I have been conducting an email exchange with a person who is struggling with the idea of church.

With my correspondent’s permission, here is the essence of the conflict:

I do not think most people outside the church have any idea how irrelevant church has become to much of the world.

I have friends who do not go to church and never have.  They have no idea at all why they would ever need church. They are good, kind, compassionate people who feel absolutely no desire to sit in a pew on Sunday. In them I see wisdom, beauty, truth, and openness that I am not sure I see in all people who attend church religiously. In no way do I see that my friends outside the church need to “convert” to something else in order to be better people.

I find it increasingly difficult to listen to Bible stories with these people in mind. Many stories in the Bible are full of violence and torture. God seems angry and often condoning of peoples’ violent behaviour. I feel uncomfortable with my friends talking about “sin” or the need for a “saviour,” especially when they have children. What have little children ever done which we would want to label “sin” and say they need saving from? How has this message ever been helpful to society?

It is not surprising to me that so many people today are drawn to mindfulness practices. Mindfulness and practices like yoga teach a gentle process of inner transformation rather than the dark, harsh, scary rhetoric I hear in so much Christianity. I wonder if the church is willing to learn from practitioners in other traditions, or if church people are content just to demand that anyone who wants into their group has to play by the established rules of an institution that seems narrow, hierarchical, inflexible, and out of touch.

I feel the pain in these words. This turmoil rings true. This is not just someone seeking to escape the sometimes awkward commitment of corporate faith. This is real inner conflict for a sincere person experiencing genuine tension.

Much of this struggle is the fault of the institution in which I have served for the past nearly four decades. I regret that, as my time in leadership in the church approaches its end, I am not leaving behind a more gentle, open, spacious, flexible embodiment of the love and truth I see in the person of Jesus. Having said that, I do have some responses on behalf of this somewhat moribund and slow-moving tanker we call “church”:

1. Church, like every institution, is made up of broken, flawed, imperfect human beings. No community, church, or institution, no matter how lofty its ideals, is ever perfect. There will always be some struggle involved in associating with any group of people. The larger the group with which we connect, the greater the potential will be for discomfort and pain. “Wherever two or three are gathered together, there will be friction.” But it is only through the messy business of other people that we hone the skill of deep compassion and learn the love that Jesus embodied on the cross.

For church the awkwardness of being community is even more acute because we attempt to maintain connection, not only with  people in the present across a diverse socioeconomic spectrum, but also with a rich belief system rooted in an ancient tradition from a vastly different culture. If I take offence every time I encounter patriarchy, or language or stories that feel strange and foreign, I will not long be able to remain in communion with anything that reaches back past the last twenty-five years.

It is often deeply challenging to honour the soil in which our belief system had its birth while at the same time navigating the real obstacles some aspects of our past create in the present. But, there is a richness and a depth when we listen seriously to the wisdom of the Ancients and struggle to faithfully translate their teachings in ways that work in our current context.

2. It is important to be clear what church is about. Often those of us who spend much of our lives in the church get confused about our primary role. We fall prey to the belief that our first job is to maintain the institution. When this thinking becomes dominant we always end up, at least failing to listen to people, and at worst, doing violence to people who deserve our respect and gentleness. Understandably, such attitudes drive people away, as they should. We alienate people for whom church is unfamiliar territory when we focus simply on perpetuating patterns, rituals and beliefs because they make us feel comfortable.

Church is not a self-preservation society. It is not a museum to protect behaviour that appeals only to a quirky minority of slightly eccentric people who share a certain set of odd practices that are increasingly irrelevant to anyone outside our group.

Church exists, before anything else, to serve as a communal embodiment of the belief that human beings were created for something more than this merely horizontal, time-bound, material realm. Our fundamental task is to hold out the possibility that there is more to life than meets the eye, or than can be contained in the rational, intellectual thought-systems by which we normally navigate daily life. When we keep this function in the forefront of our consciousness, we are less likely to be hung up on the kind of minutiae that causes people outside our tradition to feel alienated and excluded.