Reading the latest statistics about church, religion, and faith, the common theme running through all of the stories can be summed up best in a single word – disappointment. That’s seems to be the root of all these unwarranted expectations, criticisms, and crises we find exemplified by those who say they have left the church.
Someone wants help and is not getting the help they want; someone needs a problem solved and the problem is not going away; someone is hurting and not getting any relief. It can all be summed up by their feelings of disappointment.
We shouldn’t be surprised by any of this. We live in a fallen world, and it makes sense that, if life is not working as it is supposed to work, people would turn to the Church to relieve that sense of disappointment to get help. Yet the reality is that neither a Church nor a pastor can satisfy every person’s disappointment. Don’t agree?
Read about the ministry of Jesus Christ from the original source. Take a look at the Acts of the Apostles, or the Letters of St. Paul to see just what was happening in the Early Church of the first century and the two thousand years since.
There are pastors who I say wrongly believe that it is their job to make people happy, so they run themselves ragged trying to cater to the myriad of needs of people. It may sound strange, but I say that the Church does not exist to help people.
Our job is not to solve their problems or alleviate their disappointments. The primary reason the Church exists is salvation, and the pastor to point people to Christ who is the ultimate solution to their problems. Our work should draw attention to the one who has saved us, the one who has given us hope in place of our disappointment. And clergymen do a disservice any time they position themselves as the ultimate answer to the problems of the people. And priests have done just that.
In our well-meaning attempts to promote Christianity and the Church as the answer to everything, we sometimes overpromise when we present the Gospel. We want our Churches to be happy places, perfect places, giving the impression that happy feelings always come from the Church.
In the Armenian Church we want to meet the needs of everybody – Armenian Language classes, Bible Study, cooking classes, social encounters, dance groups, Women’s Guilds, Men’s Clubs, Youth groups, – so we have our parishes filled with broad spectrums of groups for every conceivable need. But, we end up doing so many things poorly rather than what it is we are called to do well.
If you ask me – and few do because of the honest and straightforward answers I give – is to strip down the Gospel to its essence: mankind getting right with God as the Holy Father and not as our spiritual manager or social director.
With that in mind, then those on both sides of the pew need accept the follow lessons of reality:
• The Church will not always make you feel comfortable.
• The Church will not be the answer to your every need.
• You will sometimes not like what happens at Church.
• You might leave a service unhappy once in a while, particularly if you are seeing yourself in light of God’s righteousness.
• If you are a single person, going to Church will not guarantee you a spouse.
• Going to Church will not guarantee that your children will not rebel.
• Going to Church is not the answer to all your financial problems.
• You might not get along with everybody you meet at Church.
• You might find yourself not agreeing with the Pastor.
• You may not be asked to head a committee.
• You may be disappointed.
The ultimate solution to the disappointments people experience is pointing them to Christ and letting him be the Great Physician in their lives. Once this is done, disappointment takes on a different nuance. Now if people are disappointed, they are ultimately disappointed with God.
A teenager’s parents crying in the priest’s office, so sad that their son is walking the wrong path, so desperate for help from the Church, so expectant and even demanding that the pastor intervene. They prayed about the situation. They begged God to intervene. So where is God? Clearly, he is the one with whom they are upset.
When people do come to the priest with their frustrations, sharing their pains and disappointments, the priest needs to dig beneath the layer of the immediate concern. When those parents are crying in the office, a good priest is also crying with them. What they are ultimately expressing is that they are frustrated that God allows people to make bad choices – and in this case, by their son.
The real work of the pastor is not to try to solve their problems, particularly when pathways to immediate solutions perhaps had already been suggested and are not being heeded. The answer is not to ratchet up the youth program, or to drop everything and help chase a rebellious teenage son, or to lock him in his room until he turns 30.
Rather, the real work of the pastor is to help give the parents a clearer sense of who God is, that God is good no matter what they are experiencing right now, that he desperately loves their son even to the point of allowing him to make poor choices. The real work of a priest is to help people come to grips with God’s goodness, even though we often do not understand his ways.
When a pastor encounters unreasonable expectations by his congregants, one very practical and biblical response is something we find modeled in the Psalms, in the ministry of Jeremiah, and throughout much of the major and minor prophets of the Old Testament.
It is unfortunate that many times readings and lessons from the Old Testament are omitted from our Sunday Badarak for “time constraints.” Yes, there are those who see three to four minutes of Old Testament scripture during Badarak, prescribed by our Church Fathers, as unnecessary. Some even feel it is simply the historical account of the Jews and not important for Christians today.
But the wisdom of the Prophets, the Psalms, the Book of Proverbs, et al. are resources that await us all. And in this situation, the response to disappointment, to unanswered questions and unresolved tension, to the pain and suffering people bring to the priest is to invite them to lament, one of the most prominent emotions we find in the Book of Psalms.
This means that when a person comes to a priest with a problem that cannot be solved, he is to point them to Jesus Christ and invite them to honestly pour out their heart to the Lord. We know that God is the God of all comfort. When we lament, we acknowledge, yes, that God is good and sovereign, yet life is not as we would like it to be.
We find validation for our grieving in our lamentation. We learn that our emotions are permitted, that it is right to express them, even when those emotions include anger at injustice. The biblical form of lamenting allows people to feel and express the discomfort and disappointment they experience living in an imperfect world.
When you invite people to lament you are acknowledging that you, as a church leader, are with them in their journey, and you empathize with what they are going through. You do not try to cheer them up. You do not try to fix all their problems. You allow them to feel the hard truth, the raw emotion of the problem or circumstance. And you point them to God.
One-third of the offerings in the Book of Psalms are Psalms of lament that cry out to God at those times when the nation of Israel felt abandoned by him. However, there was no whining, no self-pity, or vindictive bitterness in these cries. And yet, while crying out to God, we also find their praises to him reverberating through their human sorrow.
David cried out to God. So did Jesus, who prayed with “loud crying and tears to the one who was able to save him from distress.” God himself did this with Job.
After Job had lost his family, his health, his housing, his reputation, and his livelihood, God did not wipe away every tear, at least not at first. God did not try to make things all better. God did not offer Job any solutions to his problems. God did not crank up the ministries at the local Church to help Job recover the things he had lost.
God simply pointed Job to the realities of the moment: that Job was a man, and that God was God. He allowed Job to lament, to call out in distress, and then God pointed him to facts that he could not fathom. It is perhaps the best example of pastoral ministry ever recorded.
In truth, critics are seldom disappointed with pastors: they are usually disappointed with themselves, their lives, or their God. The pastor usually becomes simply a convenient target.
The lesson of the Church that has been present from the time of Jesus to this day is – it is hard to be a priest.
Good priests will try very hard to get people to love Christ and when they don’t, should ask why – again and again. Why don’t people serve more? Why don’t they give more? Why don’t they share their faith? Why do they keep looking at pornography? Why don’t they get along with each other better? Why are they so angry? Why do they act in ways that tear down rather than build up our churches and clergy? Why do they sin so unashamedly?
The ultimate work of a pastor is God’s doing. The pastor cannot make people do anything. Paul’s commitment in Ephesians is to pray harder, and to pray for a specific thing: that people would know the fullness of God, so that people can understand Christ’s love for them.
That’s a difficult concept to grasp fully. No matter how hard priests work, they will never be able to get people to love God. That work comes from God by the power of his Spirit. It’s a supernatural exchange. God grants the love. If a person does not truly understand the depths of God’s love, a priest will not be able to talk the person into it. This granting is something only God can do.
The priest can only tell them that God, the Creator of the world, the only God that matters, loves them deeply more than any other human being could.
John 3:16 – we all should know it so well: that God loves you so much that he gave his Son to die on a cross for you. It doesn’t matter how messed up you are, how much you’ve rebelled against him, or even how indifferent you might be to matters of the Cross; God still loves you deeply.
Who does this? Who chooses to die in place of someone else? What an amazing God this is!
Yes, the priest can make and does make this introduction, but nothing will happen until the Holy Spirit supernaturally gives a person the ability to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge. He enables people to know something they can’t know. You understand God’s love in your inner being. And for people to understand this love, it comes only through prayer, for prayer is the first and greatest work that we do.
See what happens when you do this.