Part 5 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.
A little over two months ago, I decided I'd spend my three month sabbatical not going to church
. Which might seem like a perfectly normal thing to do – except that I'm a minister. I've had some strange and wonderful experiences which I've written about
, but possibly more strange and more wonderful than the experiences are the responses I've received.
From the very beginning the most frustrating response I get is not folks telling me I'll lose my faith if I leave church (and they have), or the ones telling me I can't begin to understand what it's like to be Spiritual But Not Religious (SBNR) in three short months (lots of those were also disturbingly aggressively worded), but rather the ones that say, “Oh, 'sabbatical!' Thanks. Now I have a word to call what I do! I stopped going to church years ago.”
“No!,” I'd think while unsuccessfully trying to figure out how to reach through my laptop screen and shake some sense into them, “You are not on sabbatical! The sabbatical I'm taking about has to do with taking a rest, not leaving. It's rest and recuperation – communion with God in a way that is restorative. It's not about leaving! Sheesh.”
More than two months into my sabbatical, I now have to say, “Boy was I wrong.” They are on sabbatical, more so than I am.
Sabbatical is about rest and recuperation. It is about communing with God in a restorative way. For a lot of church going people that is not the way they would describe Sunday mornings. I know it wasn't for me. Sure, it was at times. I certainly always looked forward to seeing people and we definitely experienced communion with God in the fellowship and worship we shared. Rest, however? Recuperation? A restorative experience? Uh, no.
“Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.” In the Protestant church, Sunday is our Sabbath, but there seems to be far too little sabbath in the Sabbath. While there are exceptions to the rule, for far too many people, going to church is a chore. There's nothing restful or restorative about it. However, there is a pretty good chance that someone will make a remark about how you are dressed or shoot a sideward glance at you because you are singing entirely too loud or do any number of surprisingly judgmental things while they presumably gather to learn how to follow the teachings of the one who taught “judge not” and “love your neighbor.”
And that's just the tip of the tension iceberg that Sunday morning has become. Try breaking the segregation barrier in most churches. Try helping out where you weren't asked to help. Try suggesting a new way to do outreach or invite a homeless person to worship. How about questioning the biblicalness of the Trinity or asking why Jesus seems a little different in the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of John? Ah! Feeling rested and restored yet?
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.
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.
I meet monthly with a group of ministers to discuss the current state of The Church and possible paths forward. We guide our discussions by working our way through books that do much the same thing. I suppose our hope is that the people who write these books will have much more experience in helping churches gain new life than any one of us individually might have and thus give us much needed guidance in doing the same for the churches where we serve (and a magic blueprint would be nice too).
The most recent book talks about churches “reinventing” themselves to appeal to younger generations. Now mind you, it is not advocating for or against “reinventing” church, it is merely making commentary about churches doing so. Well, I have to say, I had to read that part of the book over and over again to try to make sense of it. Something just wasn't setting well with me about “reinventing” church.
The book itself is about change and the part that mentions churches reinventing themselves is actually addressing the way change represents loss – loss of the past, loss of how things used to be done, loss of traditions. With that loss is, understandably, also the loss of things that helped define both personal and corporate identity. So, reinventing, changing, represents loss which threatens identity. I have no problem with that. Not only does it make sense, I've seen it happen time and time again in church when change is introduced.
It seems to me that the fact that we see change as “reinventing” is the problem. Our churches and our personal lives are supposed to be about journeying to\toward\and with God. When applied to churches within our modern context, talking about reinventing our churches, changing to appeal to younger generations, points to a previous lack of movement, a stagnation.
That's the problem. At some point we, The Church, stopped moving and we allowed our identity to get wrapped up in the pursuit of the things of this world rather than in the pursuit of God. Change must be who we are – people in motion, moving toward God, toward Creation, toward the children of God. As Christians, when change threatens our identity, it doesn't point to a problem with change, it points to a problem with our identity. God was constantly calling the people of God to go on journeys (think Noah, Moses, Abraham, David, Jonah) and Jesus asked everyone he met to change in some way. In every case, constant change. To be Christian is to be a people of change, the old life is gone the new life has begun.
Despite our best efforts, we never manage to be the people God calls us to be, but we must always try – and that means changing from what we once were to something closer to what God is calling us to be, reinventing ourselves every day, every hour, every minute to be a better reflection of God.
It is a problem that we think of changing as reinventing ourselves. If we hope to survive going forward, rather than reinventing ourselves, we have to reclaim our heritage as people constantly on a journey, embracing change at every turn...and we have be willing to do it every day, every hour, every minute. Rather than threatening our identity, change must be our identity as we constantly reinvent ourselves closer to the reflection of God we were created to be.