Is the Church Full of Hypocrites? Yes. Next Question.
So, I suppose there is an ever-expanding list of reasons that people choose not to attend church, but there is one for which I want to offer a disclaimer: the church is full of people who go in and listen to all kinds of good that they should do and then go out and not do it. What do you expect?
For 45 years, I served as a pastor to churches full of hypocrites, including yours truly. I once heard a story about a man who asked his preacher, “Can you do all those things you preach about?” The preacher’s response was, “Heaven’s no. If I only preached what I could do, you would be receiving a very weak message. What I offer you is a challenge to me, too.”
I often told people who affirmed what I said in a sermon, “Well, I preach the best about stuff I need to hear.” The church is made up of people who know they need something beyond themselves, and yet that “beyond” is a powerful message of both judgment and redemption.
When I was a young buck, I was not happy with all kinds of institutions, especially the church. One evening when I was debating my mother about how petty and insignificant the church could be, she pointed her finger at me and said in no uncertain words, “Look boy, I put up with the church so that the church can be the church when the church needs to be the church.”
I “grew up” and discovered what she meant. As a pastor it is true I observed the church being too ingrown and mired, at times, in petty disagreements. But then I would see meals fixed for grieving families, sheltering services for lost people who faced dark valleys, places of safety for young people who faced all kinds of questions, and a place to learn about a defining story.
I used to tell my people to let folks “out there” know that we did not have all the answers but that we were a people who welcomed people just as they are, with all their questions. One of my favorite phrases comes from the pen of poet Rainer Maris Rilke:
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
I used to tell couples who wanted me to marry them that I was not a boat captain or a Justice of the Peace, so if they wanted a pastor to do the wedding they had to at least try being part of a church. I would even encourage them to shop around, but like buying a sofa, don’t stop trying because the first place fails to provide what you want.
I would tell them to keep shopping and find a church that suits them, but after they get their needs from the “buffet,” that when they join the church, it would be time to get behind the buffet and serve. A “good” church reminds us that we are not self-made, and that life is a gift and we are to give back.
Yes, the church is full of hypocrites who constantly fail to do what the message asks of us, but we keep coming back to try again because we learn that we need a defining story. My first and last Sundays at my churches, I always quoted from Martin Bell’s Rag Tag Army. It is a great image of what the church really is.
The church, at its best, is a Rag Tag army made up of “tiny soldiers” who cannot even keep step. The drum beat isn’t even regular and the tiny soldiers often get lost or end up marching around in circles. Here is one of my favorite parts:
“If God were more sensible he’d take his little army and shape them up. Why, whoever heard of a soldier stopping to romp in a field? It’s ridiculous. But even more absurd is a general who will stop the march of eternity to go and bring him back. But that’s God for you. His is no endless, empty marching. He is going somewhere. His steps are deliberate and purposive. He may be old, and he may be tired. But he knows where he’s going. And he means to take every last one of his tiny soldiers with him.
Only there aren’t going to be any forced marches. And he won’t go on without us. And that’s why it’s taking so long. Listen! The drum beat isn’t even regular. Everyone is out of step. And there! You see? God keeps stopping along the way to pick up one of his tinier soldiers who decided to wander off and play with a frog, or run in a file, or whose foot got tangled in the underbrush. He’ll never get anywhere that way!
And yet, the march goes on…” (From “The Way of the Wolf” by Martin Bell)
Ah yes, the church is full of hypocrites. Next question.
Dr. Jody Seymour
Jody Seymour retired after serving Davidson United Methodist Church as Senior Pastor for 13 years and being a pastor for forty-six years in the Western North Carolina Conference. He is the author of six books and resides just outside of Davidson with his wife, Betsy.