The final entry of my sabbatical adventure away from the Church entitled: "Church No More."
Almost three 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.
They say you can never go home again. The thinking being, having left and experienced new things, you have changed and the people back home have continued in their lives just as you left them. Your experience of going back home again will necessarily be very different from your experience of home as you remember it, even though it may have changed very little.
In many ways, Church is one of my homes and I left it. I walked away for three months and experienced a bit of life outside of it. The three months are up and I'm going back home. This Sunday (September 2) is my first Sunday back.
The saying “you can't go home again,” probably originated from Thomas Wolfe's novel, “You Can't Go Home Again
.” It's the story of an author who leaves his home, writes about it from a distance and then tries to go home again. It doesn't exactly go well. The folks in the town are none-too-happy about him airing their dirty laundry so publicly. So, you can't go home again.
Well, I'm going to try. Yes, I left the Church and wrote about it from a distance and judging from some of the comments and emails I received, some folks are none-too-happy about some of the things I said, but it's time to go back to the Church.
The good news for me is I'm primarily going back to church (little “c,” as in the church where I serve) and then secondarily to Church (big “C,” the institution). I love the folks at Vandalia Presbyterian Church. We're a small church with a big heart. I'm looking forward to seeing them all again and to doing ministry with them again. Here's the thing: I've changed. That worries me a bit.
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.
There is, by the nature of culture, always a gap between the younger and eldergenerations within a society. The arts have almost always been the first to pick up onthis reality whether it is Bob Dylan noting, “Come mothers and fathers throughout theland and don’t criticize what you can’t understand. Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command. Your old road is rapidly aging. Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand for the times they are a-changing.” or Dar Williams with the simple plea, “Teenagers, kick our butts.” However it is named, there is little reason to question the gap that exists. That being said, in this time in history and in this place in the world, there can be little doubt that the previous generation has totally let down their children’s generation and the time has come for those of us of the children’s generation to cast off the absurd expectations of our parents and live in radically different ways. That casting off should begin in the place that has the potential for the most radical change, the church.
First, dear sisters and brothers, let me talk a bit about the manner in which the previous generation has let down the younger. Within the church, the older generation, keenly aware of their own mortality and their impending loss of life and power, has sought to codify the movement of the Spirit within the doctrines and dogmatic assumptions of history. Religion, rather than being the cheerful work of moving with the Spirit to better bring about the Realm of God in this broken world has become a barrier and a burden to those who practice it. Rather than being a time of celebration and inclusion, those in the older generation have increasingly walled off the distinction between the sacred and the secular until the only one’s allowed in the door must look and believe painfully like everyone else
in the room.
by Mark Sandlin
This is a bit long for a blog post, but some may find it to be a helpful resource. I wrote the piece for another project and it just wasn't a good fit. Honestly, if you are well read on the issue of the Bible and its take on homosexuality (or lack thereof), there is little new in here. For you, I hope this can be a quick reference. If you are not well read on such things, this may be a bit of a bumpy ride, but bumpy rides can be a lot of fun. Either way, I hope I was able to take what is sometimes thick reading, albeit important reading, and make it at least bearable and mostly straight forward.
Christianity and “Biblical” Hatefulness
We Christians are good at a lot of things. Helping others. Dressing up on Sunday. Quoting scripture. Pot luck meals. Taking care of church members. Weddings. Funerals. Worship. But perhaps the thing at which we are the most persistently exceptional is misinterpreting the Bible then running amuck in the world because of it. Honestly, mad skills. And history backs me up on this one.
We have used the Bible to support, promote and act upon some pretty un-Christian things: slavery, holocaust, segregation, subjugation of women, apartheid, the Spanish Inquisition (which, no one ever expects
), domestic violence, all sorts of exploitation and the list could go on and on. Oddly, if you ask theologians to pick one biblical theme to rule them all, most of them would say “love”... well, love and grace. Okay, love, grace and forgiveness. Fine. They probably would not specifically agree on a single term, but they would most likely name something that is, in every way, the opposite of the oppression, belittlement, hatred and marginalization represented by the numerous atrocities committed by the Christian Church.
More times than not, these atrocities are the result of trying to play God, pretending as if one group of people has complete knowledge of God's will and is more blessed or chosen by God. Not surprisingly, the people who see the world this way are always exactly the people who also happen to belong in the group they believe to be the uber-blessed. Lucky them.
Time and time again, Jesus made it clear that we should not put ourselves in the place of playing God and that, unlike far too many humans, God welcomes and loves us all equally. Period.
But we keep doing it. We keep doing it even though each time after we argue, name-call, suppress others and fight for centuries, falsely playing the role of heavenly judge and jury, we slowly realize that we got it wrong. We realize that, in fact, Paul was not promoting slavery. We learn to contextualize his statements and letters. We become more skilled at interpreting the original Greek and, over time, we decide to stop quoting the Bible to support slavery (or the subjugation of women, or racism, etc.) because we finally come around to realizing that, as Rob Bell's book points out, biblically love wins. Always.
And so we find ourselves here again. Doing the thing we do best: misinterpreting the Bible and ruining lives with it. We are, once again, ignoring the biblical bias for those who are marginalized, abused, belittled and negatively judged. Ignoring the biblical directive to show all the children of God love (and grace... and forgiveness). Hate By Any Other Name
Oh sure, this time around we have “softened” our approach, saying things like “hate the sin, love the sinner,” but we fail to recognize that what we are calling a “sin” and the person we are calling a “sinner” are one and the same. A person whose sexual orientation is homosexual, or bi-sexual, or queer can no more separate themselves from their sexuality than a heterosexual person can. It's like saying “hate the toppings, love the pizza.” It's just not the pizza without the toppings. We just aren't loving the person if we don't love the whole person.
I suspect the “softening” of the language we use has everything to do with making us feel better and very little with making LGBTQ folk feel better, because it certainly doesn't make them feel any better. As a matter of fact, the love/hate (emphasis on hate) relationship that the Church continues to push on this group of people only serves to push them into closets and into even darker places, which sometimes leads to suicide. The Church and its approach to this issue are at fault for most of the hurt, anguish, self-doubt, abuse and death associated with being LGBTQ. Not very loving. Not very grace filled. But it certainly leaves us in need of forgiveness.
Many Christians have lost their way in this twisty, turny maze of how to practice our faith. We would much rather reinforce the things we want to believe than believe the sometimes difficult teachings of Jesus. Who, on a side note, never said a word about homosexuality but did tell us to gouge out our lustful eyes. Which seems to me is more likely to leave us all blind than the “eye for and eye” thing.
Change is a given. You don't have to like it, but you have no choice but to acknowledge it. Being alive means changing. To be just a little bit morbid, even in death our bodies change as they decompose. Like I said, change is a given.
Inexplicably, churches have come to think they don't have to change. The world around them changes at an ever quickening pace as technology changes our ability to travel, communicate and gather information, and the Church clings to the past believing that if we just believe hard enough we can make the reality of change go away. But we can't. Change is a given.
The Church's general resistance to change is really odd if you think about it. God was (and is) always about to do a new thing. From Noah, to Abraham, to Moses, to David, to the prophets, to Jesus, the disciples and Paul, the people of God are always experiencing God moving them from one state of being to another. The way it was done (the old life) is gone and the new way (the new life) has begun, and those are just the most obvious Bible stories. Add to that the fact that the history of the church is also littered with constant change. It truly is inexplicable that we think we don't have to change.
So, how did we get to this place of such a staunch resistance to change? We forgot that Jesus was a radical redeemer. You see, as a colleague once reminded the congregation where I serve, Jesus never met anyone he didn't ask to change.
If you don't think you need to change, you haven't met Jesus. He never met anyone he didn't ask to change. Now, while change comes in all forms (some change is small, some is big), it isn't all that surprising to see in scripture that Jesus was typically interested in the big changes. The kind that challenged the status quo and flipped our whole way of seeing something upside down. He was a radical reformer. A reformer in that he asked us to change, radical in that it often required a paradigm shift to become the person Jesus said God was calling you to be.
Are Churches radical reformers? Do we ask the people we meet to change? Radically? Better yet, are we willing to change radically? And don't think that we are talking about change for the sake of change here. That would just be mean and short-sighted. We are talking about change that engages fully with the reality that change is inevitable.
In that, the Church must also recognize that it has been clinging to the past for so long that it lost sight of the communities in which God planted them. The Church must acknowledge that as it clung so desperately to how things have “always” been done, it lost it's ability to hold onto a God who moves about in a tent (2 Samuel 7:5) and is always about to do a new thing.
If we can recognize that, then we can also see that in order to catch back up with the community in which God has planted us, it is going to take a radical change. Not change for change's sake, but change for God's sake. It is not about changing what we believe about God, rather, it is about trying desperately to live into it! It would feel better, it would feel safer, to move slowly, methodically and only in places that cause the least stress, but that's not the kind of change Jesus asked of those who met him.
Have we truly met Jesus? Do we hear his call to radical reform? Are we willing to let loose of our past and let the Spirit move us as the Spirit will?
It is time for the Church to change at the speed of grace.
Children Grow Where I Send Thee
A church is a surprisingly difficult thing to just pick up and move. I'm not just talking about the physical building. If you've ever tried to get a entire group of people to move (be it spiritually, ideologically, or theologically), you wold probably agree that, at times, it might just be easier to move the physical church - but we can't.
Churches must grow where they are planted. Digging them up with all of the roots that have been established and moving them to a new location is amazingly difficult and in the rare cases that attempt it, frequently they are not ever able to fully take root, so they eventually wither away. There are exceptions, of course, but they are rare.
Growing a church organically, takes very seriously the idea that God has planted a church where it is. It takes very seriously the idea that God has carefully placed the church where it can not only be watered but can provide sustenance.
Considering the realities about the Church that were mentioned in the first three parts of this series, that would seem to be a little bit of a problem. As society has changed the Church hasn't. We have decentralized ourselves from the lives of a great deal of our communities. Ultimately, we have turned inward for stability and comfort. The more we cling to our past and ourselves, the more the communities in which we are planted have found us to be irrelevant for their lives.
In that situation, the Church is neither likely to be watered by or provide spiritual sustenance for the community. We have to begin reengaging our communities and the first step, quite naturally is to stop clinging to our past and ourselves and, instead, engage in our present and our communities.
Can The Walls Come a Tumbling Down?
As we've seen, the society and community in which most churches sit have moved forward with the inevitable changes of life and for decades as they have changed The Church has done everything in it's power to remain firmly in its place. The net result is that the Church has not only removed itself from its former place of centrality in most communities, but it has become decidedly 'other' - an alien in it's own community. This isn't the kind of 'other' to which Paul called the church either. That kind of 'other' while not of the community was very decidedly in the community.
The Church has responded in a number of very understandable yet unhealthy ways. One of them is to turn inward. When the community in which you reside looks so very different from the community within your walls, it is very comforting to turn inward. It not only reassures you that it is 'OK' to be like you are, but it also offers a great deal of support in a situation where you feel like the 'outside' world has gone astray and are infringing upon what was once your community.
Naturally, this inward turning that many churches who have been left behind by society experience, will ultimately lead to a decrease in missions, particularly in missions in the immediate community. This withdrawal from engaging in social and justice issues in the immediate community is reinforced by ever-decreasing funds.
The decrease in funding and available resources is also related to the inward turning. When church members are holding on tightly to each other in order to survive the perceived storm outside the walls of the church, it makes reaching out to new members difficult. Over time this means a decrease in membership.
Congregation members are also effected by another, more subtle, influence when it comes to bringing in new members. Identity. It has long been an unspoken problem in churches but in becoming so inward turned, it has become more pronounced. When a church disengages from the community in which it sits, it becomes a community unto itself. One contained within a predefined area by the walls of the building, but a community none-the-less. Within that community, people naturally take on roles. Sally keeps the kitchen clean; Bill tells us what to to about finances; Sue writes get-well cards, etc.
Over time, those roles become part of each individual's identity. In many ways, they perceive it as part of who they are. “I'm the one who is responsible for having the kitchen in good order.” That's when the roles begin to hurt the Church. There are two specific ways which most concern me. The first is with other members of the church. When the kitchen is left dirty, Sally will take it as an attack on her personally (at the very least on a sub-conscious level). When you add up all of the assumed identities within the church community, it is inevitable that there will be factions...and they will compete for control.
Worse yet, when Jane infringes on Sue's identity as “the-one-who-writes-get-well-cards” there will be some kind of conflict and with conflict there are two likely outcomes: flight or fight. Either one has the long term effect of diminishing the church's size and ultimately opportunity to do ministry.
The second way the conflation of roles and identity concerns me is that it leads churches to be polite, but not hospitable. While new people coming in the door do represent an opportunity to do ministry and new life, they also represent a possible threat to well established ways, a long term threat to the factions that have power and ultimately a threat to individual’s identities as the new people may also have ideas about the kitchen, finances or they may just like to write get-well cards.
So, we welcome the new people but we do so reservedly and if they are to venture into territory where they have not be given permission by the Powers That Be, they will find that the welcome did not run as deep as they had first hoped and will probably make the choice to move on. (Frequently, they chose to not continue to play this kind of game with the Church and on Sunday mornings can be found enjoying sleeping in, an extra cup of coffee, or a 10 o'clock tee time).
More churches than really care to admit it find themselves in this position. The way back to a relevant ministry is difficult, challenging, and requires a little bit of death, a little bit of re-birthing and a whole lot of faith and hope. The Good News is, life after death, and faith and hope have always been the stuff of God. That's what we will be looking at in the last of this four part series on Organic Church.Part 1: Hopey-ChangeyPart 2: Sit Boy, Sit. Good Dogma.Part 4: Children Grow Where I Send Thee