Impact

Confessions of a Church Critic

"For by the grace given to me I say to every one of you not to think more highly of yourself than you ought to think, but to think with sober discernment, as God has distributed to each of you a measure of faith" (Romans 12:3).

 

When I first considered writing Christian articles/columns or a blog online the following thought came to mind: “Wouldn’t it be neat to visit different churches and then write a column rating that church? I could tell others what was cool about the church, where they were on the straight path, where they were straying, where tradition was overriding biblical teaching, where they had adopted too much of the culture, etc.” Yes, it came into my mind that it might be cool to be a church critic! I could give each church thumbs up or down, perhaps a series of stars, a Good Biblical Seal of Approval. What bizarre ideas!

"For by the grace given to me I say to every one of you not to think more highly of yourself than you ought to think, but to think with sober discernment, as God has distributed to each of you a measure of faith" (Romans 12:3)

 

When I first considered writing Christian articles/columns or a blog online the following thought came to mind: “Wouldn’t it be neat to visit different churches and then write a column rating that church? I could tell others what was cool about the church, where they were on the straight path, where they were straying, where tradition was overriding biblical teaching, where they had adopted too much of the culture, etc.” Yes, it came into my mind that it might be cool to be a church critic! I could give each church thumbs up or down, perhaps a series of stars, a Good Biblical Seal of Approval. What bizarre ideas!

Of course those thoughts were not of God; they were a temptation, an attack of the enemy hoping that I might work to further underscore and encourage divisions within the Body of Christ. Bill and Anabel Gillham, in their ministry series The Victorious Christian Life, point out that the enemy often speaks to us in our own voice. After all, if temptations came to us in a voice other than our own we might ask, “Hey, who is this talking, anyway?” But when the voice arises from within that sounds exactly like my own, I’m much more tempted to listen. I’m thankful that I realized the idea as folly. But for me, and for others like me, such temptations may be common. So perhaps I will not become the “friendly neighborhood on-line church critic,” but many times I will still live my life as one. For this reason I am writing this piece as my confession, perhaps as a bit of an explanation. Hopefully it will speak to others like me (as well as those who have to deal with us). Lastly, I would hope that the reader, my brothers and sisters in Christ, might offer their counsel, insight, and wisdom to encourage those who struggle as I do in this area.

 

First I want to say that there may be something good and true at the core in the life of the church critic. People like me may have a gift of discernment. They may be legitimate prophetic voices in a church when it begins straying from biblical truth. (Prophetic in the sense that they can say, “This is what the Lord says in His Word,” from the Bible, not from some voice booming from heaven or from some special revelation.) Unfortunately, as with many false religions, a core of truth can be covered with layers and layers of sediment and falsehood. Carnality can raise its ugly head in the heart of a believer; a core love for the truth and orderly worship (1 Corinthians 14:40) may be tainted with self-centeredness or a desire for control.

 

It hurts to confess this struggle. I would much rather keep my sins quiet. I have a burden and desire inside for everything to be right, for every word spoken in a church to be God’s truth; I see every deviation as a breach in the proverbial dam that needs to be plugged. Yet I also have a heart that distrusts authority. When I struggle with being a critic and pray to God about it, the answer that often comes to me comes in the form of the following verse: “Who are you to pass judgment on another’s servant? Before his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand” (Romans 14:4). I won’t now get into when we are allowed to judge and when we are not. 1 Peter 4:17 might begin that debate. The point is that Romans 14:4 comes to mind when I wrestle with God about my critical spirit.

 

Pastors and Christian friends who know me know these tendencies of mine. I greatly appreciate the love and patience they have shown me over the years. One of my pastors used to challenge me on my own court by saying, “Show it to me in the Bible that what you are saying is not just your opinion or preference.” Good for him. One friend, Ian McConnell a pastor at Grace Bible Church in Northeast Philadelphia, once challenged me to get more involved in church ministries. He said, “I find that those most critical in churches, and those who church hop, are usually people who are not very involved in church ministry. It’s harder to feel at home and easier to be critical when you are not serving.” It was a great piece of advice and probably very true. My friend and co-author Al Rossi has in the past challenged me to be a person who works on bringing change from within as opposed to being someone who criticizes from without. That idea is a very difficult one for me.

 

I recall another pastor I know once saying something along these lines: “It doesn’t take any of the Holy Spirit to be critical. We can do that on our own. We don’t need the Spirit to criticize.” It was a great point. I needed to hear it. (And at the same time I hated to hear it!) It reminds me of C.S. Lewis’ words in his lecture on Christian Apologetics where he says that the truths a person most needs must “be hidden precisely in the doctrines you least like and least understand.”[1] In other words (Steve’s paraphrase) the truth I most need is found in the truth that most bugs me. Keep bugging me, Lord. Don’t let me be complacent and comfortable in sin. Let me walk in the light.

 

But what turns some people into church critics? I cannot speak for everyone. In my case I may have gotten some of the good and some of the bad from my dad. From my father I gained a good respect for God’s Word, a love for truth, and a penchant for studying and reading. But our family church hopped as I was growing up. In fact, we did not even begin attending a church until I was twelve years old. Until that time our little family of four (Dad, Mom, my brother, and I) had church at home. Dad would teach us the Bible and we would all sing hymns. Why did he keep us out of church? Well, I think it was because he believed that most churches had some kind of doctrinal problems, some kind of unbiblical teachings or obfuscating traditions. He therefore believed it best that he himself should teach his children the Scriptures. And once we started going to churches it seemed like we were at a new church every two or three years: Tenth Presbyterian in downtown Philly (Yes, as a teen I sat under the teaching of Dr. James Montgomery Boice for a couple of years.), Holmesburg Baptist, Frankford Baptist, New Life Northeast, etc.  Rarely did we ever get involved. Only once was I ever part of a youth group. We were always visitors, outsiders. As an adult I picked up the habit: Calvary Chapel of Philadelphia, First Baptist Church of Mt. Holly, New Jersey, Bethel Fellowship, Rhawnhurst Presbyterian, Third Reformed Presbyterian, Grace Bible Church… I made friends at a lot of those churches. I have great love and respect for many people at those churches, especially the pastors. Yet still today I long to find a place that feels like home. I feel like a nomad, the child of nomads.

 

The issue is confessed; yet it remains unresolved for me. What I do know is that any differences I have with a church I attend should be shared in love, not out of selfishness or narcissism. For if it is not in love my words simply become a clanging cymbal (1 Corinthians 13:1); “if I have prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith so that I can remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:2). My mission in the Body of Christ is to build up and not tear down. I am commanded to “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than [myself]” (Philippians 2:3, NIV). This is the little I know and I struggle even with these things.

 

Perhaps you can relate.

 

Or perhaps you can offer a word of counsel or encouragement…

_______________________

See all of my Bible.org blogs at http://blogs.bible.org/blog/26077




[1]
C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock, © 1970 by The Trustees of the Estate of C.S. Lewis, published by William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI.

J Drain

"Rescued, ransomed, and saved because of the love of God the Father, through the regeneration of the Spirit of God thanks to faithful preachers and teachers of the Word, because of the perfect life and merit of Jesus the Messiah, His substitutionary death and His physical resurrection from the dead. Undeserved. Undeserved. Undeserved." Steve would label himself an apprentice Christ follower, an Evangelical Christian with strong Reformed beliefs, a "Five Point Calvinist". Steve loves discussing and debating the two "taboo" subjects: Politics and Religion. He tries to read and listen to a minimum of forty books a year and realizes that no matter what topic or genre, whether Bible, theology, Christianity, history, biography, philosophy, political, social commentary, pop-culture, or even fiction, they all tie together in the spider's web of worldview. His favorite author is C.S. Lewis, James R. White, J. Budziszewski, G.K. Chesterton, and Peter Kreeft. He loves Charles Haddon Spurgeon and Dwight L. Moody. Steve's hobbies are generally reading and writing, music, hiking, and laughing. He has been writing songs/lyrics since the age of about eight and has played in a few Christian bands. He has written poetry, several biblical studies over the past decades, and has even finished his first book manuscript entitled, “Shaken Faith: When God Has Let You Down” with friend and co-author Al Rossi. He has also written for the now defunct Examiner website as the Philadelphia Christian Perspectives Examiner. He wishes he could write some fiction.

8 Comments

  • Avatar

    Nodriveslow

    Time to jump in?

    Interesting article Steve.
    I started thinking about the church critic idea and how you could use crosses for the ratings system (1 – 5) and it would be like an Inquirer restaurant critic and how you would talk about the ambience, the music, the 'food', etc. I was really liking the idea until I got to the 2nd paragraph. Oh well, another idea down the drain. (no pun intended)

    Unfortunately, I can't relate with your situation. My first church I attended for about 29 years or so and am working on my 17th year at Bethel, (man, time sure does fly!!) so I think any chance of relating is a bit of a stretch.

    However,  I will try to combine counsel and some encouragement in this reply. lol
    I absolutely agree with Pastor Ian about getting involved. It is so much easier, as he said, of being critical of something you are not involved with or something that you do not have a vested interest in. I was that way with my son as he played baseball. It was so much easier to sit in the bleachers and criticize the coaches decisions. However, I realized if I didn't like the way things were being handled, nothing was going to change unless I volunteered my time and helped out. First as the assistant and now as the head coach.

    The same thing applies at church. It is much easier to just come and go on a Sunday and be critical of different things that you may not agree with. It is much harder to take the step of making a commitment to help out in one of those areas. I want to challenge you to really pray about taking that step. Ask The Lord how best to use the gifts He has blessed you with and use them in the context of the local church. Step out on faith and see what He does.  Maybe your wife will also feel led to serve as well. We can always use some help back in Kids Ministry. (thought I'd drop that hint in – lol)

    Whatever you do, don't allow Satan to discourage you as you go through this process. Keep your eyes focused on The Lord and allow Him to lead you where He will.

    Take care.
    Happy New Year!!

    Carl

     

  • Avatar

    Bob Miller

    From Bob 🙂

                Great insight, conviction, and good wholesome struggling Brother. Remember, a person with no contention cannot grow.

                Is it not a profound mystery that the Holy One would choose to live in us and walk with us, lighting our way? How can our flesh even bear the weight of such grace without twisting and crying out in confusion, constantly wrestling to take back control? Though we be dead; yet, we live, and our spirits desire to bring more glory to the One who is already eternally glorious. For many of us, our zeal or passion to please the Most High, through the knowledge of His word, can become self centered as we mark every jot and tittle for the Brethren that see not as clearly as we. Yet, it may be we that perceive unclearly.

                Matthew 22:36-40 – “…the greatest commandment in the Law?” We as disciples of Christ can find it easier to follow the letter of “the first and greatest commandment,” “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and lose the tethered “Love your neighbor as yourself” commandment. Still, while “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments,” there has only been One who has fulfilled the Law. All the more to cling to Christ, the One who sought and saved us.

                While we are all children of our earthly fathers, be it for good or bad; may we learn daily to put the past, in the past, and to strive to do what we already know is good to do. Words like critic and criticize are spirits that need cautionary controls attached to them. However, critiquing and building up, being of like mind, serving the Body, loving the neighbors, loving one another, being busy in doing good, having the mind of Christ; these should be our FIRST focuses. It’s probably best that straightening out the church is best left to the one who is still building it.

                I can see from your writings, from your wisdom, from your spirit, and from the wise council you’ve mentioned that you are doing even better than you might think. I think of you often, always fondly. You are a great friend, and a good Brother; be blessed!

  • Avatar

    Charles558

    Thank you and of course, my thoughts etc…

    Your post is so cool and full of authencity of which I so seek from my fellows… I remember one thing about a little Pentacostal church I attended occasionally (it scared me as a child being raised in a very very violent home) with my grandmother… On the podium there was a quote and I believe it is found in Jeremiah??? "Not by strength nor by might but by my Spirit saith the Lord"…

       I am currently attending a church that I do not really understand but this I know for sure, if I'm judging and hating it, I am the one in need of prayer, not the church. This view I also place upon anything that I view with a hateful heart including the homosexual community, politcal view, person, places etc… I must look at the three fingers that point at me first.

       I do believe that homosexuality is a sin, period. I see the effects its pervasiveness is on our society… Very bad. Hatred in my heart will burn me up inside, so I must do as Jesus says, the most critical thinking must be towards me, I am not God, vengence belongs to Him… What a burden to be lifted from my soul!

       You are so very blessed in the good things in that your father (dad) taught you directly from the bible and you sang hymms, your core was established etc… Anyway… Your honesty in your post was wonderful to read. Thank you…

       I signed onto this site hoping to enrich my thought and prayer life… My road, has been a very long one, the details of which I will not go into… Thank you…

    • Avatar

      Stephen J. Drain

      Charles,

      Thanks for the compliment… and thanks for your honest words.

      You write, "I am currently attending a church that I do not really understand but this I know for sure, if I'm judging and hating it, I am the one in need of prayer, not the church."

      I'm not sure what you mean when you say you do not understand the church… It could mean doctrines or rituals or any number of things.

      I believe it is right to judge doctrine. If a church says "Baptism is necessary for salvation, not baptised = not saved"  then one has to really evaluate whether that I biblical or not. If it's not, one should probably leave that church… If a church is predicting Jesus' return in 2011, one should probably leave it… If a church is laying a heavy burden of law on it's members, it's probably time to leave… If a church has a practicing homosexual as a pastor, it is way beyond time to leave, etc. Of course a believer can let the pastors know where the church has strayed from the truth and then they can leave. All these judgments would be right and proper.

      But, as you say, HATRED? Absolutely not. False doctrines, false religions, false philosophies I can hate because they are "from the pit of hell". But the people who practice them, if I hate them I am sinning. Hate Muslims? No! Hate homosexuals? No! Have them in our pulpits? No! As believers we are called to love even our enemies…  I'm not saying that is easy, but, Lord God, help us to love. And the love should begin with our fellow believers.

      I'd be interested to hear more of your story and situation. I believe you can probably send an e-mail to me through this site.

      God bless you Charles. I'm praying for you.

      Steve

  • Avatar

    Sara Irizarry

    church critic

    Enjoyed reading your article.

    I can relate just a bit. Our family stayed grounded in the same church (depending on where we lived) forever, my husband's family was raised the same, so when we found a church we stayed there. The previous church we attended closed down, and so we had to find a new one. The new was was big, I liked the idea of big but I felt lost in it and I was becoming very critical, so we visited another church, it was at that church that the Lord spoke to me via the pastor's message, which happened to be about church hoppers.

    The pastor said that if you are in a church and find yourself always criticizing that you are there for your own personal entertainment, ouch. What can this church do for me? I can't believe he said that? That's not 100% how I see it! I don't like the songs they pick for Sunday services! They sing too many songs! They don't sing enough songs! and on, and on. This pastor was hitting me right where it hurt. He said that it is pride that will make us that way. We must check ourselves, are WE going to church to bless the Lord, or are we going expecting to be blessed/entertained? Are we sitting in the back judging everything and everyone around us?

    Well, he said a lot of other things but these two stuck out to me. I went back to my church with a totally dif perspective AND I sat at the front of the church. Once I got involved and got to know the people I realized they are only human, doing the best they can. They will make mistakes as I will. I have learned to love this church and call it MY church. Praise the Lord we have been there 10+ years.

  • Avatar

    Lance Ponder

    My own revelation

    Just a few short years ago the Spirit revealed to me that I was approaching church entirely wrong. I was looking for what I could get from this or that body. That's stinking thinking. God has given to me and what He's given is to be shared. I need to find a place where I can give the most, not where I'll receive the most. Since then I've been much happier in my church shopping.

  • Avatar

    Shawn Mathis

    Been there, done that

    Quite a public confession!

    I'm sure I can list all the biblical arguments for joining (and participating and submitting) to a church…but you've heard it before and I'm practically a stranger.

    So, I will pray.

  • Avatar

    Gabriel...

    I can relate…

    As a fellow critical thinker would do, I approached this post with skepticism. Right when you wrote that you realized that your idea of criticising churches was a bad idea – for fear of division – I was even more skeptical (and to be honest I still am. if you need a Biblical basis I would say – well look at the prophets. The question I guess is, how they did it…) Anyways… Then I read your background with churches and I was surprised to find someone else with this background. My parents for some reason just do not fit into any church culture and they are both click with more marginal types of people… So we never got involved in church, but my mom had us sing and memorize verses. We prayed every night and like you said – did a lot of spiritual formation from home… Around the same age (12) we started going to a church and were more involved but for various reasons we switched a bunch of times and really made the rounds (Catholic, Anglican, Seventh Day Adventist, Pentecostal, Evangelical Free…etc). 

    I later moved cities and found myself emersed in Mennonite culture (a kind of Anabaptist) and committed myself to this expression of Christian faith and now I'm studying Biblical Theological Studies at a Mennonite University. However, I still feel like a sort of spiritual outsider – asking questions, doubting, challenging, critiquing… And not always feeling like it's received very well. How might I do this in a healthy way? In a loving and productive way?.. I enjoy your musings on these very same questions.

    I guess I don't have anything in particular I want to add – except to say that it's neat (and the first time) that I hear someone with a similar story to myself. And I affirm you on your journey and want to reassure you that you are far from alone… I absolutely long to find a place that feels like home, even now when I'm heavily involved in this church and denomination – and I think the only thing that has combatted this, other than involvement, has been finding safe places to share frustrations or challenges (the academic world can be really great for that if you find the right school.) I also feel like a nomad, the child of nomads… Ultimately our love is for the Church, but our hope is in Christ.

     

    Just out of interest… "Just a few short years ago the Spirit revealed to me that I was approaching church entirely wrong. I was looking for what I could get from this or that body. That's stinking thinking. God has given to me and what He's given is to be shared. I need to find a place where I can give the most, not where I'll receive the most. Since then I've been much happier in my church shopping."

    Although I agree 100% with this point about church not being about getting but about giving – I would similarly like to challenge you to find where it says this in the Bible as well (not to say it doesn't say it in the Bible). The reason for which I would challenge you is because I think when there are ideas that are commonly agreed upon we often don't feel the need to justify them. In this way we can get lazy. In this case I think we can A) stumble over something ridiculous that is considered orthodoxy for a very long time before questioning it, and B) have nothing to compare our "heresy" to (it is only with an established method that we can be consistent. If "it seems right to us" is the method then that should work for anyone at anytime.)

    Instead of "innocent until proven guilty" it's something like… "only innocent until proven guilty if you are a part of the commonly accepted Christian orthodoxy – otherwise you're guilty until proven innocent". Double standard?

    I don't mean to bash your comment. I guess I'm using it more as a case study than an address specifically directed to you.

     

    Blessings.