I hear comments like this regularly from members of a rising group in America: the “nones.” This is those people who claim no religious affiliation — now nearly 20 percent of the population in the United States, including one-third of those ages 18-29.
And, every time I hear this comment, I grimace just a little. Because I know it is true.
I’ve been involved in the church my whole life, active in ministry of some sort since I was a campus minister in college 16 years ago, including the past six as a priest. I’ve seen that the church does indeed have our fair share of hypocrites — those who claim one thing with their lips but then do another in their actions. I’ve seen that selfishness, anger and gossip sometimes seem to be just as prevalent — if not more — in religious communities as in society at large.
As a priest, I must say, I am woefully aware of my own inadequacies and struggles. I’m grateful to have a spiritual director who even helps me see the ones I don’t notice on my own! I’m grateful for mentors who encourage me to be a better person and better priest.
And I’m grateful for the mercy of those in my own religious community at St. John’s Episcopal who, when they called me to serve as their rector four years ago, told me it was because they believed a 29-year old priest like I was at that time would be able to grow with them.
This is, after all, the true richness of religious community: it helps us grow more fully into the people God’s love sees within us. It enables to see ourselves more clearly. It encourages us to become better, to be people who are more loving, more gentle.
In the Christian tradition, it helps us conform even more fully to a Christ who taught love and self-sacrifice to a world that believes much more in power and getting your own way.
“Oh, I don’t want to go to church. It is just full of hypocrites.” When people say this to me, I tell them that I know what they are saying is true. I apologize for the harm some Christian has done to them at some time (usually there is a painfully sad story behind this sentiment). But I also encourage them not to write us all off because of our broken and stumbling attempts to follow our Lord.
The church is, after all, a place for the broken. It is a place for those who know they are sometimes hypocrites and are anxious for a grace that will not only forgive that sinfulness but that will also heal it and help them be more whole.
The church is also a place for those who do not even know their actual brokenness and struggle. It is a place where you can engage in community with others, knowing that relationships cultivate clarity about yourself. It is a place where sisters and brothers might, at times, call you to account — hopefully not by whispering to others behind your back, but by going to you and lovingly expressing hurt, receptive to your own penitence and forgiveness.
We all spend a lot of our lives covering our wounds. We don’t want people to see the struggles we have. I’ve even heard some “nones” say that they are waiting to get their spiritual life back on track before they try church out again.
We are blessed in the Tri-Cities with a myriad strong Christian communities, places where brokenness and struggle are not shamed but are instead forgiven, places where it is absolutely OK to say I’m here because I know I can do this better, I know that God has more for me than I can see now.
If you are one of the broken — like me — and you’ve ever felt like the church was simply too judgmental, I hope you know that though some communities or people might have made you feel that way, there are a lot of places where you would be welcome and loved.
And if, like me, you find God’s healing and grace in Christian community, then next time someone tells you that they choose not to go to church because of the hypocrites, invite them to share their story with you, to share their wounds. Apologize for whatever sins your brothers or sisters have done to hurt the person talking to you.
And invite them into a community of believers near you, one who knows that faithfulness is not found in perfection but that faithfulness is found in bringing your brokenness to God and community, and discovering the surprising grace and love that can meet you there.
— By the Rev. Jared C. Cramer, who serves as rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven and as dean of the Lakeshore Deanery of the Diocese of Western Michigan. His reflections on life and ministry can be found on his blog: carewiththecure.blogspot.com.