Monday, July 02, 2007

Unable to buy the insanity of church culture

Once again, my virtual friend [rhymes with kerouac] has hit a home run with a posting. It hit home, especially, because my friend and former pastor Joe Crowther (from Atonement Lutheran in Overland Park, KS) leaves today on a sabbatical to study "missional leadership." So I decided to share some struggles I'd had with church life and supposedly "missional" leadership in church. This is from my email to Joe:
...I really, really want you to take the time to read this powerful blog entry. (Make sure you read the comments as well - there are some powerful recognitions there.)

Now, here's why this is important...this quote from the post:

In the last few years I've been surprised at the number of mature, faith-filled Christ followers I've met who have stopped going to church altogether. All of them are simply unable to buy into the insanity of the church culture anymore.

Those lines hit home - because I'm afraid I'm becoming one of them.

Over the last several months, I have been struggling to attend a nearby Lutheran church. I mean, really, really struggling. I can find just about any excuse to not go to church - just about anything makes it OK to skip Sunday worship.

Now, I have to confess: if I should be having this feeling, it shouldn't be with this church. Because this isn't your everyday Lutheran church; this is not a congregation of "the frozen chosen." They have a mission; they have a mission statement; they have contemporary worship. They have been through a building program that transformed their "shotgun" sanctuary into a more welcoming "fan-style" worship center. The pews are gone, the movable seating is in. They have an outreach congregation specifically focused on people who don't want to go to church. It is, in short, everything that I was desperately searching for when I found Atonement; in fact, it is everything I wished Atonement was when I got to Atonement! On the surface, it's everything that I hoped a congregation that I pastored could have been.

And it leaves me cold.
And I don't know why.

You see, I need this "community" you talked about in your newsletter to the congregation. I need people to draw me in, to involve me, to welcome me. I need someplace where they know my name. Someplace where I am needed and wanted and able to make a difference. Some place where it would matter if I'm sick; where it would matter if I'm well. Someplace that would miss me if I died.

This place has that, seemingly. They have the energy; there are things happening there.

But somehow, I don't feel the invitation.

In the summer of 2000, when I (and the other members of the Faith Lutheran diaspora) landed on the shores at 99th and Metcalf, it might have been that things were broken and needy enough at Atonement Lutheran that we felt needed. There were things to do - places to fill, songs to sing, children's sermons to do, a class to teach, Alpha to start, etc...and there were places where a hand was needed. Maybe I don't perceive the need, here. Maybe what I'm feeling is that the expectation at this place is to sit down, do the worship drill, hand in the check, have some coffee, and leave. And maybe I want, or need, something more than that.

I actually wondered if I'd just forgotten how to be "just a member"? Had I, by virtue of being on worship teams and vision boards and leadership and church councils - not to mention two years at seminary - become so codependent that I only know how to be a part of an organization if it's in crisis? Had I somehow caught a bad case of Dudley Do-Right Syndrome - always starting off my membership with "I'll save you, Nell!" ?

I don't think that's it. Otherwise, I would have done that very same thing with my AA membership. I would have instantly leapt into saving all the newbies when the came in, and getting into the service organization (intergroup committees and the like). At AA meetings around the city, I feel welcome, I feel engaged and "a part of," so somehow it's different at church.

I also asked myself the other obvious question - am I feeling uncomfortable about going into a church now that I'm "out"? - but I really don't think it has anything to do with it. I don't get a homophobic vibe from this place. I don't feel the need to don a rainbow-flag patch and start demonstrating a' la "Queer Nation," shouting We're here, we're queer, get used to it! I believe I'm quite capable of confronting the church if the fact that I'm gay gets out - I understand my faith enough to do that. But I'm not going into this place as "a gay Christian." I'm just Steve, looking for a place to land. So I just don't find that it's an issue here.

I do know this: I'd really, really, really encourage you to pick up a copy of Take This Bread, by Sara Miles, and read it cover to cover. It takes a bit for her to get going - but every word is setting her up for an amazing conversion of an admitted church outsider.

You will find a story of an admittedly fringe liberal church who encounters someone who learned missional out in the world - who then heard the message of the communion table, and thought (somehow) that God really meant what he said. There are a whole bunch of folks who are hearing, in Sara Miles' expereince at St. Gregory's, the call of what they want to see the church look like. I know I am.

You're in my thoughts and prayers for a powerful, transforming time away, brother. May it be everything you've prayed for!


brother said...

Steve: I once was a committed churchgoer myself. Eleven years ago, I, too, found AA and its spirituality-rather-than-religion approach, including its emphasis on a "higher power" -- a "God of (my) understanding." If you'll pardon the pun, this was heaven on earth for me.

My church attendance had already been on the decline somewhat. But within a year or two of entering AA, it disappeared altogether. Simultaneously, my spirituality absolutely soared - SOARED. And has been roughly on the incline ever since. I cherish my new spiritual home in all the AA meetings I regularly attend, several times weekly, and I actually feel badly for "normies" out there who might not find such a refuge.

Part of the upward growth in my spirituality has to do with this: over the years, I came to believe that God didn't care if I went to church - as long as I had other ways of connecting with Him, and my brothers and sisters on earth, in a spiritual, loving, caring, sharing way. For me, AA meetings are only some of these ways. Working the steps, working with others, etc - these are all other ways.

It took years for me to unload the crushing guilt I felt for committing the awful, grievous sin of abandoning church ... until I realized that God didn't view me as an awful, grievous sinner for doing so. For all the years that I attended church while I was a using-and-abusing, miserable SOB, I'm now NOT attending church but am clean and sober and grateful and a better person. I might have become that person and still attended church ... but that didn't happen, and that's OK.

I know you're familiar with plenty of these kinds of lessons already, from your own experience. And I'm happy to hear there ARE such progressive, welcoming churches as the one you found. But I'd definitely counsel you not to beat yourself up about these feelings, or indulge in guilt. "Ministry" and "worship" and "service" take place in a billion ways, times and places. They need not be scheduled for a specific time and place on Sunday mornings.

Hell, you minister like crazy through your blog. Thanks for giving me an opportunity to open up like this.

Poor Mad Peter said...

Actually, a church (any church) is worth its salt only as a community of faithful (however that's defined), a place where people gather, worship, be in fellowship.

Such a community may be social-justice activist, or not (nurturing social activists is also a worthy calling). Its bottom line is that it must provide nurture and challenge, as needed. That is a dynamic balance, not a static one, and communities often err on one side or the other.

Like any human group (we created churches--God didn't; God created us--there's a difference), the church concept can be abused and abusive. It can be exclusionary and protective of the rich and powerful, and it can also be welcoming and nurturing and empowering of those in need.

I've come to think that finding such a community is an art, a journey fraught with obstacles and wrong turns. I've also come to realize that journeys sometimes mean partings, and the search for another community.

I agree completely with "brother" that sometimes, no church is the best thing, but it is equally clear that he has found a community such as I have just described, and that it works for him, and he for it.

kim said...


Hi! I feel what you are feeling my dear friend. You just put into words what has been weighing heavy on my heart. I am abruptly ending my volunteer/ministry help at Atonement. I just finished with VBS we had record breaking numbers we had 104 kids on sight from the ages of 0-6 and 65 volunteers. It was a great experience to be a Co Director for this amazing week. And yet it is time for me to figure out how to just be a member for a while. Just like you I have ALWAYS been doing the work of the church for the sake of making "Christ known". I went to Willow Creek to a children's conference and heard on more than one occassion: "The work you do at your church is not your faith." Wow, powerful stuff and I have taken that to heart and I have been concentrating on building my relationship with Christ - an intimate one, a life changing one, the type that will hopefully influence my children to want to be passionate about their relations with Christ, passionate to do mission work and the need to love all races and people of God. This is so important to me, more important to me right now then being on a board or something like that...but it is really hard to enter the church right now and just be a Christian who needs to pray and pray some more and really study God's word. Being the cradle Lutheran that I am I have never ever just dove into the Bible and let it really speak to me. I have been doing that lately and that is really powerful stuff in there. Especially when you are not reading it for confirmation LOL! I get what Nicky Gumble was saying that the Bible is God's love note to us. He so full of LOVE and just when you think you get it you begin to realize just HOW MUCH HE REALLY DOES LOVE ALL OF US! You, me, everyone....can I love like that? I hope my children feel that love. Ok I am rambling now, so I will end this post and go do that mother thing I do - give bathes to my babies all 4 of them. Read them their stories, say our prayers and do our "Dear Gods" as my children call them. And just love our Lord that much more for giving me so many blessings in my life. So, many blessings, more than I will ever deserve, but I thank him passionately for giving them to me no less. Steve, as Judy F would say Pray and then Pray some more!