Letter to the North American Church

There is an event called “Eighth Letter” where writers are encouraged to write a letter to the church in North America.


A site listing many other contributions can be found here: rachelheldevans.com/8th-letter-synch

I think it is a cool idea and I think anyone who is following my blog knows what I would say. However, on reflection, and after reading around the blogosphere about what people think the North American church needs to hear, I came to some thoughts about the matter. So, here is my letter:

Dear North American Church,

I have heard SO MANY terrible things about you! Everyone I talk to, Christian, agnostic, and atheist, seems to think that you are the most flawed institution ever. I am certain that you are the root of all prejudice, hypocrisy, greed, heresy, small-minded ignorance, and petty fear. You are too inward, too materialistic, graceless, homophobic, too easy on sin, you avoid hard issues like eternal hell and damnation, you’re seeker-sensitive instead of Christ-sensitive, you’re culturally irrelevant, and on and on and on. You are hopelessly out of touch with real scientific truth, and are full of morons and stupid people who won’t even acknowledge the obvious truth of evolution. Most of you probably believe the earth is 6000 years old and flat. In fact, the AMERICAN part of the North American church is the worst; the Canadians are a little better. The Mexican church isn’t really part of North America is it? It’s more like South America, they are there for youth mission experiences. Since they are kind of third world, their weird supernatural voodoo religious leanings are OK since myths are a help to primitive peoples. Maybe at one time you, the REAL North American church, were great, except for all the killing of native Americans and such, but now you have descended into a morass of complete and hopeless evil and worthless impotence and irrelevance.

I am here to criticize this criticism on your behalf. Yes, it is a bit surreal, but I am going to go with it. I am a little tired of all the self-proclaimed prophets and apostles constantly prattling on about their little soap-box issues, which may or may not be valid points, as if their criticism is the problem with THE ENTIRE CHURCH.

Here is a news flash: the church is full of sinners. After Christians come to Christ, they are still sinners in need of mercy. You, the North American church, are full of people who don’t really know what they are doing. Every single one of them. Including your members who so easily criticize what you are trying to do. Your best pastors have trouble juggling multiple competing issues and directives in a balanced way, and not every pastor is perfect. So even if they have a clear and right mandate from the Holy Spirit, they are not perfectly executing on it. Is there not grace and patience for that?

The old zeitgeist was that you were hopelessly culturally irrelevant, were not enough about relationship, and were not seeker sensitive. The new zeitgeist is that you are trying too hard to be seeker sensitive, are too hipster, are too frank about sexual matters perhaps, and are not reverent and even liturgical enough. The church should be more timeless.

Here is the real point; when your leaders criticize this way, they begin to define themselves by their criticisms, and the times when they need to be more seeker-sensitive or culturally relevant, or timeless and non-hipster and reverent, they have been so vocal against the idea that you can’t really step into that paradigm. If they would shut up they might have more options in following the leading of the Holy Spirit as things develop.

So, if your vision and the mandate you believe you have is to be seeker sensitive, then for God’s sake be seeker-sensitive. Perhaps listen to this criticism and see if there is any way you might improve, but realize that God terribly loves you and is far more committed than the critic to seeing your vision and ministry succeed.

If your particular congregation is middle class and affluent, and is basically inward and not into helping the poor, you come under fire from the people who say that your problem is that you are callous and inward and unconcerned about the unfortunate. Well, maybe you are truly guilty of this. Your members did not join you because they were fired up about helping the poor now did they? Are they going to hell for this? Are their wounds and concerns and problems any less? Maybe you want to lead them to more concern and work for the poor, to be less busy toward some lesser concerns. But they have families and children and jobs and it isn’t so easy an issue. Is there grace enough to let them fail and to lead them into true relationship with the Father and into true concern for all people, including the poor?

Here is the point. The real message of the church is grace. It doesn’t mean there aren’t problems in the church. It doesn’t mean the church is doing it right at all. Look at it like this: my wife is fantastic. She isn’t perfect, but I am not going to be happy about it if someone is going to go on and on and on delightfully pointing out her flaws so they can look smart. They don’t look smart when they do that. They look like a self-aggrandizing malicious fool. And this is what most of these criticisms of the church look like.

So, to the critics who lead the church, I say, stop it. These are all difficult issues in a very difficult modern environment, and we are more than ever under fire. If you want the church to be like this or like that, say so with respect for the dignity of the church. Hipster seeker-sensitive churches or liturgical churches or whatever may not be your style, but they are doing what they think is best. Maybe you think that most churches in North America don’t do enough for the poor and prisoners and such; how can you best influence them? Personally I think most churches don’t emphasize grace enough, but you know what? They mostly believe in grace to a certain extent, and I would like to be able to helpfully and GRACIOUSLY speak into their environment in a way that they can receive it.

Almost all North American Churches:
1. Care about seeker sensitivity somehow, and want to welcome non-Christians
2. Have a degree of timeless reverence
3. Have a concern for the poor and downtrodden
4. Believe in holiness and repentance
5. Hold to the essential doctrines of the faith
6. Truly believe in the grace and mercy of the Father
7. Are locally and globally missional, to some extent

So, to the leaders in the church, if we are going to speak into churches, we need to realize that no pet idea or doctrine is going to cover every congregation completely. The very impulse to get down to the beating heart of the best criticism of the church is damaging. The first thing to realize is that God loves every human, however flawed, and God especially loves His church. He calls it His bride. He knows about the flaws. He also loves that certain people have enough passion and thoughtfulness to think about the church in such broad terms. However, the idea that it is somehow helpful to go on pinpointing what is wrong with the church, setting ourselves up as some kind of infallible judge, is harmful not only to the church, but also to the criticizer. Sure the church has a degree of “cognitive dissonance”, but honestly is this confined to the church? The commands of Jesus are meant to be almost impossible to keep. Why is it shocking that people ‘claim’ to follow Jesus and do a poor job of it? Of course they do a poor job. We are all sinners, flawed and lazy and incomplete and misguided in many ways, in need of a savior. He is here to forgive, to bless when there is no merit for it, and to lead us truly and with grace and dignity to better pastures. It does no good for us to turn around and stand our ground and yell a
t the sheep for being lost or out of the pasture. We completely miss God’s heart for His church this way. Instead, speak grace to His church, with a sensitivity to His heart for His bride. We cannot see what the church is like until we at least try to see the church with His eyes, and His eyes are full of love and hope.

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  1. Amen! It's an old saw but true: it's easier to criticize than to enter the fray. Those who are proactive, in the church and elsewhere, are going to make highly visible mistakes, but that is because they had the courage to act instead of merely debating the right course of action.

  2. BTW, on reflection, what I wrote here represents a change in thinking for me, and I realize that in some ways it condemns some of my own attitudes and round criticisms of the church. So be it, things don't hinge on my unchanging perfection. I reserve the right to change my mind when I am wrong. I am going to go forward with a whole new attitude about the church.

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