Five Points of Bitterness Common in the Missional Church

Forging communities on mission 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.

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.

Outside the Tent

For as much theological space and diversity as 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.

Our 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. They 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.

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. (For a different approach to leadership itself, check out “Submissional Leadership: Trade Dangerous Hierarchies for Discipling Teams.”)

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 then 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. (These resources can help with building healthier communities.)

A Space for Recovery within the Missional Church

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.  Eventually, you will need to address bitterness within discipleship.  You cannot dance around this issue for too long because it eventually will sabotage partnering with God and each other.

Underlying cynicism often 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 that 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 desperately need to help each other pick through the clutter of past worship, bible-studies, sermons, relationships, and spiritual experiences to find something of value.  We need to gently and patiently coach each other to forgive, to 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 imperative to the missional church.

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Dan White

Dan White

Missional Community Cultivator at V3 Church Planting Movement
Dan White Jr. is the leader of a developing network of communities in the urban neighborhoods of Syracuse, NY. Together our communities are multiplying into diverse neighborhoods learning to serve, listen and extend the all-consuming love of Jesus. He serves V3 as a coach/consultant with the V3 Missional Movement. Personal obsessions include reading theological works, songwriting, buffalo wings, the Dallas Cowboys, U2, dinner-time with my family and good conversations. You can learn more about Dan on his blog.
Dan White

10 Comments

  1. Tim Catchim
    Tim Catchim Aug 21, 2014 Reply

    This is a great article Dan! So many good insights in here, and pitfalls to avoid. You put language to a lot of the challenges out there. It de-mystifies it and brings clarity to it. Thanks bro!

  2. Terry Dorsett Aug 21, 2014 Reply

    Wow, excellent article. I’ve encountered the same points and they are so hard to overcome. Thanks for stating it all so concisely and pointing us in the right direction.

    • Dan White Author
      Dan White Aug 22, 2014 Reply

      Thanks Terry. Press on.

  3. Patti Owski Aug 22, 2014 Reply

    Hi Dan,

    Just over a year ago, my husband and I left the institutional church. Frankly, we were
    tired of being manipulated and coerced for over 35 years as we went in and out
    of churches. We began to think we were the problem even though we had gone through the ringer with churches that split because of pastors’ moral failures and those which only wanted to use people in
    so called ministries (coffee bar, usher, nursery, etc. etc.) to keep the institutional hamster wheel going. Now that we are outside looking in, we are free to see what the institution does to
    the beloved children of God. It enslaves them. We have a righteous anger about
    the cruel things people can do to people for the sake of the institution. Outside of it, we have found freedom to serve the Lord without being coerced and manipulated with guilt. We still give our tithe to local organizations which help the poor (something our tithes at the churches we attended never did). My husband works with young men who have aged out of the foster care system and I am a retired teacher giving my time to work with at-risk kids at a local school. Bitter? No. Using my short time on this earth wisely? Yes. Could the bitterness you see be because people are just tired of being used and spit out by the institution? Is planting a church simply starting another institution that people will quickly find fault with? Perhaps Jesus has simply left the building.

    • Dan White Author
      Dan White Aug 22, 2014 Reply

      Hi Patti,

      I’m sorry to hear about the hurt you’ve experienced at the hands of a church and it’s leadership. I’m sure that Jesus has left the building in some cases. i too have been deeply wounded by a church in my past. Part of my own process of healing has been to name those things done against me and to forgive them for they “knew not what they we’re doing”. In my own healing I’ve come to gain clearer-eyes to the human reality that some do good and some do evil in the church and outside the church. I’ve experienced beautiful times in Christian community and pain inducing times. My hopes in coaching church plants is to cultivate grace-filled communities that can weather the storms of human interactions for the flourishing of God’s in-breaking Kingdom. I have hope that it is possible because I have seen it, even though it it might seem to be a rarity.

      Blessings to you on your journey Patti as you follow Jesus.

  4. Brian Hughes Aug 22, 2014 Reply

    I note that none of the reasons are a disappointment in mission. Sinful, broken institutions bumping up against a consumer culture leaves little room for helping people get past themselves and their own needs.

  5. Kristopher Wile Aug 27, 2014 Reply

    I think you’re missing the forest for the trees here. in my experience with the “missional” movement, it doesn’t just attract bitter, broken people. It was born of bitter, cynical Christians that are so desperate to not be like the past churches they were a part of that they often throw out the baby with the bath water.

  6. Maurice Hagar May 15, 2015 Reply

    Great article! And now we’re getting somewhere. Because reconciliation with God as well as everyone and everything else is at the very heart of the gospel!

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