I read Barnabas Piper‘s 2014 article, “Why You Shouldn’t Give Up on the Church” over the weekend. It’s a quick read and I would recommend reading it, but not for the reasons you would think.
Barnabas, the son of Reformed Baptist pastor John Piper, mostly outlines his own story growing up as a PK (“pastor’s kid”) and talks about what it was like to have a front row seat to the flaws and foibles of a church organization. In spite of his doubts and temptation to walk away from it all, he chose to stay. He thinks you should too.
Throughout the article, Piper deftly uses the words “church” and “Church” interchangeably (the former is a subset of the latter, but they are not equal to each other) and acknowledges church organizations are “archaic, domineering, impersonal, hypocritical, irrelevant, contentious, petty, boring and stale.”
Using these criteria, he communicates an understanding, albeit a faulty one, of why most people would want to check out. He then spends the balance of the article talking about why these aren’t good reasons to walk away. The problem is, that isn’t why most people walk away from church organizations. Those traits are not just found in church organizations. They are found in all of our social institutions and, frankly, anywhere you get a group of humans together because humanity itself is messy.
It isn’t the messiness…
I get together every week with a group of men and women. Each of us either are currently experiencing or have experienced the deconstruction of our Evangelical faith. For many of us it wasn’t an overnight shift. Most often, the process was a slow leak. As our doubts, questions, uncertainties, and dissonant conclusions became too much to ignore, we found ourselves estranged from our Evangelical communities. Some choose to stay and live in the dissonance. Many of us, however, have left and found refuge with other post-Christian souls.
It’s interesting to see how people respond and how quick they are to assume something must be wrong with us. They want to try and “fix” the problem and offer solutions that might entice the stray sheep back into the fold. But, to call on Tolkien’s oft-quoted words, “Not all who wander are lost.”
In a March 2017 installment of NPR‘s All Things Considered titled “Christians Turns to Podcasts to Say Things They Can’t Say In Church,” podcasters Mike McHargue (The Liturgists, Ask Science Mike) and Toby Morrell (Bad Christian) talk about the real issues leading people to file out of the back door of their local church, and it has nothing to do with how “messy” it is.
When asked what motivated him to start speaking to those leaving local churches, McHargue said, “As I explored this middle space between faith and skepticism, I found that there were a lot of people stuck in that gear too. People for whom the church was too dogmatic, but atheism was too dismissive of their need for mystery and, frankly, things spiritual.”
We’re not disgruntled…
The word “heretic” gets a bad rap these days, especially among Christians. Even Martin Luther got pegged as a heretic. While none in my circle would make any claims to be anywhere close to the Reformer’s level, we do share his willingness to be honest about what’s wrong even if that’s out of the boundaries of orthodoxy (which is the actual definition of “heresy”).
There is a disdain for those who question institutions and attempt to speak truth to power. Many church organizations are crafting straw men, labeling them “disgruntled Christians,” and then addressing the issues they think are at the root of the discontent. In the end, however, they aren’t really hearing what the wanderers are saying and lack understanding of what the conversations are really all about.
It never occurs to anyone that maybe we just don’t believe an Evangelical approach to the Bible is the correct way to understand the words within in. Maybe we no longer believe what we used to believe.
And maybe we haven’t moved out as much as we’ve moved on.
Unorthodoxy isn’t scary to us…
My community of fellow heretics have ultimately found the theological frameworks we once embraced lacking and want to know how we can now move forward. None among us are necessarily landing in the same place nor do we feel any pressure to be in agreement with each other. We’ve just realized that, for the first time, it’s okay to admit that faith and spirituality and God cannot be put into a neat little package and that one size does not fit all.
Church organizations, like many other institutions, will always exist in one form or fashion. Their relevance and impact may wane, but they will continue to serve the needs of those who attend. But from these institutions, new forms of community can and must emerge.
To again quote McHargue, “I think you’ll continue to have institutional Christianity, and I think you’ll continue to have sort of a church in exile. My work is about acknowledging the validity [of] both as ways to know and follow this historical figure Jesus, and figure out what that means. I think everywhere people gather together around a table, God can be present.”
“We’re flying, flying away
No no, don’t look down
When we move, we’re moving on
Keep on the search for searching
Keep on with all you have
Keep on those wings, we’re rolling
Keep moving on
Here’s to the exiled!