Monday, September 26, 2011

Got a problem? Church will fix it.

After college I spent a few years working at a small business owned and operated by a Christian family. Although this business did not deal with counseling or ministry in any direct way, because there were a lot of repeat customers who were often the first generations of their family to live in the USA it wasn't uncommon for them to ask employees for advice.

One of the owners had this experience rather frequently. George (not his real name) was the type of Christian that argued against the evil influence of Harry Potter, feared the influence of anything that could be labeled "liberal," and insisted on corporate prayer at the beginning of every day. He would come up with interesting theories on how to spiritually interpret occurrences in the natural world.  He (as well as the other family members who worked there) served in some sort of leadership position at his church and would sometimes be known to make phone calls to church members during business hours in order to offer them spiritual guidance and correction. His office was close to mine, so I often overheard conversations with his clients.

One day a middle aged woman came in to talk to him. She had immigrated to the US and had two teenage sons that had grown up here. She was a frequent customer of George's, and when she was finished with business she began to confide in him that she was concerned about her sons. She was especially worried about her oldest son. His grades were slipping, he was being disrespectful to her, he was caught drinking, she thought his friends were a bad influence, and she was worried that he would start doing drugs (if he hadn't been already). Having worked with teenagers in such situations before, the conversation peaked my interest and I waited to hear how George would respond.

"Yeah, hmm...that's tough. Do you think he'd be interested in coming to my church? We've got a good youth group with a lot of nice kids. He could make better friends."

The woman returned a few days later with her sons to have them meet George. I distinctly remember her asking this uncomfortable teenager, "Do you want to go to George's church?"

I remember clenching my fists. I wanted to jump into the conversation, but I wasn't supposed to have heard it at all. I had worked with kids like him before. I knew the the tension in his decisions was far more likely to lie in the difficulty he was having  in trying to live in two worlds. His parents wanted to keep the ways of their native country and he just wanted to fit in with his American friends. Add on top of that all the pressures of simply being a teenager and you've got quite a dilemma on your hands. Being a teenager is hard enough without the extra pressure of trying to juggle the expectations of two distinct cultural identities.  In my opinion, church wasn't a "one size fits all" sort of answer for this.

I recalled this story after seeing this article.  A new law in Bay Minette, Alabama will allow judges a choice in sentencing misdemeanor offenders: jail time and a fine or church attendance every Sunday. Obvious this is being challenged on the grounds of constitutionality. That's something that should be discussed, but I'm not going to address this here. The reason I bring this up is exemplified in pastor's comment in the article:

"You show me somebody who falls in love with Jesus, and I'll show you a person who won't be a problem to society but that will be an influence and a help to those around them."

One thing that I was especially struck by during my time in American Evangelical Culture is this pervasive idea that you can solve anything by bringing someone to church. Drug addiction, rebellion, name it, and church will fix it. The belief is that if you turn your life over to Christ, you will have no desire to do sinful/detrimental things.

It sounds nice, but I think such reasoning is overly optimistic. I have known of Christians (pastors even) who beat their wives and/or children, stole property, used drugs, drank while underage, raped women, murdered someone, and the list goes on. Believing in Jesus doesn't make you suddenly incapable of such things. These are all fairly extreme examples, but just think of the Christians you know (and I include myself ) who still find themselves lying, gossiping, or being selfish from time to time. Those are all things the gospel also condemns, but belief and regular church attendance doesn't eliminate them from our lives.

Belief alone isn't enough to eliminate such things. It must be paired with a true commitment to change, and a willingness to seek out any psychological, behavioral, emotional, or mental factors that may be a large part of such decisions. Church/belief shouldn't be something people are forced into in an attempt to "fix" them. It should be a choice they make willingly as they try to discover their own spiritual fulfillment. Even more dangerous, it may ultimately have the same affect as failed healings. It shifts the burden onto those who've come to the church for help. If church/belief should be enough to take away their problems, the implication is that a failure to do so is evidence of that person's lack of authentic faith.

Back to my initial story about George's immigrant client. She did start taking her kids to his church and sending them to youth group. I don't know any of the details about their time their or how it affected her son. But I do know that a few months later, he got in trouble again, and she returned to the office to talk to George about his thoughts on her decision to send her son back to their home country away from all the bad influences. I wasn't surprised to hear that simply taking him to church and youth group wasn't enough.

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