The Church Isn't Ours to Save
Do what you can to make your church holy. But it's not your fault if you don't succeed.
(Disclaimer: the title of this post is inspired by this book, of which I've only read the free Amazon preview.)
Growing into your faith is a confusing, bumpy process.
If you're like me, you start with a general desire to love God and very little idea what that entails. You know the basics of Christian doctrine from Sunday school, but what you needed as a child is not what you need today.
So you start to read the bible and you find that indeed there are answers there. But the faith you find is not quite the one you expected. All the Sunday school theology is there -- sin, grace, the cross. But it's tied up in something completely new, something you hadn't seen before.
You find a God who despises prayerful affluence in the face of poverty, calling those who follow him into a profound and costly generosity. You find a God who values the lives of the poor over your own. You find a God who will cajole you with everything in his power -- his Spirit, hellfire, his very body -- to shake you out of the comfort of the life you can afford as he calls you deeper into the life he can transform.
In short, you find that God is radically and irrevocably on the side of the poor and the oppressed. And this starts to change the way you read everything about the bible.
"Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven."
You read verses like this and it clicks. You see two thousand years of church history, of leaders who spent their lives debating the finer points of Christology while they owned slaves, colonized the globe, and lived lives of luxury funded by the donations of those they were supposed to support.
And you also see two thousand years of genuine prophets, of black and white Americans who fought against slavery at great cost to themselves, of Latin American and African priests who led revolutions against their colonizers and the dictators who replaced them, of women who took to the male-dominated pulpits at great cost to themselves to speak truth to a church that desperately needed to hear it.
And so, naturally, your conception of faith looks a little bit different than it did before. You find yourself frustrated by church leaders who know so many of the bible's little details and yet completely miss the main message. You find yourself turned off by expensive church projects and "applicational" sermons that never seem to challenge you to change. And you find yourself again and again trying to start conversations about how we might implement God's "preferential option for the poor" in our own lives, only to be shut down or told (implicitly or explicitly) that this isn't really the point of church.
What do you do when you've made a real step forward in your relationship with God, but it feels like your church hasn't made the step with you?
I don't know how to describe this feeling other than a sort of ongoing, slow-burning frustration/sadness/anger. Some of this is probably pride and self-righteousness, some of it is personal (I have found that the easiest way to infuriate me is to condescend to me about a topic I know a lot about and you know very little about), and a real chunk of it is holy. There's a huge mess to untangle. I have found some relief in exorcism prayers, and I'm finding even more in applying some of my Sunday school lessons (!) in evangelism.
There are two ways to approach evangelism. One way (unhealthy and annoying to your friends) is to assume that everybody's eternal fate lies in your hands, and you need to do everything you can to make them convert to Christianity. You end up taking everyone else's lack of conversion personally, and it's not too hard to see how this would both make you miserable and lead you to mistreat people around you.
The second, healthier approach acknowledges that people are human beings who get to make their own decisions. I believe that faith is very important (and true), and it's important to me that you see why I value it. I want you to be aware that it is an option, and I want to be honest about how God has helped my life because I want you to have that option too.
This approach is better for one's mental health, and it's also more loving. I do not get to control you, and I don't get to use my faith to gain power over you. I treat you with the respect you deserve as a person made in God's image. I simply share what I have, and what you do with it is up to you and God.
I think a similar approach is needed when trying to evangelize the American Evangelical church with the "full" gospel. When I take people's failure to love their neighbors personally, it makes me grumpy and snappy, and the desire for biblical justice finds itself supplanted by a desire to "win" the argument. This never works (do people ever actually win arguments?), and people always seem to find themselves more dug-in than when they started.
But to the extent that the American church has lost its way, it isn't my job to fix it. It's God's. And when people in the bible recognize that their society has lost God's calling, God doesn't ask them to single-handedly fix their church. He calls them to speak truth, as faithfully and compellingly as they can. (Sometimes (Jonah!) this works, and other times (basically the rest of the prophets) it doesn't, because societies can choose to listen or not!)
And that's a more manageable task. If I point out that God is unambiguously on the side of racial/environmental justice and you reply with a list of conspiracy theories, I don't need to "win" the argument. If I have spoken God's truth as faithfully and compellingly as I could, then I have done my duty and the rest (the "engaging in good faith" part) is between you and God. When I have the opportunity to influence the path my church takes, I will do my best to push it in the right direction. But I do not control the church, and if despite my best efforts I am not listened to, then I have done my duty and the rest is between the church leaders and God.
(In these cases, the next time I bring it up, or try to lobby my pastor, I might try a different approach. Part of the "and compellingly" piece involves learning how best to portray this side of the gospel and even how to put pressure on institutions to be better! But somehow for me this separation still works -- "I am going to use all my information to do this to the best of my ability" is a very different framing than "If this fails it will be because I didn't do enough.")
I'm new to this, and maybe this is a bad approach for reasons I haven't encountered yet. But I think that "caring about things the church repeatedly chooses to ignore" carries a real mental health burden, and this way of thinking about it has been helpful for me as a way to keep speaking without going (too) insane.