Recently, the internet has been replete with a spate of lists about why people left/leave Church. They contain nothing new, really. Just yesterday, as I was driving and listening to the radio, NPR aired an interview with Anne Rice about her surprising return to the Catholic church and her equally abrupt departure from it. Everywhere one turns there are more people giving voice to the failures of Church.
Friday, March 23, 2012
15 Reasons Why I Am Tired of Lists of About Leaving Church
We are living in a time of deep change as Christendom gives way to...well, we don't know what it is giving way to. That, in part, is what drives Christian conservatism to flail ever more wildly as it tries to keep Christendom alive and well. What the folks involved in this failing flailing haven't figured out is that Christendom is already dead. And, good riddance, as far as I am concerned.
It is important not to confuse Christianity, or, (even more broadly) being followers of Jesus, with Christendom. Christendom, in its most broad definition, refers to the worldwide community of Christians. However, the word is very rarely used this way. It has become synonymous with geopolitical power in the West. Once Christianity and Empire became entwined, their separation was impossible. That is, Christendom more often than not refers to a political manifestation of Christian symbology and ideology intrinsically bound to nationalistic pride, culture, Western values, and Empire. In short, Christendom is the political Christian world, a relatively hegemonic expression of what life is and how political life should and will be ordered. As the Western world grew in influence, Christendom was its main expression. We are living in a time of power redistribution and demythologization. The fact that people defend Christendom is evidence enough that it has already died. One doesn't have to defend, protect, or even name that which is taken for granted as real.
In her book Christianity After Religion Diana Butler Bass takes on the waning influence of churched Christianity as it has been incarnate in our world. The structures - denominations and other identity labels - are being broken down as the categories no longer suffice in mediating the world and God and us, presenting a coherent world view, or in facilitating spiritual life. People are transgressing categories which used to help us understand who we are and who the "other" is. Words like post-Evangelical, post-denominational, Emergent, emerging, Emergo-_____, and neo_____ are being thrown around in Christian communities with wild abandon. People are starting to describe themselves as post-theistic Christian or Jesus follower rather than Christian at all. The "taken for granteds" within certain categories can no longer be counted on. Protestants are taking up Benedictine patterns of life and faith. Evangelicals are not necessarily Republican. Conservative Roman Catholics and conservative Evangelicals are forming alliances that once would have been unheard of. The neatly arranged religious world that helped, significantly helped, us shape our political and social worlds is giving way as old and insufficient meanings are eroding and new ones have yet to emerge. What results is chaos.
The death of Christendom is something I applaud and I mourn. Nothing is more dangerous than a government - an Empire - which can rely upon the persuasive language of religion. Once a government can rally the people on God's behalf, there is no campaign that won't be undertaken. When nationalistic symbols and religious symbols are wedded, the potential for Empire expansion, the abuse of power, and the marginalization of the minority is exponentially increased. And, yet, I was formed in Christendom. Beautiful cathedrals amaze me. Churches full of families make me happy. I am reflective enough to know that as much as I cheer the divorce of the Empire-Christian marriage, I am a child of it.
Given the reality in which we live, it isn't a surprise that people are finding it easier to name the failings of Church - of Christianity. What does surprise is how invisible the Mainliners are in our national dialogue about Christendom and Christianity. After all, the Mainline Church was the primary incarnation of Christendom in the US. In her list about why she left church, Rachel Held Evans includes things like: "I left the church because I believe the earth is 4.5 billion years old and that humans share a common ancestor with apes, which I was told was incompatible with my faith" and "I left the church because I had learned more from Oprah about addressing poverty and injustice than I had learned from 25 years of Sunday school." Her list includes the fact that she never saw a woman behind a pulpit. I don't doubt that her list is genuine and an accurate reflection of her experience. And, this article isn't about her. What amazes me is how typical her list is on the interwebz. I'm amazed because, while there are very many reasons to leave church, these lists seem to be completely unaware of the Mainline Church. I grew up with a woman pastor, and I am 43 years old. I have a science degree as well as a theological degree. I grew up in the South and evolution was never challenged in my school or my church. I grew up in a Mainline Church that was a bit country club like, but as a youth I went on mission trips, worked at food banks, and was taught to love my enemy and give generously to the poor.
How is it that the Mainline Churches (to be more accurate), which have well over 20 million members in the US and which have been the main incarnation of Christendom in the US, have at the same time made no impact on how Christianity is viewed in the US? When Christianity is represented on television today, almost invariably the representative is a megachurch pastor, a televangelist, or the most conservative representation of a recognizable denomination. When people write their lists about leaving Church, they are not reflective of life in Mainline congregations. The millions of people who attend regular ol' Mainline churches that host food banks, shelters, are served by women priests and pastors, run day cares, build affordable housing, promote women's health, and base their communal life on the teachings of Jesus rather than focus solely on his death, are completely ignored. I find that simply incredible.
So, I thought I would list 15 Reasons Why I Am Tired of Lists about Leaving Church.
1. The Church, like all institutions, is flawed, filled with imperfect people, and will never be a full reflection of God's inclusive love. To think we can have a perfect Church is a lovely idea, but it won't happen. Ever.
2. Women pastors have been around a long time. In the United Methodist Church, we have been ordaining women for over 50 years. Want to see one? Come on over and worship with us.
3. Jesus spent his whole ministry healing, teaching, reconciling, confronting, challenging, and upsetting others. He never left. He went deeper in.
4. Individual spirituality is lovely. Communal spirituality is messy, difficult, challenging, boring, and the most wonderful thing a person will ever experience. It demands that we set aside what we want and requires that we focus on the need of others. Can't do that alone.
5. Lists about leaving Church include some kind of wrong done to people. (See reason number 1 above) People hurt one another; it happens. Now, the institution as a whole and the leaders in particular should be accountable for real abuses, but people often leave over little hurts as well as over legitimate real woundedness. It takes discernment to know the difference. One should never stay in a wounding experience. Yet, I challenge people to think about commitment to relationship before they leave over "someone was rude to me" reasons for leaving. Entering into covenant with others assumes the risk of being hurt, let down, and disappointed. Inasmuch as we do love one another, we also disappoint one another. The challenge is to find ways to extend and seek forgiveness.
6. Lists about leaving Church often include something about "boring" ritual. Yes, church can be boring. Everything isn't entertaining. Should worship always be boring? Absolutely not. Worship is intended to bring us into relationship with God and help us mend our relationships with our neighbors. Sometimes that is hard work. Sometimes that means the worship service is geared toward a topic more relevant to the person sitting next to me. Sometimes my mind is some place else. Sometimes it is a bad service. Sometimes I might get to encounter the Divine.
7. Lists about leaving Church are focused on how "I" have been affected. What about the church you leave? Perhaps they need your wisdom, your challenge, your words, your prayer, your presence, your time, your talent, your gifts. Just sayin'.
8. The Church as an expression of Christendom is dying, well, already dead. Kicking it when it's down seems mean.
9. The single largest provider of social services in the US, behind the government itself, is the Christian Church. As more people leave, all of those little food banks, shelters, lunch programs, and so on suffer. Recently, the governor of my state said that in the budget crisis that we face, churches will need to do more to plug the holes in social services. I laughed out loud. Really? And how might we do that with fewer and fewer members? People say churches aren't doing anything good in the world. They have certainly done bad in the world. But, today, Church houses, feeds, treats the ill, cares for the elderly, provides mental health services, runs clothing banks, runs after school programs, helps immigrants, assists people leaving domestic violence, mentors children, and so on. Not at a church helping people in need? Look a block over. There is one there that needs you to help them manifest the love of Christ in real and significant ways.
10. Childhood Sunday school lessons will not prepare one for adult challenges. Leaving the Church because a faith formed as a child is insufficient in the real world is like saying one is not going to the doctor because the bandaid purchased at the local drug store isn't stopping the hemorrhage on one's leg. A faith that questions and can withstand the assaults of real life must continually be formed, challenged, deconstructed, reconstructed, and explored.
11. Sacraments are wonderful expressions of God's love incarnate. Sacraments live with the Church and are found among the people. Water, wine, and bread. Things needed for life's road. Feast on them. Splash in them. They are pretty wonderful.
12. Lists about leaving Church describe an understanding of God which is pretty one dimensional. The Church is reimagining the meaning to which we are attached. Throughout our history, people have had to reimagine the character of God and our relationship with God. God is much more interesting than a one dimensional Santa character. Stick around and help us with holy imagining.
13. Lists, like this one, cherry pick easy things to target. Boo lists!
14. Lists often include something about music. To be sure, there are some horrendous songs sung in Church. Yet, I love hymnody. It's okay for sacred music to be different from what we listen to on the radio. But, should one need to rock out, there's a church out there that does that.
15. Lists about leaving Church almost all include something about being made to feel awkward when visiting. I can't refute this. This is legit. Straight up. No one should be asked to sign up for a committee, join the choir, or be chased down the sidewalk and begged to come back. My list is really 14 reasons.
*Throughout this article, you find the word "Church" and the word "church." "Church" with a capital "c" refers to the big organization of Church - all of us together. The little "c" church refers to local congregations.
Also, this article is not about Rachel Held Evans' post. She also has written a list of 15 reasons why she returned to church, which you can read here. Christian Piatt offers a different list here about leaving church. These are just two examples of a much wider phenom.
- ► 2013 (13)
- ▼ March (3)
- ► 2011 (33)
- ► 2010 (34)
- ► 2009 (31)
- ► 2008 (56)
- ► 2007 (111)