The song above has been the ear worm in my head every time emotion and thoughts have surfaced about church since about January this year. But it’s an important song for a thirty something because it talks about losing faith in more than just church as an institution, and I’m coming to realise that seeing through and/or breaking down some of the structures and authorities you’ve been used to is a thirty-something experience as well as a twenty first century phenomena. Even though I’ve spent time in some of the most values driven workplaces you could possible find, at the end of the day they’re just workplaces. Churches despite espousing some of the most profound and inspiring idealogies of relationship are still as flawed as anywhere else when it comes to actually doing them. Politicians talk about leadership, but they are really slaves to the economies and power bases that elect them. And then there’s the shiny images, the lifestyles being sold by advertising that are seemingly attainable as a young person/adult, but definitely appear more gimmicky as a thirty something adult. During our recent West Wing revival I commented on how some of the moments in the show that were moving and inspiring ten years ago now seemed a little cringey or cheesy. As a generation we’re moving on from inspiration, we’re more cyncial and harder to win round with talk of ideals and values. I’ve written before about being a generation that is the hardest to lead.
There’s a lovely categorisation made by the writer of an article about Frank Schaeffer that talks about how those who defect from a Christian fundamentalist, evangelical faith and/or church can be described as either agnostics or salvagers. But in the spirit of the subject being reviewed in the piece, I think I’m both. I’m neither/nor, I’m either/or and as we twenty first century seekers move to live in a space that challenges, rejects and subverts dualistic or polarising positions and oppositions those who want to label and categorise use are going to have to start accepting that wholeness is holding it all together.
We love church and we hate it – we turn up and we’re absent – we’re committed and we’re not – we talk about belief and we also reject that language. Any words or enquiries or analysis that tries to pigeonhole and pindown experience, position or perspective is quite frankly outdated in approach. Embodiment and wholeness is about the subject and the object at the same time and there you have a lovely philosophical treasure and frustration all rolled into one. This is why I think lingering, salvaging and memorialising are way more subversive and radical that discarding tradition or remaining ignorant of the challenges to it. What that looks like in the day to day when it comes to church is turning up for some relationships and biscuits, some singing and some listening now and again, but idealogically it’s about holding some kind of tension that challenges those who want to divide, clarify, and black and white it all. I think that underneath the damage and disaster of all the theologies and doctrines and gospels churned out by and in the Christian tradition over the years there’s a marvellous shine to be shone in the contradictions, questions and challenges in the characters and messages from scripture and tradition. The messy stuff in the middle – the jam – if you will. It’s the foolish stuff confounding the wise, the ninety nine sheep being left for one, the feast served to the uninvited, the workers not being paid ‘fairly’, the wisdom of children, a bodiliness that reveals the divine, bread and wine as body and blood, love being stronger than justice (also more Sting lyrics).
Here are some examples of the shine and treasure I’ve found in and found out about church over the years:
- Church faciliates a space for values and relationships that is unique to other spaces. Some of the people I know who’ve spent time around church communities have incredibly earnest and beautiful hearts when it comes to care, love, friendship and grace. Not by any means perfect, but compared to other spaces and communities I’ve been a part of, this has a unique character in churches
- Church is a place for music and singing when you’re sober and it’s daylight. Singing makes me soar, it has a transcendant edge, it quite often can make me cry. The most common cultural spaces for group and anthemic singing these days tend to be sports arenas or festivals/gigs – both of which carry their own magic and atmosphere in themselves. But blinking and bleary eyed Sunday morning or evening singing with a lot of other random folk has it’s own scent, taste, smell and volume that is heartbreakingly wonderful.
- Church creates a culture of people caring for you that crosses the personal and privacy boundaries that we spend so much time errecting and maintaining in the rest of the world. Nine years ago when my cousin died very suddenly and very tragically I took the ‘news’ of this bereavement and the grief of it in a very private way. I was both surprised and incredibly moved when a quiet man approached me a few days later to say that he had been praying for me and my family and that he didn’t know what to say but wanted me to know they’d been praying. I could have been cross and defensive about people knowing my business, but I actually just felt moved and grateful that a stranger cared, took some time to pray and let me know about it. I’ve no idea what prayer does or means, but becoming aware of people’s intention and compassion through this ancient practice is humbling and relating to God and others and I find church often houses these encounters.
I spent some time on Sunday afternoon in warm and tearful conversation with some old friends who have poured blood, sweat and weeping into church over the years. Despite the loss, the shaking faith, the grief and pain they’ve witnessed and experienced first hand they still spoke intently of the dignity of all people, the imago dei in us all, the love and compassion we are compelled to seek via faith and the hope, the bittersweet and compelling hope for healing, forgiveness and love. These very moments whisper to me about why church still matters, even just a little bit. It matters because it brings people like these into my life and somehow this rickety, dilapidated structure of church holds the possibility of the jam, a space where sides shouldn’t be drawn, where it’s all confusing and bewildering, there’s answers and questions in equal amounts, where our multiple identities and roles exist alongside each other in a bumpy fashion, carving something loving in between right and wrong, black and white and all the other divisions in the world.
Our divinity and our dust gathers there in a place that it doesn’t gather in the same way anywhere else.
The internet, blogosphere and book world is full of text and words chronicling the decline of church attendance, the value of church and the journey of people who ‘believe without belonging’ or those who completely depart from any faith story and associated institutions. These words are all put down and spoken by an eclectic group of sociologists of religion, emerging church theologians, reformers as well as the individual perspectives all contributing to a huge conversation about church in the Christian tradition over the last couple of decades. In some ways writing here I’m about fifteen years late to the table, my story and view is not necessarily new, and will be all too familiar to some people and a couple of high profile female writers from my tradition (albeit theirs is a more nuanced North American culture) are about to publish their latest books on the church theme (Sarah Bessey & Rachel Held Evans). I pick up echoes of my own experience or thoughts in others people’s writing, as do we all, this is the beauty of the reading and interpretive process. I’ve tried to capture some of the best internet pieces I’ve read over the last number of years below as well as some books that have been helpful and/or reassuring to me but I know there is so much more – I’d be keen to receive your own suggestions by way of compiling a resource list/archive for other seekers.
Further Reading – Online:
Fifteen Reasons I Left Church – Rachel Held Evans
Fifteen Reasons I Returned to the Church – Rachel Held Evans
The People Formerly Known As the Congregation – Bill Kinnon
Anne Lamott On Going to Church – Experimental Theology
Why Millennials Are Leaving the Church – CNN Belief Blog
Why I Can’t Go To Church On Sunday – Emily Maynard
Four Reasons I’m Glad I Left Church – Emily Maynard
Why I Still Go To Church – Sarah Bessey
Replacing Sunday Mornings– Addie Zierman
Ask Brian McLaren – Interview
Further Reading – Books:
Why I am an Atheist Who Believes in God – Frank Schaeffer
A Generous Orthodoxy – Brian McLarenreligion
The Idolatry of God – Pete Rollins
The Case for God: What Religion Really Means – Karen Armstrong
The Spiral Staircase – Karen Armstrong
Soul Survivor – Philip Yancey
Touching Our Strength – Carter Heyward
The Redemption of God – Carter Heyward
But She Said – Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza