I have heard it said that if you are a REAL Christian, then you will, of course, want to join together as believers in church. And I have been in situations where I could really relate to this. I remember being in the US Navy (a culture with its share of toxicity) and going to church or Bible study was a great joy. I have seen Christians living in predominantly non-Christian cultures who joyously use up their only day off from work just to join together with other Christians at Church and Bible training.
But I have also seen the other side of things. I have seen churches that seem to diverge so greatly from a place of healing and joy that one wonders why people actually show up. I have been to those churches as well. And while such a feeling rightly should lead me to self-reflection about my spiritual life… I think it is safe to say that sometimes the problem is the church.
I must admit that my attitude about churches has changed a bit. I am in missions and so I often have gotten frustrated at churches that seem to do nothing. I have often thought of how wonderful it would be if a church was filled with Christians who were so on fire for God that it outflows with missional fervor. I have tended to look down on churches that could be labeled (in a condescending manner) as a “Social Club Church” focused on potluck dinners rather than on the Kingdom of God.
And while I haven’t completely rejected my concerns, I have to admit that I have had to rethink things a bit over the years. In line with that, here are a few churches that are worse than a “Social Club Church.”
Abusive Boyfriend Church
This is the church that everyone knows to avoid. Every woman knows that an abusive boyfriend is a bad thing. However, abusive boyfriends rarely start out that way. Often it starts with respect and love-bombing. However, the love-bombing is done to establish the relationship. And once the relationship is established, the toxic side expresses itself. The new members of the church gradually have greater and greater burdens placed on them. The leadership becomes coercive. The church body seeks to dominate the time of the member and feels betrayed by anything less than total commitment. Emotional and spiritual manipulation will be put on the members to ensure that they don’t leave— sometimes threatening their (eternal) life if they leave. Theologically orthodox or not, they operate under the patterns that have been generally thought of as defining “cults.” It is better for a Christian to stay home on Sunday than to stay in that relationship.
Church of Procrustes
One of the stories from Greek mythology is about Procrustes. Procrustes had a bed that purportedly was a perfect fit for any guest. But the “Bed of Procrustes” succeeded in being a perfect fit by SSSTRRRRETTTTCCCHHH-ing a person who would other wise be too short, or lopping off body parts that don’t fit in a person too tall.
Some churches want everyone to be the same. While few churches truly embrace the Biblical ideal of many different members united without uniformity, some take it further by pushing to have everyone operate by the same system, involved in the same activities, and judged by the same standards. Personally, I have seen this most clearly in Cell Churches. The system is simple but not generally very flexible. There is one way in and one way up. It often works well with high schoolers and college age because it is simple and they have the malleability of youth, but the MLM (multi-level marketing) churning does not fit everyone. Some try to adjust, some get stuck, and some drift away. I do wonder if some “Simple Church” models also have a similar problem. In truth, however, all churches have a tendency for this. I was part of a church years ago that had two main ministries. You could be part of Ministry A, or you could be part of Ministry B, or you could simply show up on Sundays for a church that really has no place for you.
While the Church of Procrustes clearly works for some people, it is quite clearly a “sub-biblical” assembly.
For good or for bad, church leaders often see themselves as “vision people.” And of course, associated with having vision is commonly a desire to see the vision turned into reality. That is done through people. It is always a temptation to see the members of the church as “worker bees” whose reason for existing is to carry out the vision. The value of the members is in what they do, rather than who they are.
Often there can be a tendency to confuse “serving God” with “serving our specific church.”
I have sometimes been unhappy that churches are not enough like parachurches— made up of people with drive and vision. But parachurches are too narrow in scope to be a church. Churches are broad, diverse, and messy. That is a good thing.
All churches are special in some way. They are all unique. However, some embrace their uniqueness uniquely. They are NLOC (‘not like other churches’) churches. They may see their uniqueness in terms of being better than anyone else. They value stealing members from other churches. They struggle to play in the same sandbox with other churches. Some may see their uniqueness in their special dubious spin on theology or Bible interpretation. They commonly reject the catholicity of the church and in some cases are particularists (they have a special in with God that others don’t).
That attitude is toxic and certainly not good for the members.
Fed Up Church
Some churches are simply angry, mean-spirited, judgy. Commonly, the church is reflecting the attitude of the pastor or pastoral staff. Westboro Baptist is kind of the best known of this type, but there are other flavors. Some are angry about goverrnmental politics that don’t give them special privileges. Others may not appear angry until a person visits the church of a different race, ethnicity, region, sexual preference/orientation, etc.. One might call this church a Pharisaical church, but that is really unkind to pharisees. Most were commendable. However, outsiders remember Pharisees much the way they think of churches— that is, in terms of the most angry and judgmental.
A church should be a diverse community… a family. It should be less know for what it does than what it is. As such, a church that is well-known for being a place of warm welcome and potluck dinners (“love feasts”) is not necessarily a bad thing. There is a need to do more… but it is a good foundation.
I know that it is often said that the main purpose of the church is Worship. Perhaps that is true… but “worship” often gets converted into something very narrow. Perhaps it is best to say that the church’s main purpose is to Glorify God. Some people think they can worship by singing especially loud, or perhaps dancing or fasting or who knows what. And that may be true to some extent. But we glorify God when we dwell as brothers and sisters in Christ in the harmony of God’s kingdom.
An unhealthy church may be able to worship in some way, but it cannot glorify God.