I gave up church because I can no longer make the trade-offs between worship, theology, mission, and community that I have made for years. My congregational options usually seem to consist of historically Black church settings with prophetic preaching and action on issues of racial and social justice, but that reject women’s call to pastoral leadership; predominantly white churches that profess gender and sexual inclusivity, but are experienced as oppressive by people of color; and multiracial churches whose preaching, worship, and leadership are oriented to the comfort of white, middle-class Christians (which is, incidentally, an act of white supremacy). I gave up church because fitting into any of the spaces required me to conceal or contort too much of my womanist self. I gave up church because I cannot seem to find a place where I can worship God with my whole being. And I am not alone.
These are the words from a recent post by Chanequa Walker-Barnes, a professor at McAfee School of Theology. Her post is about her leaving the church because it is not prophetic enough. I want to be sensitive and not be dismissive of her complaints. Churches are not perfect and they are filled with racism and homophobia and misogyny. I know that churches have treated people of color, LGBT community, women and others poorly. I have been treated as such.
But there is something in this post that bothers me. It’s something that I’ve seen in other thinkpieces over the years. Usually someone will say how the church doesn’t do X and because of this, they aren’t in church anymore. If the church took part and offered X, then maybe they would return to church. This is what former Millenial pastor Steve Austin has said about his generation and why they gave up church:
We’re desperate for honesty. We are hungry for conversation. We want to show up at church with our success, failure, vulnerability, questions, and what’s left of our deconstructed faith. We have shifted away from and sifted through the excesses of man-made religious constructs. We have grown up and read the Bible for ourselves. And we are passionate about the overarching theme of the life and lessons of Jesus: that love comes with no strings attached. Anything else is just a loan.
We are choosing to step away from the in-fighting that happens too often in the name of God. We’re sick of petty fights over the color of the new carpet in the sanctuary, or the volume of the music. Deeper than that, we’ve had our hearts crushed because our friends aren’t welcome in certain sterilized churches. We’re convinced that Jesus was serious when he said, “Love one another.” But much of what my Millennial friends and I have witnessed from institutions that operate in the name of God is pain and abuse. We were once baptized by well-meaning people in fear, shame, and guilt. But we aren’t buying that any more. We are coming up from those muddied waters, looking for new life.
Like Walker-Barnes commentary, Austin’s piece brings up some important themes that should be taken seriously. But there is also could be something else taking place at the same time; a sense of seeing the church not as a place where the imperfect people of God gather and to work to keep including people at God’s table, but as a consumer good that should be made to a person’s desires and likes. It’s like taking the old slogan of Burger King, “Have It Your Way,” and make it how the church should operate.
I know that some will think I don’t take seriously the cry of those who feel hurt by the church. I think we should work to make the church more receptive to women, to gays and especially to be more willing to take on the topic of race. But I don’t think Walker-Barnes is talking about churches that are preaching against LGBTQ individuals or preaching for racial purity. What I think is happening here is that the churches aren’t where she is on these issues. The churches aren’t where she is, so she decides to not go to church.
No one should stay at a church where you are being abused or condemned from the pulpit. But what this seems like is a sense of consumerism. The church isn’t made-to-order to her expectations and so she walks.
But the church is never going to be up to our own standards and at the end of the day it doesn’t matter if it is to our standards. The church has to be to God’s standards.
As for dealing with racism, we have to remember that God used people who at times didn’t get it. In Acts 10, Peter is called by God to preach the good news to Cornelius, a Roman, which is another way of saying “not a Jew.” God schools Peter by telling the disciple that the gospel is for all. But after Peter’s epiphany there was some backsliding as Paul notes in his letter to the Galatians.
11 When Cephas (Peter) came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. 13 The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.
The thing is, there have been many throughout the history of the church, Christians have arose hearing the call of justice. Think Martin Luther King. Or the Freedom Riders. And there are times when the church went silent in the face of evil. Church is a mixed bag because it is filled with humans who aren’t perfect.
And for that reason, we need Jesus.
But I wonder if the people who say they love Jesus and not the church realize their need for Jesus and that Jesus inugurated the church. It seems at time that these people want a Jesus that is more like Che Guevara- a revolutionary Jesus. But the Jesus was read in Scripture is the one that gathered the disciples and prepared them to lead the church .
Jesus does care for the poor and Matthew 25 is a good example of what happens when we ignore those in need. But Jesus is not just a social justice figure. Jesus is also the son of God who comes to die for us, to set us free from the bonds of sin.
In the Design of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) we are given an understanding of what the big C church is as well as the little c church. This is what is has to say about the church:
Within the whole family of God on earth, the church appears wherever believers in Jesus the Christ are gathered in His name. Transcending all barriers within the human family, the one church manifests itself in ordered communities bound together for worship, fellowship, and service; in varied structures for mission, witness, and mutual accountability; and for the nurture and renewal of its members. The nature of the church, given by Christ, remains constant through the generations, yet in faithfulness to its nature, it continues to discern God’s vision and to adapt its mission and structures to the needs of a changing world. All dominion in the church belongs to Jesus, its Lord and head, and any exercise of authority in the church on earth stands under His judgment.
The Design continues:
Within the universal Body of Christ, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is identifiable by its testimony, tradition, name, institutions, and relationships. Across national boundaries, this church expresses itself in covenantal relationships in congregations, regions, and general ministries of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), bound by God’s covenant of love. Each expression is characterized by its integrity, self-governance, authority, rights, and responsibilities, yet they relate to each other in a covenantal manner, to the end that all expressions will seek God’s will and be faithful to God’s mission. We are committed to mutual accountability. The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) confesses Jesus Christ as Lord and constantly seeks in all of its actions to be obedient to his authority.
The emphasis is on the word “covenant.” Church means that we are connected. It means we are responsible to each other. It means loving that person that you think is stupid for support that tax policy or who supports a $15 minimum wage when you think its madness. It means being in covenant with the guy that think women can’t be ministers even when you want to walk away. None of this is about allowing or enabling abuse, but it is about being willing reach beyond what is comfortable to see that person on the other side is your sister or brother in Christ.
I want to share one more quote from Chanequa Walker-Barnes as she explains why she’s given up church:
We are people who take seriously what Jesus said in Matthew 25 when he stated that the test of true discipleship was solidarity and service with the “least of these.” But rarely can we find a church that makes solidarity and service its central focus. Instead, we encounter churches that endorse such hate-filled and theologically vacuous declarations such as the Nashville Statement opposing homosexuality and same-sex marriage; that refuse to engage anti-Black police violence, mass deportations of immigrant families, and unjust prison systems; that shun, silence, and demonize leaders that it deems too outspoken on matters of justice.
I don’t know what churches she’s gone to, but I know a lot of churches that do take justice seriously. But I wanted to contrast this with something written by pastor and writer Lillian Daniel six years ago. It got her in trouble, but it helped distill what church is really all about. In some way she responds to Walker-Barnes about the church and what it is made of:
Now there is much in the church I do not want to be stuck with, including Qur’an-burning, pistol-packing pastors. It’s no wonder that many good people are like the pop singer Prince: they want to be a person formerly known as a Christian.
The church has done some embarrassing things in its day, and I do not want to be associated with a lot of it—particularly when I have been personally involved in it.
But—here’s a news flash—human beings do a lot of embarrassing, inhumane, cruel and ignorant things, and I don’t want to be associated with them either. And here we come to the crux of the problem that the spiritual-but-not-religious people have with church. If we could just kick out all the human beings, we might be able to meet their high standards. If we could just kick out all the sinners, we might have a shot at following Jesus. If we could just get rid of the Republicans, the Democrats could bring about the second coming and NPR would never need to run another pledge drive. Or if we could just expel all the Democrats, the fiscally responsible will turn water into wine, and the church would never need another pledge drive.
But in the church we are stuck with one another, therefore we don’t get the space to come up with our own God. Because when you are stuck with one another, the last thing you would do is invent a God based on humanity. In the church, humanity is way too close at hand to look good. It’s as close as the guy singing out of tune next to you in your pew, as close as the woman who doesn’t have access to a shower and didn’t bathe before worship, as close as the baby screaming and as close as the mother who doesn’t seem to realize that the baby is driving everyone crazy. It’s as close as that same mother who crawled out an inch from her postpartum depression to get herself to church today and wonders if there is a place for her there. It’s as close as the woman sitting next to her, who grieves that she will never give birth to a child and eyes that baby with envy. It’s as close as the preacher who didn’t prepare enough and as close as the listener who is so thirsty for a word that she leans forward for absolutely anything.
It’s as close as that teenager who walked to church alone, seeking something more than gratitude, and finds a complicated worship service in which everyone seems to know when to stand and when to sing except for him—but even so, he gets caught up in the beauty of something bigger than his own invention.
I served at a church that had two members who were interesting. One of them was developmentally disabled and he would use his outside voice and blurt something in the middle of worship. The other was schizophrenic and was always struggling to deal with the voices in his head. But he could draw some of the most wonderful drawings of futuristic worlds.
What does this have to do with church? Everything. These two men come to church on a regular basis because they need church. They need the community that will pray for them when the voices are too loud. They need that community because they need a place where they can speak up in the middle of worship and know that they still belong.
I need church because I don’t need to learn about his life lessons or teachings but because I want to meet him in the Word that is preached and in the sacraments that are shared.
Church is not perfect. It doesn’t always do the right thing. But it is the only church we got.
This post was originally written for the The Clockwork Pastor, Rev. Dennis Sanders’ personal blog.