Q & R: Tyranny of the church

Here’s the Q:

I lived many years organizing my good works through the church. After all, the good things the church does are worthwhile, and being involved in the good works of the church is what believers are supposed to do. Quite suddenly I’ve recognized the subtle, seductive tyranny of that mindset. Jesus did not seem to take cues from the synagogues about what he should be doing. Of course there is nothing inherently wrong with groups of Christians (even inside a church) organizing something. But when those activities—take singing in the choir, for example—acquire a life of their own, predetermining our weekly and yearlong schedules, we can succumb to the temptation to say that we are “serving Christ” automatically by belonging to that activity. Even the ideas that “everyone has a ministry in the local church” and “there’s a place for YOU to serve with us!” have a potential (maybe actual?) dark side in codifying what is being done with a sort of guaranteed spirituality, and in creating guilt among newcomers (or old attenders) who have not fit in. Do you think it is possible for a local church to avoid this kind of tyranny?

Here’s the R:

First, I’m sensitive to your frustration. I know at various times when I was a pastor, I felt that ministry could easily become a ministry machine, and I receive a lot of emails from and find myself in a lot of conversations with folks who have experienced a kind of tyranny … feeling used and used up.
But I have to quickly add that most of the time when I was a pastor, it was a joy, and I felt I had the greatest job in the world. And for every church that is running a ministry machine, there are others who are blessing people left and right, dispensing grace rather than guilt and serving rather than controlling.
I think a comparison to marriage and family life works quite well. There is nothing quite as wonderful as a good marriage and happy family … and there is nothing quite as miserable as a dark marriage and dysfunctional family. When you’re in the middle of a divorce or going through a nightmare with parents or children, it’s hard to imagine that any family could actually be happy. You’re often tempted to assume that happy families are faking it …
Something similar happens in church life, I think. Add to the fact that I think congregational and denomination life are both under extraordinary stresses these days and both are being required to make huge adjustments … as are nuclear and extended families. In both cases, I think folks will learn to adjust and that better days are ahead, but between here and there, there is a lot of stress, strain, angst, and pain that shouldn’t be minimized … which is why your question is so worth raising.
Your question raises the additional question – what makes churches get a “dark spirit,” and what can be done for that spirit to brighten? That probably deserves a book or two – but let me suggest that a healing process begins when a) people acknowledge something is wrong and b) they refuse to blame one person or group or cause for the problem. The problem is no doubt complex and multi-faceted … and curable if properly diagnosed.
Much more needs to be said … but that’s a start. Perhaps folks over on my facebook page and elsewhere would like to pick this up for further discussion.