Churches are supposed to be communities that represent Christ’s infinite love — and many of them do — but certain groups of people seem to be continually ignored, alienated, undervalued, and simply lost within American churches. Leadership structures, social expectations, religious values, and traditions within faith communities have a tendency to favor some groups but not others, resulting in discrimination instead of equality, exclusion instead of acceptance, and prejudice instead of fairness.
Below are categories of people that I’ve repeatedly witnessed being underappreciated within various church environments, and while tons of additional information could be added regarding each group, I’ve written brief descriptions summarizing my opinions. Do you agree or disagree with the following claims?
The Elderly: As communication becomes increasingly reliant on technology — smartphones, social media, tablets, blogs — and becomes less accessible to the elderly, older people are slowly losing their voice within faith communities.
There are few media platforms catering to the elderly, and when churches modernize, they often do it at the expense of the oldest parishioners, gearing publicity and marketing campaigns toward young people in an effort to facilitate growth.
The elderly are portrayed as a low-value demographic among churches. Their populations decline instead of grow (because of natural age and death), and few organizations want to accommodate expensive and time-consuming age-related problems: hearing loss, eyesight loss, a lack of mobility and transportation, handicap accessibility, dementia, and a litany of other problems that many leaders see as simply too overwhelming to address.
People Struggling with Mental Health Issues: For years the church rejected the entire field of mental health and continuously fought against scientifically and medically proven techniques that implemented counseling, medications, and other helpful therapies. The church attempted to “pray away” problems and encouraged ill-prepared pastors to take on roles they weren't qualified to perform.
Churches are finally catching up, but they're still far behind from the rest of society, and many denominations and institutions have inadequate resources for those struggling with disorders, syndromes, sicknesses, disabilities and other mental health issues. For many, the secular options available are far better than those of the church—this needs to change.
Intellectuals: Most information presented by churches is geared toward mass audiences and communicated through entertainment-driven and crowd-pleasing processes, where the content is easy to comprehend and carefully avoids any controversy.
Many pastors still assume that “in-depth” conversations should be reserved for Christian higher-educational institutions such as Bible colleges and seminaries, and to make matters worse, many believers are condemned and criticized when they think “outside the box” or ask difficult questions.
Certainty is preferred over doubt, contentment is praised over curiosity, conformity is valued over creativity, and blind acceptance is often expected to replace critical thinking. For this reason, many sensible people have given up on churches — even though they still believe in God.
Ministry Leaders: Burnout among church and lay leaders is rampant, and it’s easy to overlook the church staff and assume that everyone is okay — even when they're not.
Christians are seemingly addicted to identifying everything wrong with churches. We've lost the ability to be content, and instead of reaffirming what’s right and being encouraging, pastors and ministry leaders deal with all sorts of complaints, criticisms, and conflicts — on a daily basis.
The worship is too loud! The sermon was too long! The youth pastor is too immature! The service times are too early! There’s no end to the negativity for church leaders, and unfortunately, faith communities offer little help.
Pastors are often considered high-risk for alcoholism, addiction, and relational stress—often trying to cover their pain through unhealthy avenues such as drug use, sexual or emotional affairs, and other unhealthy forms of escapism in attempt to relieve their invisible pain and suffering.
We need to start providing emotional and spiritual support for our leaders (and their families) constantly — not just once or twice a year.
Women: In an era where women are political, business, and cultural leaders, esteemed in almost every sector of our society, evangelical Christianity is still scrambling to fully accept and value women within our churches.
Very few denominational and church leaders are women, and many churches hold a stance on women that is irrelevant, complicated, and antiquated — woefully incompatible to reality. Unfortunately, women are finding more worth, respect, and success everywhere exceptthe church.
Churches often have an ideological self-perception that far outperforms actual reality. It’s hard and difficult for Christian communities to admit that people are feeling alienated, ignored, rejected, or misunderstood.
The most welcoming and holistic churches are open, honest, and don’t shy away from controversy. They address tough conflicts within their community and foster relationships that are empowering and inclusive — reflecting the service, sacrifice, and love of Jesus. Are we brave enough to do the same?
Stephen Mattson has contributed for Relevant Magazine and the Burnside Writer's Collective, and studied Youth Ministry at the Moody Bible Institute. He is now on staff at Northwestern College in St. Paul, Minn. Follow him on Twitter @mikta.