Should we bother with church? [Questioning faith #24]

Ted Grimsrud—May 16, 2023

I did not grow up with churchgoing as part of my identity. My family did go to church regularly until I was eight years old, but I don’t think it was that important for us. When their Methodist congregation folded, I don’t believe my parents grieved much. Then, for nine years I rarely went to church. At the age of 17, by my own choice, I began attending a Baptist congregation. In the 50+ years since, I have always felt that going to church was my choice, and when I have had extended periods of not going, I did not feel guilty or unhappy—unlike many of my friends over the years for whom churchgoing has been part of their identity. These days, as I think about church, I have a lot of mixed feelings.

In the Bible, human beings are given salvation so that they might embody God’s will in this life. From the calling of Abraham and Sarah to the final revelation of the New Jerusalem, the Bible portrays lived salvation as community centered. Faith communities provide the context for human flourishing. However, in our fallen world faith communities also in practice have often not actually been that healthy for people. Their legacy is ambiguous. So, when I think about the Christian church, the questions come pretty quickly—especially one set of questions: The church, comforter or afflicter? The church, a place that heals or a place that hurts? The church, oppressor or liberator? The church, a blessing or a curse?

I have an answer to these questions: “Yes!” What I mean is, in my experience, the church has been both a blessing and a curse. We invest ourselves in this community, we make ourselves vulnerable to each other, we care deeply. The rewards can be great—but so too can be the disappointment and hurt.

When the church is a curse

I co-pastored a large rural congregation in the Midwest with my wife Kathleen some time ago. This congregation had an enormous impact on many people’s lives, mostly for the good. However, it also hurt a number of people. So, we joked ruefully (and gruesomely) of our congregation having “roadkill” spread around the countryside.

When is the church a curse? Sometimes a relatively powerless individual or group becomes the focus of “church discipline.” This scapegoat gets the boot, and the larger group finds momentary peace. This is how I understand what happened in a regional conference I was part of once. During a time of great anxiety, a small, counter-cultural congregation became the focus of concern. This congregation was quiet and unobtrusive. However, the conference challenged them on their beliefs, and they were unwilling to toe the party line. So, in short order this congregation was expelled from the conference (for the sake of the “unity of the whole”—that is, in order to appease various people who threatened to leave the conference).

The church tends to be a curse when it places a priority on perceived purity over compassion and understanding. I mentioned our congregation in the Midwest. Kathleen learned to know an elderly man, a former member, who lived near our church. He had experienced great pain back in the 1950s when he married a woman who had been divorced. This young couple was made to feel unwelcome and removed themselves from the congregation. But our neighbor’s family had been deeply invested in this congregation, and he never felt at home in a different church. So, decades later the couple remained mostly alone, their pain still very present.

Desmond Tutu, the great South African peacemaker, lamented over the church. He pointed out that in just about every movement for justice and liberation over the past few centuries, the strongest opposition to change has come from the church. I have read of many Christians who argued strenuously in favor of slavery right up until the Civil War. Even today, it is said that Sunday morning is the most segregated time of the week in our society.

The general message the churches have given is one of support for the status quo. In Britain, a long effort lasting much of the nineteenth century to end the death penalty came to the brink of success early in the twentieth century—but it was held up for one more generation. The bishops of the Church of England continued to insist that the death penalty reflected God’s will. Abolition only came when the bishops relented. Is it a coincidence that as the church has lost power in Western Europe, rejection of the death penalty has spread?

The thing is, the more I learn both of the history of churches and the contemporary practices of churches, this “dark side” seems ever present. It seems that even when churches function in healthy, life-giving ways, things eventually change, and major problems arise. It seems that there is something inherently deadening about churches that inevitably undermine possibilities of actually embodying the way of Jesus.

When the church is a blessing

However, of course, the church indeed has been and continues to be a blessing as well as a curse. Many of us have found love and care in the church. I know I have. I can think back now more than fifty years when as a teenager I first chose to attend church. I was stunned when I learned that people in that church had cared enough about me to be praying for my wellbeing, even when they barely knew me. The experience of genuinely being loved remains the legacy of that experience—an experience that decisively shaped the rest of my life.

Some of my most meaningful moments in my decade as a pastor came in being community with people I likely would never have had occasion to learn to know otherwise. Being invited into others’ lives as they faced death, buried loved ones, and struggled with loneliness and illness—and, sharing with others the joys of new life (babies, weddings, the coming to faith), indeed constituted a blessing.

The church is also a blessing when it provides enough critical mass of clarity and faith to stand as a counterweight to our wider society’s violence and imperialism. In most college classes I taught, I would feel grateful to congregations that had positive impacts on my students. Some congregations, at least, do shape their young people to question materialistic and militaristic values in American culture as they seek to follow the way of Jesus.

The church is a blessing when it provides an anchor for our workaday lives, a place where we may come to sing and pray together, where we may come to be around people whose lives inspire us to try just a bit harder to love and care for others. Many years ago, my best friend in graduate school, who himself had an ambiguous relationship with faith, said, “well, the church has a lot of problems, but it is the one place in our society where people gather to confess together that they do not want to be jerks. And that’s worth something.”

The mundane value of the church

How do we negotiate this blessing/curse tension? I believe a key step would be to desacralize the church. Maybe we should not think of the church as something unique and special in God’s eyes, a “sacred place” akin to the Temple in the Bible. Maybe we should not think of the church as a place that exists over against the secular world. Maybe we should think of the church simply as one possible human community.

The church is a human structure. As such it is one of the Powers; as such it is one of the fallen Powers—capable of good, certainly. But the church, like all human structures, like all fallen Powers, can easily become an idol. The church can seek to take God’s place in our lives. The church, like many other human structures, can become an absolute that demands to be defended—even with violence if necessary (witness various inquisitions and crusades). If we no longer look at the church as sacred and if we recognize our tendency to make it an idol, will there be any reason to want to “redeem” it, nonetheless? Is there any reason to bother with the church if it is simply a human structure?

I find this to be a challenging question. I am no longer sure about the value of the church. However, I still want to say yes, the church (in some of its forms) is worth bothering with. At least I would like to think it is. One kind of reason for bothering with the church is a “mundane” or everyday reason. Even if the church is not sacred, it still serves the life-enhancing role that any life-enhancing human community does (and we need life-enhancing communities). A second kind of reason is more, we could say, a “Christian” reason. If we thank that Jesus matters for how we live our lives, might we then have some good reasons to bother with the church?

What about the mundane rationale? Human beings are, by nature, social creatures. We need other human beings in order to be human. We may see this need clearly in a negative sense when we look at how it is exploited by oppressors. The most powerful weapon prisons have to control prisoners is solitary confinement. Hundreds of years ago, in their desire to make prisons more humane, Quaker reformers argued for solitary confinement to take the place of beatings. If prisoners are isolated, the argument went, they will search their souls and seek to change. Well, what happened instead is that solitary confinement drove prisoners insane. And, bingo, tragically, pacifist Quakers gave prisons a powerful weapon for violence.

We are learning of the careful research into torture methods that our government has sponsored. These methods include intense efforts to disorient and isolate detainees. Such trauma triggers detainees’ need for human contact. When the need is strong enough, detainees reach out to their torturers since they are so desperate to connect with humans. Then the torturers have them where they want them. Of course, this story is terribly upsetting—but we may learn from it. These occasions of the cost of isolation underscore just how important human community is. The positive side, the joy we receive from friendship, underscores just how central community is to being whole human beings. And church is one place where we can find such community. Probably all of us, if we were to list the moments in our lives when we have experienced genuine joy, would include times with friends, maybe even friends in church.

About 40 years after the event, Kathleen and I discovered a lost cassette tape from our wedding in the late 1970s. Talk about bringing back old memories. We were quite impressed at the simplicity of the service. From the welcoming of guests to the recessional took all of 17 minutes! Neither of us wanted to bore anyone, I guess. The big memories, though, are of our friends, our congregation. The music, the sermon, the reception, the sense of joy and encouragement the two of us felt all arose out of our faith community.

Church communities also at times have been crucial to wider social movements—think of the role of the Catholic Church in Poland in resisting Communism and the role of black churches in the American South during the civil rights movement. So, one set of reasons to bother with church might well be simply our human need for community.

The church and Jesus

I cannot avoid also asking questions about a theological rationale for church. It certainly can be seen as a potentially useful human community with many practical valuable aspects. But is there more? Let’s think about the church as if Jesus matters—where we think of it as a community that will embody the same hierarchy of values, the same theology, that we see in Jesus. To think of the church as if Jesus matters is to say that the church is worth affirming when it self-consciously furthers Jesus’s way—through its teaching and preaching, through its worship and communal prayer, through its practices and projects.

We should bother with the church as Christians because it can be, it should be, it must be (if it is to be faithful), a place where people work together to embody, to make real and concrete, the basic message of Jesus: Love God and neighbor. And as social creatures, we need other people to help us do this.

An interesting New Testament text that speaks to what church that places Jesus as the center might be like may be found in Romans. Paul writes in chapter 12: “We, who are many, are one body in Christ…. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness. Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor” (Romans 12:4-10).

Romans twelve points to the faith community as a counterculture that thinks differently. This counterculture makes Jesus’s priorities its priorities in contrast to the priorities of the “domination system,” that is, in contrast to the ethics of power-over all too common in the world. The church is, thus, worth bothering with insofar as it understands its existence as a way to help its people to embody these attributes. The church is not an end in itself. It serves the true ends: love of God and neighbor. To such service is where seeing the church in light of Jesus leads us.


In the end, I have found church to be pretty complicated. I have experienced a tension between hopes and realities. In my discussion of church as a “blessing,” I have reflected on my actual experiences but also on my ideals. The very ideals of thinking about church as if Jesus matters point to a contrast with the ways church actually tends to function—ways that often undermine the message of Jesus. I have found that the more seriously I take Jesus and the Bible, the more disappointed I am with Christian churches.

Because I did not grow up with a feeling in my bones that the church is necessary, I have always felt that it was a choice whether or not I would participate. That has made it easier to step away, which seems problematic for the existence of churches. If people don’t feel in their bones that church is necessary—whether it actually is enhancing life or not—is it possible that it will fade away? On the other hand, if the main reason it survives is some kind of magical sense that it is “necessary” even if it is not actually serving the gospel of Jesus, should we want it to survive?

Questioning Faith blog series

7 thoughts on “Should we bother with church? [Questioning faith #24]

  1. Jesus himself didn’t exhibit a whole lot of optimism about Love (“humanization”?) breaking into families or friendships or towns or cities or synagogues or whatnot. But he didn’t consider it impossible.
    It seems to me that he wouldn’t be anti-church or even anti-Church nowadays. But he would — now as then– criticize any institution that’s not serving Love. Maybe the question about “Church” (or any given congregation) is how well and constantly it demolishes obstacles to Love.

    1. Good thoughts, KT! I think that Christianity gets into trouble when it: (1) makes the church itself ultimate rather than seeing it as, one could say, a tool to empower people living in love, and/or (2) presents Jesus primarily in doctrinal terms rather than as a guide to humane living.

  2. Thanks for asking and pondering these important questions, Ted.

    For myself, I find that I need the church to help me continue trying to follow Jesus. I can’t do it without the encouragement — both active and passive — of the church. However, I accept that that’s just my own perspective and experience and can’t be universalised.

    I also wonder, though, what it might mean for the dissemination of the Gospel/the Christian message if all churches were to disappear. Would you have come to faith without the influence of one or more churches? It’s highly likely that I wouldn’t have.

    1. I appreciate the encouraging words, Rob!

      You ask a good question. Certainly, it was through various churches that I came to and sustained faith. My problem is that the process that began due to the witness of those churches led me to read the Bible and study theology. That work then led to recognize that most of what I was taught by my first church was wrong and even destructive to human wellbeing.

      That’s the contradiction I feel. I love the truths I have encountered through my engagement with Christian churches—but I hate so much of what Christian churches have been responsible for over the past 2,000 years. I am not convinced that the world is better off for the Christian religion (which I differentiate from Jesus and his message) having existed.

      Of course, the point (as I see it) is to seek to follow Jesus and his way in the actual world we live in—which does mean the church is here (for better and worse) and we must deal with it.

      1. I totally hear where you’re coming from, Ted. I also feel the contradictions and tensions you articulate. I don’t have an answer.

  3. Good thoughts and questions posed, Ted. I have most of the same ones and the same ambivalence re. “the Church” and even churches (not trying to be the “true” one).

    I opted out for several years during and after moving from an Evangelical paradigm to a progressive/Process one. Eventually went back into the UCC denomination… two different churches, which are quite different.

    One of the observations I have which I think is of importance and not shared by a lot of Christians is this: Progressive Christians (and denominations) have almost always (a few rare exceptions) thrown out the emotive/”spirit-led” aspect of worship, prayer for healing, etc. They largely excise it in their treatment of the Bible as well as in the life of their communities.

    Now, I believe many of the specific stories of both Hebrew and Greek Scriptures are either concocted entirely or greatly embellished…. Jesus probably WAS some type of healer and exorcist, but not quite as presented in the Gospels. On the other hand, if progressive churches are ONLY about social justice and a general awe of Jesus and God, and everything “supernatural” in the Bible is denied or ignored, they are indeed hardly truly “spiritual”. They need not follow the ancient creeds or any kind of literalism to realize that the Bible is far from the only “sacred” text which presents an “otherworldly” kind of spiritual experience, because that is the very context and one of the key points of any “religion” or set of spiritual practices; and people are highly prone to pay that attention and desire it.

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