October 17, 2017

Welcome to the mess

Fog Dock alt

Very little of my faith has involved leaving and arriving. The vast majority of it has involved wrestling, meandering, stretching, struggling.  As the saying goes, it’s a work in progress. My spiritual GPS has yet to chirp, “ You have arrived.” 

• Rachel Held Evans

• • •

I encourage you to go to Rachel Held Evans’s blog and read her wonderful post, “On ‘outgrowing’ American Christianity.”

The bottom line? It’s never as simple or cut-and-dried as that.

She writes:

I suspect all these claims of having left empty religion to find the true faith are ubiquitous in both evangelical and progressive Christian publishing culture precisely because they stem from the same illusion—that we are each a blank slate, that we have the ability to start over. But the idea that an American can just stop being an American, or that a Christian can just stop being religious, strikes me as naïve at best, arrogant at worst. It’s no better than the Bible reader who insists he’s not interpreting the text, just reading it, or the white male theologian who insists his theological views are the objective default, while those of women, African Americans, or Christians from the global South and East are contextual.  It presumes that progressive Christians, unlike those conservative Christians, are totally unaffected by the trappings of American culture. If only it were that easy.

I certainly think there are aspects of American evangelicalism that people can outgrow, because of much of evangelicalism’s nature.

  • A person can outgrow youth group style worship.
  • A person can outgrow Sunday School level theology.
  • A person can outgrow historical ignorance and the lack of appreciation for tradition.
  • A person can outgrow a consumeristic approach to church.
  • A person can outgrow religious kitsch and the marketing of faith.
  • A person can outgrow simplistic forms of activism and a focus on soterian-style evangelism that ignores the fullness of what it means to love one’s neighbor.
  • A person can outgrow the kind of separatist mentality that fails to honor and dignify the image of God in those who don’t share one’s narrow brand of faith and practice.
  • And so on…

But on the other hand, Rachel is right when she observes that a person in our culture who leaves any tradition in search of a more mature faith and practice could have a list like this. Our American cultural assumptions affect all of the faith traditions that practice here.

I left the culture of evangelicalism — in my case a church-growth, discipleship-oriented, contemporary worship, missions-focused group — and found a more comfortable home in an ELCA Lutheran congregation. But our church is what I would call “Lutheran-lite.” Many of the emphases are there, but they are clothed in less than robust expressions of what truly attracts me to Luther and many distinctive marks of what I would call an “evangelical catholicism.” I’m not going to list any complaints, but if I did I would attribute almost all of my specific discontents to our church and denomination’s cross-pollination with liberal American political and cultural values and with envy toward the evangelical world’s success in growing churches.

When I do complain or think about finding another church, it’s not long before I look in the mirror and see an American who is steeped in the spirit of individualism and personal autonomy. Bottom line is, I want what I want the way I want it.

I’m sure every church in which I’ve been a member would have a list of complaints about me too!

Rachel is absolutely on the mark when she writes, “perhaps real maturity is exhibited not in thinking myself above other Christians and organized religion, but in humbly recognizing the reality that I can’t escape my own cultural situatedness and life experiences, nor do I want to escape the good gift of my (dysfunctional, beautiful, necessary) global faith community.”

So…in brief, welcome to the mess.

The path is never straight, the way is never clear, the goal is never certain, the context is never completely nourishing or satisfying. And I’m as much a mess as anyone else.

What is important is being on the path. With Jesus. With one another. With our neighbors.

Loving the Church means both critiquing it and celebrating it. We don’t have to choose between those two things. But those of us who remain Christian cannot imagine ourselves to be so far above the Church – including the American Church – that we are not a part of it. (RHE)

Comments

  1. Nice post. Thanks for your comments on the RHE blog post and pointing us to it.

    The idea of we being “messes” reminds me of a book a read a couple years back, Mike Howerton’s “Glorious Mess: Encountering God’s Relentless Grace for Imperfect People.” It takes a look at God’s grace in Jonah’s messy life and draws comparisons with our own messiness. Loved the book.

    http://www.amazon.com/Glorious-Mess-Encountering-Relentless-Imperfect/dp/0801013917

  2. Dave Denis says:

    It seems to me that loving people (not just churches) most always involves a combination of critique and celebration. To love someone involves the risk of (at times — not constantly) calling them out on their BS. And at times, celebrating everything about them. I have observed that the more time and energy invested in celebration, the more likely we will both be able to weather the critique. It’s a dance really.

    It’s a little different with “things” like a church, a faith tradition, an institution, but I think not *that* much different. Ultimately, there are always people involved. And of course, when the people won’t let go of the toxic parts — then the surgery can get pretty painful. Yeah…all in all…it’s just a mess.

  3. Just as many American Christians identify their conservative leanings with the same political views, so too do the progressive, or non-conservative/evangelical, Christians identify with the opposite political leanings. We just can’t help it because we are immersed in an American culture that totally surrounds us, engulfs us and molds our every attitude. The sad thing is that each side views the other as some form of bastard Christianity and, therefore, inferior or mistaken.

    Instead of railing against each other we should concentrate more on our individual paths to a Jesus-shaped spirituality. In other words, more self-reflection than self-projection, while we share our experiences with each other.

    I was initially attracted to this site because it caused me to reflect on my own faith struggles, but it became far too easy to then project those struggles on others, and a larger evangelical canvas, as a way of making myself feel as if I were, somehow, further along on a path to a genuine faith. I HAD to have a foil against which I could do battle, a larger “cause” that would deflect me from self-reflection and, therefore, change.

    Hopefully I can internalize these thoughts more successfully than my previous efforts…

    • “More self-reflection than self-projection” — great phrase, Oscar. I’ll remember it.

    • The sad thing is that each side views the other as some form of bastard Christianity and, therefore, inferior or mistaken.
      I would tend to disagree. I see a tendency toward binary constructs in your comments, but not everyone thinks that way. For my part, I don’t even see “sides”. I see a spectrum of beliefs, and most of them have variable intension and extension, such that no two people are alike. I certainly see some ideas as inferior, or even mistaken (in the event that those ideas are contradicted by facts). However, these assessments have nothing to do with the person’s Christianity; in fact, I couldn’t care less what religion a person is. I don’t see how that has any bearing on the quality of one’s positions.

  4. Christiane says:

    I suspect that ‘ the evangelical world’s success in growing churches’ may be encouraged by the natural need of people for social interaction in their communities than for theological and spiritual reasons. With our increasingly mobile society, a family may move several times during the raising of children, and that means that ‘the local Church’ to where they live may be a different ‘denomination’ or the rather-vague generic ‘non-denominational’ variety of evangelical Church that doesn’t bear a denominational name as such, but presents a ‘Christ-related’ name like ‘Sonrise’ or something similar . . .

    around where we live, the local public schools have weekend rentals to groups that are starting Churches and I suspect that if those Churches grow to enough people, they will purchase buildings of their own, or have them built eventually. The parking lots are full of cars at the local schools on Sunday mornings, so it looks like there is enough interest in seeking a ‘church home’ . . .

    is this really about ‘theology’ or a burst of ‘spiritual seeking’ ?
    or is it a movement that is more driven by the American social phenomenon of high mobility OR is it a need for social membership in new communities that are supportive of young families? I suspect it is the latter, and that the need to ‘join’ is genuinely felt as a way of providing reassurance of ‘belonging’ which takes the edge off of the feeling of isolation in a new community.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      > is this really about ‘theology’ or a burst of ‘spiritual seeking’ ?
      > or is it a movement that is more driven by the American social phenomenon of high mobility
      > OR is it a need for social membership in new communities that are supportive of young families?

      Why “OR”? Perhaps all-the-above. There is no need for a One True Motivation. One True Motivation would be clean, tidy. What we have is a mess; a collection of all-the-abobe in a constantly undulating glob of motivational goo.

      The implicit ranking in motivation breakdowns is also troubling. Spiritual Seeking is Good, but seeking Belonging is Bad? Why? Depends upon what Spirit I find. And it depends on with whom I decide I belong. Ultimately. Which is something nobody knows until after the fact. One may be the path to the other, for better or worse, either way; it not only May be, it likely almost always works that way.

      • Christiane says:

        Hi ADAM,
        I think you’re right . . . what initially draws us to God is not always obvious to ourselves or others . . .

        “He called the wise men by a star,
        the fishermen by their art of fishing. ”
        (St John Chrysostom)

  5. Christiane, I feel so disconnected from that metric that I cannot even begin to figure it all out. In the past 38 years I have been a member of two churches, lived in two homes in one community, held the same job and have been married to the same person. I am the model of consistency, yet I see those around me moving constantly, changing regularly and have seen churches marketing themselves endlessly while changing their images to match the current zeitgeist. I am so far disconnected to what is going on in this society that I feel like a stranger and alien in the world around me.

    When you bring up the subject of “belonging’ I wonder if people really know what that means. Do they mean looking for others that LOOK like themselves, or do they mean people thaat BELIEVE as they do? In so many cases these things equate to the same thing! Humans appear to be relentlessly tribal and seem to be endlessly seeking that tribe to which they feel like they belong, mostly because they feel so disconnected themselves.

    For ME, the answer has always been to find a place that does not outright reject or offend me and then work at fitting in. Old fashioned? I don’t know, but it has worked so far. I have never really felt a solid part of things but, then, we are not really of this world, are we?

    • Wow, Oscar…you’re hitting out of the park today. Loved this:

      “Human appear to be relentlessly tribal and seem to be endlessly seeking that tribe to which they feel like they belong, mostly because they feel so disconnected themselves.”

      One of the things I think Jesus tries to break is tribalism. No favoritism, God’s love is for everyone (not just “the chosen”), etc. etc.

      Our church has a motto “Belong. Believe. Become.” I think it’s fair to say that the intent is for everyone to feel welcome and for current congregants to welcome everyone who steps through the door. The hope is for any tribe to feel welcome and believe in God and Christ and become a part of a large, all-inclusive tribe in God’s kingdom. The issue is, of course, the church is made of people who remain tribal in the basic sense, the “country club” exclusive sense. Put a leader/pastor/shepherd in place who remains tribalistic and the church will fail to do what Jesus wants, which is to break that basic tribalism.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      > Do they mean looking for others that LOOK like themselves, or do they
      > mean people thaat BELIEVE as they do? In so many cases these things
      > equate to the same thing!

      In defense of Humanity – Of course we do! We have no choice. The mind of the other is hidden from us.

      Who Believes the same things I do? The one who says the same words, or the one who when faced with the a similar dilemma makes a similar choice? I love and value the creeds; but I would choose to set up camp with the later. I also believe [no pun intended] that the majority of people would make the same choice, and that we as a species are excellent at self-sorting, and that this quality is a strength. Whatever other capital-first-letters we may be, in the end the majority of people are Pragmatists with a reasonable level of respect for the Idealists.

    • Christiane says:

      Hi OSCAR and RICK,
      when we humans think about being ‘disconnected’ from ourselves, from others, and from God, I suppose that is one of the reasons why Our Lord came to incarnated . . . so that, in assuming our kind, we might in time be able to be healed by Him.

      ‘reconciliation’ is one of the great blessings He offers to us if we will accept His gift of healing

  6. It is interesting what “lists” as “maturity” here. Some would contend they left such “mature” churches, and actually grew more in their faith in those dreaded Evangelical churches.

    And how do we measure, or judge another’s maturity? Some would say that RHE has changed her theology, but has not necessarily matured in her faith.

    I prefer Anglicanism, but we need to be careful about assigning “maturity” to do lists, and we need to be careful about overlooking the impact some of those “immature” churches are having on many lives.

    • I’m not tracking, RDavid. I don’t see any “to do” lists here that are identified with maturity. I listed some common things people (including myself) felt they needed to “outgrow” in order to have a more mature faith and practice. But I was also careful to say that people from various traditions would have lists too, lists that might look much different. I’m not sure I understand your complaint.

    • Maturity is most certainly not a matter of utter relativism. Just because some churches help more people doesn’t make them more mature. Some churches are expressly committed to meeting people where they are at. It’s essentially an embrace of immaturity with the hope of leading people out of it. It is a widespread strategy that appears highly successful at gaining adherents, but possibly much less so in terms of it’s end goals. Some things we can never no for sure, no matter how much statistical data we can gather, but you must admit the idea that one man’s “mature” is another man’s “juvenile” is just silly. Just because Anglicanism is objectively more mature than church grown revivalism doesn’t mean one is ultimately “correct” and the other worthless. We can hold a “to each his own” respect for other traditions and methodologies while still maintaining that some forms of religion are essentially more good, right, and salutary for the practitioner. The alternative is to imply that there is no such thing as emotionally or spiritually unhealthy religious practices.

      • Agreed

      • Adam Tauno Williams says:

        +1, well said.

      • Just because Anglicanism is objectively more mature than church growth revivalism doesn’t mean one is ultimately “correct” and the other worthless. We can hold a “to each his own” respect for other traditions and methodologies while still maintaining that some forms of religion are essentially more good, right, and salutary for the practitioner.

        YES! This is part of the “tribalism” that I was referring to earlier. We ought to try to refocus our gaze closer to home (mirror) rather than somewhere more distant.

      • Miguel-
        Thanks for your comments, but I never claimed they were on equal grounds in every way.

        I am saying that we need to be sure we define “mature”, and not to paint with too broad a brush on what is healthy and helpful, and who fits into that category.

        “What is important is being on the path. With Jesus. With one another. With our neighbors.” It may surprise some here that some of those other churches are doing a very good job with that.

        • Right. My comments were meant more as an elaboration. It’s very difficult to define maturity in any tangible way without painting with a broad brush, unless we’re willing to let every criteria die the death of 1000 qualifications. I think what is more important than avoiding generalizations so that exceptions to the rule aren’t offended, is to treat generalizations for what they are: Not dogmatically strict regulations, but general observations with room for contextual exception.

          It may also surprise some people how many of “those other churches” are helping people down a bad path. One that appears comfortable, orthodox, and therapeutic, but based on an imaginary Jesus who gives false promises. You name the cause that tends to substitute itself for the Gospel: Family values Jesus, social justice Jesus, political causes Jesus, behavioral modification guru Jesus, sectarian hyper-orthodox Jesus… No Christian denomination or tradition is immune from the potential to get sidetracked and miss the point entirely.

          My overwhelming experience with “those other churches,” plus considerable journeying with others who have or still do, convinces me that the further a Christian spirituality drifts from the Christian Scriptures, the more likely it leads to missing the point.

  7. Ronald Avra says:

    Ms. Evans is very helpful here. Not sure that I always feel comfortable with all of her opinions, but her thoughtfulness makes me appreciate how she arrives at them.

  8. It’s no better than… the white male theologian who insists his theological views are the objective default, while those of women, African Americans, or Christians from the global South and East are contextual.

    I don’t know if maturity is something I know a great deal about. I have met some immature people who struck me as being deeply holy. There is an abyss in the Greek word teleios that calls to me continually.

    A Hispanic Pentecostal once told me: “That which people call ‘the new birth’ didn’t change me all that much; What it changed was my desires (deseos )”.

  9. Ir’a 2015. In a few days it will be 2016. This train is picking up speed. Folks still standing back on the platform arguing over whether it’s better to take the Northbound or the Southbound to get to Denver.

  10. >>After all, this is Kingdom growth. There aren’t ladders, only trellises.

    That’s the last line of Rachel’s post. I’m not clear on what she means. Maybe that we are more like Morning Glorys than house painters. There are ladders. Jacob saw one of them about 4000 years ago. They’re still around. Some folks use them to get where they’re going. Some use them to look down on those below.

    Don’t watch TV so I don’t know if the annual slugfest in Jerusalem between competing holy brothers over the placement of the ladder took place Christmas Eve. If they were smart they would wait until New Years Eve when no one was watching, tho they might not be able to agree on just when New Years Eve actually is. If they were really smart they would use the ladder to climb higher and help each other up instead of fighting over who owns it. Let’s give them another thousand years to see if they can figure it out. If things last that long. Not holding my breath.

    • My thought on the ladder/trellis thing:

      To reach the top, ladders must be climbed, while one merely “grows up” a trellis.

      • >>To reach the top, ladders must be climbed, while one merely “grows up” a trellis.

        Yes, agreed. And both are necessary as far as I can figure out. You can’t complete this thing in your own strength, but if you aren’t adding whatever strength you can come up with into the mix, you end up a pew potato. Cooperation with the Holy Spirit is a choice, a decision, an intentional effort. Folks I’ve been going to church with, it might as well still be 1965, Holds true for the other two churches in town, Methodist and Evangelical. Nice folks, good people in all three. Water seeks its own level. Far as I can figure out, both the ladder and the trellis are to get used at the appropriate time, and both are mentioned under other names in Scripture. Paul complained about folks still drinking milk nearly 2000 years ago. Ladders make Lutherans nervous.

  11. Last Sunday was my last of a year and a half long commitment at the little country ELCA Lutheran church I have been attending. I didn’t miss a lick in that whole eighteen months. I was the only one. By far. It’s a wonderful old church building that should be maintained as a historical monument if nothing else. No one can afford to do that. The congregation can’t afford to keep it going except by regularly dipping into a bequest to pay the bills and let the poor and needy shift for themselves. Those poor and needy don’t come to church anyway, and probably wouldn’t even if you helped them out. The ingrates.

    So there are folks insisting on maintaining the status quo for the sake of about half a dozen people, most of whom attend sporadically. I’m thinking this may not be the best bang for the buck in my attempt to further the Kingdom. Don’t misunderstand, these are wonderful people and God does show up for services if he doesn’t have family visiting or have a children’s event in conflict. I may be going back myself from time to time. I think the main problem is that folks are confusing the church building with the church. Probably not the first time this has happened. Please don’t bring up the possibility of downsizing.

    What am I going to do? I dunno, I’m waiting to find out. I do know that there are aspects of the traditional liturgical service that I increasingly am finding a high price to pay for communing with the saints. I do know that I went twenty years without regularly attending a church, and as far as I can tell I grew just as much spiritually as the times I did attend. Maybe that what Rachel’s trellis means. I recently read that many Amish only attend church every other week, and the other Sunday they use as a day of rest. Now there’s a novel idea.

    • I figured as long as I’m doing the RobertF thing I would go whole hog and reply to myself.

    • I feel for your struggle, Charles. No easy answers.

      This comment struck me as curious, perhaps leading to an underlying condition:

      “I recently read that many Amish only attend church every other week, and the other Sunday they use as a day of rest.”

      My thought: If attending church has become work, something has gone wrong, terribly wrong.

      • >>If attending church has become work, something has gone wrong, terribly wrong.

        Church has seemed like hard work to me for about 25 years. Still trying to sort that one out. If something has gone wrong, it went wrong a long time ago. What’s different today is that for the first time in something like 1750 years there is no longer the intense social pressure, enforced or not, to attend church. I can remember when if a family didn’t attend a worship service somewhere, it was noted and held against them. Aside from hard core Evangelical circles where that is still enforced, I’m thinking the natural rhythm of most “believers” today probably sorts out to going to church more or less like those honest Amish. Three times a month for the super committed, once a month for the slackers, twice a month as the new norm. I don’t have a problem with that unless you are still trying to run your church on the 20th century model. Which most apparently are. I wish I lived around Christiane’s realistic thinking schools and Christian meetings, “meetings” being what “church” meant back in the beginning.

        • >>If attending church has become work, something has gone wrong, terribly wrong.

          BTW, I didn’t mean that as a dig against you, just an attempt to scratch under the surface. I’m sure you’re not alone in your feelings.