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Stars in the Margins: Philip Yancey Quotes from ‘Church: Why Bother?’

by Carson T. Clark on January 27, 2013

I’ve found I retain content better when I write in my books, so my method is to put brackets around portions I find insightful or particularly well-written and stars in the margins beside quotes I want to share. Below are my stars in the margins for Philip Yancey’s 1998 book, Church: Why Bother? (My Personal Pilgrimage). While not his best work, Yancey always has extraordinary skill in offering profound insights in an accessible way. This short book was no exception. I’d recommend it not only for those who aren’t presently a part of a local church, but also to those who are committed to a local body yet struggle with its frustrating, inevitable flaws. If my experience is any indicator, you’ll be blessed, challenged, convicted, and exhorted by Yancey’s reflections upon his pilgrimage.


[O]ne does not always go to church with belief in hand. Rather, one goes with open hands, and sometimes church fills them.


I was struck with the enormous breadth of the Christian faith. It contains within it enough majesty and profundity to inspire minds like John Milton and John Donne, and Leo Tolstoy and T.S. Eliot, and to challenge agnostic graduate students who study their work to this day. Yet the gospel was entrusted, originally, to simple peasants. Very likely, some of the founders of our religion could not read or write. Jesus himself left no manuscripts for us to study.


The composer Igor Stravinsky once wrote a new piece that contained a difficult violin passage. After several weeks of rehearsal the solo violinist came to Stravinsky and said that he could not play it. He had given it his best effort but found the passage too difficult, even unplayable. Stravinsky replied, “I understand that. What I am after is the sound of someone trying to play it.” Perhaps something similar is what God had in mind with the church.


Christianity is not a purely intellectual, internal faith. It can only be lived in community. Perhaps for this reason, I have never entirely given upon church. At a deep level I sense that church contains something I desperately need. Whenever I abandon church for a time, I find that I am the one who suffers. My faith fades, and the crusty shell of lovelessness grows over me again. I grow colder rather than hotter. And so my journeys away from church have always circled back inside.


I am aware, painfully aware, that the kind of church I have described, the ideal church I look for, is the exception, not the norm. Many churches offer more entertainment than worship, more uniformity than diversity, more exclusivity than outreach, more law than grace. Nothing troubles my faith more than my disappointment with the visible church.


The focus has shifted from families to institutions. Yet the New Testament stubbornly presents the church as being more like a family than an institution.


I now see that the Deep South fundamentalism of my childhood represented far more than a place of worship or spiritual community. It was a controlled environment, a subculture. I now recognize that a harsh culture, full of fierce condemnation and empty humility and any sense of mystery, stunted my faith for many years. In short, Christianity kept me from Christ.


It may be more blessed to give than to receive, but it is also more draining.


How easily we forget that the Christian church was the first institution in the history of the world to bring together on equal footing Jews and Gentiles, men and women, slaves and free.


Still, I must remind myself of Jesus’ words to his disciples, “You did not choose me, but I chose you.” The church was God’s risk, his “gamble,” so to speak. I have even come to see in the church’s flawed humanity a paradoxical sign of hope. God has paid the human race the ultimate compliment, by choosing to live within us vessels of clay.


God is the ultimate judge of hypocrisy in the church, I decided; I would leave such judgment in God’s capable hands. I began to relax and grow softer, more forgiving of others. After all, who has a perfect spouse, or parents or children? We do not give up on the institution of family because of its imperfections–why give up on the church?


I have attended many churches, and none match my ideal. Even so, I can see value in spending some time thinking about the ideal.


Several times I have read the Bible straight through, from Genesis to Revelation, and each time it strikes me that the church is a culmination, the realization of what God had in mind from the beginning. The Body of Christ becomes and overarching new identity that breaks down barriers of race and nationality and gender and makes possible a community that exists nowhere else in the world.


As an introvert, I usually have to force myself to volunteer in some helping capacity. I have to screw up my courage to head to a shelter to fix Thanksgiving dinner, or to make a hospital visit. Yet without exception, whenver I do so I find that I benefit. I come away enriched by characters I meet, stirred by their stories, amazed at human resiliency. I return to my mostly solitary occupation with a new sense of thanksgiving and a renewed commitment to serve others in what little way I can. I have experienced firsthand the salutary effect of shared tears.


[My former pastor] realized on that retreat that for his outward journey to continue, he needed to give a higher priority to his inner journey.


Yes, the church fails in its mission and makes serious blunders precisely because the church comprises human beings who will always fall short of the glory of God. That is the risk God took. Anyone who enters the church expecting perfection does not understand the nature of that risk or the nature of humanity. Just as every romantic eventually learns that marriage is the beginning, not the end, of the struggle to to make love work, every Christian must learn that church is also only a beginning.


In church God is the audience for our worship. Far from playing the role of the leading actor, the minister should function as something like a prompter, the inconspicuous helper who sits beside the stage and prompts by whispering.


As I watch Christians active in ministry and reflect on my own experience, I observe a precarious balance between hypersensitivity and emotional callus. Some workers remain so hypersensitive to the pain around them that they succumb to that pain. Others develop a callousness that makes ministry seem like just another job, a demanding volunteer assignment with few rewards. Neither group lasts long in doing the work of the church.

As the “skin” on the Body, people doing ministry expose themselves to changing stresses. Sometimes a person in ministry needs the fine skill of a surgeon, for the repair of human souls can require more sensitivity than the repair of human bodies. At other times the person in ministry, overburdened, short of resources, besieged by unsolvable problems, needs a layer of callus. Indeed, at times ministry closely resembles a sailor as he clings to the lines of the mainsail in the midst of a raging storm.

We tend to focus on the objects of ministry: the souls led to Christ, the marriages rescued, the poor fed and housed, the homebound elderly visited, the teenagers challenged. Yet as I read the New Testament, Jesus seems equally interested in what effect ministry is having on the people who are doing the work of ministry themselves.


While living among missionaries in Peru, Henri Houwen concluded that the two most damaging motives among ministers are guilt and a desire to save.

Savior Complex

The syndrome of unhealthy self-sacrifice for the sake of others, of bearing more of a person’s pain than the person himself, is sometimes called a “savior complex.” Ironically, the true Savior seemed remarkably free of such a complex. He caught a boat to escape crowds; he insisted on privacy and time alone; he accepted a “wasteful” gift of perfume that, as Judas pointed out, could have been sold, with the proceeds used to alleviate human misery.

Jesus healed everyone who asked him, but not everyone he met. He had the amazing, and rare, capacity to let people choose their own pain. He exposed Judas but did not try to prevent his evil deed; he denounced the Pharisees without trying to coerce them into his point of view; he answered a wealthy man’s question with uncompromising words and let him walk away. Mark pointedly adds this comment about the wealthy man who rejected Jesus’ advice, “Jesus looked at him and loved him.”

In short, Jesus showed an incredible respect for human freedom. He had no compulsion to convert the entire world in his lifetime or to cure people unready to be cured. Those of us in ministry need the kind of “Savior complex” that Jesus demonstrated.


Actively serving others causes you to think less about serving yourself.


Once we have a vision of the church, as participants we can help it become the kind of place God intended.


I identified with Flannery O’Connor’s in-laws, who started attending church because the service was “so horrible, he knew there must be something else there to make the people come.”

Church exists primarily not to provide entertainment or to encourage vulnerability or to build self-esteem or to facilitate friendships but to worship God; if it fails in that, it fails. I have learned that the ministers, the music, the sacraments, and the other “trappings” of worship are mere promptings to support the ultimate goal of getting worshipers in touch with God. If ever I doubt this fact, I go back and read the Old Testament, which devotes nearly as much space to specifications of worship in the tabernacle and the temple as the New Testament devotes to the life of Christ. Taken as a whole, the Bible clearly puts the emphasis on what pleases God–the point of worship, after all.

I have visited Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox worship services that utterly defy the consumer mentality prevalent in America. Most Catholic services de-emphasize the sermon, or “homily,” and few priests I have heard would score well in a preaching contest. When I ask about this weakness, they shrug it off. For them the sacrament of communion, or Mass, is the center of worship; they serve as prompters.

  • Andrew P.

    I haven’t read many of Yancey’s books, but the first one I ever did read was “The Jesus I Never Knew” as a textbook in bible school. I struggle to read that one as anything BUT a textbook (sadly). I have also chewed through his amazing “Prayer” — one I need to dig through again.

    I can see that this one is one I need to get my hands (and eyes) on fairly soon though. I go to an amazing church, but have grown rather disheartened with it… or more honestly — with my own journey, despite the institution called “the church”.

    Thanks for sharing these quotes. Excellent food for thought

  • Brendan

    I laughed SO HARD at the quote on worship: “I identified with Flannery O’Connor’s in-laws, who started attending
    church because the service was “so horrible, he knew there must be
    something else there to make the people come.”” 😀

    Wonderful quotes. I’m thinking about buying this book for a friend who’s disenchanted with institutional churches, but I’d like to read through it first.

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