It was probably 7 or 8 years ago when I started to realize something that caught me by surprise. It seemed that a growing number of my friends and acquaintances no longer attended church. Some of these were just folks that I no longer saw around on Sunday morning. Others were long-time small group and children’s church leaders who had just seemed to disappear. Still others were friends on social media that I knew through past experiences whose Facebook posts revealed that they were no longer attending services.
But the deeper revelation was seeing that very little of their daily life had been affected by this change. In fact, if were you to ask them questions about their faith, their answers probably would not have changed much… They had simply left church.
You can imagine the existential questions that this gave rise to: Was church no longer making a difference for them? Had it ever? Had their beliefs changed and they just weren’t telling anyone?
As someone deeply rooted in the church-going lifestyle who was still very engaged in the Sunday ritual, this was deeply disheartening to me.
Then, our second child was born and church-going became a much harder undertaking. Simply managing to get out the door and arrive on time was difficult. Then there was the matter of sending kids to a class or nursery versus keeping them with us. Eventually, we ended up missing a Sunday here or there and I realized a little bit of what all of those friends were experiencing.
This is My Home
A couple of years ago, I interviewed author Matthew Paul Turner. We commiserated on our shared Fundamentalist background and all the baggage that we still carry. I mentioned some of the story above – specifically the revelation of people leaving church. I asked him why he still continued to attend despite his misgivings. What he said really resonated: The church is and has always been part of who I am [paraphrase]
That’s really how I felt as well.
One of my main influence during this time was the author/philosopher/theologian Peter Rollins. In one of his books [I believe it was The Divine Magician, but I can’t find the passage to verify it] he made a statement that really challenged me to stick with church.
[Disclaimer: in all honesty, I may have misunderstood what he was saying, and since I can’t source it, I may be completely misrepresenting him, but this is how it struck me.]
He said that we have to be careful of abandoning one tribe and setting up a new one in its place that has all the same issues, only different positions on certain topics. Rather, we must continue to engage with the tribe in hopes of making a difference. Further, we have to keep our eyes out for those who are looking to abandon the tribe, bring them alongside us, and show them a different way – without leaving.
In many churches there is little room for differing opinions or perspectives. This leaves a lot of folks who don’t line up 100% feeling as though they don’t belong. These may be people who are honestly struggling to determine what they believe. Others may be settled but in partial disagreement. The hard thing about church, though, is that it is more than a collection of people who share the same beliefs. For many, church is their family. So, to be faced with the idea of leaving is no small thing. Yet, it can be even harder to stay when you feel like you don’t belong.
Breaking from the Matrix
My mind keeps going back to the character of Morpheus, from The Matrix. He has freed himself from the facade of the Matrix, but he chooses to continually re-engage with the system in hopes of pulling out others like himself. He knows that it is not merely about resting comfortably in Zion, but about helping others to wake up. That’s kind of what I feel my role is, now.
I’ve spent my life in church and always felt that I belonged, until one day I didn’t. I continued going out of duty or responsibility and a longing for that old relational connection that was lost. When I finally allowed myself to let go of those expectations, I was able to look around and see how many people were “on the bubble” like me and I hated the idea of them feeling like they had to leave.
I believe that (as my Lutheran pastor friend says) there is room at God’s table. I think that everyone should be able to feel at home at church. As far as I’m concerned, I will fight to stay – even when that fighting is against myself. And I want to look around the room on Sunday or in a small group situation and find the people who are barely hanging in there. I want to validate their concerns and their struggles. I want to say, “hey, it’s ok for you to take a day off and get some rest.” (Mark 2:27)
Further, I want to engage with those whose faith is shifting. I want to give them space to challenge and explore without fear of expulsion. I’ll be doing my fair share of challenging as well. I think the key here is to do so in a spirit of humility. Additionally, you can’t underestimate the value of credibility which is as much a matter of knowledge as it is relational capital. All that to say, I’m not leaving and I hope that they won’t either.
After relocating, it took some time to find yet another church where we could feel comfortable as a family. Despite the drawbacks, it is still part of our lives and part of who we are. I’ve said before, the Church is my mother, and brother, and sister. I love her and I hate her
I’ve yet to find a new venue in which I can play Morpheus, offering the red pill to those who will take it. I’ve yet to settle in and really feel comfortable. I’ve heard suggestions that I start something of my own. I’ve been fortunate to develop a tribe around me both online and in person who have served as sounding boards and encouragement and challengers. These folks span the spectrum of belief and practice and I love those communities. But at the end of the day, church is my home and I will not abandon her. In fact, I’m a double-agent in her midst proclaiming the Kingdom that is now – not one that is far off.