social prominence. And so on. Read the four Gospels. You'll see what I mean.
He spoke openly about the evils in the religion of His day, and the power brokers killed Him for it.
In other words, Jesus didn't have much use for organized religion, either. However, He always went to the Synagogue. He worshipped according to the Jewish religion (He was "born under the Law" and followed it). He didn't give approval to the evil, but He applauded the good. He wasn't "in tune" with the religious power brokers of His day at all, and He focused on the people who believed in God, or who would believe in Him, whether they were rich or poor--those whose hearts were "honest and good," and those who wanted something real.
He really came for this. To make things real for us, and to get us away from the forms of religion that were dying, since nobody much liked them anyway. This was such a fresh breath of air everyone who desired the real, since what Jesus did was simply replace the worship of old with a true relationship with God (or at least the offer of it--he wasn't selling anything, and He didn't force anything on anyone).
This is what Christmas really started, since the birth of Jesus was intended to begin something new in the story of mankind. You see, the devil takes things over. He has his willing sidekicks, men and women who will do his bidding, and many of these are in churches now. They were in the Synagogues then, in religious leadership in Palestine, kings and princes of the religion.
So I think that Jesus is saying to all of us,
"Worship God. Believe in Me. I'm not so sure I have much use for organized religion Myself, but don't reject the good because you are angry with the bad. Go to church. I went to the synagogue and the temple, but I replaced it with something intended to be far different. It was. It can be again. Don't let the evil in religion get you down. Make it better. Be on My side. I'm on yours. If you are hurting and need help, I'm here. I will never reject you." (He specifically said this: "Whoever comes to Me, I will never cast out.")
So let's give Him a Christmas present. Let's devote ourselves to Him alone. Let's learn to love again--to love people with His grace and love. Church? Maybe. But certainly Him.
Ever wonder what God might have to say to YOU today? Here are things to ponder, and things to receive into your heart. If you have a question, put it in the comments. I respond as much as I can.
A note for all my readers: I've been experimenting with YouTube videos for Bible teaching, and now I'm working my way through the New Testament. I encourage you to subscribe to my YouTube channel for better coverage. I'm still writing, of course, and my written posts appear here.