(RNS) After 36 years of serving churches as a pastor and consultant, I came to a startling conclusion the other day.
Not startling to you, perhaps. I might be the last person to get the memo. But the conclusion drew me up short.
My conclusion: Religion shouldn't be this hard.
An assembly that exists to help people shouldn't be so willing to hurt people -- by declaring them worthless, unacceptable, undesirable or strangers at the gate.
An assembly that should relax into the serenity of God's unconditional love shouldn't be so filled with hatred and fear.
An assembly that should do what Jesus did shouldn't be so inwardly focused, so determined to be right, so eager for comfort, so fearful of failing.
An assembly that follows an itinerant rabbi shouldn't be chasing permanence, stability and property.
An assembly whose call is to oneness and to serving the least shouldn't be perpetuating hierarchies of power and systems of preference.
Faith should be difficult, yes, because it inevitably entails self-sacrifice and renewal. Life, too, is difficult. Dealing with Mammon is difficult. Speaking truth to power is difficult. Confronting our own weakness and capacity for sin is difficult.
But the institution whose sole justifiable purpose is to help us deal with those difficulties shouldn't be making matters worse.
When we bring our burdens to church, we shouldn't find ourselves feeling intimidated by the in crowds, caught up in conflicts about who is running things, budget anxieties, jousting over opinion or doctrine, or relentless demonizing of whoever is trying to lead.
Yes, I understand that church is a human institution and therefore it will participate in humanity's brokenness. But church should be seeking to redeem that humanity, to heal that brokenness, to show better ways to live. Instead, we celebrate our own cruelty and bigotry. We fight against the very transformation that God seeks.
Maybe I'm the last one to see this dilemma. The millions who are fleeing institutional Christianity in America aren't escaping bad doctrine, shoddy performance values or inconvenient calls to mission. They are escaping the institution itself.
It doesn't have to be this way. God certainly doesn't want it this way.
I think, for example, of the performance anxiety that infects most churches. We needn't worry so much about pleasing constituents on Sunday. Worship isn't a Broadway show; it's a glimpse of God, not a celebration of style, excellence and self.
I think of our leadership conflicts. Pastors aren't CEOs hired to maximize shareholder returns. They aren't impresarios rewarded for putting on great shows. Pastors are flawed creatures called to help other flawed creatures bring their neediness to God.
Church should be a safe place -- safe to be oneself, safe to make one's confession, safe to love whoever one feels called to love, safe to imagine more, safe to fail. Instead, church often is a dangerous place, where people feel guarded, self-protective, hemmed in by tradition and expectation, required to obey rules.
Church should be different from society. Instead, it plays by the same rules: get mine, be first, be right, punish the weak, exclude the different, reward the wealthy.
Our society needs healthy faith communities. But neither society nor God has much need for religious institutions grounded in right-opinion, self-serving and systemic danger.
(Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of "Just Wondering, Jesus" and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is www.morningwalkmedia.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.)