A good friend of mine asked me last week to ask a question of my Facebook followers. This question was “What is church to you?” as in what constitutes going to church for you. He went on to say that for him it was going to the park and watching his children play and the interactions with other parents there, or Tae Kwan Do practice and the connections made with other parents there. I asked the question, though I did not receive a lot of response. But it is a question that stuck in my mind.
This week a different friend told me about a hashtag that arose in popularity on Twitter and is gaining some momentum on Facebook as well. This hashtag is #EmptyThePews to tell the story of why people are leaving the church. I started writing more frequently in my blog to express my feelings and struggle with coming to terms with my faith after my exit from in church ministry. So I figured this would be a good thing for me to check out. I started reading and I both wept and was filled with joy in knowing that I was not alone. This hashtag was started by writer and pretty cool guy Christopher Stroop. I sat and read, and responded, to a lot of these responses. If ever there was a full thread of how Christian’s have been annoying, that was it.
Have you ever wondered what constitutes church? Maybe you read my last two blog posts, and you began to wonder about your own community. Maybe you have left the church altogether but still feel a yearning to be in a community like that. Maybe you have found one, but something seems off or lacking. What could it be?
Last week I wrote about the ways we could be less annoying as Christians. Two themes emerged as the dominant ways to “fix our PR problem”. Those things were authenticity and Love. As I have spent time this week reading through the tweets on this hashtag I have found an overwhelming lack of authenticity and love from the church. It was mainly geared toward evangelicals, but the mainline denominations have been guilty of this as well. The sad part is that there are still some trying to rebuke those who have left for the reasons they left. Ask yourself, “what would Jesus do?” In this instance, I don’t think Jesus would berate those who left. Didn’t he tell the parable of leaving the 99 to go after the 1 who was lost? Did Jesus berate that lost sheep for leaving? Did Jesus emotionally abuse that lost sheep? No, the point was that all were loved, and cared for that a group is fine but the one alone is the one who needs the most care and attention. After all, I tell you that in the same way, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
See, it comes back to this question. What is church? What is it that we have left? The truth is that church or religious gatherings are and always have been a place for people to find a connection with each other and the Divine at the same time. When it became a boot camp for “god’s army”, that was when it was time to empty the pews. When it became a place to point fingers at each other and claim superiority, that was when it was time to empty the pews. When it became anything other than a hospital for the spiritually infirmed that was when it was time to empty the pews.
I think my whole mission since starting on this journey of Honest Faith has been to discover what it really meant to follow Christ. I think that big question is one that has haunted me throughout the process. What is Church? What I have found throughout this almost year that I have been doing deep soul searching, is that it is about connection. It is about discovering that interconnectedness that we have with everything. That thing is the Divine.
There was this imagery that the evangelical church liked to use when I was growing up. It was imagery of God living within you. That with the Holy Spirit you have a bit of God living inside of you. When you asked Jesus into your heart, you had the Holy Spirit come in. The odd thing is, I think they got that right. Though I don’t think they were correct about the moment it happens, but the idea of the Divine being within. As I have written about many times before, I do believe the divine exists within everything. That we are all interconnected and when we realize that connection we begin to interact with the world around us with respect and care. They used to say, how would you do those things if you knew God was in you. Now I think how would I not want to do things if God was in me? I want to experience life. I don’t want life and fulfillment only after I’m dead. God never promised that. Jesus said that He came that we may have life and have it to the fullest.
So what then? Should we abandon all hope ye who enter here? Should we stop going to church altogether? No! There are churches that are still safe havens (sanctuaries, see what I did there?) for vulnerability, love, and connection. In fact, the amazing Facebook page “I’m not that kind of Christian” has a list or two full of churches that are striving to be that. There are some of us whose mission is to find, help, and support those who are on the outside in any way we can like me with Post-Church Christians, and many more like podcasts that I could list in the hundreds here (I’ll name two of my favorites, The liturgists, and TheLifeAfter.org). We are trying to get back to what we once were; a people of love, vulnerability, and connectedness. I found this week that I was not alone. I mattered because my story was one of many that all said, we looked for God in the church we couldn’t find God there. Like I said before, Jesus has left the building.
My heart breaks from many of the stories I read this week. My heart breaks because I’ve experienced a lot of them myself. I’ve seen a lot of them happen. I’ve even perpetrated some of them when I was in the church. It pains me when those things happen because I know it drives people even further away from connection with the Divine. Empty the pews was not about getting rid of Christianity, it was about why people couldn’t go to church anymore. Why they couldn’t go to a building that supported the power structures that Jesus worked so hard to dismantle. My heart breaks because so many have been told that they don’t matter. That they are alone. That was never the message. I asked curiously how many people, like myself, developed a pronounced anxiety disorder due to what happened, I got a lot of response. The good news is, though, that you are not alone, you matter.
The takeaway from this week is that church doesn’t have to be in a building. It is wherever you find a connection with the whole of creation. It is within you, and around you. Take a look. Maybe church for you is a group of people that meet in a pub and discusses theology, life, love, and everything in between. Maybe church is talking to the other parents at Tae Kwan Do practice. Maybe church is the people you eat lunch with at work or school. Maybe church is wherever you make it, and are able to feel the most connected, vulnerable and loved. The biggest most important thing about church is the reinforcement of my mantra; YOU ARE NOT ALONE! YOU MATTER! If you hear anything else, it’s time to empty the pews. May you know, you are not alone, you matter!