Written by: Conrade Yap
“After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church— for we are members of his body.” (Ephesians 5:29-30)
As Mike repairs the lamp fuse, he asks me what I do. I say I work part time in Church and study part time. Almost instantly, he quips that I am the religious type and says to me:
“But I’m not religious. I’m spiritual.”
He then rattles away the problems of the church and the need to engage the spiritual side of things. I have lived long enough in Canada to recognize such an attitude toward religion and especially the Church. People have a long memory of the wrongs that churches in the past have committed. They talk negatively about the Crusades. They complain about the lack of relevance of the church institution. They highlight the financial and sexual scandals of several prominent church leaders. Disillusionment reigns supreme. It has come to the point that the ordinary man in the street are more open to other religions like Hinduism, Buddhism, and other non-Christian beliefs than the traditional faith of their forefathers many years ago. For whatever reasons, the Church in the West has largely lost its influence and credibility.
A) Not Just a Western Phenomenon
This week, I am in Singapore, spending time with family and friends. As I interact with various individuals, there is a sense that this ‘spiritual-but-not-religious’ momentum is gaining ground. Several people whom I used to see working actively in Church has left not just their home church but Church totally. Outside, more people are getting disillusioned with the church in general. Currently, one local Megachurch is being investigated for financial irregularities. Another is being cautioned for insensitive remarks that could threaten the fragile religious harmony in the country. The lifestyle of one particular leader and his wife is being questioned. All these point ominously toward a future Church that people will more likely abandon rather than embrace, sooner rather than later. The signs are ominous. It is not a question of whether they will fall. It is a matter of WHEN? All of these does not auger well for the Church at large in the small island nation.
Organized religion has largely waned in the West. I fear that the Church in Singapore is following suit.
B) Meeting Schedules or Meeting Needs?
I have been observing the Singapore Church with much concern. It seems to have become more like another busy bureaucracy where it is more important to get things done more than anything else. With the pursuit toward excellence, and multiple attempts to balance various demands, it leaves a trail of disappointments when individual needs are not met.
While we can try to give Church the benefit of the doubt, there is only so much grace one can offer, especially when one feels the giving has been overwhelmingly lop-sided. A Church worker who served for more than 15 years was unceremoniously dumped when there is a change in leadership. A difference in perspective led to the founder of a major church charity quitting not just the organization but the denomination. A personal friend no longer attends church even after many years of sacrificial service, due to the lack of appreciation accumulated over the years. From doctrinal disputes, to relationship matters, the Church seems to be long on busily making ends meet, and short on meeting people’s needs. How can anyone not be disillusioned?
C) My Personal Disappointment
This week I was supposed to meet a Church pastor. We have planned this long in advance. Looking forward to this meeting, I planned the entire day’s program to ensure that I can be on time for the morning meeting. Unfortunately, there was a last minute cancellation by this pastor. I thought about this. If a meeting was planned months ago with me, can be easily pushed aside by another event called on the day itself, what does it say about my position in the pecking order? There was no personal apology. In fact I did not even hear his voice.
It was conveyed via his secretary, who then contacted my wife, who told me about it. On the one hand, I understand that emergencies happen. On the other hand, I felt it could have been handled better. At least, if this pastor has contacted me personally, I would have felt better. Unfortunately, it was not to be. For me, having turned down several other meetings with close friends in order to clear my schedule for this meeting, I was left disappointed.
Yet, I cannot help but wonder. Suppose the ‘emergency’ meeting the pastor has to attend is not life-threatening, and the pastor intentionally kept to his appointment, it speaks volumes about his priorities. I can understand that emergencies happen. However, what about a personal apology? Just one kind word can easily dissolve a multitude of disappointments. Yet, the phone stays silent. My Inbox reads empty, at least from this pastor. I feel like someone who is out of sight and out of mind, with other priorities making me feel I am last in line.
I will leave Singapore today, with this disappointment with Church, but with an anticipation of hope.
D) Abandon the Problem-Solving Paradigm
There is a paradigm that I have learned in my doctoral work. Often, more can be achieved with less. Computers are capable with multi-tasking programs but not the human heart. The Church is now infected with the virus of busyness. Under this climate, the human heart deceives oneself that by doing more things, one get more done. That is often not the case. Ask how a wife feels when the husband has his eyes glued to the TV, his mouth munching a sandwich, his hands holding his iPhone, partly listening to his iPod, and partly listening to his wife. The husband is doing many things, but what is he actually achieving?
Part of the problem with Church is due to the tendency to want to 'solve problems.' The mantra seems to be: "I solve, therefore I am." When we fail to solve enough problems that are surrounding us, we become anxious and worried. We get weighed down. Pastoral care has to do more with the heart. The way to the heart is not via a deed of work done, but a word of good cheer.
"An anxious heart weighs a man down, but a kind word cheers him up." (Prov 12:25)I love the Church. I love the people and servants of the Church. I am just disappointed. The Church is a community of saints rather than a team of problem-solvers. I prefer a few kind words, rather than a multitude of activities. I prefer a few good sharing, rather than lots of high profile meetings. The current Church structure is not designed to cheer people up but to weigh people down. In love, in hope, and in faith, we pray that there will be a turning point, soon. It need not be too difficult. Let me suggest that we start with one friend to walk with us. Let us call it spiritual friendship. Perhaps, through the walking, we find it much easier to deal with the disappointments with church.
As I reflect on this week, I am glad for the friends who have allowed me to walk with them. It remains the single biggest piece of encouragement amid a climate of disillusionment.
Alister McGrath points out three phases of any Christian journey: Landmarks, Wilderness, and Oasis. I feel that the current state of the Church is in the wilderness. Pray that we will all find an oasis soon.
One cannot truly rest, until he finds rest in God alone.
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