Monsters in the Pews

By Bob Hiller

Who do you think is sitting in the pews on a typical Sunday morning? Are our congregations filled with sin-conquering saints living from one victorious moment to the next, or are our pews filled with sin-bound failures who are hanging on for dear life? Maybe it’s a mix of both. Maybe it’s a mix of both in the same seat. For the folks who come to our churches on Sunday morning, what does it mean for them to live the Christian life? Perhaps asked in a better way: What do the lives of the Christians in our churches actually look like?

As a pastor, I am constantly wrestling with these sort of questions. I wonder if we don’t often have in mind a sort of “ideal” Christian that we want to see sitting in the pews. I wonder how much that ideal just sort of looks like someone who is both living the American dream and maintaining a good prayer life. A few months ago, I wrote about how I was frustrated with the Christian book industry for selling an air-brushed Beth Moore on their products, implicitly saying, “Here is what the ideal Christian looks like in America: clean, beautiful, and successful.” They are selling an ideal that is both false and unachievable and thus guilt-inducing and condemning.

If this is what people believe the Christian life is supposed to be like, if our pews are filled with folks who believe “good Christians” are the ones who are clean, beautiful, and successful, then our churches are going to be places that lack honesty and love. People will be focused on how far they are along on their road to spiritual success, constantly comparing themselves with others, distinguishing between the “spiritual” and the “carnal” Christians. Sinners will be covered up by make-up and sports jackets, lest someone see the truth that the struggles and failures of everyday life haven’t quite been defeated by sanctified victories. I am afraid that our churches are not places for people to be honest with their sins, struggles, failures, and demons. It frightens me to say it, but I believe people are afraid to confess their sins to each other in church. If there is no confessing, then what becomes of the absolving? Where is the Gospel to be heard if sinners don’t have a place to confess?

This American Dream Christianity is a demonic weapon in the war that the Holy Spirit wages with our flesh. The Spirit would have our sins exposed and confessed. The Spirit would have honesty about failures, not pretend victory marches to the altar. The Spirit would have absolution for you. The Church should be a place where sinners can join other sinners under the Holy Spirit’s Word-based war against our sin.

I recently finished reading Monsters by former Jagged blogger and old college pal of mine, Dr. Daniel van Voorhis. The good doctor’s book is an important corrective to the false piety paraded and promoted in much of American Christianity. This book is a hard one to pin down. It is a memoir of sorts wherein Dan recounts his family history, ways he found trouble growing up, his need for and problems with intimacy (as explained through two delightfully awkward chapters consisting of countdown of his top ten girlfriends, with commentary from the girls themselves!), his addictions, his strained marriage, his suicidal tendencies, and his hope. Oh, and each chapter has a playlist. I dug that. Now, I can’t say that it was a book I enjoyed in a sort of “It is a great summer read” sort of way. At the same time, I can’t recommend it enough. I say this especially in light of (or is it in the shadow of) a smiley-faced, American Dream laced church. (Seriously, you should buy this book!)

I don’t think I would call it a Christian book in the sense that you would find it at Family Christian bookstores (Well, at least before they went out of business). Beside the fact that there are roughly 22 too many F-words in the book for the Christian Living section (I didn’t actually count), I don’t believe van Voorhis intended for this to be a memoir on sanctification or victorious Christian living (After reading the book, you’ll laugh at that last sentence). Yet, as I read the book through the eyes of a pastor (I couldn’t read it any other way. As it turns out, I am a pastor), it struck me that this is the sort of honesty we need more of in the Church. I think Monsters forces pastors, and frankly any church member, to take an honest and more empathetic look at what the lives of the people in our pews actually look like.

This isn’t to say that everyone in church on Sunday is a recovering addict, serial dater, or “ex-suicide,” but it is to say that behind the make-up and sports coats, everyone is dealing with some sort of monster. I love the cover of Monsters, on which a one-armed, single-eyed monster has his hand caught in a game of cat’s cradle. He holds out the hand to you with a look of despair in his eye. The monster is caught, but the monster needs help. I wonder if we in the Church need to realize that this is who is sitting next to us in the pew on Sunday morning. Pastors, this is who is looking up at you from their seat as you preach. Everyone is battling a monster. Everyone is caught in a trap of some sort. It could be something as extreme as addiction and suicidal tendencies, or it could be the much cleaner sins of self-righteous pride that bows to the beautiful idol of success. Either way, we are all fighting something.

This is why we don’t need a church that purports to make you perfect and clean, but rather one that declares you to be loved because of the work and shed blood of another. We need a church to deliver Jesus to sinners and overwhelm monsters with His sin-killing, life-giving Word. In the face of a sanitary Christianity, and for the sake of all who are fighting monsters, van Voorhis writes, “I think the church is for drunks like me. I wish more churches would borrow a trick or two from AA. And maybe with that, more of us (drunks or those addicted to any other shameful or destructive behavior) might darken the door of the church more often…Skip all the stuff that promises anything more than the righteousness of Christ as your only hope.” The Church is for all of us who battle monsters because Jesus is for all of us who battle monsters.

Since Monsters smartly gives soundtracks to each chapter, I guess I should’ve recommended a song to listen to while you read this. Ummmm…. how about Come on Up to the House by Tom Waits?  It is a sort of call to worship, I think. (Don’t get the Sarah Jarosz version. It’s fine, but it’s too pretty, and it loses the incredible grit and angst of Waits that the song demands.)