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How We Talk About the Church

March 6, 2015

Disclaimer: I have had some of these thoughts rattling around in my head for a few months. I was talking with a friend a while back who said I should blog about them (so you can blame him for this!). This is not a response to any specific article, conversation, or statement. Instead, it is a collection of thoughts on a trend I have seen over the years. I hope it is helpful.

“Now, I grew up in the Church of Christ, but…”
When I hear that statement, I usually brace myself. I do it because of what is coming next. Over the last few years, it seems like I have heard that phrase used often as an introduction to a criticism (fair or unfair) about the Church of Christ. It might be phrased like, “I am thankful for my heritage, but…” or “I am glad my parents took me to church growing up, but…” In the south, we often joke that we can say anything we want about someone as long as we begin with, “Bless their heart…” We can gossip about an individual or insult that person, and as long as we include the magic phrase, we are off the hook.

That is how this statement about growing up in the Church of Christ often works; it supposedly gives us the leeway to say whatever we want to about the church. Over the years, I have heard people make that statement and then say, “We have never gotten this right in the Church of Christ,” or “We have always done this in the Church of Christ…” Now, I realize that in all of our families, we have inside jokes and we poke fun at each other. I don’t take myself or my ministry so seriously that I can’t laugh at the funny little things about us. It is healthy for us to be able to laugh about our own tendencies and mistakes. I also realize the importance of honest self-examination. What I am talking about here is the kind of criticism that tends to see only faults and failures. Sometimes it almost seems like a sport to see how many jokes you can make at the expense of the church.

In one sense, I get it. I understand that we are sometimes frustrated by issues in the church. We are working with people after all. There are times when we can do some good by bringing up these challenges. Here is all I ask – Before you are tempted to criticize or make fun of the Church of Christ because of a frustration you have, ask yourself these questions:

1. Is this an overgeneralization?
We know what an overgeneralization is – making a general statement that goes beyond the evidence. Let’s say I go to the Wendy’s by my house tomorrow and receive awful service. If I respond by saying, “Wendy’s restaurants have terrible customer service,” I am making an overgeneralization. There are locations all over America, and while I have been to a few with poor service, I have been to others with great service. I can’t judge every location based on my experience with one.

The same thing is true with church experience. I CANNOT judge the entirety of what every congregation thinks or does based on what my congregation thinks or does. It is easy to make my experience with the church normative and to judge the Church of Christ as a whole based on it. It is easy to say, “Well the Church of Christ has always done this,” if that is what my congregation always did growing up. But that would be an overgeneralization. Two years ago, someone told me, “I grew up in the Church of Christ, which means I didn’t get any teaching on the Old Testament,” and then laughed. That sounds to me like an overgeneralization. Should we really believe that no Church of Christ anywhere provides a healthy amount of teaching on Old Testament? Is that a fair statement? I wondered what his preacher would have said about that; he might have preached and taught out of the Old Testament more than this man realized.

2. Have I considered this from another perspective?
I go to a lot of preachers meetings, mostly because I enjoy hanging out with guys in ministry and learning from them. I can still remember one preacher’s meeting that took place almost ten years ago now. Jim Bill McInteer, one of my preaching heroes, was giving announcements at a meeting he regularly hosted. He mentioned that he had been asked a question recently, and then he paused. The question was – “Why did it take the Church of Christ so long to discover grace?” I watched this man, who had lovingly preached the gospel for decades, tear up and say, “I was under the impression I had been preaching grace my whole life.” It might have been that the person who asked the question had just recently discovered grace, but that was not the case for every person.

The “millennials” get a lot of press these days, and we definitely need to take seriously the task of reaching this age group. Yet we need to be careful that we don’t turn our back on the wisdom of those who have gone before us. The other day, I mentioned to one of our older members that I was listening to an audio book about World War II. He replied, “I fought in that war. I was in Patton’s Third Army.” I couldn’t believe it – I had been listening to all the challenges that army faced, and I had no idea that someone I worship with every week had fought those battles as an 18 year old! I never would have found that out if I hadn’t talked to him, and I wish I would have discovered it sooner. I wonder how many rich stories about faith and lessons about living for the Lord could bless our lives, if only we would intentionally learn from those who have different experiences than our own. When we see life from their perspective, we might see there is more than one side to our complaint.

3. When I make this statement, will people be able to tell I love the church?
Here is the one that it vitally important. Everyone disagrees on something when it comes to church work: ministry strategies, church programs, etc. Yet I hope all of us can agree on loving the church. If I love the church, then the way I speak should reflect that. If you knew I claimed to love my wife, yet I constantly complained about her, would you think there was an issue? If I regularly started conversations with, “Well, I have been married a long time, but…” and then proceeded to make fun of her, would you think there was a problem? Out of the heart, the mouth speaks. If I am constantly belittling or making fun of the church, that says something about what is in my heart.

The church is described in scripture as the bride of Christ. There are other great things we can be involved in to do good for others – schools, ministry organizations, non-profits, etc. but none of those has the exalted status God gave the church. Kathryn and I are involved in several other groups, and we are glad to do it, but because our ultimate allegiance is to God, none of those groups have priority over the church. People can tell from talking to us what we love. Can they tell I love the church?

I know we aren’t perfect. Our congregations aren’t perfect. I know there are frustrations. Yet I also know that people listen to what we say, and they read our posts on facebook (whether we ever know about it or not). Our attitude about the church can have a dramatic impact on those people. I hope that these three questions can help us discern what we should say and how we should say it.

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. March 6, 2015 10:19 am

    I particularly like#3!

  2. March 6, 2015 10:20 am

    Thank you

  3. March 6, 2015 11:30 am

    Great blog post. I was in a group recently where this happened. I responded by discussing ways in which my family’s participation in the church through several generations had blessed me. I really appreciate your insights.

  4. Stephen Kelley permalink
    March 6, 2015 10:11 pm

    Very good thoughts. I also cringe when I hear a phrase like the one mentioned because I too know that something negative is coming. If people love Christ, they better begin to love and appreciate His bride– the church! Thanks for your thoughts!

  5. Jerrie W. Barber permalink
    March 7, 2015 12:05 am

    Andrew, Thanks for thinking and writing about that. I hear people say, “The Church of Christ has a problem with this.” My reply, “Yes, people have a problem with this issue.” In my training for interim ministry, I have had the opportunity to associate with many religious groups. I have heard their stories. They don’t all treat their preachers and their families right. They don’t all show love, mercy, and grace. The issues and problems we have are experienced by others. What we need to do, as do others, is be thankful for our maturity and growth in many areas and continue to study and grow in areas were we are wrong or weak.

    • andrewdphillips permalink*
      March 7, 2015 12:26 am

      Thanks for the feedback! Jerrie, that is a great point. We are not the only ones who struggle with these kinds of challenges.

  6. March 9, 2015 12:31 pm

    I am thankful for you Andrew and you and Kathryn’s love for the church and the efforts to bring glory to Christ through your service. All of those are hard lessons I have had to learn in ministry. Just because it is a problem to me does not mean it is a problem to everybody. Something I learned (and you already know this for sure) is that if I have a problem I have to make sure it is, in fact a “we” problem instead of a “me” problem and then I also have to make sure I come up with some solutions to help and not hurt.

    Hope this makes sense.

    • andrewdphillips permalink*
      March 9, 2015 3:26 pm

      Great thoughts – there is no telling how many problems could be avoided if everyone had that attitude.

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