Church hurt. Do you know what it’s like to be disappointed by church?
In 1994, in the African country of Rwanda, one African people group named the Hutus tried to kill off another African people group called the Tutsis. In roughly 100 days, the Hutus slaughtered—it wasn’t war, it was genocide—approximately 800,000 Tutsis. To escape the slaughter, many families ran for refuge to schools and churches.
One church minister, Father Seromba, opened his church up to the fleeing families. He welcomed them inside so they could be safe. And when they were all safely inside the church, Father Seromba left the building and cued the Hutu militias to bulldoze the 2,000 Tutsis inside.
It turns out Father Seromba was not alone. We are told that numerous other church leaders across Rwanda participated in the slaughter—church leaders sometimes handing people over who had taken refuge in their churches and sometimes church leaders actually killing the people themselves. Reflecting on the slaughters, one young woman said, “I cannot go back to church now. Not after what happened there. Not after what church people did.”
“I cannot go back to church now. Not after what happened there. Not after what church people did.”
Speaking more generally, we all know what it’s like to be disappointed. But have you ever been disappointed by the church?
Church Hurt in Headlines and in the Heart
If you want examples of massive church hurt, all you have to do is read a church history book. Books by atheists likely won’t kill your faith in Christianity. Often, atheists don’t have that compelling of arguments against Christianity. But church history books can be really tough to read:
- On this particular crusade, Christians slaughtered Jews and burned down their synagogue.
- During this particular decade, this many hundreds of heretics were burned at the stake by the church.
- Because of a discovery he made in astronomy, this scientist was put under house arrest by the church.
There are definitely bright spots for the church throughout history, but there are also many disappointments, and they continue to our day: A televangelist is jailed for tax fraud. A pastor admits to extramarital affair.
The disappointments aren’t only to be found in headline scandals. It’s disappointing when I’m lonely and the church isn’t helping. When I’m struggling and the church doesn’t seem to care. It’s disappointing when Christians fight Christians, when Christians refuse to love prodigals, when politics trump love, when churches split, when church leadership enables spiritual abuse, when the lost remain unreached, and when the gospel gets watered down and changed into something else. It’s disappointing when I go to church week after week, and my life just isn’t getting any better; nothing seems to change.
“It’s disappointing when Christians fight Christians, when Christians refuse to love prodigals, when politics trump love, when churches split, when church leadership enables spiritual abuse, when the lost remain unreached, and when the gospel gets watered down and changed into something else.”
Ask any longtime member of a church, and they’ll tell you that churches can sometimes be disappointing. Ask any pastor, and they’ll tell you the same. Same of course goes for ex-Christians too. Perhaps most of all, however, we should ask Jesus. And, yes, there are times that churches are disappointing to Jesus.
In Matthew 13, Jesus tells parables which invite us to understand what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. At the same time, these parables give us four reasons why churches are sometimes disappointing.
Church Hurt Reason #1 – You’ve got to figure in competition.
Jesus’ parable of the soils reminds us that your heart will choose between four types of “soils.” There are four types of soil competing for your heart.
- Matthew 13:1-9 – Jesus describes the path, rocky soil, thorny soil, and good soil.
- Matthew 13:18-23 – Jesus explains the meaning of the path, rocky soil, thorny soil, and good soil.
The seed on the path gets eaten up by birds. The seed on rocky soil springs up, but as soon as you get one hot day where the sun is really baking down on it, the plant dies, because it doesn’t have a strong enough root system. The seed on thorny soil grows, but the thorns grow around it, choke it out, and there is no fruit. The seed on the good soil yields a successful crop.
“There are four types of soil competing for your heart.”
Which type of heart do you have?
- The path (“huh?”) – You don’t understand the word of God, so the enemy will swipe it right on up before it can do you any good.
- The rocks (“cool!”) – You get excited about the word of God, but you don’t have rootedness in it. So the moment hard times come, you’re ready to give up.
- The thorns (“whatever…”) – You hear the word of God, but you’re so busy and there are so many things going on that you don’t have time to take it seriously and bear fruit.
- The good soil (“yes”) – You hear the word of God, you understand it (unlike the path), you’ll hold fast to it (unlike the rocky soil), and you’ll value it and prioritize it (unlike the thorny soil).
Are churchgoers automatically the good soil because they hear the word of God? Actually, frighteningly, all four soils are exposed to the word of God. Only one of the soils bears fruit.
Why can churches sometimes disappoint and cause hurt? You’ve got to figure in competition—competition for our heart.
“All four soils are exposed to the word of God. Only one of the soils bears fruit.”
Church Hurt Reason #2 – You’ve got to figure in fakes.
Jesus tells two parables which remind us that not everyone who claims the name of Jesus is a genuine follower.
- Matthew 13:24-30 – The kingdom is like a farmer who sowed good seed in his field, but then an enemy sowed weeds in the same field. Rather than pull up the weeds (and risk pulling up wheat along with it), the farmer chooses to wait until harvest, where he will separate the wheat from the weeds. (For his explanation of the parable, see Matt. 13:36-43).
- Matthew 13:47-50 – The kingdom is like a net which catches all kinds of fish and hauls them to shore. The good fish are collected into baskets and the bad fish are thrown away.
Jesus is explaining that you have to figure in fakes. They might look alike, but there are actually bad fish among the good fish; there are actually weeds among the wheat.
“They might look alike, but there are actually bad fish among the good fish; there are actually weeds among the wheat.”
It would be nice to make things simpler and less uncomfortable, but Jesus didn’t mean to make these into uncomfortable stories. He meant for people to ask themselves tough questions. So, are you a follower of Christ or are you just faking it?
Church Hurt Reason #3 – You’ve got to figure in process.
Jesus tells a couple of parables that teach us that the kingdom involves process.
- Matthew 13:31-32 – The kingdom is like a tiny mustard seed which grows into a tree.
- Matthew 13:33 – The kingdom is like yeast which works its way all throughout dough.
Here’s a one-question multiple choice quiz. From these two parables, we see that being a Christian means:
- A one-time event in which you asked Jesus into your heart
- A one-time event in which you got baptized
- A one-time event in which you were at Christian camp and felt convicted of sin, and so you rededicated your life to Jesus
- A lifelong process of growth
Which one is the correct answer?
Christianity isn’t the planting of one seed, and we call it good. Christianity is the process of growing into who God meant for you to be. Christianity isn’t a little speck of leaven in the dough. It is leaven getting worked through the dough and through the dough until the whole life is leavened. Being a Christian means a lifelong process of growth in which every area of your life comes under the lordship of Christ. Churches can often disappoint and cause hurt when they aren’t places where this process is expected and nurtured.
“Churches can often disappoint and cause hurt when they aren’t places where this process is expected and nurtured.”
Church Hurt Reason #4 – You’ve got to figure in cost.
Jesus tells two parables which underscore the cost that comes with being a follower of Jesus.
- Matthew 13:44 – The kingdom is like a treasure hidden in a field which a person discovered and then sold everything he had in order to buy.
- Matthew 13:45-46 – The kingdom is like a merchant finding a pearl of such great worth that he sold everything he had in order to buy it.
Interestingly, the treasure and the pearl are of such inestimable worth that they do not disappoint the person who bought them. So, why are Christians sometimes disappointed with Christianity as they live it? The one who experiences the blessings of the kingdom is the one who “sold everything he had and bought it.” How can you receive the blessings of that treasure when you’re only window shopping?
“How can you receive the blessings of that treasure when you’re only window shopping?”
Our hearts aren’t big enough for this kingdom-sized treasure plus all that the world has to offer. We have to choose. Some will choose the kingdom and others will choose disappointment because they want it all.
Reviewing the four reasons for disappointment
Here are some sober lessons we’ve learned from these parables:
- The soils – Merely hearing the word doesn’t cut it.
- The fish and the wheat – Merely looking like a Christian doesn’t cut it.
- The mustard seed and the leaven – Merely starting out as a Christian doesn’t cut it.
- The treasure and the pearl – Merely window-shopping doesn’t cut it.
There are four reasons churches can disappoint and cause hurt:
- You’ve got to figure in competition.
- You’ve got to figure in fakes.
- You’ve got to figure in process.
- You’ve got to figure in cost.
Jesus’ Answer for Church Hurt
A church is a disappointment when a church thinks it’s only a church. How do most of these parables start? “The kingdom of heaven is like…” We aren’t just members of a church; we are citizens of Jesus’ kingdom. Church can fit into your schedule, and when something else comes up, church can get ignored. A kingdom demands everything because a kingdom has two parts: a king who leads and the people who follow. The Bible word that best describes a follower of Jesus is a disciple of Jesus.
“A church is a disappointment when a church thinks it’s only a church.”
In short, Jesus’ answer to church disappointment is an invitation to become his disciple. This means to become Jesus’ apprentice, Jesus’ student, Jesus’ lifelong learner in how to live. We are to be disciples who make disciples of Jesus, using his life and teachings as our curriculum.