On Sundays, when I write, I do so at length on some topic of religion, Christianity, Jesus stuff, or faith. Beware. For some people, church is scary. Many a sitcom (and RomCom) has used a one liner to demonstrate this. Past behavior, childhood memories, and current sleeping patterns are used to get a laugh when a character thinks about or needs to set foot inside a rectangle with a steeple on top. And while disciplinary nuns, coifed pastors, and bustling megachurches can give lots of us hives, I think poking fun at the church like this only distracts us from one emerging reality: the church is scared.
All around the church, the world is changing. Society's values are changing. The look and definition of the word 'family' is evolving. Science and reason are being themselves, forcing the notion of faith to seemingly fight harder to gain relevance in political debates and classroom curriculums. Church attendance is dwindling. Baptisms are down. The church as it was when wearing seat belts wasn't a law will not survive in a world where airbags come standard.
The church knows this. Denominations and conferences and synods - if they haven't already - are waking up to a world where their individual congregations and buildings are only needed when someone wants to get married or needs to die. This is the church's chief function in the world today. It no longer shapes political agendas or even moral decisions. At least not like it used to. The church will never again gain its prominence as a third place in our lives. My daughter will not know a world where the majority of her friends regularly attend a church service.
And this is okay.
For us, not for the church.
It used to be, that if you were Christian, when you moved to a new town, you sought out the local church with your denominational name on the marquee. First Baptist Churches and Grace United Methodists and All Saints Episcopals could rely on a steady stream of new members to darken their doorways as people moved and families grew. Nowadays, when I can connect with likeminded people (spiritually speaking or not) via Meetup, or when my Facebook network can introduce me to friends of friends in a new city, the church is not needed as a tool to provide me with a support or social network.
It doesn't help that the church is a rigid, inflexible manifestation of an ever-changing God. The fact that many churches and denominations express their beliefs exactly like the first followers of Jesus did makes them increasingly irrelevant. Like the founding fathers, early disciples could never have predicted a world of seven billion people, global air travel, or anything else that makes our world markedly different from the way things were in that first century after the crucifixion. Priests can't marry? Yeah - that seems to be working well. No gay people allowed because being gay is against God's decrees? Wake up.
This inability to change and empathize is what led people like Matt Cheuvront to say goodbye to the church but lets him retain a desire to connect with something bigger than himself. He cites several reasons he left the church (but did not lose his faith in the process), namely that for him, that faith isn't exclusive. It's not meant to be owned by any one belief system, but the church will never let go of this.
There is hope for the church, though. If it's willing to lean into its fear, it will find a place of relevance once again. If the church can learn to stop being defensive when critiqued, learn to compromise on its archaic dogma, and be open to mystery, it can succeed and grow. Jo, another young person, is actively involved in a Quaker community. The emphasis on silence and meditation (good luck finding that in many churches) resonates with her as someone who was "tired of reconciling the minister's agenda with my own spiritual callings."
And this, again, is why the church is scared. Authority can no longer rest in a man (usually) who fumes and stammers and waxes religiously from a pulpit in a way that seems like he (usually) is setting God's agenda. Ministers are reluctant to embrace ambiguity, gray areas, or mysteries for some misguided notion that doing so allows people to question everything. But this would be a good thing. A church that does not allow or embrace questions is one that is not fit to also embrace love and all of its messiness, community and all of its accidents, and growth and all of its pains.
(Answering questions with "Well, that's what God says," is not an answer, either. What you think God says is merely a book that some really old guys thought was what God said a long time ago. God, in my opinion, is not done talking.)
The church can stick around for another millenium if it's willing to embrace its fear and messy community and stop its judgmental habits. Because with every fear there is hope. If there is no hope in the face of fear, then there will be no moving beyond that fear. In fact, hope is often the only thing that shows up when the night is darkest, providing a warm, thick blanket to get you through those pitch black hours of doubt, anxiety, and desperation. The church can cling to hope - and openly give it to others - in this, its scariest hour.
People are leaving in droves. Families are being raised outside of church walls. Pastors and priests no longer have the community relevance or prominence they once did. And while the church will not (and should not) reclaim the previous stature it enjoyed during the good times, it can still be useful and purposeful during these bad times.
Shanley Knox is writing some of the most thoughtful and beautiful things on the Internet right now, including a post about turning 23. She describes in detail her transformation over the past year of her life, from traveling to Africa to starting a business to chasing love to failing in a few areas. And throughout, I'm drawn to the fact that in the face of her own fear, she found hope while sitting on a pew at a church:
Alone in Portland, I started sitting in the back of a church off Burnside in NE Portland. I doodled quotes on bulletins – things like: “Just when others look and think you’re a person to be pitied is when you – as a person God loves – can know that He is beginning to move for you.”
I became the prophet of all things Jesus, because I was pretty sure most people hadn’t met Him like I did. The Jesus I was told about didn’t like cigarettes, and He didn’t talk about sex. He didn’t like stilettos, and it was for damn sure that He didn’t like me. But, in my corner of Portland, He did. Suddenly, He had saved me from an oppressive situation I couldn’t even see myself. Suddenly, it mattered to Him that a mother in law didn’t take over my life, that the whims of an emotionally abusive partner didn’t throw me off course – and it mattered to Him that I went back to Africa. This time, not running.
I started an anthem – “God sees me. And, He hears me.” Over beers, halfway through a cigarette, on the porch in my sweats trying to sift through my broken pieces – “I know this is crazy. But I think God sees me. And, I think He likes me. I have this feeling that there’s something bigger going on than everything falling apart.”
I hung on through months of silence from someone who I thought I’d make a life with. I hung on through having no idea what it was I was doing. I brought home the gospel of God’s love for the hot mess because I believed it. I figure Jesus loves a good porter just as much as I do, and that He doesn’t so much mind if I smoke while I’m sitting beside Him on my parent’s porch steps.
I figure if He loved me that day, sneaking out of an apartment, barefoot, on the way to discuss my birthday disaster, surely He loves me now. But, I don’t even think it works that way – I think He felt the same way about me then as He does now because it was then, just when I was about to become the train wreck of the century, that God gave me Nakate.
Dear church, I know you are scared. Do not mask this fear with shouting and fake pity. Rather, embrace your uncertainly and offer the hope your founder provided to so many who were never allowed participation in the religious habits of his day. Instead, face your fears of being irrelevant by opening yourself to change in the biggest way, emerging from this dark cloak different than you were in order to find a place in a world that is always different than it was.