Evaluating Church


Some follow up thoughts from yesterday’s sermon. In evaluating the spiritual health and vitality of a church, here is something to consider: Is it a place where honesty in personal truth-telling is encouraged or discouraged?  Are people wearing masks, afraid to let their real selves be known?  Is some version of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” being played out, where everyone is upholding a pretense for fear of appearing the fool? Does sharing one’s personal truth at those times when one’s personal truth isn’t pretty get the sort of reaction you would expect when someone passes gas in public?  Are people inclined to stop coming to church at the very point where they most need support, because of a common perception that church is a place for people whose lives are running smoothly — people free from the onslaught of fear, doubt, sadness and despair?  Is it okay to cry in church?

In short, is the church a safe place — a place of trust?

In what I’ve written here it may seem like undue emphasis is being given to the darker emotions of life.  What about joy and laughter?  I am convinced, however, that permission to share the darker emotions also creates the atmosphere necessary to experience real joy (as opposed to some cardboard cutout version of joy.)

Many people will tell you that you don’t have to be a part of a church to be a Christian.   I think this can mean a couple of things:

They have bought into the cultural lie that says that it is possible to be truly self-sufficient.  “I can make it on my own.  I don’t really need other people.”  As such it expresses a kind of arrogance.

On the other hand, however, when someone says you don’t need a church to be a Christian, what they are expressing could be a very real indictment of the church.  The person has never found much grace in church.  Church, for the person, was not a place of trust; it was not a safe place to be human.  It was a place for mask-wearing — a hangout for the sort of person portrayed in the Gospels as “Pharisees” who resisted Jesus’ graciousness tooth and nail.

If I ask myself personally, “Do I feel safe in church?” and the answer I come up with is a strong “Yes!” then there is a responsibility placed upon me to help make it a safe place for others.

If the answer I come up with is “No”, then perhaps what is required on my part is some risk taking. Reach out to others and give them an opportunity to practice being trustworthy with your personal truth.  Spiritual power is unleashed in a context a deep, soulful sharing, and if you don’t have opportunity to experience this, you are robbing yourself of this power.  You can’t learn to swim if you never let go of the side of the pool.

“Are any among you sick?  They should call for the elders of the church to pray over them…  Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.” (James 5:14, 16)



  1. Joanne Rich
    02 Oct 2006 11:34:26

    My answer to the question about feeling safe in church is YES! I did not always feel that way. I was brought up as a Roman Catholic (the capitol C stands for Control!) and when I flew from the family nest I also flew away from church. Church now is the center of my life.  I spent 20 plus years out of the loop. Over the last decade I have found safety and security, which grows with every Sunday! Being connected to so many people of faith only brings me more. And, yes, we DO cry–for joy and through any pain. We know that there are people who accept us, no matter what we do! I was thinking about those who joined us in God’s House and were so happy to be there, but over time have drifted away. I pray for them because I know not why they faded away. They are missing out on something wondrous and blessed! I’m off of work today so I am able to enjoy sitting by this window and looking out on the glorious day God as provided for me! I am thankful for so many things!!!

  2. Susan
    02 Oct 2006 11:46:32

    “…for fear of appearing the fool.” How true, Pastor Jeff! This is a sermon in itself with your afterthoughts.

    “If any man among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become foolish that he may become wise” (1 Cor. 3:18)

    …a fool for Christ? Count me in!

  3. Justin
    02 Oct 2006 15:09:05

    Sorry I missed this sermon. We really need to get Tom to fix the PA speaker in the nursery one of these days 😛

    As for your follow-up commentary on feeling safe in Church, I can attest to that being one of the qualities about PUMC that drew me to convert from being a Roman Catholic.  In retrospect, there was a kind of exclusivity to being a Catholic that I never realized until I came to PUMC with my wife Alison. The RC Church’s treatment of gays in particular comes to mind, but even a ritual like confession seems to contradict the message in James.

    It in in sharing my weaknesses and shortcomings with people I trust that I become stronger, I suppose. Though it doesn’t always feel that way when I am not fast enough to catch my 2-year-old TJ before he dashes up behind the alter in the middle of service (grin). That sort of gaff would probably get me a stern talking-to at my old church (though not necessarily from the Priest in charge). It is quite comforting to know that even in an out-of-control moment like that, I can turn to see amused looks on the faces of my fellow PUMCers as opposed to ostracizing ones. Be like little children, indeed!


  4. Pastor Jeff
    02 Oct 2006 21:19:00

    I am sure there are Roman Catholic congregations out there that do well by way of creating a safe environment, just as there are United Methodist congregations that don’t. I think every local congregation has its own particular style. The question for each is, “How can we grow in our sense of trust and safety, so that grace may abound?”

    TJ and his siblings are always a highlight of church for me.

  5. John
    02 Oct 2006 21:47:25

    I remember so well when I was the Manager of a Catholic Comvent, and I was an Episcopalion at the time. It was one of the greatest blessings of my life to serve in that capacity.
    When I went through my employee review, by Sister leaders, there was one thing I hoped they would say about me. Thank God I did hear what I wanted to hear. They said the Sisters found me “Approachable.” They found me to be a safe place, and some of the most Holy moments of my life were in confidence of those special ladies.
    It sure didn’t matter that I was Episcopalian, but they did say “At least you’re Anglican.”
    Do I dare go back there?
    Of course, because love shines through all the barriers even religion can invent.
    Todays headlines really hurt. An Amish classroom is not a safe place for children.
    We need to do something, but certainly it starts by being sure people find us to be a safe place.

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