Part 4 of my sabbatical adventure away from the church entitled: "Church No More."
A little over two months ago I (an ordained minster who has gone to church my whole life) walked away from church– for three months. It is what I've decided to do with my sabbatical. You can read about my initial thoughts on my blog or on The Huffington Post. As the journey unfolds, I will be blogging about it in this series entitled, “Church No More.” I hope you will not only follow along, but add your voice to the reflection by commenting or joining the discussion on my FB page.
I love the Church. I have literally been going to church my whole life– until two months ago. I stopped cold turkey. You can read about it in my article “Ain't Goin' To Church No More.”
Masses of people responded. It astounded me. Most ministers expressed concern saying things like, “My Brother, I am worried that you may be on a dangerous journey,” or, “I fear you may lose your faith.” Frankly, what I heard them saying was, “Faith is so fragile it needs the Church to enforce it,” which only made me more certain I was making a remarkably healthy spiritual choice.
Formerly church-going folk frequently told me things like, “There is a large disconnect between the 'Church' of today and the teachings of Jesus,”and “I have found God in a dynamic, deep way and I love God so much more and for real now than when I was unwittingly trying to fit in with my church culture.”
I've been away from church for two months now and I have to say, I am more at peace than I ever have been. My faith is stronger than it ever has been. My family life is healthier than it ever has been. My desire to seek out God and follow the teachings of Jesus is stronger than it ever has been.
I do not want to go back to Church because life outside of Church is better. It just is. There's no dogma complicating the path to God. It is more than refreshing to escape the games church-folk play with the intent of establishing control and “rightness” on their part; it is life-giving to escape it. Being able to preach the Good News without worrying about which
clique within the church will quietly use my perspective against me simply because they don't agree with me has allowed me to honor the call God placed on me more than I could in an installed pastorate.
Yet, with only a month remaining in my sabbatical journey away from church, I'm already having to consider what going back to church will look like. I still have a month of experiencing, listening and learning to go, but I can already tell you a couple of things. One, the Spiritual But Not Religious (SBNR) are right in their critique of the Church. We are fools if we don't listen extremely closely to them. And two, their consistent complaint that the church is hypocritical actually only diagnoses the symptom and not the problem.
Part 3 of my sabbatical adventure away from the church entitled: "Church No More."
A little over a month ago I (an ordained minster who has gone to church my whole
life) walked away from church– for three months. It is what I've decided to do
with my sabbatical. You can read about my initial thoughts on my blog or on The Huffington Post. As the journey unfolds, I will be blogging about it in this series entitled, “Church No More.” I hope you will not only follow along, but add your voice to the reflection by commenting or joining the discussion on my FB page.
I have a confession. (That's rich, right? A minister confessing.) I have a hard time telling people I'm a minister. Yes, really. I actually tend to handle it this way -- Person: “So, what do you do for a living?” Me: “I'm a minister... (appropriate pause), but not the kind you just pictured in your head.”
Sad. I know. Honestly though, it's worse than that. I'm even very resistant to calling myself a “Christian.” And I'm not even close to the only Christian who feels that way! It's so bad that I have this very conversation with people all the time. There seems to be some kind of “Believer-like-me Radar” which tells people it's safe to talk to me about not liking the“C” word –Christianity.
You'd be amazed at how many people resist calling themselves Christian –or maybe you wouldn't. Maybe you are one of us. The “C” word just isn't what it used to be.
A number of researchers over the last few years (most notably David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons who published their results in unChristian
) have found that the word “Christianity” has many more negative connotations than positive ones, at least in the minds of the general public. Want to try a few of them on for size? Hypocritical. Irrelevant. Antihomosexual. Judgmental. Okay, that's enough. I'm getting depressed.
I've been on sabbatical from ministry for a little over a month now. I decided from the very beginning that during the three months I'm on sabbatical, I will not go to church. I've never done that for more than a couple of Sundays in my whole life. Ever. And it worried me
I'm finding that not only did I not need to be worried, but I don't actually miss church much.
I lost my joy. I suspect there are a few of you who feel the same way. Not that you aren't happy, but there is this deep place of celebratory joy which you once knew that really doesn't come around much anymore.
There was a time when I was a pretty joyful guy. Not “blind to the world's problems” kind of joyful, just “blessed to be blessed in the midst of this mess” kind of joyful. Lately though, I've found joy to be an increasingly difficult thing to come by.
The thing is, I have every reason to be joyful. I'm lucky enough to be married to an amazing woman – truly amazing. I couldn't be prouder of my kids who, in an age of “be different just like us” are very much their own kind of different simply because they aren't afraid of being themselves. My personal interests, like my blog, just keep getting better. I have some of the best friends in the world. Yet, I'm not the generally joyful person I once was.
It's a dull malaise that I just can't quite shake. I don't like it. Not one bit.
Recently though, I've been catching little glimpses of my joy making cameo appearances in the storyline of my life. I like it. A lot.
The question is, why now? Why not back then?
I can't say that I have the complete answer yet, but I am beginning to have some insights to it. The first glimpse happened at the Wild Goose Festival in Shakori Hills, NC
. Frankly, given the setting, I did not believe for one moment that it was where I'd start sorting out my joy.
It was on a piece of tick-infested farm land with temperatures and relative humidity in the nineties. I'd gathered with a bunch of strangers under an oversized, white tent that was purportedly meant to provide a venue for musicians and speakers to present their gifts, but it seemed to be equally adept at trapping the heat and humidity pouring off of all those gathered. Joyful, right? Admittedly, I wasn't so certain.
Part 2 of my sabbatical adventure away from the church entitled: "Church No More."A few weeks ago I (an ordained minster who has gone to church my whole life) walked away from church– for three months. It is what I've decided to do with my sabbatical. You can read about my initial thoughts on my blog or on The Huffington Post. As the journey unfolds, I will be blogging about it in this series entitled, “Church No More.” I hope you will not only follow along, but add your voice to the reflection by commenting or joining the discussion on my FB page.
It might be that the thing which concerned me the most about leaving the church was losing my spiritual community. It's not that I thought the spiritual-but-not-religious folk were helplessly lonely people wandering around seeking a spiritual community. Not at all. I just assumed that it might be immensely difficult to find and plug into a community like that in the course of three months. I also couldn't help but think it would be just a bit – well, fake to seek out a community for the sake of observing them and then leaving a few months latter. Not just fake but somewhat mean spirited and completely missing the point of community.
Here's the thing, I am a minister. I understand myself to be a person who ministers by following the lead and teachings of Jesus. (I also happen to follow the teachings of many other spiritual and/or thought leaders from Buddha to Neil deGrasse Tyson, but that's for another post some other time). Because of that, the idea of life without a spiritual community gives me the heebie-jeebies. (I apologize for using such a technical term, but a duck is a duck is a duck).
Why? Why do I break out in a heebie-jeebie induced sweat/panic-attack at the thought of having no spiritual community? Jesus. That is to say, at the beginning of his ministry the first thing Jesus did was create community. He marched himself down to the shoreline, yelled out to a bunch of folk (who would never really understand him or his teachings) to “follow me,” and they began ministering together. It would seem that for Jesus a prerequisite to ministering and doing the work of God (possibly even relating to God fully) is to be in community.
As I walked away from the church, I had no spiritual community. Heebie-jeebies for real.
I'm rewriting the old African-American spiritual “Down By the Riverside.” (Don't worry. It's Okay. I'm a minister). My new version goes something like this:
Gonna lay down my robe and stole
Down by the Riverside
Down by the Riverside
Down by the Riverside
Gonna lay down my robe and stole
Down by the Riverside
Ain't goin' to church no more.
Yep! That's it. This minister is walking away from church – well, for three months.
I've gone to church my whole life. Haven't missed more than two Sundays in a row in..., um, I actually don't think I've even missed more than two Sunday's in a row - ever. Not even in college. As a matter of fact, while a lot of my High School youth group friends were spreading the wings of their new found freedom in college by not going to church, I was part of a traveling worship team that helped lead worship at churches all over the state. (I know, I'm a geek. Okay
, a church geek. OKAY
! A church nerd – of course, back then with the popularity of dc Talk, I just thought of myself as a Jesus Freak. In a lot of ways I still am – the more things change...).
A few years ago I started this blog. It began as a way for me to say things that sometimes didn't feel safe or pastoral (or wise?) to say in church. (How sad is that, ministers not feeling like it's alright to say things that they actually believe in church? And I say “ministers” because there's a whole lot of them that feel that way. If you go to church, yours probably feels that way at least a little bit).
From the very beginning of thegodarticle.com
, I've written about the many challenges the church is facing (and frequently ignoring): Can the Church Catch Up?
, Keep Your Eye on the Ball
, Set Adrift on a Myth
, Growing Church Organicall
y, At the Speed of Grace
, and a few others. I've come to see that, for all the good the church does for others, it is turning a blind eye to itself. Clearly, this isn't true of all churches but the Church as a whole is predominantly being eaten up by a variety of cancerous issues. At this point, it seems to me, those issues are not only built into the system, but are so central to the system that those who are a part of it find it very difficult to either acknowledge the issues or do anything about them if they do manage to acknowledge them.
... or Re:Hashing #MarkDriscoll
Okay. Mark Driscoll hasn't actually said, “Jesus was a cowboy” (yet), but let's face it, that's what he thinks. Or, at least, he might as well.
Let me back up. If you don't know who Mark Driscoll is, I'll help you. I will try to be nice. It will be difficult. Of course, Driscoll would tell me not to worry about it, to go ahead and slug him in the chopper, because that's what it takes to be a minister. (I told you this was going to be hard).
Mark Driscoll is the lead minister of the largest church in Washington state (where men are manly and ministers are manly-er-er.... I told you this was going to be hard). He has devoted followers across the US and probably around the world watching his YouTube videos
, reading his books
, Tweeting about him (#MarkDriscoll
) and going to his conventions (“re:tool and re:load, “reGeneration,” etc.). He believes that we've got this whole Christianity thing wrong. That we have gone astray and that our misguided teachings are, in large part, to blame for the slow death of the institutionalized Christian church.
Now at this point, you may be thinking to yourself, “Hmmmm, I like the sound of that!”
No. You don't.
Remember? “Jesus was a cowboy!” True, that's not exactly what he said, but he did say this:
If he believes that about Jesus, you just know he believes that Jesus would have been a cowboy. The hyper-masculating of Jesus (and, it would seem in his mind, by extension ministers... who, I suppose by the same argument, must be male) is a product of the same over-masculated mythological storytelling that gives us the manly-men type cowboys of the silver screen.
Once, at a conference he was doing in Huston, Driscoll invited five ministers up to the stage, put his hands behind his back, and told them to slug him in the chin. “I won't hit back,” he said. Following what I can only assume they saw as the teachings of Jesus, not one of them hit him. Driscoll kicked them out of the conference and preceded to pound his own face. Go ahead, re-read that last sentence. I'll wait. (Okay, admit it, you completely believed that right? So did I. But it's from a spoof site. But it just shows how crazy the guy is that it sounds completely plausible that he'd do something like that).
Driscoll seems to think Jesus was a macho man, tough guy, testosterone freak... a gun slinging cowboy.
Part 2 – Christian 'Heritage' and American Exceptionalism
It is not unusual to find that those who have incorrectly begun treating Christianity as a heritage also cling tightly to a modern, warped conceptualization of American exceptionalism. In the US, many people have conflated their religion and their patriotism in a way that makes it is hard to tell where one begins and where the other ends. For the Church, the body of Christ, this has created a very volatile and decidedly un-Christian environment.
Let's begin, though, with a look at American exceptionalism. What it has come to mean and what it is supposed to mean have drifted too far apart. American exceptionalism is supposed to point to the unique qualities of the formation of the United States. (Conservatives who use the term might also be surprised to find out that it was coined by the American Communist Party). It points to the way we were formed, the ideologies that influenced our formation and the uniqueness of the structure of government which developed out of those things.
What it has come to mean is something quite different. Exceptional has been made equivalent to superior. Many times those making a call to American exceptionalism are now really making an unfounded call to the superiority of America and its ways in comparison to all other ways.
As if that weren't problematic enough all on it's own, the converse of what I opened this article with is equally true: It is not unusual to find that those who cling tightly to this modern, warped conceptualization of American exceptionalism frequently are also those who have incorrectly begun treating Christianity as a heritage. They wrap crosses in American flags as if the two have always been together and through that imagery claim what amounts to an unholy union.
When the two are practiced this way, the blind faith that is necessary to practice Christianity as 'heritage' and the blind following of an unquestioning patriotism combine to make a group of people who are necessarily closed to outsiders and particularly opposed to anything that favors anyone other than themselves. The blindness of it all, the unquestioning devotion to what they perceive as the traditions of their Protestant Christian heritage and the unflappable support of all policies that come from 'their' representatives in name of patriotism, calls for them to practice either cognitive dissonance or willful ignorance any time the facts point to something other than what they want to believe.
This is a problem for the Church, the body of Christ, because that is not who Jesus taught us God calls us to be. We are told to care for the outsiders, particularly those who are marginalized and undeserved. The conflation of Christianity as a 'heritage' and American exceptionalism create communities where the exact opposite of that is practiced in order to maintain the purity of the group. The Bible tells us that God “moves about in a tent,” is “about to do a new thing,” and we see that Jesus constantly asked the people he met to change. The conflation of Christianity as a 'heritage' and American exceptionalism demands a steadfastness and rigid resistance to change of any type as well as an unquestioning devotion to the past. We also know that biblically, wisdom is that thing in which God delights daily, but the conflation of Christianity as a 'heritage' and American exceptionalism, as I have already noted, requires a constant denial of facts that negate what you want to be true.
The conflation of Christianity as a 'heritage' and American exceptionalism is killing the Church and trying to do the same for our nation. Those who are willing to confront these realities must begin working together to breakthrough the blind haze that has entrapped our communities. We do so by naming it out loud, by no longer sitting silently aside and shaking our heads in not only sad amusement but in our own self-serving form of superiority. We must trust that the truth will indeed set us free and stop being afraid to name the problems because of the negative backlash we might suffer in our places of worship and ministry, because those places are the the very places that need the truth to be prophetically proclaimed.
Part 1 of this series: The Pitfalls of Practicing Christianity as Heritage
With each generation in the United States, it becomes more and more difficult for some people to identify with their heritage. Some of this is because the cultural pieces of their heritage have not been practiced and passed along from generation to generation, and some because as families marry they bring in other heritages and the resulting generation sometimes have a more difficult time understanding exactly what their heritage is.
It occurs to me that a very interesting phenomenon has risen out of this. It is not new or unique (something like it has happened before in Great Britain), but it is a fairly new and unique way of understanding the divide within so many Christian churches in the US.
Most of my thoughts on this are based on observances. So I have to recognize that I am speaking primarily about the experience of white Americans. That is not to say this isn't also true of other races, it is just saying it is the one with which I am most familiar and therefore the primary source of my observation.
The observation is this: many white Americans, seem to be filling in the gap of our lack of a sense of heritage with Christianity and it is not only dangerous but it stands over and against what Jesus and then Paul told us that this movement, the following of The Way, was about.
Much like our religious relatives who actually have a Jewish heritage, there has been a silent claiming of the "heritage" of Christianity. The way this Christian heritage is practiced is, obviously, heavily weighted toward practices of heritage rather than practices of faith. That is to say, like some “non-practicing” Jews who still observe certain rituals for the sake of remembering their heritage and passing it on to the next generation, Christianity has an abundance of “non-practicing” Christians who still observe certain rituals for the sake of remembering their “heritage” and passing it on. The difference is non-practicing Christians do not recognize that they are passing on the heritage and not-so-much the faith.
One of the most regular rituals is the preparation for (including dressing up) and attendance of church on Sunday morning. The unbending steadfastness of many Christian to allow for more casual dress, a change in worship style, or time of worship, while passed off as a concern for respectfulness, appropriateness and respectability from a religiously pious point of view has much more to do with upholding their perceived heritage than it does with any biblically based concern. The same seems to be true for many of the other places of resistance to change in the church.
That is where those who are advocates for the change and those who are advocates for maintaining their perceived heritage meet an impasse. We each assume the other is there for the same reason we are (to maintain Christian heritage / to peruse biblical mandates). Because of this miscue, we find ourselves frequently at impasses that, without recognition of the difference, will not reach a lasting resolution if they achieve a resolution at all. Additionally, the relationship is complicated by the issues of American exceptionalism which is so frequently bound tightly to Christian heritage, the biblical issues of Christianity being a “heritage,” and the belief of both sides that they are the ones who are honoring the religion. (All three are likely to be future articles).
Now for the part that many people are not going to like. I am not putting forth the idea that recognition of this reality (at least as I see it), will solve the impasse or provide for a path forward together - quite the opposite really. I believe that recognition of this divide will be exactly that- a recognition of a divide. Theses two understandings of what it means to be Christian are not compatible and, as sad as it is, make it not only constantly contentious to move forward together, but also illogical.
My sermon for this Sunday
is helpful in understanding this (as a matter of fact, this article may become part of the message). I'm looking at Micah, where the prophet says, "What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness and walk humbly with your God?” Those who practice Christianity mostly as a heritage will see those things as requests (if not “nice things to say, but a naive way of living”) and those who practice it as a religion will see it as exactly what the prophet calls it - a requirement.
Followers of The Way, of the teachings of Jesus, will never settle on ritual repetition for the sake of heritage... because Jesus didn't either. The Church, as the body of Christ, must never allow itself to become a cultural heritage club, for when we do, we displace the centrality of the brother and sisterhood of all humanity with the exceptionalism and assumed privilege of a select group of people... and that's just not the way of Christ.
Part 2: Christian 'Heritage' and American Exceptionalism