Friday, September 12, 2008

Some "Finding a Church" Wisdom

After my last post on feeling uncomfortable (again) in church, I received an email response that I couldn't help but want to share here. This email was exactly what I needed for reasons I won't explain in this post. I'll let you make your own conclusions as you read this well-articulated, non-judgmental view on the importance of church, and what issues need our consideration before making a decision of where to attend. I've highlighted a few things that really got me thinking, and I'd love to hear what you think. Give it a read, it's worth your time:
We got your email and I read the post. Yes, first, it is sad--regardless of whatever reasons, or whoever's "fault", it is sad when we can't feel at home in a church. So I hear you there. I obviously didn't hear the pastor, but some of what I "do" with that thinking, whether or not he intended it, is:
I distinguish between attending church as a legalism that we "must" do to be Christian, and attending because I do think it is the biblical way. It seems Jesus continued to go to "church" pretty much through out his life, especially early on. He went to Synagogue, listened to the teachers, even did some teaching--I think Jesus was first and foremost a Jew, not creating something over-against Judaism--his life and ministry was grounded in the church and Torah. Eventually he didn't have a "place to lay his head", but that doesn't mean he didn't want to (I think).

It sounds like the pastor's message sounds condemning or exclusionary. To that extent, it is not gospel, and should make you feel uneasy. If I want to listen to the sentiments though (from a distance), I've changed my way of thinking about the church to more of what he's getting at (without the overstatement and condemnation:) For a long time I was primarily wounded and sad about church, that I couldn't find one that I felt really accepted in, and to a lesser extent, that I basically agreed with the theology/worldview. I always had an ideal that our family life and my ministry would be rooted in a church home, but it just wasn't happening--it was very sad, and isolating, and I was very cynical/sarcastic (which exacerbated the "not being accepted" part....I was probably a hard guy to accept). So, what changed for us/me, was partly my own work which included clarifying my actual beliefs and passion (vs. what I thought I should believe), and some soul-searching on how I wasn't as able as I liked to say, to open myself up to real friendships. In other words, I mostly blamed others for not accepting me, but as I got honest, I realized 1) I didn't accept myself that much, 2) Being on the "fringes" was more comfortable for me than I thought, 3) I was not accepting others about as much as I blamed them for not accepting me. It was a humbling, and freeing time.
Those were the first steps. The fact remained though, that even if I did alot of my own "work" to open up and let go of some of my resentment and "righteousness", there are still many churches/denominations I just couldn't be a part of any longer. I realized leaving the AG wouldn't just be for my sake, but for their sake too--It was healing and liberating when I let go of the AG, not in reaction/judgment, but in getting realistic about the differences, and how they were genuine (no one's fault....and insurmountable), I was able to claim the gifts I got from my AG heritage, and maybe most importantly, thank them, and bless them to continue in God's work the way they felt called to (even though it wasn't my call). This is where I "might"? agree with the pastor: I really do believe that the Christian life is not primarily an individual thing, or even family thing, but that is grounded in the church, in fact a particular church--I mean this as a positive not legalism. Placing my "story" in the context of a church, and the heritage of that church and the global church, has broadened my faith to something beyond just me, just my "decision". It is a gift from God, found in the "story" of the church--it is grown and even safeguarded by the church. This is pretty Lutheran thinking, but it's pretty much where I'm at. It has melted my heart to think I'm not alone, it's not up to me to "do" my faith under my own power, but to be held up in grace through the history of the church--in some real sense I am a Christian because I commune with the church (not legalistically:), but the church as a gift, as a "people growing place" where I can be flawed and screwed up and scared and lazy on a personal level, but still be wrapped up in the grace found in the body until I am able to grow, from that grace, to the "next" place I can become.
So, 1) I did/am doing a lot of personal work, 2) That wasn't the end of the story, I had to find a "good enough" fit (never ever perfect) where I could be myself and have "enough" people be genuinely interested in me, and me in them, to be able to talk openly, and feel accepted "enough" to grow and face each other, self, and God. I'm not a flame'n liberal, but frankly, I could no longer be a part of the AG or most baptist, E-Free, type churches. There are significant differences--the easiest theological distinction to raise is whether a church ultimately sees the world as "us" (saved) and "them" (unsaved), or not. Of course there's something to this, but does the church have this distinction as the primary piece of their identity and mission? Arguably all/most AG/Baptist/Efree churches do think this I think--they try to be "nice" about it, and "caring" for the unbeliever (in there assessment), but the fact remains, there is a pervasive and enduring "culture/worldview" of judgment, unavoidably built into the fabric of the church. When this is it at the heart of identity, it naturally gets applied within the walls of the church too!
So, I don't know where you're at, but if you are "somewhat liberal" like you say (I know I am), it might be time to do some soul-searching, grieving, and decision-making??? I'm admittedly biased here--I think theology/worldview/culture of churches are extremely important. Not because of "right" and "wrong" but because it has real, felt, effect on our spiritual health and livelihood--I could care less about alot of theological topics in the church, if the underlying ethos is humility first, followed by openness and genuine interest in each other, and those outside who are different--assuming first that God is working in the lives of all even if they differ from us--maybe we could be just as off base as they are--that's the most important part for me--when that's the primary culture, the rest can be "worked out" with freedom and trust.
There are alot of us struggling evangelicals out there, I feel your pain, and really wish the best for you and your family!!


MidnightCafe said...

Thanks for posting this here. Lots to think about. I've got to mull it all over before I have much of a response...

Riley Worth said...

Join the Unitarian church, Heather. It's a Christian religion because its members want to be Christ-like in their word, deeds and actions. But when Unitarians worship, they worship Christ alongside the other greats of our world. He is on an even plane with the likes of Gandhi, MLK, Thoreau, Mother Teresa. He is the son of God, but so are all of us.

The fact remains our world is cluttered with so many un-Christ-like Christians that the phrase now carries a terrible stigma. Please don't call me a Christian, because I believe in equal rights for women, and too many churches don't live up to that. Please don't call me a Christian, as I don't believe in condemning homosexuality, mostly because I don't believe in condemning any fellow member of the human race. I am not superior, nor is anyone inferior, and yet our differences are beautiful, and deserve to be celebrated. Today's Christians have a box, and diversity too often doesn't fit inside that.

Lastly, I will not stand for a church using its pulpit to preach its politics, whether it be thinly veiled or out in the open. It disgusts me.

There is also an episcopal church in our town that is accepting of all people. That's so important, yet so hard to find.

My two cents.

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