FDR famously said, “The only thing we have to fear is
fear itself.”  Similarly, I sometimes think the church’s greatest threat
is the church itself.
These days, many people are intensely interested in
Jesus, but, at the same time, profoundly disinterested in the church. 
This wide gap between how people feel about Jesus and how they feel about the
church reflects, in part, a broad cultural trend away from involvement in
organized groups.  Across America, membership in civic clubs—Rotary,
Kiwanis, Lions—has been declining for two decades.  Far fewer Americans
vote in elections, participate in political parties, and attend city council,
county commission or school board meetings. 
More and more Americans say something like: “I am
spiritual but not religious,” which means they have feelings of connection with
the divine, and practices which nurture that connection, but keep their
distance from churches.  Jesus is popular.  The church?  Not so
That distance from the church isn’t simply the result of
broader trends away from civic engagement and social affiliation.  The gap
between people’s fascination with Jesus and their indifference, or even
resistance, to the church also has to do with the church’s own failure to be
like Jesus. 
There are big and obvious wrongs which show how the
church can fail to look and sound like Jesus: Priests abuse children. 
Preachers call for men and women created in God’s image to be rounded-up,
locked-up and quarantined or killed because of their lifestyles. 
Televangelists amass wealth scammed from people living on fixed incomes.
But there are everyday ways in which the church denies
Jesus, just as surely as Peter did on the night before his death.  When
justice, peace, and concern for the marginalized get pushed aside by petty
moralism, nervous deference to the status quo, and anxious refusal to share
resources with those who need them, then the church is a long way from Jesus.
When church people use the Bible like a weapon to
bludgeon people with whom they disagree or to oppress women and keep them “in
their place”; when fear is a tactic to force conformity of behavior and
uniformity of thought; when condemnation is more common than compassion; when
legalism overrules freedom; when forgiveness gets lost in the fog of judgment;
when status matters more than service; and when harshness drives out humility,
then the church has made itself unlike Jesus.    
When these kinds of things happen, people outside the
church see sooner and more clearly than do people inside that something is
desperately wrong.   They wonder how there can be so much talking and
singing about Jesus and so little evidence that the people doing all that
talking and singing mean to follow him and be like him.
The greatest threat the church faces is the church
itself, and the best hope for the church is Jesus.  Those of us who claim
to follow him need actually to do so.