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 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 came across your recent statement calling my present activities "unwise and untimely." Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would have little time for anything other than such correspondence in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work." -- MLK, Letter from a Birmingham Jail
It is no great secret that mainline, Protestant churches are on the decline. A great deal of effort and energy are put into reversing this process. Call it Emergent Church, Transformation, or a whole host of other buzz words, we church leader types seem convinced that change is the key to forgoing what increasingly looks like a certain (be it slow) demise.
So, we invest money, time and talent into the latest sure-fire program with the best of intentions. Quite frankly, it feels good to be doing something about it rather than sitting hopelessly tied to the past and repeating the mis-takes of yesteryear over and over again. We slowly make a case to whatever power structures there may be (formal and informal), get as many people as possible on board with the “new vision” and then begin the process.
Here's the thing, once the “process” moves beyond reading books about what this “change thing" might look like, and we get down to actually changing things, people (the very people who were “on board” with the new vision) start criticizing the change once they see that it will actually change things. (I know that seems ridiculous, but it is actually very human. The idea of change is much less challenging than people actually mucking about in our comfort zones).
As people begin to detract from the change, detract from forward progress, we pastoral types feel a deep need to not only bring them along with us, but to sooth over the tension that such disagreements cause. The thing is, each time we halt to address the criticism, we also halt the forward motion, we cease building a new future and focus on mending the past, we shift gears from the macro-management of the church's future to the micromanagement of every concern expressed.
It's almost hard to think about not doing exactly that, but when you do stop to think about it, when you choose to handle change this way, you are choosing to let go of the vision for the church and to get caught up in the everyday concerns of the world. Said differently, when you are trying to move a body forward, focusing on the detractors (even earnest ones) subtracts greatly from your ability to actualize progress. In many ways, life has taught those who object to change exactly that; preventing change does not take being right, it only takes being loud enough (or concerned enough, or hurt enough, etc.) to garnish attention, because it causes those working toward change to loose their vision and focus their energy on you.
In the end you, at the very least, slow down the change to which you object and in the best case you wear down those working toward change so much they they throw their hands up in frustration and walk away. With the exception of earnest objectors who might actually just be trying to understand, a great deal of the detractors are not interested in what is best as much as they are interested in getting what they want. Those working for change frequently, out of genuine concern, make the mistake of believing that with enough dialogue and nurturing the detractors can be brought on board. While this is certainly a virtuous perspective, and early on is worth putting some energy in (but not the majority of energy), there is a point at which you have to face reality and boldly move forward into the direction you understand God to be calling you, realizing that people you care about will probably choose to take a different path and that the split may be rocky and even less than cordial at times.
I can't help but wonder if that is part of the wisdom that Dr. King saw as he looked at the new vision, the change, he was trying to usher in in the U.S. “If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk...I would have no time for constructive work.” With progress, detraction is subtraction. It is painful work and goes against every fiber of your being. It literally hurts, but Jesus never promised us that it would be easy, just that it would be worth it.
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.
For me 'Left Behind' has become much more than a book. Much like 'Tea Party' has colloquially become a descriptive for a particular archetype of a group of people, Left Behind has become the same for me.
Recognizing that I am working with generalities here and that generalities always do a disservice to some people who identify with the group, for me 'Left Behind' has come to describe a particular type of church goer. (I use 'church goer' here because I find that some of the people, while they might identify strongly as Christian, exhibit far too many actions that call to question the authenticity of their identity. They do, however, tend to be very good at going to church). This group believes that one day those who have not been 'good Christians' will be separated from the love of God – left behind as all the 'good' people get sucked up in God's magical, over-sized Hoover (actually probably a Dyson, I can't help but believe God would have upgraded by now). That may not be exactly how they would put it, but you get the idea.
Along with this perspective comes a few other... well, let's call them personality quirks. Frequently, Left Behinders have a quiet (mostly unspoken) air of superiority. Let's face it, if you know you are going to be saved (sucked up by the Holy Dyson) and that others are going to be left behind to wallow in their heathenness... it would be sort of hard not to feel the littlest bit superior. Along with that comes a few things: very little spiritual growth because they already have it right, a general sense of entitlement, resistance to 'other,' resistance to new ideas (or change), and the ability to be thought of as 'nice' without actually having to consistently demonstrate love of neighbor and enemy.
This all creates a problem with moving the church forward. I have to completely agree with John Spong's assessment that the Church must change or die. As a matter of fact, I am no longer interested in participating in arguments that suggest otherwise. There is much work to do and anything that distracts from moving forward puts the Church that much further behind.
That's the crux of the problem. As a church tries to reclaim the foundations of Christianity (to reassert the necessity for love of God and neighbor and those we may perceive as enemy; to actively minister and worship with those who have been marginalized; to stand up to the status quo, hypocrisy, piousness, and those who take advantage of 'the least of these'), we meet great resistance from two places.
The first is the Left Behinders, who do not like the change that comes with doing all of those things. What the change looks like can be offensive to people who believe they already have it right. It confronts who they have been for years and can even suggest to them that they were wrong. Understandably that can introduce doubt in a place where there had only been blessed assurance that they had their one way ticket to the Holy Dyson in the sky. It also means letting in people who may have previously been thought of as outsiders, 'others' and quite possibly the ones that would miss out on the great vacuum ride to the heaven.
Typically, the Left Behinders, have established some place of power, prestige or position and the change needed in the church to avoid slow death threatens those places. They are likely to hunker down without any real regard to the theological soundness of the movement forward (or movement back to biblical foundations) and will cherry pick verses, make appeals to tradition and even demonize the leaders of the change. Their reactions are completely understandable considering what they believe and how they have experience Christianity thus far. It also happens to be a path whose tangent would continue to lead the church further and further away from it's calling...and it is not acceptable.
The second resistance will come from those who agree with the need for change. They tend to have a real passion for the life and teachings of Jesus and in their own lives you can see those teachings mirrored in their passion for those some might think of as 'other.' These are people who have frequently themselves been marginalized within the traditional church; their voices, while allowed to be expressed, are lovingly (possibly 'nicely' is a better word) minimized by the Left Behinders who hold the power.
As change begins to be realized, it is this group that will put up the most earnest and biblical arguments to slow the change down – they don't want to leave the Left Behinders behind.... ironic, isn't it? ... (and we're not even done with the irony yet). Their love of neighbor will lead them to advocate for those who, in one form or another, had previously 'nicely' marginalized their voice - the marginalized voice speaking up for the powers that be (and the irony still isn't done).
It is actually easy to see why they would react that way. It is exactly what they wish, on some level, someone would have done for them when their voices had been marginalized and it does seem to be the loving thing to do.... and it is, for awhile. There is a point, however, when it should be clear that, while some have chosen to be a part of the change, others do not have ears to hear and out of love for the overall Body of Christ (of which they are a part) we must shake the dirt off of our collective feet and continue on our journey forward. While we do, we can still wish blessings upon them, but in a time when transformation is essential for the longevity of the Church, holding our forward movement back for those who have made it clear they do not have ears to hear is analogous to shooting the Body of Christ in the foot.
Ironically, there will be Left Behinders that chose to remain behind. They will act as an anchor pulling the Body backwards as it tries to move forward. The funny thing is, if we don't move forward we will continue to move on that tangent further and further away from God's will and when the second coming does arrive, at least in terms of their own theology, we will all be left behind...even 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.
I've been thinking about this for a while. Can the typical church catch up to the frenzy of progression that is happening in technologically oriented fields? Better yet, does it want to? Or even better, does it need to?
In 1965, Gordon Moore, inventor of an integrated circuit and co-founder of Intel, observed that the number of transistors that can be placed on an integrated circuit increases at an exponential rate, doubling every two years. This observation, over the past 40 or so years, has proven itself to be true and is known as Moore's Law (not to be confused with Moore's law, which basically says people may not want more information because it will probably mean they have to think more. While the two actually have a very interesting implications when put together, that's not what I'm interested in today).
Moore's law has immense implications for anything with technology (specifically integrated circuits) at it's core. For awhile people, even Moore himself, thought we were at an end to Moore's law, but recent work in silicon based transistors has extended the reality of the exponentially increasing rate of technology. What this mean is, we have moved from the first programmable computer (Charles Babbage, concept in 1812-1822) to the modern handheld computer in less than 200 years. And 200 years is nothing more than a blip on the 100,000 year history of modern humanity. So, imagine the progress we've made in that tiny little blip (from a general concept of computers to handheld, wireless web-surfing) and just try to extrapolate exponentially where we will be in the next 20 years - it's mind boggling.
Now, look at the past 200 year history of the church. The Great Schism was more than 900 years ago. Luther's 95 Thesis and the resulting split from the Catholic Church was almost 500 years ago. In the last 200 years...well, we do catch the tail end of the Second Great Awakening, but let's face it we've resisted any change or advancements for the most part. A quick glance at The Presbyterian Hymnal shows a remarkable number of songs from more than 200 years ago.
So, while the world (particularly the technological part of it) has raced ahead at light speed, the church has clung to the past, changing when it was forced to, but remaining relativelyconsistent over the past 200 years. Honoring our past, our history, is very important and is something for we should strive. Living in the past, however, is not something for which we should strive.
At heart here is the question of relevance. Many of today's young people sight the lack of the church's relevance in their lives as the reason the do not attend church. Did you catch that? Not, they don't believe in God. Not, they don't like the worship service. They don't find the church relevent for their modern lives.
So, is it that the church is no longer relevant in young people's lives or could it be that in holding on so tightly to the past, we are letting the future slip away from us? Could it be that in our resistance to move forward in the world, particularly when it comes to technology, that we are shunning the very thing that would help reconnect the church with the young, disenfranchised believers? I believe so.
Here's the thing though - at the blazing fast speed at which technology moves forward, a speed that is increasing daily and so far shows no signs of slowing, the more we (the church) hesitate, the more we reflect on the "rightness" of integrating technology into worship or into the way we communicate with the world, the further behind we fall and the larger the ground that we will have to make up. With each passing moment, we are effectively giving up the opportunity to communicate to young believers that what God has to offer them is more than relevant, that what God has to offer the world can change the world for the better, that the church while it is soundly in the world it is not of the world and for that reason can offer them a needed respite from the world without the need to completely disengage from the communities and relationships they have there.
Does the church need to catch up? Yes. Can the church catch up? Yes, but not if it waits much longer.