Skittish Trout and the Organized Church

By Eugene C. Scott

It was just a wide spot in the stream where the mountain valley flattened out to pool and drink the icy water. Tall, snow-covered peaks reflected in its placid surface. Narrow shadows hung suspended in its middle: Brook trout facing upstream and feeding on anything drifting through their territory. I had to crawl through the grass as I approached the pool so as not to send the trout flying for cover in the undercut banks. Even then, the shadow of my fly rod arching across the water panicked them. Skittish trout, they’re called. So attuned to hawks and fishermen and other predators are they, that any movement from above is perceived as a threat. And rightly so.

I have a friend who calls herself a skittish trout. She grew up in a guilt-based, authoritarian religion and church. Any question, doubt, comment, or difficulty she had with her childhood faith and church was met with anger and derision. Intellectual abuse, she called it. Not that she didn’t have faith, she just wondered. As soon as she was old enough, she fled organized religion. And today anytime even a shadow of that old-time religion falls across her life she flies for the safety of the cutbank, peering out, yet still wondering.

In the process of starting a church, I’ve discovered large pools of skittish trout. Unfortunately, stories similar to my friend’s abound. Church splits, pastoral infidelity and dishonesty, harsh judgementalism, cold cliquishness, unbending dogma, rampant self-righteousness, cookie cutter lifestyles and answers, authoritarian leadership, political partisanship, powerless people, and ample—but common—human failings in what is supposed a divine institution are just a few of the shadows that the church and her people cast across the pool of modern life.

Almost all of us have, or have heard, a similar story. The scars and their impact vary. I started following Christ at age fifteen and began looking for a church to attend. Even I knew that was the way of things, but I was naive about the dress code. My hair flowed below my shoulders and my jeans were ratty. It was the 1970s. At the end of the sermon, I tramped forward in response to the “altar call.” I knelt to pray and a pastor (At least I think he was a pastor. To me he looked, acted, and smelled like one) approached and asked me if I wanted to become a Christian.

I proudly told him how just days earlier I had become a Christian at a church camp. He frowned at me and shook his head.

“You need to get your hair cut before you can become a Christian, son,” he said as if this truth saddened him deeply.

I was young and stupid and argued with him. “Jesus had long hair. Haven’t you seen those pictures of him?”

Not impressed with my theological acumen he simply offered, “I have a pair of scissors in the back. I can get them, cut your hair, and then you can pray and become a Christian.”

I decided to look for another church.

Since then I have been in three churches where the pastors have had affairs, and within most of the churches I have been a part, have seen and heard things that come straight from the gates of hell not the streets of heaven, and have made my own sad mistakes as a person and a pastor (proving the adage that if I find the perfect church I had better not join it because I’ll ruin it).

Two things:

One, apparently not being a skittish trout but maybe a stupid one, I have yet to fly for the cutbank and hide. Sometimes I feel like a singed moth circling the flame. I’m not sure why I don’t fly. Probably because God keeps blocking the escape route. Probably also because with each scar the church and I have left on one another, there are equal—and more—marks of grace and life this crazy body called the church has bestowed on me. That she has allowed me to seek my calling and share my thoughts, ideas, and life through her may be the least of them. And when I parade before my eyes the faces of friends I have made, and how they have enriched my life, in this human/divine community, I am humbled and grateful.

Two, dealing with people’s souls is dangerous and delicate. So too, I’ve discovered, is this starting and being a church, and mysterious. We’re not selling widgets or snake oil. We’re attempting to touch God and, through rugged and calloused human hands, places in ourselves God hid in our deepest reaches, places we’ve hidden even from ourselves.

Hanging out a sign reading, “Got God?” does not do anyone, especially the Creator of our souls, justice. This, sharing our souls, spiritual journeys, and lives, is not marketing. It cannot be shrink wrapped into some tidy package. It’s messy, alive, sensitive, unpredictable, sometimes ugly, often beautiful. Tread softly.

I wish finding God and ourselves and living in a Christ community with truth and grace could be written up in a book or produced in a program or bulleted in a three point outline, or contained in a church building (and sometimes God even works through these things). But alas we and God and life are deeper and messier than that.

And none of this is new. Even the first two humans hid from God after they discovered their bare, naked distance from and need for Him. We have been flying from God ever since. Skittish trout indeed. Fear not, however, God is no predator, but is a patient, persistent angler.

Eugene C. Scott writes the Wednesday Neighborhood Cafe blog.  If you’re reading this on Facebook and you’d like to join the conversation, click here. Eugene co-pastors The Neighborhood Church in Littleton, CO


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23 responses to “Skittish Trout and the Organized Church

  1. elna

    I have friends that got badly burned by the church they attended… and now they seem to be on a warpath against all organised churches…but are still believers. They believe God spoke through Jeremiah with them…break down and build up! but i found the biggest problem they had is that they still have not forgiven the people that wronged them. When in their company they talk more about the wrongs of the church than about God. Surely the most difficult thing to do is to pray: God you allowed this to happen to me for a specific reason, a specific sin that I have in my life, that needs to be addressed. Help me to trust You and allow You to work in me, and to thank You for allowing these people in my life and Please Bless Them. (I must admit that it is always easier to see other people’s sin and pride than my own :))

    • Linda


      Good points, all, but there also comes a point when a person has been so deeply wounded that whether or not they have forgiven the ones who have hurt them, they are afraid of being hurt again. For me, it’s that fear, not unforgiveness, that keeps me as a “church lurker” now, instead of a full participant. I attend and worship, partake of the Table; I smile and nod to a few folks and I slip out the door. “This is my Body, broken for you …” too often, we break the body of Christ again and again and again.

      Yes, these things are allowed in God’s omniscience, and God works all things together for good (Romans 8:28), but as part of a fallen world, I wonder if the deep wounding the American breed of Churchianity inflicts on so many is anything but the enemy dancing in the aisles.

      • Georgie-ann

        …”the American breed of Churchianity” … that says a lot right there …

        Getting to know the God, Who loves you, in the still small voice of your heart, and treasuring and holding onto that, is worth much more than the evaporating externals of many services.

        I have always loved this song, “We hold a treasure, not made of gold, in earthen vessels wealth untold.” Respecting yourself, in the integrity of your personal relationship with God, should always be a high priority. If others cannot also treat you with such generous respect, you are free to nod and smile and “wish them well” in your heart, as you move along.

        Eventually — and this can take years literally — you just might become so secure in your personal relationship, that you begin to overflow, and find yourself desiring, as well as more equipped, to become a more active part of bringing those “living waters” you are tasting, out into the desert. And don’t underestimate God’s ability to find and orchestrate the perfect opportunities to do so.

        We do not have to lie, or pretend to get along with, the intensity of churchianity externals that do not “bear witness” with our own hearts and spirits. A wise person is often an observer for a long time, protecting and nurturing that within themself that is of greater value.

      • Linda:

        I think you are right about fear. It is a main motivator in my life (unfortunately) and in many I work with. My goal, as John writes, is to let God’s perfect love overcome my fear. I pray that is the case with you as well as far as getting involved in a faith community called church.

        My goal in telling this story was to let us all remember there are valid and sometimes painful reasons people do not get involved in faith communities. We must show each other grace in this.

        But I firmly believe that Christianity is a team sport. Our focus in America on a personal, private faith is not biblical nor is it conducive to a growing faith nor reaching our world for Christ. The biblical picture (Old and New Testament) is not one that matches our closeted personal Christianity in the West.

        But it is a complex issue. The problem is, at least two sided. Churches (people in them) do inflict pain and have missed the point. But individual Christians in the West have lost or given up on the beauty and importance of a corporate faith life.

        By the way, I left that church that would not allow long hair and wound up a Redeemer Temple. Later, however, they too became very legalistic and again I had to move on. Since then I’ve stopped looking for the perfect church, largely because I’ve helped taint a couple of pretty good ones with my imperfections.


    • Georgie-ann

      One reason I always liked the “idea” of “Church,” even if I didn’t always like or agree with the “experience” of a particular Church, is that we have a Great Play-Book to go by, the Bible, a guide and set of standards that make real sense to me. I feel that it creates a foundation of reasonableness, a zone of safety, and a frame of reference that we can go to, to solve and mediate the problems and questions that will always arise in human relationships and life situations, some of them very difficult.

      Without that, the actual experience of life seems to be too haphazard, with “each one going his own way,” and some of those “each ones” are rather scary people. (If you ask me!)

  2. Georgie-ann

    Love it. So good. So real, honest.

    I think if we can realize that everything in this earthly and human realm is some form or other of “imperfect,” even things about God done with the very very best of intentions, we’ll be a step closer to a more realistic framework to use for evaluating our lives, others, religions, spirituality, etc., and on and on.

    In this philosophical season of elevating “scientific” research, proofs, and discourse, as some kind of cultural defining line, we end up actually blurring things and mixing up the proverbial “apples with oranges,” as if everything “works” more or less in the same way, in a similar or parallel or comparable vein. Well, this is a lie of very grand proportions. And no wonder so many are at the very least confused, if not outright perplexed, offended and confounded.

    The trouble is that God has to try to communicate Himself to us through this complex atmospheric nexus that surrounds us, controlled by the “prince of the power of the air (satan),” who is in enmity with God. And that makes for plenty of distorting “static” bombarding our vulnerable minds and senses.

    1 Corinthians 13:12 “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”

    Ephesians 2:1-3
    1 “And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins, 2 in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience, 3 among whom also we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, just as the others.”

    We are all born with natural senses, and we are used to how they function, basically taking them quite “for granted” usually. Natural senses are quite amazing, even captivating — perhaps even dangerously so at times, if we suspend faculties of good judgement, training and so on. Proverbs addresses the situation of “wise men vs. fools” over and over again, with respect to the functioning of humans in this world.

    To “know God” truly, we really do need to develop “spiritual senses.” Blessed is the man or woman who finds a good guide/teacher in these matters. The Holy Spirit is of course our great teacher, but human help from those who do understand something correct about it, is invaluable. And not all voices saying that they understand, do. We are told to test and try all spirits, and hold fast to that which is good. (“Discernment” comes into play here and is eventually an important result of matured spiritual senses.)

    1 Thessalonians 5:21 “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.”

    Very often, and traditionally, to begin to develop “spiritual senses,” we need to look elsewhere than where our natural senses (and science, etc.) take us. In a sense, we may wish to pull away from the hub-bub of “the world,” as is the point of “going on a retreat,” to contemplate spiritual wisdom (Scriptures, etc.), pray, reflect on our lives, our thoughts, truth — the spiritual panorama is really quite vast and grand, much the opposite of what an ignorant scientific mental slave would try to tell you.

    To make matters INFINITELY more complicated, each human being, each nationality, each ethnicity, each religious/spiritual tradition, each family, each community, ALL have very complicated historical backgrounds and conditioning and patterning, and sins, mistakes and misunderstandings that they carry and promote along with themselves — it’s all they know (and quite simply repeat/imitate), what they grew up with and experienced. All this exists and has developed “under the sway” and influence of satan over the centuries, and contains his poisonous lies and distortions subtly connected and inter-woven throughout.

    1 John 5:19 “We know that we are of God, and the whole world lies under the sway of the wicked one.”

    So, whether you like puzzles or not, you’ve got a big one on your plate, just being alive. Being naive and/or gullible has never protected anyone from the harm satan desires to inflict. The Scriptures are a testimony of God’s Love and Kindness towards us, as He is warning us about the things that will place us firmly under satan’s parasitic thumb and domination. The wise man/woman listens. The fool thinks he “knows better.”

    It is quite possible to have people proclaiming things “in the name of God” that are really their own way of understanding and looking at things, and they just simply “don’t know any better.” This can even become cultic and dangerous, or seriously misinformed and distorted.

    God tells us we have been created in His image. With the help of the Scriptures, prayer, mature good wholesome Christians, the Holy Spirit, we should be able to find signs and confirmations of God’s Truth right in our own hearts. The Holy Spirit will testify (show/reveal to us) of Him Who is Love, Who is Good. This Truth will bear witness to itself, and is so powerful that it will “set us free.”

    John 8:31-32
    31 “So Jesus said to those Jews who had believed in Him, If you abide in My word [hold fast to My teachings and live in accordance with them], you are truly My disciples. 32 And you will know the Truth, and the Truth will set you free.”

    We usually have to learn to separate the imperfect human vessels, in all of our inevitable weaknesses, from the perfect God. God IS capable of meeting ALL our needs (spiritually defined!), but humans NEVER can do this, and shouldn’t be burdened with such impossible expectations. Our Faith, as it matures, should not be dependent on another’s good or bad performance or example. “Others” and their problems really belong to God. All of us, as fellow creatures “in the flesh,” can have compassion towards others and their difficulties, without being swallowed up and misled by them. We should be increasingly “looking to God,” bringing God’s realm closer and in better focus than the limited sense realm offered to us by this world on its own terms.

    Hebrews 12:1-3
    1 “THEREFORE THEN, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses [who have borne testimony to the Truth], let us strip off and throw aside every encumbrance (unnecessary weight) and that sin which so readily (deftly and cleverly) clings to and entangles us, and let us run with patient endurance and steady and active persistence the appointed course of the race that is set before us,

    2 “Looking away [from all that will distract] to Jesus, Who is the Leader and the Source of our faith [giving the first incentive for our belief] and is also its Finisher [bringing it to maturity and perfection]. He, for the joy [of obtaining the prize] that was set before Him, endured the cross, despising and ignoring the shame, and is now seated at the right hand of the throne of God.

    3 “Just think of Him Who endured from sinners such grievous opposition and bitter hostility against Himself [reckon up and consider it all in comparison with your trials], so that you may not grow weary or exhausted, losing heart and relaxing and fainting in your minds.”

    • Georgie-ann

      I also like to say, “Buyer beware” always applies when searching for spiritual truth, in organized places or even in our own thoughts. Always remembering that nothing is perfect this side of heaven, we are presented with a veritable “mixed-bag” everywhere we turn. God can teach us to “handle” this. Seeing clearly, we can also “see” how to cope with things, without “throwing the baby out with the bath.”

      It’s a big world. We have freedom to move around and are not stuck in one place. Maybe, among other things, this reminds us to trust and follow God in all things, as we are just here as transients for a time.

      As we become comfortable in this way with God, proceeding with seasoned “goodwill,” becomes a spiritual attribute that is very helpful in many ways.

      Proverbs 16:7 “When a man’s ways please the LORD, He makes even his enemies to be at peace with him.”

  3. Georgie-ann

    …and did anyone mention that at some point survivors of all this complicated “abuse incurred via human ignorance,” may also be given a divine and loving “sense of humor?”… & what a great and freeing gift THAT is! We learn to have peace, and not to “make mountains out of molehills,” while also learning to avoid the things that truly are serious stumbling blocks,…(and “the wisdom to know the difference,” as they say),…

    1 Peter 4:8 “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.”

    I think God’s realm of spiritual truth and realities is to ordinary human life, as nuclear power (done safely) is to ordinary combustion.

    God is “the Best!”

  4. Linda

    Count me as a fellow fishy…and thank you for a beautiful meditation

  5. elna

    I must admit I am still smiling about ‘…but Jesus had long hair…’

    • Elna:

      I laugh about it too. I guess I’ve always been able to think on my feet, as they say.

      The thing that has confused me is that for many people that event and some more painful that followed would have been a push away from the church. But for me it made me all the more persistent in finding a community of faith I could live in.


      • elna

        We all have different roads to walk and God only knows all the twists and turns.

      • Do you think God puts some of the twists and turns in the road?

      • Georgie-ann

        Oo-gene, it sounds like you were a little akin to a “Jesus freak,” as they were called “back in the day!” (I think I was a little bit, too.) A Jesus freak with heart of a pastor! I think I was kind of a Jesus freak with the heart of a prayer warrior and worshipper! God needs and loves us all.

      • Yeah. Still am a Jesus Freak, I think. Thanks for the pastor’s heart comment. Eugene

      • Georgie-ann

        I’m pretty sure I still am, too. Otherwise, just stating the obvious — & you’re most welcome!

  6. Georgie-ann

    In Memoriam: David Wilkerson, a great modern Christian Saint (in my personal estimation), who died yesterday. What a committed and sold-out to God blessing this beautiful man was, especially for us who find ourselves in the NYC vicinity and surroundings, but his ministry reached world-wide. Thanks be to God for the Light and Love and solid messages that he brought to the world — an inspiration and spiritual leader and guide to many.

  7. Georgie-ann

    *(btw, Saints don’t have to be some kind of “perfect” in my book.)

    • elna

      I followed his blog…and often hated it because he always always challenged me, but was always glad after I read it. ;))

      • Georgie-ann

        We were blessed to be able to travel the 60+ miles or so needed to get to his Times Square Church ministry in the heart of Manhattan quite frequently for a few years. (I had a wonderful gung-ho pal who was always “up” for the excursion! — oh, the wonderful ways that God blesses us!)

        David Wilkerson was — (and I like to say, still is) — a very special person, with a heart as big and devoted and committed to saving and rescuing souls, to serving God and the Truth of His Word, especially caring for the “lost” youth, as anyone I can think of. He was also brimming over with integrity, humility, decency and straight-forward love. In all the comments I have seen on-line, I have found nothing but gratitude and respect and admiration for this dynamic, but simply humble (and very sweet!), faithful servant of God. Maybe he had a heart a little like King David, one of his Bible favorites!

        When we offer God our “little,” He can make it much.

  8. elna

    @ Eugene. Definitely God puts the twists and turns in the road. Book chapter and verse ? :)) Lamentations 3:37-38. According to John Macarthur the only thing we do have control over in our lives is the choice daily, hourly, of choosing for God and against God. God put me in this family, in this country, in this specific time of his creation. He knows the reason why and, amazingly, gives me everyday! a chance to choose for Him. He is a longsuffering, slow to anger, gracious, merciful God ..Exodus 34. If I need to know/be reminded who God really is (not my own image of Him) I need to read 1 Cor 13 which is the practical application of God’s character as in Exodus 34…which, of course, I need to strive to.;)) To really forgive all, believe all, cover all, trust all, etc of your husband/wife is surely one of the more challenging things of life…not because they are bad..but because they always leave their dirty socks next to the washing basket or leave the top of the toothpaste :)))

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