Failures of Churches, C.S. Lewis-style

C.S. Lewis, famous for The Chronicles of Narnia and Mere Christianity, was a non-commissioned priest (NCP), a “lay person” untrained in theology and unpaid by a church, yet taking his personal ministry as a believer seriously. He became one of the most compelling defenders of Christianity of the past century. His book The Four Loves shares quite a bit of his view on church failures and a re-envisioned Church. This article explores some of the failures he saw.

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Lewis saw the abuses of the church through history, especially the danger of a Christian’s blind loyalty to the institution. He said patriotism “can also be felt for bodies that claim more than a natural affection: for a Church or (alas) a party in a Church, or for a religious order. This terrible subject would require a book to itself… Patriotism towards the [church] can very easily borrow the transcendent claims of [heaven] and use them to justify the most abominable actions. If ever the book which I am not going to write is written it must be the full confession by Christendom of Christendom’s specific contribution to the sum of human cruelty and treachery. Large areas of ‘the World’ will not hear us till we have publicly disowned much of our past. Why should they? We have shouted the name of Christ and enacted the service of Moloch.”

Blind loyalty to institutions has led to terrible abuses in history. This is hardly unique to Christian churches or even religion. Anywhere two or more are gathered, politics and conflict soon ensue. The longer they are gathered, the more institutionalized their structures become. Many churches start healthy:church plants, mission churches; others stay healthy by focusing small like house churches that can avoid all the infrastructure institutions accumulate. Some can stay healthy by revisiting their founding ideals, as in the case of churches that experience reform movements. Many churches, however, are devastatingly unhealthy.

Seeking reform in churches is even more pressing today. It isn’t just atheists who remind the church it doesn’t have parking lots paved in gold. An entire generation is rising up to say, “If this is what the church stands for, if this is what the church is okay with – count us out.” The good thing for frustrated Millennials, God can be served outside of church. This was the case in the first three centuries of faith and is how believers serve throughout the world  today in regions of persecution. Christians have often been forced to serve God outside church buildings, largely due to external forces. Here’s the rub: it’s more a travesty when Christians are forced to serve God outside church buildings because of internal forces.

Lewis understood the internal forces that might drive young Christians to operate outside of churches:

“We hear a great deal about the rudeness of the rising generation. I am an oldster myself and might be expected to take the oldster’s side, but in fact I have been far more impressed by the bad manners of parents to children than by those of children to parents. Who has not been the embarrassed guest at family meals where the father or mother treated their grown-up offspring with an incivility which, offered to any other young people, would simply have terminated the acquaintance? Dogmatic assertions on matters which the children understand and their elders don’t, ruthless interruptions, flat contradictions, ridicule of things the young take seriously – sometimes of their religion – insulting references to their friends, all provide an easy answer to the question ‘Why are they always out? Why do they like every house better than their home?’ Who does not prefer civility to barbarism?”

Barbarism is common in churches today, not just homes. Ask any Millennial if this fairly summarizes how they’ve been treated in their church. Are Millennials “entitled” for expecting churches to do right by virtues like charity, compassion, grace, honesty? Or is it church institutions that feel entitled, as if Millennials owe it to the world to keep their institution going? Entitlement is a matter of perspective, and one usually held by those in power and commonly projected against their subjects. But when it comes to generations, it’s only a matter of time before the balance shifts – one will pass, the next will replace it. Better to prepare the younger generation than to treat them dismissively; whether they seem more entitled than you like or not, they’ll be inheriting what you leave behind.

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