Friday, December 04, 2009

How the Church Lost Me

(News-Herald, December 3) In the last few decades, large numbers of Americans have dropped out of organized religion. I may know a bit about why, because I am one of them.
I was raised in the church. Went to Sunday School and youth group regularly. I was a youth delegate to Annual Conference (the United Methodist equivalent of state government, with more praying and less money-grubbing), and when I outgrew that, I joined a group of activists who pushed for young adults to have a place in the church’s ministry. I’ve been an usher, a choir director, and a youth director.
I tell you all of this not to brag, but so you understand that I’m a true drop-out, not a never-was. So how did the church lose me and, presumably, people like me?
First, I have no beef with God. I’ve been blessed with a life far better than I deserve—sometimes way far better-- and not a day goes by that I am not grateful for it. And I am well aware that faith exercised without community is incomplete. But for years, I’ve wrestled with the following:
No attitude of searching. For me, it’s a basic part of life to be looking for answers. I am amazed and alarmed by the number of believers who are looking, not for understanding, but for confirmation that what they already believe is true. What is the point of trying to be open to the voice of God if you have convinced yourself that you already know exactly what He has to say?
It’s Finished Christian Syndrome. They’re finished, done growing, done searching. They don’t need anything except another coat of varnish and a little polish, thanks. I can’t relate. How can anything be alive and not be growing?
No room for the wicked. It is one of the oldest clichés in the churching world, the repeated reminder that we are supposed to minister to people who are dirty, grubby, unsavory or even (gasp) just plain wrong. And yet some church folks apparently did not get that memo.
Never mind the Great Commission (“Go ye into all the world etc ” which we memorized in Bob Shearer’s Sunday School class). Some believers think that a Good Christian should never consort with, talk to, work with, or share air with the Wrong Sort of People.
I knew a minister once who was happy to minister to anyone who was Right With God. But if you weren’t, he expected you to go off by yourself and work it out, and he didn’t really want to talk to you until you had Gotten Right. Never mind the arrogance involved in believing that you can judge who is Right With God; the total disregard for the Bible’s fairly clear instructions on the matter is disheartening. Too many churches have no more active ministry than a country club or a reasonably friendly bar. Too many churches spend too much time celebrating how their faith proves that they’re better than everyone else.
Tiny God. The Eternal Creator of All That Is, Was and Will Be has strong feelings about which political party to support in this year’s elections?!?! Seriously??
Traditions short-circuited. You know how upset Catholics become when the Vatican messes with tradition every hundred years or so? Protestant churches do that all the time. “That tradition that has always been comforting and meaningful to you? Yeah, we decided to chuck that last week.” I could go back to my old church, but beyond the bricks and mortars, it bears no resemblance at all to the church I grew up in.
Diversity? Pursuing diversity for its own sake is dumb. But in Venango County, if you don’t come as part of a complete traditional family unit package, many churches aren’t sure what to do with you.
My Own Fault. To be honest, I have to acknowledge my own role. I’m the one who put distance between myself and the church. It’s true that the last time a minister visited me was in September, 1979. But in all the intervening years, not one church has barred the door or refused to let me sit in a pew. Those of us who chose to walk away could also choose to walk back.
What might prompt us to do that? Hard to say. The shortest answer is for churches to be places that clearly offer something powerful and positive not found elsewhere. That might give churches and strays a reason to bother with each other.


endersgame1977 said...

My wife and I read your article; all we can say is right on!!! That does not mean that what you said is good, but it was true. Your points are valid and thoughtful. As Christians we need to not just look in, but we must also look out. We should be reaching out to the people that Christ would reach out to. We should try to emulate his example; he would hang out with the sinners (which we all are)and minister to them. Who are we to sit in our comfy buildings feeling superior to our brethren when we should be having fellowship with them. That does not mean we need indulge in acts that compromise our faith. Thank You for your piece.

Umhangträger said...

Good article Peter. I agree with you - and with endersgame. This is actually a pretty kind article - not a scathing indictment, but it should certainly cause some "religious" people to take a look at what they are doing, and why. I often wonder how many churches would welcome Jesus if he were here today ...

John said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
John said...

I enjoyed your post, Peter. It makes me feel a little less guilty about spending Sunday mornings watching Sports Center, not much, but a little.

I guess I can sum up my views as... I believe in God, but not in the church.

Thanks for your post.

Dave said...


Based on my own reaction and reader comments, it appears that your article resonates with many other people including myself. I especially like the reference to "Finished Christian Syndrome" and the implication that religion or spirituality is to be something alive an growing. As a psychologist, perhaps I see religion from a different perspective than from the traditional message. I think Luke summed it up brilliantly, "The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, 'Here it is,' or 'There it is,' because the kingdom of God is within you." Luke 17:21, NIV

My only issue with your article is your solution. I quote, "The shortest answer is for churches to be places that clearly offer something powerful and positive not found elsewhere. That might give churches and strays a reason to bother with each other". It's not that I disagree with your conclusion, it's that organized religion has its prepared answers for everything. I can almost hear our minister's comments to your proposal. He might say something like, "Our church does offer something powerful and positive. It is the plan of salvation."

The problem is that your thoughts, my thoughts, and your reader's thoughts appear to emanate from a different religious paradigm. There appears to be a communication barrier between people who think in concrete terms and those who appreciate the abstract spiritual message that lies beneath the traditional stories. The organized church may serve well those concrete thinkers. It sounds like many people have risen beyond the concrete, "finished", absolute thoughts of organized religion. Perhaps these people, as a group, are searching for a way to commune, express their personal beliefs, and continue to grow. I hope that your website will serve as a seed for such growth.

A friend,

From my Flickr