I Love the Church, I Hate the Church (Robert LaRochelle) -- A Review

 I LOVE THE CHURCH, I HATE THE CHURCH: Paradox or Contradiction? By Robert R. LaRochelle. Eugene, OR: Resource Publications, 2022. 133 pages.

                I am a semi-retired Disciples of Christ pastor. I say, semi-retired because while I'm officially retired, I'm still actively engaged in forms of ministry. I served as the lead pastor of three churches over twenty-three years while being ordained for thirty-seven. More than that, I've been part of the church my entire life. I've not been in the same denomination the entire time (see my book Called to Bless: Finding Hope by Reclaiming Our Spiritual Roots for the story of my journey), but I know the church in its various institutional forms. After experiencing church these many years, I can say that at times I have a love-hate relationship with the institutional church. I'm not alone. In fact, if you ask most clergy, especially ones who've been at it for a while, you'll hear a similar refrain.

                Robert LaRochelle, like me, has a lifelong relationship with the church in its various forms. As the title of his recent book—I Love the Church, I Hate the Church—suggests, he also has a love-hate relationship with the institutional church. The book’s subtitle asks us to consider whether this love-hate relationship is a paradox or a contradiction. In other words, how do we make sense of an institution that can be troubling at times but seems essential to the ongoing presence of Christianity in the world? In other words, can Christianity survive long term without some institutional forms? If it needs these forms, how do we make them more effective agents of reconciliation and blessing in the world? To find out you have to read the book, but I'll give some hints as to what LaRochelle has in mind.

                It is helpful to know that LaRochelle started out life as a Roman Catholic. He went to Catholic schools and served as an altar boy. Attending a Catholic university (College of the Holy Cross) he initially planned to be a lawyer but eventually switched to education (he focused his attention on religious studies as part of this educational journey). In mid-life, having served the Catholic Church in a variety of ways as a layperson, he chose to be ordained as a Permanent Deacon. In becoming a Deacon, he joined the ranks of the clergy. As such, he served the church in almost every way except at the eucharistic table. After a dozen years of serving in this way, LaRochelle began to question his involvement in the Catholic Church. His faith had been fostered in the liberal branch of the Catholic Church, but he felt that his evolving sense of faith no longer fit the church as it stood. Deciding that he needed to find a new home, LaRochelle ended up in the United Church of Christ, a tradition in which he would serve as a pastor. That's quite a switch. But, for our purposes, this experience in both Catholic and Mainline Protestant churches gives him a good vantage point to examine the nature of the church, its values, and benefits as well as areas of concern.

                What is important to note here is that while LaRochelle moved to the United Church of Christ because it fit who he was better than the Catholic Church, he is quite aware of the flaws within his adopted tradition. In fact, many of the concerns he raises here are present in both traditions. So, this is not intended to cast the Catholic Church in a bad light as opposed to the UCC.

                LaRochelle starts I Love the Church, I Hate the Church by offering a rationale for this particular book. In doing so, he shares a bit of his story of growing up Catholic and becoming Protestant. Having offered his rationale for the book in the Introduction, he turns in chapter one to a discussion of what it means to hate what one loves. Here is where he really delves into his journey of faith, especially in relation to how he came to be so deeply involved in the Catholic Church. He also speaks to why he transitioned, though the focus is on the former. He sets up the rest of the book by revealing both what bothers him and what he appreciates about both traditions.

                In chapter two he dives a bit deeper into what he hates about the church. He starts this discussion with a word about fundraising (stewardship). This is a chapter about pet peeves, things that he believes get in the way of the church truly being what God intends. Then in chapter three, he focuses his attention on the local church. Here he wants to encourage churches to move from an inward focus to an outward one. He recognizes the centrality of worship, but he also believes that a vibrant church will be involved in the community. He wants the reader to ask difficult questions about what it means to be a congregation? Why are they there? The title of Chapter four asks whether the church is a social club or a community of disciples. He's not opposed to the church having social components, but he also recognizes things have changed since he (and I) were growing up. While the church of his youth served as the center of community social life, offering everything from dinners to sports teams, that's no longer true. Fewer people are looking to the church to fulfill their social needs. Therefore, the church is to continue it will need to rethink its identity. In this regard he suggests the church conceive of itself as a community of disciples. Therefore, the focus should be on Jesus and ministry.

                A book like this would be remiss if it didn't address ecclesiastical structures. After all, while LaRochelle loves the church, like many of us has some issues with the structures and procedures that go along with being the institutional church. So, he suggests that churches take a look at their governing documents. What do they say about the nature of the congregation? How does it make decisions? Do the documents keep the people focused on institutional matters rather than ministry? You may have heard it said—you may have even said it— "we've always done it that way." He asks us to consider who it is who says things have to be done the same ways as they’ve always been done. Here is a chapter that asks the reader to consider the purpose of the church and whether what they're doing as a church is fulfilling their calling.

                LaRochelle is just a few years older than me, which means he experienced more of the 60s than I did. I was born in the 1950s, but I was too young to understand what was going on in the 60s. Therefore, from personal experience, he has a better handle on what it means to be a 60s counter-cultural person (I was more of a 70s conventional person). In essence, he wants the church to become a change agent in society. To do this, the church will need to be more open to the world around it. That means becoming more welcoming and committed to taking care of one's neighbor.

                Even if we do all of this, the question remains: Do we need the church? LaRochelle tries to answer that question in chapter eight. Like me, he believes the church is important. It has value. But, it will need to take a hard look at itself because the world is changing quickly and the world is not looking to the church like it once did. So, the church must re-envision itself as an instrument of God’s reign in the world. In other words, if the church is to continue into the future it will need to reflect the values of Jesus.

                Having spent most of the book focusing on the church (what we call ecclesiology), he steps away from that focus for a moment in chapter nine to ask the reader to think about broader theological concerns. What do they believe about God? About revelation (natural and Scripture?) While these questions may seem separate from what has been discussed in prior chapters, he (and I) believes they are related. What we believe about God influences how we envision the church.

                Bob LaRochellle offers us a winsome look at the church, raising questions that need to be asked. He gives us the freedom to confess both our love and our hate for the institutional church. While some would say the days of the institutional church are over, I think Bob would disagree. However, he would suggest we think carefully about what the church is called to be. As a mainline pastor (now retired), I recognize the realities described here. In fact, I had the opportunity to read the manuscript as Bob was writing the book. I endorsed I Love the Church, I Hate the Church for publication and continue to do so, hoping readers will discern from the book a path forward so that the good news can be experienced by all who encounter the church. In other words, while he doesn't use missional church language, that is essentially what he's espousing here. If we take a new look at the way we do church, then perhaps we can answer the question of whether a love/hate relationship with the church is either a paradox or contradiction. 


Thanks, Bob. I look forward to any questions /comments directed to me by those who read your blog

Best wishes,
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To those reading my book----you may send comments to my Facebook page which contains the book's title!

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