Recently, I sat in a church listening as worshippers around me excitedly sang to a very well-known worship song. It was one of those songs that takes you back to your youth group days, one from the late 90s early 2000s, performed by Chris Tomlin and the like. For many singing in that room, this song was about the beauty of God’s wonder and power.
But I sat thinking back to the creation of that song.
I thought about how the language of this song and so many worship songs can encourage a kind of pride and want for our own power, for our own image to be elevated, even as we worship.
The ways we, as Christians, interpret the Bible and place the “will of God” over others is just as much an opportunity for good as it is a dangerous one, and we have to pay attention to which direction we lead ourselves and others.
The things we create hold so much power, and the systems we create, equally so. Within and without the church, we have to understand that the things we do as people of privilege have a vast impact, and it’s not to be taken lightly.
I think about youth missions trips, about the ways we teach our Sunday school classes, and the rules we put together to enforce discipleship and obedience.
The law, which is turned into legalism in many religious circles, was created with good intentions– boxes and checkmarks to keep people in line with each other and with God. Somehow, we decided to put off the old law and give ourselves a whole set of new ones, and over time, legalism takes control, and after a while, we end up with deeply damaged people trying to find their way to God.
Maybe the Christians who ran boarding schools for Native people in the United States had good intentions.
Maybe slave owners had good intentions.
Maybe American values, consumerism, and modern evangelicalism began with good intentions, but we are responsible for where those intentions lead. And if we are among the privileged, we have to be honest about what our privilege asks of us.
Generations of speakers in numerous Native tribes lost their languages and culture because of boarding schools. Maybe the apologies that those intentions were not what they should have been could be acknowledged today, and a great place to begin is the church.
When I was little, I was sure that while I was going to heaven because of the prayer I’d prayed when I was nine, one of my best friends wasn’t. I cried over her lost soul time and again, asked her to consider saying that prayer to accept Jesus into her heart. I believed, like many, that the golden ticket was right in front of her and all she needed to do was reach for it.
But I was young. I was a product of a church culture. And so, the church culture must change if we have any hope of caring for people where they are.
Because our attempts to pray sexual orientation out of people or to shame people for living outside the confines of the church, among many other wrongdoings, must also be repented of.
As Richard Rohr says in his book, Simplicity:
“Many of us were brought up with a totalitarian spirituality, not with a spirituality of compassion. ‘Kill the enemy, attack the enemy!’ was the message-and so we’ve attacked and killed ourselves.”
Perhaps it begins on an individual level, at the heart and at the core, where we examine within ourselves what it means to truly live under the call of Jesus to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. And maybe it begins with actually loving ourselves as God loves us, and as we see the truth of ourselves, we can hold truth for one another.
Maybe if we begin there, it leads outside of each of us and seeps into the church institution, into other institutions, and over time, changes things.
But first, we’ve got to deconstruct. We’ve got to stop and ask. We’ve got to look deeper, and make no mistake about it-asking questions and seeking was never anti-gospel.
And, like many things, we admit that we don’t yet have the answers, and so we continue to ask the questions. And living a life that is open to asking will surely shape our future intentions, we pray, in a healthier way.
If we live according to the gospel, we are fueled by humility and compassion, we topple pyramid systems, and we stand against power and oppression. Because when power and privilege make our decisions and control our actions, sometimes our good intentions fail us and fail those we push our intentions upon.
We’ve long been a nation full of people with good intentions, and a kind of Christianity that hopes the best for others by those good intentions. It’s time to ask what those good intentions have led to, what leaders it has chosen for us, what injustices it has birthed in our neighborhoods, churches, workplaces, and schools.
But first, we must ask ourselves whether our own intentions really are as good as we tell ourselves they are. And while that’s hard, we don’t do it alone. Christ did it before us and continues to do it today.
“…how can I give away something that I don’t even have? Nevertheless I go out and heal others, even though I myself am not yet healed. I heal them through my brokenness, not through my power!” -Richard Rohr, Simplicity