The Young Adults group at FCC was challenged to consider many ways in which people might (and do) choose to leave the church. Some of these included poor leadership, shallow preaching, judgmentalism, and irrelevancy, to name but a few. In addition, we entertained the suggestions of a particular minister (not me; he was the author of our curriculum) who provided a litany of reasons people leave churches: fundamentalism, elitism, bibliolatry, lack of prophetic voice, internalizing/legitimating injustice, poor welcoming, unbending creeds, speaking too broadly, and accommodating unfaithful patterns of life (consumerism, etc).
The discussion was rich and heart-felt, though it was lopsidedly negative. Now by negative I do not mean harsh, pessimistic, or cynical—though some of that may have been mixed into our discussion at various levels. I mean negative in the sense of focusing squarely on what is NOT good about church. And that exercise is important. We need to be clear about what can go wrong with institutions, leadership, social interactions, beliefs, and power structures. To be negative in this sense need not result in glum feelings or despair.
However, when we do take on the important task of critically engaging our tradition and situation, whether with respect to the church or our own personal spirituality, we can easily feel discouraged in only pointing out what’s wrong or distorted. There is something unsettling about stopping short of some goal, some vision that we can actually hold onto and work toward. We might very well feel uneasy or unhelpful at the end of such a purely negative exercise.
Still, I suspect that it is easier on us to critique (analyze, evaluate, and assess) than to construct. The work of constructing a substantive position may lead one to uncover the unspoken standards that one has internalized and relied on to “critique” in the first place. That is a self-reflective, self-exposing task. It requires awareness, trust, and courage. It requires us to extend ourselves. That level of vulnerability can be frightening. It might just be easier to stay discouraged.
And yet it seems there is also something uplifting about the honesty of addressing what’s wrong. There seems to be something exciting buried beneath our criticisms that calls forth “another way.”
As the FCC young adults move to the constructive phase of our engagement with church, we will be asked to consider what church truly should be like—what, if anything, is a good, just, life-giving, and beautiful reason for going to church. While churches may persistently fail to live faithfully out of these reasons, our own exercise of discernment seems to me to be a crucial step in heading that way. I trust our conversation will be richly blessed next month.
With that said, I recognize that it is easier for me to live into my “facilitator” role in our conversation than to extend myself fully into the conversation. Some of that distance might be necessary for good facilitation. But I feel challenged (okay, no surprise, Rebecca is often the one who challenges me here) to share my own thoughts, feelings, and convictions–at least in part.
I’ll reserve my positive remarks for a later time. For now, I’ll comment on the negative side of things: what about church just might drive someone from any church (not just a particular church)? This is challenging question because we can skirt the deep issues by pointing at particular failures of our church that are not really “system-wide.” We can say, “our preacher is a bad preacher” or “I don’t get anything out of bible study.” But those are issues in execution (or reception). What about Christianity or church life more generally drives people away? What might drive someone away from Christianity even if it was done well?
I will speak from personal experience here. I’m an intellectual person. When I began to question my own learned ways of reading the bible, understandings of faith, and the coherency of particular beliefs, I felt utterly unattracted to church. For me, church was not a place where questioning and radical discerning happened. I couldn’t honestly worship, fellowship and serve in my previous ways once deep doubts and questions swirled around me. I didn’t know what to make of the divinity of Jesus; the confusing, sometimes conflicting stories in scripture; or the legacy of exploitation and abuse carried in the currents of Christian history. But I was quite sure that I couldn’t entertain those concerns in church.
Part of the reason all this was so hard for me was because of the way I understood doubt and questioning. Church was a place of certainty and conviction, not wavering and waffling. And it surely wasn’t appropriate to air dirty church laundry in public…
This picture of church as solid and sturdy, untarnished by the ebb and flow of reflective curiosity and historical shortcomings was—and I would venture to suggest still is—something that drives many from the church. The smugly self-assured proclamations of church leaders and institutions is a factor, in my experience, for why some leave the church (even if only temporarily). There are great, evocative, inspiring sermons which carry the above named portrait of the church in its words. And it’s that portrait that seems to me to be a problem for church, no matter how successful it is or how “liberal” or “conservative” (whatever those terms happen to mean next week) it might be.
Now, I’m an intellectual person. So, of course, I’m going to focus in on an intellectual issue. It would be utterly reductive and narrow of me to say something like, “the real problem with Christian church life is its shallow certainty of belief.” And I am by no means saying that. But I do think there is something with my experience that, among other things, drives people from church.
But let’s extend the conversation. What about you? What do you think might drive someone from church, any church (not just your church), in our day and age?