In my last post, I mentioned a Facebook group I and a few friends started up called Church Exiles 808. Since I’m in Hawaii for vacation, I put out an invite to the group to see if anyone wanted to meet up. So this past Friday, about ten of us got together at Tokkuri Tei (special thanks to Kyle for hooking us up with that place!) and we just sat around eating, drinking, and getting to know one another.
I was really struck by the various stories of church that came up, some directly, some anecdotally.
Some spoke of being silenced – not being able to say what they really thought about a given situation or difficulty. Although the church should be the one safe place where one can bring all of one’s self, often there is an unspoken “limit” to honesty in church. Doubt often falls outside this limit. Legitimate critique of leadership is also outside this invisible circle. Issues of sexuality (straight or otherwise) are also often off limits. Now I understand that there are boundary/safety issues and so not everything is fit for the public, corporate sphere, but still, if someone wants to have an honest conversation about the legalization of pot, or about the issue of homosexuality in the church, I think that should be allowed to happen without the person who brought it up being dismissed or made to feel shame for even trying to have the conversation.
Some spoke of the lack of intellectual engagement in the church. They spoke of how sometimes the phrase, “it’s all a part of the mystery of God” is used to derail discussions that are beyond what the pastor is equipped to talk about. Some of the people who spoke of this frustration said that what disappointed them was the inability for their pastor to just come right out and say, “I don’t know.” The “mystery” answer is a non-answer. It’s dismissive, disingenuous, and, in a way, dishonest. Of course pastors can’t be expected to be experts on every topic under the sun but they should have the honesty and integrity to say they don’t know when they don’t.
Some spoke of poor leadership/management. There are always different kinds of power plays happening in any organization and the church is no different. Unfortunately, whereas management training is an integral part of almost all organizations outside the church, within the church it’s something of an afterthought and that can lead to all kinds of abuse and/or burnout. This problem is particularly dicey in churches where many of the people being managed are volunteers.
There were other frustrations shared, but those are the ones that come immediately to mind.
But there was another thing that I found fascinating.
In many of the discussions, people spoke of still wanting, in some way or another, to believe and participate in the fellowship of God’s kingdom. You’d think the logical thing to do with all these awful frustrations would be to just check out completely, not just from church but from the whole Christian endeavor (because the two are intimately linked). But whereas many have left the former, to some degree or another and for various reasons, they have not been able to let go of the latter. But they would like to regain the former as well but they are wary.
And that gives me hope because it suggests that something new is possible. Probably everyone who was there that night could write volumes regarding ways that the church has used, hurt, and failed them. Yet there they were, gathered around a (communion?) table laughing and ranting and sharing their lives with one another. The cumulative discontent at the table should have been a kind of spiritual anti-matter expressing itself in annihilation of the church but that’s not how it was.
Instead, I think what united everyone at the table was some kind of thread of belief. For some, their grasp of this thread is tenacious, for some it’s tenuous, but it’s there.
I think that small gathering of people represents the tiny tip of an immense iceberg. Something is amiss in the Church and it’s doing a lot of damage. Dwindling church attendance is not about a lack of belief (people want to believe!), it’s about something else.
But what exactly is that something?
And more importantly, is the church really ready to address that something if the solution turns out to be something that looks starkly different from the Christianity they are comfortable and familiar with?