You write openly of your experience being brought up in Atlanta and, specifically, of the character of the church you attended. Not the most positive of experiences, one gathers.
I joke that I’ve been “in recovery” from a toxic church ever since childhood, and I sometimes threaten my publisher that I’ll write a book called Lies My Church Told Me. I grew up in a fundamentalist, racist, legalistic church in the American South. Lots of heavy breathing and yelling, and lots of talk about Hell. In various books I recount the process I went through in realizing that the Gospel presented in that church was bad news, whereas the real Gospel is good news. Jesus said the truth shall set us free; well, if it doesn’t set you free, then it’s not the truth.
I wrote a book with the title The Jesus I Never Knew because I got to know a very different Jesus than the one my childhood church had portrayed. I wrote What’s So Amazing About Grace because I’ve never recovered from that first gulp of God’s grace, so different from what I had experienced in my childhood church. If Jesus can make prodigals, beggars, prostitutes, and Samaritan half-breeds the heroes and heroines of his stories, then maybe there’s a place for me.
Explain more about the church of your growing up years. Did it focus a lot of energy on staying separate from the rest of the world?
Oh yes, you could tell by the way they dressed. They wouldn’t go bowling because liquor was served in bowling alleys, and they wouldn’t go roller-skating because it looked like dancing. They were separatists from the rest of the world; they worked hard at being different and took great pride in it. That church went out of business, finally, about two years ago. It kept moving farther and farther out into the suburbs as the neighborhoods kept changing in racial makeup, as they do in Atlanta. Then, finally, they just gave up and, in a great irony, sold their building to an African-American denomination.
How long were you subject to the environment of a repressive church, and at what age did you realize there was something wrong?
The most toxic church I attended was during high school and the first couple years of college—formative years, of course. I realized something was wrong when I started to think and read literature that would call to question my conscience. I was being blasted in one ear with, “This is the way the world is, this is true,” then on the other hand I was hearing contradictory messages in my education. It was a confusing time as I tried to sort it all through.
Were you put off from the whole idea of Christianity for a time?
Sure. When you’re young, you automatically believe what the adults tell you—up to a point. When I reached that point, I felt betrayed. What I learned in church about other races, for example, did not correspond to what I was learning in real life. Something had to give, and for a time it was my faith. Ever since, I’ve been on a quest to recover a personal faith that is authentic and also true to actual experience. For me, writers were essential in opening the windows of my sealed world. As I look back, I realize that I became a writer because I had absorbed the power of words in my own life. To me, the written word seems safer, less threatening, more freedom-enhancing. I had learned to distrust the spoken word, especially as it is yelled in a sermon.
You have some harsh things to say about legalistic churches in your books. What’s so bad about legalism?
It can’t guarantee us God’s approval, for one thing. When you read the letters of the Apostle Paul, or the accounts of a monk like Martin Luther, you can see how torturous it can be to try to keep every single rule. Luther used to spend hours each day probing every possible sin he may have committed. The Jews of Jesus’ day had identified 613 major laws from the Old Testament and accepted more than a thousand governing behavior just on the Sabbath.
What is the result of that kind of obsession with law-keeping? I see two possible outcomes, neither being healthy. Some, like the Pharisees, took pride in their ability to keep those laws and looked down on other who could not. Others, however, felt like miserable failures.
Legalism rarely leads to inner peace. As Paul said, it may even stir up evil thoughts that would not have come to mind apart from the law!
I attended a Christian college, and saw both of these patterns. Some students developed a kind of spiritual class system: there were the “super-spiritual” Christians and then there were all the rest. Others simply went around feeling guilty. They lacked the overwhelming sense that the Gospel is good news and that God loves me “Just as I am,” in the words of the old hymn.
The church of your youth abused its authority. Has that experience shaped your view of God today?
For a time I resisted thinking of God as an authority figure; harsh images from childhood had scarred too deep. Like many people, I saw religion mainly as a set of rules, a moral code handed down from an invisible world that we on this planet were somehow obligated to obey. Why it might matter to God whether puny creatures on a tiny planet kept those rules, I had no clue. I only heard the dire warnings that if I broke the rules, I would pay.
More recently, however, I’ve come to recognize that sometimes I submit gladly to authority. When my computer software acts up, I call technical support and scrupulously follow the technician’s orders. When I want to master a difficult sport, such as golf, I pay for lessons. And when I get hurt or sick, I see a doctor. In fact, a doctor is probably the most helpful image for me to keep in mind while thinking about God and sin. Why should I seek out God’s view on how to live my life? For the same reason I seek my doctor’s opinion. I defer to my doctor, trusting that we share the same goal, my physical health, but that he brings to the process greater wisdom and expertise. And I’m learning to view sins as spiritual dangers—much like carcinogens, bacteria, viruses, and injuries—that must be avoided at all costs, for my own sake. I am learning to trust that God wants the best life for me in this world, not some diminished, repressed life.
To what extent should the church be socially active?
It seems clear to me that social concern is not an option for the follower of Jesus; it’s an obligation. When Jesus first announced his mission (Luke 4), he spoke of preaching good news to the poor, proclaiming freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, and releasing the oppressed. When he taught us to pray, he included the request, “Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.” Part of God’s will, as the entire Bible makes clear, is care for the poor and the weakest, and peace and justice on the earth. That seems central to Jesus’ mission—not the only part of it, of course, but central. (You need only read Jesus’ pronouncements against the wealthy to realize that he certainly did not see money as the answer.) Unless we in the church align ourselves with justice and peace and compassion, we contradict the very thing we ask for in the Lord’s Prayer.
How do Christians answer critics who say that church history is a collection of stories about strife and fighting for power?
Well, in a sense they’re right! I too read church history and see in it a collection of stories about strife and fighting for power. That’s true of Islamic history too, and Buddhist history, and Communist history, and every other human history I know of. Christianity does not solve all the problems of human nature. It’s a faith that assumes those problems, and traces them back to the Fall. At the same time, I would gently point out that much of what we admire in the world today—charity, health care, education, democracy, literacy, human rights—trace directly back to Christian sources. I’m not in favor of whitewashing church history, but neither am I in favor of focusing only on the failures. There have been many bright spots.
Do you ever feel like giving up on the church?
Strangely, I don’t feel that way very often. I don’t always find church fulfilling, and rarely find it entertaining, but that’s not why I go. I go to meet God in the presence of other Jesus-followers. I go to be reminded and challenged of the radical nature of Jesus’ call. I go to find a place to exercise my gifts within the body. And I go to learn from people who represent a diversity of age, gender, social class, and race.
The church has made many mistakes, and I never try to cover those up. Those of us who attend church could find more appealing ways to spend Sunday morning—watching sporting events, for example. We make the effort not because we have it together but because we share a common need, a need for God.
Families are flawed, difficult to transform, and full of eccentric characters, too—but few people entirely give up on their families. We stick it out because we value what we hold in common, and in the process we learn to think less about our own needs and more about others.’ That’s the hope, anyway.
How would you describe a ‘soul survivor’ as your book was called?
The subtitle of that book was “How my faith survived the church.” I got a letter from a pastor who said, “I get so tired of you criticizing your childhood church that I feel like writing a book, ‘How my church survived your faith’! I encouraged him to start writing.
More seriously, for me surviving meant sifting through the dirt that has accumulated over the centuries and finding the core of the Gospel, which is that God loves sinners. Jesus came for the sick, not the healthy. A survivor learns to take his or her eyes off the church and its expectations, and off the opinions of other people, and to live for God alone. That’s a lifelong process, but one well worth the effort.
If you stay in the church, why then do you criticize it?
The church often comes across as a big dispenser of propaganda, a marketing machine. The Roman Catholic Church, in fact, still has an official Department of Propaganda, though they use that word in a more suitable sense. I happened to be raised in a church that dispensed propaganda that I later learned was false. It made me skeptical of the establishment, the whole authoritarian structure. I began my own pilgrim quest, and as a writer I’ve spent my career trying to recover the faith which I rejected for a time.
To my surprise, I have found that many other people are victims of the same propaganda machine, and many have likewise been wounded by the church. I thought I would be banned for being honest; instead, I seem to have struck a responsive chord. Along the way, I’ve learned there are many sincere seekers open to an honest, transparent message.
There is a growing group of disappointed people who are leaving the church even in places like Brazil. Most of them didn’t get what they were expecting from the church. Based on your experience in the U.S. church, do you think this trend will grow or is it reversible?
Frankly, I think this phenomenon is sad. It shows a selfish view of the faith if I want church to satisfy my needs and desires without having to invest in others. How many places are there where we meet together with old and young, rich and poor, beautiful and ugly? The church should be the place that “afflicts the comfortable and comforts the afflicted.” Instead we seek a place that comforts the comfortable. And yet, as you indicate, once the trend starts, it proves hard to reverse.
I take hope in the fact that the Spirit always finds a new way of breaking out in the church. Remember the Jesus movement, in which hippies, the least likely group, led the way to Christ. And the charismatic movement, which has spread worldwide. Now the emergent church has emerged, which brings new forms to an old institution. Jesus promised that the gates of hell will not prevail against the church (Mt 16: 18), and that gives me hope. God will always find a way; all God needs is willing hearts.
I hear about the “back door” in Brazilian churches. Hordes of people come in the front door, attracted to the prosperity teaching, then leave by the back door when they find that their life hasn’t changed that much. Christians still get sick, lose their jobs, have marriage problems and kid problems. Unless we prepare our people for these life situations, we’ll become irrelevant. Our only solution is to go back to the Gospel, the plain and simple Gospel of compassion and discipline preached by Jesus. It takes a St. Francis or Mother Teresa to remind us that God is not our servant to help improve our lives; we are the servants.
What would you like to tell or suggest to a Christian, a new born again Christian for example, who faces his first disappointment in church life?
I’d say, “Welcome to the club.” We’re humans. Are we ever disappointed in schools and teachers? In political parties? In relatives? The church consists of flawed human beings. Whereas many organizations begin with the goal to fix the problems of the world, the church begins with people acknowledging their need for help—both from God and from our fellow pilgrims.
A friend of mine once said, “I’m glad the church is full of hypocrites, because I’m a hypocrite and I feel at home there.” There’s more than a kernel of truth there.
You’ve said you now see God no longer as a stern judge, but as a physician. Doesn’t that pose the danger that the Christian faith becomes all a bit “therapeutical”? After all, God is a stern judge too, isn’t he?
For me, the difference is understanding that God sets rules for our own good. If a physician sternly warns me against the dangers of addiction to nicotine or alcohol or drugs, she does so because she wants me to live a rich and full life. The church I grew up in presented a God who was scowling, and trying to keep us from having fun. That is not at all the image I now have of God, nor the image that I believe the Bible presents. Perhaps a “parent” is the very best model for viewing God -but of course that doesn’t work for many people who come from troubled homes. The essential point is seeing that God has our best interests at heart, even though those best interests may involve some discipline and sacrifice on our part.
Where do you think the Church will go in the next 10 years?
Sorry, I’m a freelance writer and not a prophet. You should talk to someone like Leonard Sweet or Phillip Jenkins. I hope the church surprises us with where it goes in the next decade. Live out the Gospel that Jesus preached, and I guarantee you the world will take notice.
For you, what is the role of community in the church?
As I read the Book of Acts, the church is primarily about community. A minority of people living in a Jewish culture in the broader Roman empire decide that a first-century prophet named Jesus has the answer to life’s problems. They band together to encourage each other and meet each other’s needs. It’s that simple, and that complicated. The church begins as a kind of counter-culture, a coming together of like-minded people who commit to each other, and in doing so become a model to the culture around them. Any movement has great difficulty sustaining itself apart from community.
Why do so many men find it hard to relate to church?
In his book The Four Loves, C. S. Lewis describes male companionship, or Friendship, as a kind of side-by-side relationship, not a face-to-face relationship. Men more naturally bond by sharing an activity: serving in the same Army unit, playing on the same sports team, sharing a golf cart, climbing a mountain. When we do these activities, and face challenges together, we build the kind of trust that allows us to open up and be vulnerable. Most men—and certainly there are exceptions—don’t yearn for small groups where you sit around over cookies and bare your soul. We do it differently, and churches would do well to take that into consideration. Building a Habitat for Humanity home, or organizing a mission trip to Mexico, or a father-son camping trip may be better ways to get men to open up with one another.
How important is church-based worship to faith? Many experience church as an hour that fails to connect with their lives.
Yes, yes, how true. I wrote a little book with the title Church: Why Bother in an attempt to deal with that very question. I can only fall back on a quote from Saint John of the Cross, who wrote, “The soul that is alone…is like the burning coal that is alone. It will grow colder rather than hotter.” I believe he is right, and I have seen that truth borne out again and again. The Christian faith should come with a warning label: Do Not Attempt to Practice Alone. Consistently, the New Testament portrays the church as a body comprising many parts. We need each other, for balance, for correction, for sustained life. Worship involves submission to a “Higher Power,” and it also involves a kind of submission to a group of fellow-believers that include crying babies and fumbling senior citizens, stuff-shirts and tattooed teenagers. Do that for a while, and you find your faith becoming less self-centered.
What does a spiritually healthy person look like, in your opinion?
A spiritually healthy person is usually very others-directed, globally. There’s a quote I use in one of my books from a second century theologian that says a spiritual person is a person who’s “fully alive.” Not someone closed off, with blinders on, pulling in, afraid to sample the world. But, instead, someone utterly convinced this is God’s world, and here to explore and to reach out and to try to represent God in this world. Of course, that means caring for the needy, but it also means flat-out enjoying the great goodness of this world around us. I look at the spiritually healthy people in the Bible and they’re characters, every one of them. They’re wild people. They’re out of the box. We’re not supposed to be cookie-cutter, uptight people. We’re supposed to be fully alive.Copyright © 2010 by Philip Yancey