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Many modern people view the contemporary church as a crutch. In other words, many feel that it is a system that props people up. It is seen as a social system that attracts the weak and broken and then creates dependency upon that system.
As I consider this question, I want to be as fair as possible while not shying away from an honest and critical examination. Below are my observations.
Does the church system attract the broken and weak? Most certainly. But before we relegate it to the junior varsity players of life, we need to appreciate it’s message. Any church worth anything is sharing a message that is affectionately called “Good News”, from the Greek word “Ehuangellion”, which is often referred to as the Gospel. This is a powerful message of hope. It comes from Isaiah 61 and Luke 4 and describes what life is like when it is under new management (i.e. the new king or Messiah). This message is “good news” for the poor (not merely economically, but in all aspects). The new management will bind up broken hearts and make all sad things become untrue. The new management will open prison doors and allow people to finally experience liberation from the vast kinds of prisons that keep people small and stuck. Lastly this is a message that proclaims that we as a people are finally “Good with God.” In other words, we have found his favor.
So yes, the church does attract the broken and week. But let me add one additional nuance. The power of this message is that it allows people to see just how broken and weak we are. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not minimizing in anyway our vast potential for greatness and strength. I am however suggesting that the good news is that all people, without exception, will find themselves stuck in some sort of prison or bondage, and experience head winds that curtail our capacities to enjoy life. So in this sense, if the message is truly understood, then the church isn’t so much only attracting the broken and weak, but it is attracting those people humble enough to own their brokenness and weakness. The proud always feel “beyond” that or superior to others.
But is the cultural church paradigm the only place people learn this “good news?” And aren’t there valid observations about the church as a social system?
For instance. Statistics tell us that ~30% of Americans will attend a church service once a month or more, and that this number is in decline. This is not evidence that people are losing touch with God or that they are losing their faith, only that they have become less dependent upon the delivery system to recognize the message of the new management. Furthermore, studies show that modern people are increasingly more liberal, which means they have far less tolerance for the tribal language, the racial, institutional, and religious power plays and bigotry that are a part of these systems.
Fundamentalism is not attractive to modern people. It is the opposite of freedom. It stifles people, causes repression, and forces regressive thinking. It focuses on the externals, on behavior modification, and on compliance to the herd mentality. It is no wonder that it is losing ground. Churches stuck in this old pattern only survive by fear mongering and controlling power plays.
The contemporary church may decry this cultural shift away from the church to mean that society is going to hell in a hand basket and that people are falling away from their faith. However, it needs to consider that it may very well be that such people are not leaving because of rebellion, but because of integrity. It may be that they have actually apprehended the true message of the Gospel, the message of liberation, and therefore they are actually experiencing greater effects of the new management outside the system than inside it.
It may actually be the gospel message that is keeping people out of the church system.
Which brings me back to the main question. Is the church a CRUTCH? While it is clearly a scaffolding that is supposed to hold up something truly amazing, something transcendent, something transformative; the actual structure itself is often mistaken for the thing higher up and further back.
The easiest way to answer this is to TEST it. Anyone who argues that the church is not a crutch should take 6 months off from attending church and evaluate their condition. If aspects of their faith are diminished because they somehow lose proximity to the message, or if they cannot survive without the assistance, support or direction of the church, if they don’t have friends or know their geographical neighbors, then clearly the church functions as a crutch that is holding up that person’s life. If one is able to thrive, if their faith is strengthened by those around them and they are able to see “good news” at every turn in life, then the church is not a crutch for that person. If they can give their money generously without compulsion to those in need without guilt that it isn’t going to some mortgage of a local building, then they are dialed into that which is above the scaffolding.
This awareness would be vital to the soul. How happy should we be to discover that we had been given an anesthetic each week that inoculated us from coming out of our prisons, and distracted us with all kinds of religious noise. Waking up from this dream may be like taking the red pill, but it is a clear opportunity to get at our true motivations and discover something more than the structure. It may be our first time under honest light.
For those who already have this connection, then the church structure can be a powerful collective of people activated into service. It can be a place where the message of the gospel is put into action for the sake of all others, ensuring there are no poor, no weak, and none who are forsaken, broken, or oppressed. But if people lack this connection and only engage in the process, then the church becomes the vehicle to deliver the pain it purposes to end.
The former people ARE the Church, the latter people GO to church.