I wrote this blog about a year ago. It’s one of the “most read” blogs I’ve ever written. I think this conversation matters. Here we go.
By “church” I mean an intentional community that worships, studies, and lives the person of Jesus. This “church” might meet weekly in a basement, Starbucks, or even . . . a building. Gasp.
A respected friend recently pointed out Ian Cron‘s blog post per 40 and 50 somethings and their disillusionment with the church. I also just noticed that my friend Mike posted Ian’s thoughts to his blog as well. Both Ian and Mike are friends of mine. I greatly respect them. I’ve learned a great deal from both and I think they raise an important conversation that has to take place in church, outside church, on twitter, Facebook, blogs–anywhere people talk about things that matter this thing that matters needs to be discussed. Mostly–they raise the point that questions are often more important than answers. Especially for those who are truly wrestling with God.
I’m especially interested in Ian’s blog because so many of friends “my age” (25-39) are leaving church in droves. I want Otter Creek to be a place where those with big questions can follow Jesus too.
You can read Ian’s complete post HERE. An excerpt from a conversation Ian had with a friend who’d left the church:
“One Sunday I walked out of church and never went back,” he said. “I want spiritual community, I just don’t think the church as it is right now is where I’m going to find it.”
Most of the people I meet who are leaving church aren’t young. They’re in their forties and fifties. After years of reading off the same theological script they began yearning for deeper, more open conversations about faith that included considering diverse perspectives and conversations that widened rather than narrowed their souls. Their churches were either threatened by these folks or unprepared for their emergence.
First, here’s what I like about Ian’s post. Here’s what challenged me as a Christian leader and thinker.
1. If church is a social club in which the real passions of my heart can’t be discussed, it’s only a matter of time before apathy and cynicism set in. If church is primarily about keeping up appearance, appeasing family systems and values, then people might be gathering on a Sunday, but it’s not necessarily church (only God can determine that). From large assemblies, to smaller groups doing “life together” (as the life group I’m in likes to say)–authenticity must be the cultural norm not the exception. For instance, confession and lament need to become a regular part of our liturgy, preaching, and equipping strategy. Rachel Held Evans: “Most of the people I’ve encountered are looking not for a religion to answer all their questions but for a community of faith in which they can feel safe asking them.”
I encourage friends to ask the big questions (race, Islam, violence, sexuality) because God is big enough. I try to model this in my preaching and writing solely because I want to see others do the same in their own journey.
2. Church and community are very difficult. Church is a great idea until people get involved. Bonhoeffer consistently warns us in his various writings that we destroy community when we try and create it. Meaning–community, in and of itself, cannot be the goal. Rather, community is the space in which we communally seek to experience the resurrected Jesus. That being said, anyone who’s been a part of a church community knows that relationships will suffer, endure disappointment because this is true in any community (just ask Penn State students and employees).
But there’s another side to all of this. The following is written in humility.
1. Most Protestant churches today are led by the peers of the disillusioned. That is, when Boomers criticize church leadership and culture they are simultaneously criticizing themselves. These churches are led by women and men they’ve shared life with. So, and indictment on church leadership is also self-indictment. The problems are not “out there” among “those people”. The problem is with us, me, we. I have learned to be suspicious of them, him, and they.
2. The real issue is being skirted. I think the real cause of disillusionment with church is self-disappointment. Pain birthed anger, now solidified in cynicism and apathy (funny how those two always go together). Frustration with “the church” is first about frustration with self. We tend to, in the wisdom of Donald Miller, judge others based on actions while judging ourselves based upon our intent. We are harder on “the church” so we can be “easier” on ourselves. This is why some Christians literally demand more from their church than they do from their own family, their own personal lives (money, time, etc.).
3. A heavy dose of entitlement and self-deception is present in many of these conversations. Boomers, much to the admittance of all generations, are perhaps the first truly consumer generation in American history. Their kids (of which I’m guilty) are even starker consumers precisely because we were raised in the milieu of “gaining, acquiring, achieving, and consuming” to our heart’s content. I now look back and see the simple practices my parents instilled (hospitality, simplicity, generosity with money) to challenge these larger temptations. Honestly, it’s something I’m trying to reevaluate as we are watching our two boys grow and emerge.
Barbara Brown Taylor wrote a provocative and controversial book several years ago, Leaving Church. It created a stir because it both resonated with so many and, at the same time, served as an example of what happens when you actually do leave a church. If you have not read it, I think it embodies the tension I’m naming in this post. The tension we must live in: critiquing the church without excusing our own dysfunction.
How can you change something if you won’t stay and fight for what you believe? I know some will say, “Josh, you are 32. Talk to me when you are older and understand things a little more clearer.” Maybe that’s true. But I pray, God help me, that I will love the church enough to speak prophetically while, at the same time, realize that God’s love for me is far more gracious, risky, illogical, loyal, steadfast than any paltry and minuscule love I might offer the church.
I really believe that the local church is part of the genius of the kingdom.
My experience in Rochester (a suburb of Detroit) and Nashville resonates with Ian et al but is also different. I found that, in every congregation, there are women and men hungry to have deep friendship, conversation, and, yes, open disagreement. I’ve been able to cultivate friendships in both church contexts in which I’ve been able to bare my soul, say exactly what I think, what I don’t think, and what I’m not sure of.
And I’m a minister.
Did I make some people mad with tough questions? Do bears defecate in the woods? Did I hurt some people with direct questions? Of course. But, I also had many people say, “Me too…”–some of the most powerful words a person can speak. I have friends in Michigan, Nashville, and Texas that I can share any question, passion, concern–I don’t have to hold anything back. But those friendships have been fought for, worked through, endured over the last 12 years.
I view my relationship with the church as I do my marriage. I can fixate on Kara, how I wish she’d change, meet my needs, etc. or I can see the beauty that is Kara because of her imperfections, shortcomings, peculiar habits (Kara: if you are reading this, you are perfect). I also have to remember that Kara is making this decision too–every day of her life.
I’m not giving up on church for the same reason I’m not giving up on Kara. God has me here, on the anvil, because God knows I want to hide, take the path of least resistance.
It’s hard for me to imagine Martin Luther, Martin Luther King Jr., Bonhoeffer –or the original disciples for that matter– ever giving up and leaving the church because, turns out, church is hard work. It is it possible that privilege and affluence are partly behind our rationale to “give up on church” in the first place?
BTW–when I have shared this before, one person responded that “I couldn’t tell the difference between Church and God.” Really? This post doesn’t necessarily mean that I’ve confused my commitment to the church with my allegiance to God. I recognize there’s a difference; often a larger gulf than I care to admit.
But I’m not giving up on the church Because God’s never given up on me, humanity, or creation. What right do I have?
So, instead of giving up on church, work hard to change, reform, expand, renovate. And, at the same time, realize that in doing so, God might just be working on you too.
Below is what Ian wrote in response. Brilliant. Brilliant.
Thoughts and comments welcome. Be civil and thoughtful, please.