Why Are the Institutional Churches Failing? Reason One: Vision, Fear and Apathy.

A favorite discussion topic of mine is addressing why churches across the country are failing or seeing diminished attendance with no sign of growth.  I have seven theories and I’d like to share my thoughts on the first.  So, keep in mind the old saying that the devil doesn’t need to beat the church, he needs only to join it.  St. Augustine once said of the church, “So many sheep without, so many wolves within.” 

Prayer is the least thing you can do for someone while still getting to grandstand like you are actually doing something.  That may sound harsh and irreverent but, if I fall and break my leg, don’t pray for me – call an ambulance.  Then plan to come over for a few weeks to help with cooking and cleaning, then we can pray together in thanksgiving and praise for the gift of friendship, healing and ministry.  After all, isn’t that what church is all about, taking care of their, uhm, own?

Religion is a great comfort – to a world torn apart by religion because we confuse the wrappings with the goods.  Let’s say Jane Doe walks out into a field one day and sits under a tree eating carrots.  For whatever cosmic reasons she becomes enlightened and when she returns home everybody can see that she’s got a light around her the size of Manhattan.  Within a week there would be thousands of us sitting under trees eating carrots.  Once a year on that day there would be carrot celebrations and rituals, rules and recipes.  That particular species of tree would become holy and we might even wear carrot pendants around our necks.  We’d wind up killing people on the other side of the world who aren’t interested in hearing about Jane.  Churches and pastors would spring up all over the place charging $200 per weekend to help us look and act more like Jane.  But Jane’s enlightenment may not have had anything to do with the tree or the carrot or what she was wearing or her personality.  Like the Buddha said, “Don’t follow in my footsteps, instead, seek what I sought.”  Jesus said “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God.”   Hafiz said simply, “Wherever God lays His glance life starts clapping and the myriad creatures grab their instruments and join the Song.”  We would go to the mall to purchase stuff to show off their Jane spirit. 

Some of the most hate-filled, unforgiving, uncompassionate and merciless people I have ever encountered have been good church people (watch for my future “Mabel” blog).  A lot of the aforementioned qualities fall insidiously neat under the banner of Christianity.  I haven’t been able to figure out why but I can only surmise that it parallels with what Shakespeare said, “Thou protesteth too much.”  Maybe it is that we hate most in others what we fear in ourselves.   Maybe we are afraid of  looking into the abyss and seeing what is staring back at us.  Maybe a vast number of church goers espouse that arrogance because they live beneath the mask of goodness.  The only way to deny what they fear within themselves is to stand on the sins, failures and faults of others.  Now, if your church is different, ask yourself if they would allow a murderer, drug dealer or sex offender to openly become a member of your congregation.  Nowhere else does the query “What would Jesus do?” hold so much irrelevance when you ponder allowing undesirable and sinful lepers to sit in the pew with your family.  All are welcome, except for those people. 

We discourage people from the church in order to keep the gene pool, as it were, clean and, protecting existing members is more important than fighting sin.  Many people who commit crimes and get arrested are good people who made mistakes, who got carried away with power and privilege or had a lapse in judgment.  Does that make them bad people?  Does that mean they can’t learn, change or grow?  Do they deserve second chances?  Do we even know who is sitting in the next pew?  Oscar Wilde, who was sent to prison for three years because he was gay said, “Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.”

Altemio Sanchez was a pillar of his community, trusted and professional.  He was a church lector and Eucharistic Minister.  He also raped and murdered over ten women during a twenty year period.   He got away with it because the police arrested and framed the wrong guy.  Case closed, bonuses for everyone.  So, Altemio hung low for a while.  Despite that, he was trusted, loved and respected every Sunday in his own community flying well below the radar of the other good people of his congregation until after a ten year hiatus he did it again and got caught.  It was a shock.  Nobody saw it coming.  “He was such a good man.”

Does a man change because you know more about him?  The answer is no but the new knowledge about someone can bring to the surface of our personalities some latent prejudice, hate of fear which is often stronger than faith and has little to do with the person.  It is easier to hate the gentle and child-like Frankenstein monster because you can label him than it is to face our own nascent monster within.  We humans do protest too much especially when we can point an accusatory finger at someone worse.  Remember, burning witches at the stake did nothing to resolve the witch problem, it just exposed more witches in our midst. 

I once had a man come up to me after Mass to inquire about joining our music ministry.  He said that he played the drums professionally and was looking for a church to belong.  He told me that he just got out of prison and was looking for a church that kisses the leper clean.  I told him that I would love a professional drummer and he could start with our variety show which was that weekend.  He joined me and he gave our music new life.  I never asked him about his past.  We were a church.  It was irrelevant.  All are welcome.  Cast the first stone, and all that. 

After a few weeks of playing, the priest came up to me and asked me who that new musician was and without thinking I said that he was a guy who just got out of prison and was looking to get his life back on track.  Fr. Leonard then approached him and told him that he likes to meet with everyone who is looking to join the parish and would like to set up an appointment with him.  The drummer eagerly acquiesced. 

The following Sunday, the drummer didn’t show up for Mass.  He didn’t show up for rehearsal or for Mass the following week either.  Since I didn’t have a phone number for him there was no way to make contact so I asked Fr. Leonard if he had that meeting or if he knew why the drummer didn’t come back.   Leonard just said that at their meeting, they both agreed that this parish was not a right fit for either one of them.  That was very strange because without knowing of his past, everyone made him feel welcome, loved, valued and respected and, he was eager to share his talent, faith, prayer life, witness and growth with us. I can only surmise that it was Leonard who didn’t make him feel welcome.

A few years later, Leonard told me about a time when he was a priest at another church.  There was a DWI accident where the intoxicated person was a state trooper.  He crashed head-on into a van carrying a family and there were serious injuries.   The trooper was unharmed and quickly whisked away from the scene  by his cop friends in collusion to sober him up.  There were no charges lodged against him, it was just an accident.  Leonard witnessed the accident, knew that the trooper was intoxicated and was livid at the scandalous injustice so he decided to contact the DA and demand justice or he was going to go to the press.  That same day, Leonard got a phone call from the bishop and was told that he had three hours to pack up as he was being moved to a new parish immediately.   Leonard the ever obedient company man could take a hint and never mentioned the case to anyone.  Shortly after the accident, one of the victims died from their injuries. 

A few months later the state trooper completed suicide.  Leonard said “Finally, justice is served.”  He  totally lost my long waning respect for him on that day.  Social psychologist Ian McKee, PhD, of Adelaide University in Australia said that “People who are more vengeful tend to be those who are motivated by power, by authority and by the desire for status.  They don’t want to lose face.  They must be right at all costs.”  The few people that I have known who desired revenge or justice, seem to base their justification on some presumed idea that they were owed something.  Usually the “revenge” sought was somehow related to addressing a presumed injustice.  The priest in the above story rests on the assumption that his personal standards should be accepted as universal.  This viewpoint suggests that the individual has some secret access to the universal good.  Such a viewpoint will eventually be unsatisfactory because it doesn’t allow room for personal or spiritual growth.  He felt that the suicide was justice and thus acceptable to him and right for society.

One of the flaws in our present legal system is the emphasis on punishment instead of restorative justice which would address the needs of the victim as much as the action and correction of the violator.  Sending someone to prison only makes them hate society and when they get out they feel that society owes them so they look for ways to take – often gleefully living off the largess of the social service department and taxpayer.   Instead of becoming a productive member of society they become a drain on its resources and a leper because we won’t rent to them nor hire them nor let them into our good churches.  “If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime” is just another way of arrogantly saying “We don’t forgive you.”

Rather than providing closure for the victims and survivors, revenge does the opposite: It keeps the wound open and fresh.  I don’t think revenge is really sweet.  If it is, it’s an artificial sweetener.  It may feel good to get back at someone by sending them to prison for decades, but the feeling won’t last.  My priest friend continues this day as a bitter, hateful, spiteful, vengeful person who surrounds himself with others with as much venom and blackness of heart as he possesses.  They spend a considerable amount of time at their men’s prayer group meetings talking about other people and since a church’s most effective information source is its congregation, be it good news or gossip, they spread the word.  That word reaps what it sows.  Those with eyes to see, see and now his church is near death.

Leonard does however give great homilies and inspires many people.  Sometimes when someone knows the truth and they don’t live it, they protest too much, in this case at the ambo in front of an adoring audience, with great fervor.  He is very successful at grooming them into thinking he is holy.  I don’t want to fall into the trap of Godwin’s Law so I’ll just say “Heil!” as an example of this phenomenon.

The people who choose to seek revenge perhaps do so because they think it will make them feel better and they don’t care or haven’t thought about how it could actually make things worse.  Gavin Staulters operated a motor vehicle in an intoxicated condition and crossed onto the shoulder, striking and killing 14 year old Kari Liedel.  Gavin was sentenced five years in prison and Kari’s mother said that she wished the sentence could have been longer.  The community and DA were outraged, too.  Their anger, hate and thirst for revenge is going to haunt them the rest of their lives because they didn’t get what they think they wanted and Gavin supposedly got off easy.  In this case, nobody won.  If they first practiced restorative justice, forgiveness, compassion and healing mercy, everyone could win.  The tragic and avoidable death of Kari was because of stupidity, immaturity and weakness, not malice.  Revenge comes at a price. Instead of helping you move on with your life, it can leave you dwelling on the situation and remain unhappy because the revenge or justice wasn’t sweet.  Meanwhile the offender goes on often unaware of the hurt the other person is festering with.  How ironic that our justice system just perpetuates this victimization of the victims.  Kari’s birth into new life could have been the impetus of healing enlightenment for many.

Will more laws and more harsh punishment solve the DWI problem or bring Kari back?  There will always be drunk drivers and they will always be with us as long as there are people, alcohol and cars.  If I fall off a ladder and break my leg, you wouldn’t hate the ladder but you may compassionately heal me.  Too bad, before we carried out the death penalty on that convicted felon, Jesus, who most likely, he and his friends would not be welcome in many of our churches today, that we didn’t learn his lessons about restorative justice.   I believe it was Gandhi who was asked,
“You are always quoting Jesus.  Why don’t you become a Christian?”
Gandhi replied,
“When I meet a Christian who acts like Christ, I will become one.”

Historically, there are two schools of thought on revenge. The Bible, in Exodus 21:23, instructs us to “Give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.” Punish the offender.  But more than 2,000 years later, Martin Luther King Jr., responded, “The old law of ‘an eye for an eye’ leaves everybody blind.” Abraham Lincoln famously turned his back on some crimes because he knew that punishment would not benefit anyone.  Hate begets hate.  Buddha called it “Karma.”  Jesus said “Do unto others.”  The world says “What goes around comes around.”  The laws of physics are true even in our congregations:  Every action has an opposite and equal reaction.  Hate begets hate, absolutely.

I offered a church the opportunity to get involved in a prison ministry where I offer support, comfort and assistance out of my own pocket to the families of those incarcerated.  The families are the collateral damage of our justice system and they are often too ashamed to even go back to church (they are a goldmine of new members and wounded healers).  The church responded by saying that that ministry was not for them nor where they wanted to go at this time.  They then organized great and lucrative fish dinners for the Fridays of Lent.  Yay, praise Jesus (He likes fish and money).

So my first reason people don’t look to join churches:  Many churches lack vision for compassion and love;  Many churches fear sinners; and many churches have apathy for people who are not good, like them. When looking for a church to join because you wish to be closer to God and make a difference in the world, would you join a church who first screens out the people whom you are looking to save? 

Disgraced SC Governor Mark Sanford said  “Don’t judge any one person by their best day, don’t judge them by their worst day.  Look at the totality, the whole of their life, and make judgments accordingly.”  The highly effective cavalry commander George Armstrong Custer is unfortunately best known for his greatest failure.  If Jesus hung out with and went where the people spit and swear, lie and cheat, kill, rape and do filthy things, then who was it that came up with the bright idea to make the church some kind of anesthetized clinical environment of only “good” people, that is removed from the rigors of everyday life?

In a world gone mad with mistrust and alienation, the church like never before must present faith as a dynamic and relevant force for change and enlightenment.  It must be as yeast and unsettle the mass around it making the comfortable uncomfortable.  As a weird Biblical aside, I don’t think Christ advocated revenge or praying for things from a selfish position or to alienate undesirable people.  I think churches that operate that way are doomed because church seekers with their hearts in the right place can see the hypocrisy and futility of the institution.  Before praying, maybe we should get up and do something such as kissing lepers clean, then praise God for the gift of love, for one another and for healing action – even for the lepers.  Some good people would vehemently protest – “That is well and good but, not in my church!”  And that, is a church nobody wants to be part of.


One thought on “Why Are the Institutional Churches Failing? Reason One: Vision, Fear and Apathy.

  1. wanderingendlessly

    Left the church for 30 years (for the reasons you mention) and just recently started going back, albeit reluctantly. Trying to keep an open mind. As the daughter of an inmate I can tell you I would feel safer in a room full of my father’s fellow inmates than in a sanctuary filled with the “christians” I shared communion with in the past. I truly enjoyed this. Thanks for sharing.


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