Don’t mistake church for God.


Maybe you’ve personally been hurt by church. You might have experienced judgement, hostility and hypocrisy from those who claim to follow Jesus. On the surface you look fine, but underneath, you bear deep wounds and emotional scars from the way you’ve been treated by those you thought would offer safety and love.

Perhaps you’re an outsider, an atheist even, who looks at the church in dismay, questioning how people who call themselves Christians could be so violent towards one another and towards the vulnerable in our societies. You read the history books full of wars and crusades and Christians who defend slavery, violence, oppression, sexism, homophobia, racism and capital punishment, and you want nothing to do with the God they worship.

Or maybe you’re one of the faithful, loyally attending week after week, but you’re starting to question some of the things you have taken for granted your whole life. You find yourself opening up to new thoughts, changing your perspective, questioning certain interpretations of scriptures, challenging the way things are done – and you wonder whether you should simply abandon it all.

Whatever stage you’re at, wherever your faith is at, I have some advice for you:

Don’t confuse church with God.

Don’t assume that what happens in churches is an accurate reflection of God. What you’ve seen was just a dysfunctional institution, not the God of Love.

Don’t turn away from following Jesus just because his people acted like jerks.

Don’t let go of faith, just because you’ve seen people being unfaithful.

Don’t stop meeting with God’s people, even if you never enter a church building again.

Don’t give up on Scripture, just because some of it has been misinterpreted and misused to support slavery, oppression, patriarchy and homophobia.

Church is just a bunch of messy humans, muddling along, trying to follow Jesus in the way they’ve been shown, getting distracted and confused and set-up by the system, losing their way or their energy, getting hurt and hurting others. At their worst, churches can go off-course, become dysfunctional and do a great deal of damage. At their best, they can be caring communities who love one another and create a sacred space to allow a meeting between people and God. But “church” and God are never the same thing.

If you’ve been hurt, or turned off, or disillusioned by church, I pray your pain and confusion drive you toward God, not away from him. If you need to, take a break from Sunday church. Have a change of scene. Revisit the Scriptures and see what the early church looked like (probably a far cry from what you have seen in your lifetime). Lean into God and away from institutions. Look for church outside the walls of the building, in cafes and living rooms and on the streets. And don’t give up hope that God’s people can give a glimpse of God’s glory and love, despite all their faults and weaknesses.


8 thoughts on “Don’t mistake church for God.

    • Hi Bill, thanks for your question.

      When I speak of “homophobia”, I’m talking about the targeting, scapegoating, condemnation, hostility and even violence that has been aimed at LGBT people. By Christians. It is ugly and in direct opposition to the way Jesus treated people.

      I’m not trying to start a discussion about the so-called “clobber passages” which speak directly about homosexuality. Plenty of scholars have wildly opposing views about the interpretation of these passages.

      I am, however, conscious that the church has a great deal to answer for in its past treatment of women and of African-American slaves, and that the church is currently doing untold damage through its treatment and targeting of LGBT people.

      I hope this answers your question. Jesus never spoke about homosexuality and he spent most of his time hanging out with prostitutes, tax collectors, sinners, and anyone else rejected by the religious majority. We are safe to assume he would upset many Christians today by hanging out with gay people.


      – Kathleen

  1. ‘claim to follow Jesus’, ‘call themselves Christians’ – these are phrases beloved of those who oppose Christianity; we should be careful of using them within the public domain where they may be gleefully interpreted as one branch of the church of Christ set against another.
    I agree there are many damaged by experiences in churches who’ve left fellowships broken people, disillusioned.
    I agree with your statement not to confuse church with God, however such language does not build up the faith of those you are addressing, it merely brings the hurt to the fore once again.
    May I suggest that you might give more emphasise to the fallibility of us humans who make up the church on earth, for ‘all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God’, and God’s infinite grace in bringing healing and restoration in Jesus?
    I follow your posts with interest – and also experience as leading a fresh expression of church in a circle around a kitchen table; this is the first post that has jarred, and also saddened me.

    • Hi Sue, I hear what you are saying and appreciate your feedback.

      I specifically used those phrases when addressing people who may have been hurt by church or atheists. I was trying to use the language they use, to make a point. However, I completely see that it then sounds like my voice is using those phrases of God’s people, which is something I try to avoid doing in my writing.

      My goal in writing about the church is to never criticize the people, only the systems which hurt people or hold them back. I was aiming to do this in this post but may have missed the mark.

      Thank you again for taking the time to give feedback,


      – Kathleen

      • Kathleen,
        Your phrasing if fine. I understood and got your intent. To be “jarred” or “saddened” seems a bit over sensitive of a reaction I think. With words like “maybe” and “perhaps”, it was clear to me that you set up hypotheticals to serve the topic and make your point. No need for an apology to the over sensitive. You hit the mark. Good article!

        • Thanks, Chris. Language is always tricky to get right without triggering different meanings for different people. Thank you for your encouragement.

          – Kathleen 🙂

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