Churchianity vs Christianity, Part 5
But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them.
In 1954, black author and theologian Howard Thurman wrote, “Whatever may be the delimiting character of the historical development of the church, the simple fact remains that at the present moment in our society, as an institution, the church is divisive and discriminating, even within its fellowship.” A decade later, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in a speech at Western Michigan University pronounced, “It is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.” Half a century later these statements arguably remain as true as when they were given. The church as an institution may be more divisive than any other institution in our society. Not only are most churches segregated by race, but many seek to divide its followers from non-followers by defining what it means to be Christian along narrow and un-Jesus-like lines.
One reason our churches are so segregated and divided is the constitutional protection on freedom of religious expression. No governing body may restrict religious practices, at least within certain limits. Even though I agree that the government should not be in the business of regulating religious expression, I believe that too many religious organizations use that freedom to institutionalize bigotry, exclusion, and even hatred in the name of Christianity. In the words of teacher and author Richard Rohr, “Most people who do evil have fully explained it to themselves as good…Injustice, for example, always profits somebody.” Who profits from religious bigotry? I suggest it is the privileged few who convince unsuspecting and trusting members that their distorted view of the kingdom of God is biblical rather than self-serving.
One glaring example of religious bigotry is found in the Christian music industry. A handful of like-minded organizations control the major Christian radio stations, recording labels, music producers, and publishing companies. They seek out and support artists who write and perform songs that meet certain restrictive theological criteria and who maintain a pristine public image (as defined by those organizations). The quickest route out of an otherwise successful career in Christian music is to be caught having an affair, getting a divorce, showing too much skin in public, or other “sins” that many people throughout the world have committed and are almost certainly common with the less-public players within that industry. While I agree that those are not behaviors we need to promote or celebrate, Jesus never ostracized people for their sin or human weaknesses.
The result is that we often hear the same messages, songs, and artists for years on end. Even new songs entering the market present the same types of limited theology and melodies. While that is not bigotry per se, it does give a severely limited view and experience of Christianity. It excludes much of the wonderful diversity of God’s creation and mischaracterizes the wide variety of God’s frail and flawed children. Worse yet, we find it hard to discover where we belong with that sort of limited presentation of what faith is. Only in our most uninformed and shallow assessments of our own nature do we worship as fervently or appear as holy as those who have become the face of the industry, which is to say it looks like any other commercial venture, but in religious garb. Does this portrayal welcome and include the least and the lost, the broken and marginalized, or the sinners among us? These undesirables are the very people Jesus sought and ministered to. Somehow, I doubt that Jesus would waste much time in today’s churches (or listening to Christian radio).
Lest I be overly critical, let me affirm that all churches provide worthwhile services, if only in providing opportunities for worship. But worship alone does not make Christians. Providing opportunities for fellowship with others is important, but those fellowships tend to be with like-minded people. Jesus modeled a diverse and inclusive fellowship. Many churches actively host or support efforts to feed the hungry, affirm the outcast, shelter the homeless, and heal the sick, all of which are certainly Jesus-like activities.
To become Christians, however, we must be changed. Is the church actively leading me to change my inner being? Is it opening my mind and heart to the ineffable nature of God? Is it encouraging or insisting that I stand shoulder-to-shoulder with others who are not like me? If not, then the church is likely practicing and encouraging something less than Christianity.
This is the 5th in the series of Life Notes titled Churchianity vs Christianity. I invite your thoughts, insights, and feedback via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or through my website, www.ContemplatingGrace.com. At the website, you can also sign up to have these reflections delivered to your Inbox every Thursday morning and browse the archives of my Life Notes, Podcasts, music, books, and other musings.
 Howard Thurman, Essential Writings. Orbis Books, 2006. P. 77.
 Richard Rohr, What Do We Do With Evil?, CAC Publishing, 2019, pp. 22-23.