Bob Russell Says, ‘I Love the Church!’

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By Bob Russell

A prominent ad for a new church plant reads, “Church doesn’t have to suck! Happy hour service this Sunday at 10:30 a.m.” Some might smile at that trendy message and regard it as a creative attention-getter, but the not-so-subtle implication is that most churches are boring and ineffective.

Bob Russell stands in front of Southeast Christian Church, which he served as senior minister from 1966 to 2006. The church moved to Blankenbaker Parkway in 1998.

Bob Russell stands in front of Southeast Christian Church, which he served as senior minister from 1966 to 2006. The church moved to Blankenbaker Parkway in 1998.

Frankly, I’m tired of people bashing the church of Jesus Christ. I’m not referring to the world’s ridicule of the church—that’s expected. I’m referring to the criticism of the church from within.

Popular Christian authors, convention speakers, parachurch leaders, and “cutting-edge” preachers frequently heap scorn on the bride of Christ. The church is accused of being irrelevant, uncaring, legalistic, homophobic, intolerant, hypocritical, judgmental; you name it, the indictments go on and on. I sometimes get the impression these leaders love the people in the world and despise the people in the church.

Recently, after hearing another sermon introduction on how phony the preacher’s home church was, I wanted to ask, “How in the world did you come to know the Lord if your church was that bad?”

One best-selling author claims he experienced more genuine fellowship in a commune than a church. Now he travels the country apologizing to the world for the church’s past offenses.

A new music director in a traditional church informed his choir they would no longer be wearing robes. He insisted the choir members needed to repent for allowing their contrived apparel to be such a barrier to the honest seeker. Really?

Of course, some of the criticism is valid, because the church is made up of imperfect people like you and me. But that’s always been true. The first church in Jerusalem refused to accept the newly converted Saul of Tarsus. The Judaizers undermined sound doctrine in the churches planted by the apostle Paul. The seven churches in Revelation were lukewarm and prideful.

Some churches are better than others, but there is no such thing as a perfect church.

In response to all the harsh criticism, I’d like to say a positive word about the church. If Jesus loved the church and gave himself up for her, those of us who seek to be like Christ should love the church enough to sacrifice for it and defend it when necessary. Besides, the Bible instructs us to think about the things that are noble, admirable, and praiseworthy.


Positive Influence

Think about the positive influence of the church in America. The frontier church started 106 of the first 108 colleges in this country. Or look around your community. Who established most of the hospitals where you live? Not the atheist society. Most were founded by Protestant and Catholic churches.

The church started and funds most inner-city missions that minister to the addicted and homeless. The church started and undergirds most orphanages and homes for the elderly.

Who has consistently visited with and conducted worship services for those in prison? The church. Who establishes crisis pregnancy centers and homes to assist single mothers in desperation? The church. Who consistently teaches the moral values that provide the ethical foundation for reliable businesses? The church. When public schools flounder, who steps up and provides excellent Christian education for grade school and high school students? The church.

It’s often suggested, “Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week.” That’s not true in many churches I’ve visited. Some of the most diverse and inclusive congregations now function in harmony.

When Hurricane Katrina ripped through the Gulf Coast, who was there first with the most practical help? What about the horrific hurricane that rocked Haiti? And, how about the tornadoes that destroyed entire communities across the United States? Who sent the most money without anything scraped off the top? And who was still there helping to rebuild homes and minister to the hurting two years later, after all the government agencies had moved on and the television cameras were turned off? Ask the locals, and they’ll tell you volunteers from American churches were the lifeblood of relief work all over the world.

Who annually sends mission teams to poverty-stricken Third World countries to minister to medical and dental needs, dig fresh wells, purify polluted water, and teach sanitation and nutrition? The church.

In nearly every community there are free counseling ministries, generous food pantries, helpful substance abuse programs, heartfelt programs for children with special needs, backpacks for needy children at local schools, generous food baskets at Thanksgiving, and free toys at Christmas. Churches are making a dramatic impact in nearly every community with both their social and spiritual services.

There’s no way to measure the suicides prevented, divorces averted, and emotional or family problems corrected by the weekly ministry of local churches. How many marriages have been kept together? How many kids kept off drugs? How many crimes prevented because of the positive influence of godly people in the church?


Simple Humility

One of the reasons the church’s impact isn’t appreciated is that it doesn’t usually toot its own horn. Following the example of its founder, the church practices humility and isn’t very self-promoting. The media doesn’t normally publicize the church’s positive services—partly because it’s nothing new and partly because many in the industry despise the values for which the church stands.

Maybe that’s the way it’s meant to be. The church isn’t supposed to grab the headlines and get public recognition. Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth,” and salt doesn’t get much credit. No one ever gets up from the table, licking their lips and raving, “That was the best salt I’ve ever tasted!” No, salt quietly adds flavor and enhances the taste of most everything without getting much recognition.

But did you know one large church took up a special offering and sent $493,000 to encourage victims of 9/11? Three years later the same church collected $896,000 and sent it to victims of the tsunami in Asia. The next year a $711,000 offering was received to aid victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Did you know one small church annually gives thousands of dollars to aid the hospice ministry in its community? Did you know one congregation in a large city has a ministry to young women captured in the sex trade, and as a result, 31 former strippers have given their lives to Christ and escaped that industry? Did you know many churches give well over a million dollars a year to overseas mission work?


Genuine Faith

Some of the very best people I’ve ever known have been godly church people: husbands who have stayed with their wives and ministered tenderly to their needs through dementia; mothers who have provided guidance for their children even though they themselves had abusive husbands; parents who patiently ministered to special needs children; elderly saints with severe health problems who endured suffering with grace; wealthy businessmen and women who quietly, behind the scenes, gave thousands of dollars every year to worthy causes.

When I hear someone ridiculing yesterday’s church, I want to protest, “Hey, that’s my parents you’re talking about and they were great Christian people. They tithed. They never missed a church service. They lived out their faith in a genuine, compassionate way

“So did many others of that era. I was there. I knew them up close, and they don’t fit the negative stereotype of a hypocritical, judgmental bigot you’re portraying them to be. In fact, I doubt if you’re worthy to untie their shoes!” I want to say that but I don’t, in part because it would reflect badly on the church.

Oh yeah, one other thing: who has faithfully proclaimed the basics of the gospel and brought eternal life to hundreds of thousands of people all around the globe? Every week in Bible-believing churches there are people accepting Jesus as their personal Savior and being baptized into him. They joyfully claim the wonderful promise, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mark 16:16).

Where would the world be today without the church? I’ll admit it’s far from perfect, but before you criticize the church, remember it’s the bride of Christ. Although the bride has some blemishes and a few age spots, the loving groom sees her “without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish” (Ephesians 5:27).

No groom wants to hear his bride ridiculed. I suspect we’re more likely to gain the groom’s favor if, instead of criticizing his bride so much, we’d love the church and give ourselves up for her.


Bob Russell, retired minister of Southeast Christian Church, lives in Louisville, Kentucky.

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  1. Sometimes (often times!) it is the criticism from within a community that is harshest, that has the sharpest edges to it. This is the case with the Hebrew Prophets who are holding their own Holy Nation accountable for its failures and for Jesus’ and the Gospel writers’ criticisms of their own Jewish leaders. I’m sure the Kings of Israel and the Pharisees could have broken out a list of “but look at all of the good things we’ve done!” as well… but that would miss the point. The point is to listen to the criticisms, and change what you can. Defensiveness only perpetuates the systems that led to the honest criticisms in the first place. True leadership knows that the harshest critiques usually reflect the most honest opinions, experiences, and feelings. Let’s listen, and change rather than defend. Grace and Peace.

  2. Thank you Bob! While the church truly is imperfect and has made its share of messes throughout the generations (including some in the current and recent generations), the Church is still the bride of Christ, the Hope of the World, and one of the two primary institutions established by God to be about His redemptive mission in the world (the other being the family)… It’s true that we need to hear honest critique, sift it for truth, and use it to grow and improve, but no matter what we do, the church will continue to be imperfect… But we’re not called to be perfect examples, just living examples… I don’t believe, as David L. Dickey suggests in his comment, that you are turning a blind eye and prideful spirit to the true disappointments and failures of the church. Nor that you are deflecting to try and defend the Church from deserved criticism. I appreciate that you are willing to acknowledge that the church has had it’s shortcomings, some of them very serious, but also that you aren’t ready to throw the baby out with the bathwater. You have found a place somewhere in the balance … The biggest problem with the Christian critics of the church is that they feel their spiritual mission or calling is to be the modern day prophet. And they spend most or all of their energy trying to intelligently and creatively express the failures of the church while spending little time or energy on doing anything to lean into what is good and help make the church what they say it should be… Less time criticizing, more time investing… and lest we forget the Master’s words… “Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand.” In these days, it’s time for the body of Christ to come together… So thanks … i love the church too… blemishes and all …

  3. Thank you for writing this. I’ve felt this for a long time, but haven’t been able to put it in words! I love the church too imperfect (like me) as she is!

  4. Thanks, Bob! I appreciate your honesty and eloquence as you address the imperfections of growing believers with a Biblical desire to “love and lift up the Bride of Christ!” We are imperfect messengers of a perfect message about a perfect Messiah! We must be careful — as you have — to make a distinction between the shortcomings of believers and the “perfect plan” of the Father. Then we will honor the bride while honestly being open to challenges to grow to be more like the GROOM! All God’s blessings to you, yours, and your continuing ministries!

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