Forging communities on mission outside of Christendom has been a refreshing and exhilarating experience. I'm a strategist and futurist by nature, so I have the propensity to convince myself I’ve sized up all the challenges that will come my way, before they come my way. But there was one issue that I was not prepared to run into so regularly and widely… bitterness. Over and over again our team has collided with the thick smog of bitterness that saturates many conversations and any intentional gathering related to Christianity. I’ve studied up on Post-Christianity but nothing could ready me for the discipleship challenge of very real and raw people being riddled with bitterness and cynicism.
For as much theological space and diversity our community embraces, for as relational as our ethos is, for as organic as our church ecclesiology is, we’ve found no way around colliding with deeply entrenched bitterness. I had a bit of a fantasy that because we were unlike institutional, hierarchical, consumer-oriented, more conservative expressions of church we would avoid this reality. But bitterness travels. Bitterness goes where we go and it paralyzes our energy for mission and community. Any team pioneering ministry outside of evangelicalism will suddenly find themselves outside the "Big Tent". It’s out here in this wide open terrain, that does not appeal to church-shoppers, that you will meet countless people who’ve seen, experienced or been through Christianity and carry massive wounds from that experience. For them the church was crueler and colder than expected.
The Prevalent Poison
A missional church must come to terms with the overwhelming number of people that carry a burning-bitterness. In many ways their inner turmoil towards the church and its extensions, are justified. There is no erasing the experiences that they lived through. Many of these angers have been untouched but quite possibly have been stoked by others who are just as turned-off and angry. But I am so thoroughly convinced that bitterness and cynicism is the most prevalent poison in our times. When we are hurt, dashed, and royally let down, a villain is erected. It becomes a sub-conscious controlling figure that clouds our choices, opinions and spiritual trajectory. Bitterness slowly burns a consuming mark on our outlook of the future. Emotional disappointment if unaddressed, renders us perpetually frustrated and disillusioned, even if the scenery changes.
5 Common Points of Bitterness
Here are some tangible and personal points of bitterness we’ve discovered in the city we love. In no way am I trying to stereo-type or demonize. In some ways this is an over simplistic presentation. I find it a privilege to be in the presence of people who are genuinely skeptical. Still, these are real-life touch points that our missional church has encountered up close and personal.
1. Bitterness Towards Leadership
A Christian leader really let them down, dashed their hopes, made promises they never followed through on, used power for personal gain, treated them like a number or gave them bad counsel. Their experience with Christian leadership colors their whole feeling towards authority.
- Missional Challenge: For as gracious, hospitable, trusting and peaceable that your current leadership might be, often times you will still be viewed through that skeptical lens created by bitterness. Their radar is on high alert looking for signs that you are not who you say you are. Often they are expecting the other shoe to drop, feeling spiritual abuse is just around the corner.
2. Bitterness Towards Christian Parents
Parents gave them a faith of obedience that gave little space for exploration, mystery and independence. Their parents went to church regularly and even had leadership roles but were judgmental, unloving and selfish.
- Missional Challenge: There are sores around this paternal relationship making it hard for them to cozy up to church because in some way it symbolizes the faith of their parents.
3. Bitterness Towards Structure
Institutional Christianity may have tried to push them through an assembly line to produce a cookie-cutter Christian man or woman. Church seemed forced with subtle manipulation. If they had doubts there was no room for them, if they had questions there were glares directed at them. The black and white presentations of the church did not fit with the complications of everyday life. The Christian music, events, sermons and Christian lingo seemed like a sheltered sub-culture.
- Missional Challenge: These realities make people skittish about any type of intentionality; meeting on a regular basis, regular teaching, regular stewardship, rhythmic community or purposeful mission. It is hard for them not to establish a posture of overreaction to protect themselves against previous oppressive modes of church.
4. Bitterness Towards Stifling Theology
The Theory of Evolution was called heresy, woman were relegated to children’s ministry, God was a detached Almighty who controlled everything including suffering, the Bible was a rule book, God was first feared then followed, a personal relationship with God didn’t seem all that personal. There are embedded visceral emotions connected to this brand of theology that they perceived alienated them.
- Missional Challenge: This is not a god they want to be associated with at all. Recovering a better image of God is hard because of their ingrained response to the God of their youth. They are a bit embarrassed to be aligned with God even though they are drawn to him.
5. Bitterness Towards Community
Christian friends let them down, they got offended and found no reconciliation. Their expectations were never met and they were perpetually disappointed with a lack of intimacy. It seemed liked few ever reciprocated when they reached out for connection.
- Missional Challenge: Being connected with Christians seems to be more trouble than it's worth. Their first position is one of distrust that keeps them cautiously distant. Unknowingly their thoughts on community are filtered through idealism and expectations no one can meet.
A Space for Recovery
Time does not often heal these issues. In many cases, time builds deeper tracks for bitterness to ride on. Missional Communities need to become incubators of grace, patience and carefulness for the sake of long term healing. But eventually in your discipleship, bitterness needs to be addressed directly. You cannot dance around this issue for too long because it eventually will sabotage partnering with God and each other. I've observed that underlying cynicism creates a spirituality that is afraid of connecting to actual people doing actual mission. Bitterness legitimizes keeping a distance from loyalty, giving us space to stay critical. To the degree that we are unable to admit we are bitter is the degree that we are impaired in our clarity of vision. When unearthing this, we might find we don’t want to let go of something, we feel justified to hold onto. In many ways bitterness can get all intertwined in how we've identified ourselves being “against certain things and certain people”.
We desperatly need to help each other pick through the clutter of past worship, bible-studies, sermons, relationships, spiritual experiences to find something of value. We need to gently and patiently coach each other to forgive, let go of grudges and discontinue our railing against the villain in our emotional memory. This work cannot be avoided or we will fragment and choose an autonomous spirituality that doesn’t root in actual flesh-and-bone community. It becomes very difficult to submit to Jesus if we cannot make peace with the past. It becomes very difficult to work peaceably for His Kingdom if we are constantly bated by the present Christian buffoonery that assails overhead. Cleaning the slate is mission imperative. Thoughts?