Last week, a former congregation member emailed me to see how I was doing after closing down the church where I was the pastor for eight years. In the email, he asked me if I had found a new church to attend; and in my reply, I told him that I had not been to church since The Journey closed and probably would not be back to church for a long time. My response triggered concern and curiosity, so he asked if we could meet. We decided to meet at a local brewery to pray, drink some beer, and catch up. As we talked, I found myself struggling to articulate why I’m leaving the church behind.
It’s difficult to find satisfactory answers to provide people who believe that church attendance is an essential element to their faith, whether it’s from a place of desire or obedience. For the longest time, I couldn’t imagine life without church either. My entire life has been invested in the church, and I scarcely can remember a time when I missed consecutive Sundays from childhood to adulthood.
I haven’t been to church in two months. This was the first Easter I spent outside of church. I don’t miss it.
I miss A church, but I don’t miss THE church.
I miss The Journey. It was, by far, the most positive experience I ever had with church. My friend suggested that I may have an over-romanticized view of The Journey, and he’s probably right. He’s right because we tend to romanticize things that leave deep imprints of beauty within us. For instance, when you fall in love with someone it is difficult to explain to anyone outside of that relationship why you love that person. The reasons and explanations you’re able to articulate fail to describe the actual beauty and depths of the relationship. They can understand from a descriptive standpoint but not from an experiential standpoint. It’s a futile attempt in describing the indescribable.
Closing a church is perhaps one of the most painful things a community of people can go through, particularly when it is due to lack of funding rather than age, conflict, or health. Pulling the plug on a vital, relational component of your life creates more than a void. It creates a deep sadness that isn’t as easily remedied as replacing something you lost. It’s like walking in the desert without beginning or end, shrouded in your pain.
But at some point you have to choose to walk a different path.
I’m under no illusions that I can replicate my church experience at The Journey. Honestly, I don’t want to because doing so would diminish its beauty. However, there are things about The Journey that I want in a church. And some of these things I have a difficulty believing I can find rather easily elsewhere.
Certainly, I have minor reasons that are surmountable. For instance, I’ve never connected to God through the church-sanctioned, kitschy, three chord worship songs. I find myself connecting to God through music residing well outside of that realm such as the art of Sufjan Stevens. I’m simply not an auditory learner. The times I have connected with God most deeply were in the woods, outside of church programming. The woods invigorated me while the pews stifled me.
But it’s the core values that make the search seem overwhelming and lonely. There is just so much shit you have to shift through in the church before you find anything resembling a shred of authenticity.
On paper, a larger church (100 or more) seems like a fit for me at this point. I’ve been through 8 years of grueling ministry, and I need to feel at rest in church. But, honestly, when I walk into a large church everything feels like a sterile performance and polished production. If I wanted that type of consumer-based experience, I’d go to the mall or Wal-Mart. And let’s face it, many churches feel like a mall; and going to these churches feels like bathing in hand sanitizer week after week – nothing really changes, you just feel gooier than when you arrived but you don’t get to smell like alcohol.
I don’t want a sanitized faith. I want something real, something authentic. I want to be in a church where people are fucked up, aren’t scared to show they are fucked up, and are allowed to be fucked up. Sanitization isn’t transformation. I need something raw, sacred, and vulnerable.
I am leaving the church because there seems to be a lack of authentic interactions with people and too many conversations overflowing with pre-programmed, evangelistic hidden agendas. I am leaving the church because there seem to be more “word of encouragement” faith monitors than thoughtful listeners.
I want a church where people don’t use “God spoke to me” as a convenient method of authenticating what they want to think or do.
I want a sacred space adorned with listening spirits.
I want a church that explores questions, rather than treating them as encumbrances.
I’m leaving the church because much of it remains overzealously skeptical of science and yet stamps out any hint of skepticism within its ranks.
I want a church where faith and doubt remain in tension, rather than hidden by doctrinal idolatry or dismissed with broken, unsatisfying answers that are stamped with biblical proof texts.
I’m leaving the church because too often it equates busyness and attendance in church programs with healthiness. Breathing and thinking are just as sacred.
I want to be a part of a denomination that doesn’t define and ostracize its leaders or members because of their political persuasions but by the fruit of their service. I want a church that doesn’t equate Christianity with the Republican platform without question. I want a church that doesn’t confuse the American flag with the cross. I want a church that doesn’t equate the kingdom of God with capitalism.
I’m leaving the church because too often I’ve heard poor people referenced as “freeloaders.” These are the same people who say that everything is a gift from God then, in the same breath, talk about everything they’ve “earned.”
I want a church that doesn’t use the hope of the afterlife and the return of Jesus as an excuse not to take care of this earth now.
I want a church that understands truth as nuanced, rather than resorting to reactionary, binary thinking. A church that understands that its standard for objective truth is affected by its own presuppositions and confirmation bias.
I’m leaving the church because many of its adherents feign persecution while using the substantial power they still hold in the political realm to oppress the most marginalized groups and call it religious freedom.
I want a church that is more skeptical about the powerful within its own institution rather than powerless, welfare recipients.
I want a church that’s honest about the composition, discrepancies, and nature of the Bible.
I want a church that’s interested in cultural revolution rather than cultural warfare. A church that doesn’t treat homosexuality as the single biggest issue God wants them to oppose, when it’s mentioned all of six times in the Bible. This issue was such a priority to Jesus that He mentioned it all of zero times. I want a church that cares more about feeding the poor than harming homosexuals.
I want a church that is defined by what it’s FOR, not by what it’s against.
I want a church that prioritizes relationships over numbers.
I want a church that is pro-life beyond the womb and doesn’t delight in the deaths of its “enemies.”
I’m leaving the church because I can’t pretend anymore, but pretending is an act of worship in many churches.
Am I too cynical? Probably. Am I too idealistic? Probably. Am I too prideful? Probably.
Will I return to church at some point? Probably, but it won’t be the result of duty or responsibility that those within the church seek to impose on me. The church doesn’t own a monopoly on spiritual growth. Any return to church is derived from the understanding that my desires aren’t the only ones to consider in a relationship. I love being a husband and father more than anything else and that love overrides my own trepidations about the church.
I will always love the church as a foundational element to my past that provided a launching platform toward greater discovery. But we simply aren’t compatible anymore. I need a place that seeks truth rather than protects a static interpretation of it. I’m leaving cognitive dissonance behind.
For those of you who find peace in the church, may you continue to find hope, grace, and love there. But for me, peace lies elsewhere.