My guest today is Julie Neidlinger, who blogs at loneprairie.net and recently wrote a very honest and controversial post called “Why I Walked Out of Church.” That post has been discussed all around the blogosphere over the past month. I’m assuming you’ve read that post before you read this interview, otherwise you’ll be in the dark.
First, a bit of a bio from Julie’s website.
“Julie R. Neidlinger is both a writer and a visual artist. She writes, she paints, and she photographs — but no matter what medium she chooses, she excels in finding and describing the universal themes that connect North Dakota to the larger, outside world. She has written for a small newspaper, but she is probably best known as the voice of Lone Prairie, a hugely popular website and blog that ranked as one of the top 400 blogs in the “TruthLaidBear” ecosystem at one time. She lives on a farm near Hampden, N.D., and she has a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from Moorhead State University.”
Over at Thinklings.org, “Mad Minerva” wrote the following comment about Julie’s post. I thought it said everything I wanted to say, only better.
If I may. I don’t claim to speak for Julie (she speaks beautifully for herself), but here is a thought. On this thread, it seems that a large number of men are parsing/discussing a single woman’s frustrations with a certain form of big-church evangelicalism, and maybe it’d be useful to have a girl jump into the mix too.
OK, some issues (faux coolness, the overprioritization of “hipness,” the fundamental problem about honesty versus a happy-clappy version of Christian subculture, Joel Osteenism, etc.) are applicable to everybody who’s frustrated or distressed with the current state of evangelicalism’s goofy edges…
One last thing: Julie’s post and mine are honest expressions from real people. We’re also not alone. I have ever increasing numbers of friends, good believing people, who are growing frustrated with evangelical church culture. There really is a problem in the heart of the contemporary church, and it can’t be explained away, though naturally it’s easier to criticize the critic than look at the merits of his/her actual critique.
Anyway, we’re all in deep trouble if a fellow Christian gives a heartfelt attempt to express herself, pain and all, and some people’s response is to take issue with that honesty and perhaps ascribe bitterness, etc. to it. Frankly, a little honesty, even if it’s messy, even if it makes you uncomfortable, is refreshing in this slick little modern church world. Besides, if the church can’t handle critiques from some concerned and alienated believers, how is ever going to connect with nonbelievers? A while back, the venerable iMonk wrote a piece on the idea of “why do they hate us?” and I think part of it is relevant here too in relation to alienated believers who leave the church not because they no longer believe, but because — in one of the great ironies — the “church thing” has itself become an impediment.
It’s great to have you at IM today, Julie. I look forward to the IM audience getting to know you and your work.
1. Can you give the IM audience a brief description of yourself, your bio and where you were/are in life and Christian experience when you wrote “Why I Walked Out of Church?”
I’m an artist and writer from North Dakota with a “colorful” history of jobs to support that. I’ve been blogging since about 2002, and sell my art, as well as work with graphic design customers, via my website (www.loneprairie.net). I live on a farm in the northern part of the state, though I am currently in Bismarck taking flying lessons. I’ve been involved in my home church (which is about 30 miles away from my home) my entire life and have been the piano player for about eight years as well as one of the sub teachers for the adult Sunday School class. It’s a small Assembly of God church. I’ve been active in going to Nicaragua for about six years, working with the same people and church on various projects (farm, church, construction, etc.) A number of people know me through my various blogs, but in reality, that is only one part of my personality; I am extremely introverted which does not come through in my writing. My Christian walk, right now, could be described as “desperate.” Desperate for direction, for reality, for what’s real, for less BS, and mainly, for Jesus. Desperate that I’ve been holding onto a fake version of what should have been real. Desperate to stop with head only and emotion only and get to the core. I’ve gotten to the point where, growing up in the church and attending the camps and all the regular things people do in my situation, that I absolutely can’t stomach yet another gimmick, emotional frenzy, trend, program — anything that seems like a stand-in for something real.
2. It’s been a little over a month since you wrote “Why I Walked Out of Church.” Tell our audience about the responses and comments you’ve received.
Most of the direct emails that I’ve received have been positive. A few have been unnerving in that they were little more than “date me” kind of emails. Some were in disagreement. Most of the disagreement, though, can be seen in the comments sections of the various blogs that linked to the post. I’ve stopped visiting them all because there are now too many and, frankly, I became tired. I didn’t think my post was so tricky to understand, yet I found that people seemed to pick their pet ideology out of it and run with that. For example, a lot of people really went off on the clothing/flip flop/coffee issue, including the pastor from the World Magazine article. Every time I read these comments I go back to my post to see if I said that, and I do not see where the confusion comes from. Often, I’m amazed at the interpretations I’ve seen so far, and how very diverse “sides” take up the banner of what I said and say I was speaking for them. I ended up writing about three or more posts to try to explain what I was and was not saying, but it really made no difference. I even found myself being asked what my thoughts on wearing jeans to church were. I found that ridiculous, that the entire post was being made so petty. I also found a lot of “circling the wagons”, so to speak, as people rose up to defend their pastor if they felt I was describing him in dress, etc. Again, the post was really not about that, though it was the part that seemed to get quoted on blogs the most. I discovered that a lot of people probably didn’t read the original post and ran with comments that made a lot of assumptions based on small clips found on blogs.
Of course, there were some people who made comments about my being single being based on my appearance, that I was a bitter/angry woman, or that I’d just been left to age by time and upset about it…things like that. I found it to be personally insulting, but more than that, disappointing. People seemed to have turned the post into a way to talk about me personally as a way to not attempt to talk about what I was discussing. And some couldn’t get past my use of language. I addressed these points in separate blog posts.
I am still getting emails. I’m about as worn out by the supportive ones as the non-supporitive ones. I don’t really have much to say about it anymore, and I don’t want to fall into the trap of desiring some kind of “amen chorus” for my take on an issue. I did close the comments on the post after only 40 because I just didn’t want to deal with babysitting it while I was in the midst of studying. People found ways to leave comments on other posts, anyway.
3. When I read this post, I felt like I was listening to a voice representing a lot of people; especially young professionals, single, women, people with intelligence and a desire to not waste their lives. Do you feel you are alone in what you felt or are there a lot more “Julies” reaching the limit of tolerating evangelicalism?
Because the post came from a couple of coinciding “last straws” (the incident at the church and the cover of the magazine), it came off as a rant, or mere temporary anger, overblown from two minor sources. However, it was from something much deeper and that had been growing. There is nothing more disgusting, distasteful, and guilt-ridden than being only required to “just show up.” Sure, churches have programs and such, and want people to volunteer for their “ministries” but the problem is not solved. Busy work does not touch the core issue. Instead, for example (and I’m using the church I mentioned in the post again), of having people come to put wrappers on water bottles to hand out at a parade so people know where the church is and what it’s about, I would like the church to save the money and time and tell those people to get involved in their local community theater or join a club or something totally unrelated to the church whatsoever — let them be the message. Because all these programs are little more than placations that I can see me easily falling into and getting rid of very necessary pricks from the Holy Spirit wanting me to do so much more than hang around my Christian buddies and wrap water bottles to hand out and say “I’m evangelizing!” I know it would be so easy to fall into the comfort of church safety and ease some guilt with these programs and feel sincere, and so I have to run from it, screaming, and hollering about what it is. Frankly, I’m evangelizing this summer by just living. In fact, the less I’m involved in church programs and groups, the more I’m forced to be around those not in church. Being friends. Talking. Joking. Learning. The church is my body, and I need it and want to be with them regularly. But I don’t want it to end up like incest, so I simply must not switch my focus on all things church. Church groups, church homeschooling, church parties, church this that and the other. No. Be light. Out where it’s dark. Just live and be church where and what you live!
It very much feels like a waste, this feeble inward body of safety. A waste and a cheap alternative that’s safe.
4. What is it about the quest for relevance, especially as you see it in your experience, that is completely missing people like you? Why aren’t you drawn in by the flip flops and the Starbucks?
Relevance doesn’t exist, in my mind. Once something has been officially recognized as relevant, it’s already passed if it ever was, truly, relevant. It was likely just a taste or a fancy or a trend. A few years ago, I think, I made a joke on my site about it, along the lines of what does a youth pastor do when the trucker hats he ordered that he based the current ministry season on finally arrive, and the style has passed? It sounds lame here, but the idea is what I said: when you finally grasp relevance, it’s too late. Relevance is never a reliable engine for anything. It’s only an anchor. You can’t be relevant by trying to be relevant; you’re already on the back of the power curve. What is relevant is what is not recognized but what is an undercurrent. It’s gut-level real and honest and people are wanting it; God is, frankly, relevant. Always has been. That’s what’s disgusting: we wrap up the real relevant thing in trend. Most of what is truly relevant is too deep and real and powerful to be market as relevant. If you can push “relevant” on a set group of people, it isn’t relevant. It’s a system or a trend or kitsch. And it is absolutely going to be abhorrent to anyone who wants something deeper in life than mere branding or shallow “I belong to this labeled group.”
Essentially, any church that sets itself up to be relevant and cool (and here’s where I get the guff about “my pastor dresses like that but has a good heart” and other examples…) whether on purpose or unintentionally (based on good intentions of reaching the masses) has said this: I will go for the lowest common denominator and hope that you believe the message I have is of the highest quality.
It’s sickening. The two cannot exist.
5. How does your vocation as an artist affect the way you experience worship?
Our small church has the generally conceived idea of worship service, and I don’t have a problem with it. I believe, as in my case, that we mean it from the heart. I also see it as a way of connecting with the others in the body on a horizontal level as we lift our prayers and voices to a hierarchic level. I do, however, have a concept of worship that I find becomes part of the day, such as when I’m out running and praying and the road seems to fly under my feet. Worship is this constant thing in life, a perpetual motion machine that propels me towards God. When my work, my life, my heart ceases to worship, I stop moving and stagnate. I find “motion” in things like rules and empty tradition and busy work. Again, having things “tagged” as being worship allows me to be an observer, to be safe, to get rid of some guilt without doing what God is really wanting — that kind of thing. Worship isn’t a set time and series of traditions, but is, instead, a way of perpetually bowing at the altar. The sacrifice at the altar might be one of time, of talent, of patience, of accepting a no for an answer… As an artist and writer, I find the admonishment to use my gift’s for God’s Kingdom to be right and true, but I actually think that means it should be done outside of the church. Take light where it is dark. So I’m less interested in finding ways to use my art or music or writing to benefit the church on a level of continuous gluttonous spiritual entertainment and enrichment, but of taking it out to shine in the world.
6. Someone might read your post and say you sound homesick for a kind of church experience many of us will never find again. How are you responding to this experience in a way that won’t have you walking out the door again at another church?
Certainly, it is difficult for an introverted and shy person like myself to fit in. This has been the story of my life and I’m not unaware of it nor do I discount that it plays into this. I do make note of that in the post, that I blame my own inability to fit in as part of the issue. (There is also a part of me that rebels at “fitting in” since I see it as a kind of compromise on certain levels). I also wrote that there are many people like me and that by just responding with “those people will never fit in” (which many commenters essentially did), the point is missed. My point was, in this case, that people LIKE ME are not “fititng in” and if you aren’t bothered by that, then fine. But if you want to know why such people are leaving, why they aren’t “fitting in”, why the church is anything but a body to them… then this was the post to read.
I do hate to see what I wrote as being written of as mere homesickness for my home church, though that was a common theme as well. I did have experience with the mega-church model in college. I would joke that the large A/G church I attended was so huge, I could die, roll under the pew, and not be found for weeks. I attended that church for four years. I was constantly being asked if I was a visitor. Certainly, the larger church model has these issues, as I mentioned in the blog post. I always felt that the larger the church, the less accountable I had to be. I could do anything, frankly, and no one would really know what I was doing. As long as I showed up like some anonymous person on Sunday I could get a little absolution and head out my merry way for the week. Certainly, this would be a wrong attitude, but it is easy to fall into it and can explain a certain lethargy of ideas, theology, beliefs, and dedication found in the church today (“I can do and believe anything I want to because no one will really hold me to account”). At my small church, if I walk in and my expression is amiss, people ask what’s wrong. They ask how I am. They ask and pry and care and pray and encourage and even hug, mainly, and that’s the key. So…here, in Bismarck, I’ve started attending a smaller church. I tried a kind of Bible Study/Non-Traditional church, but it didn’t work with my lessons and really, I’m not against the church model as we know it. Humans will always form tradition, which is a way of using habit and familiarity to stay on course and understand something way outside our realm. What I’m questioning, then, is not the model (there are plenty of interesting discussions on that), but how we handle relationships and the body as made up of real people and wondering if a monster-size church with expansion plans is really little more than Manifest Destiny for the church as a non-taxed organization with a lot of brick and mortar.
Do you know what I like about a small church? Such a little, silly thing…the pastor who shakes your hand at the back door as you leave. The fact that it is a possibility. Here is the shepherd, in direct contact with the sheep.
7. Julie, it’s been an honor to talk with you and I hope all our readers will connect with your blog. You sound like iMonk 2.0 and thousands of IM readers know exactly what it feels like to want to go out the door of contemporary evangelicalism.
Here’s my last question: You made some very provocative comments in the post about how evangelicalism has affected male-female relationships, especially in the area of maturity and readiness for serious commitment. Can you comment some more on that topic. (I’m sure there’s a lot of interest.)
I’m hesitant to talk about this because everytime I do, I get replies back that are either insulting (you’re ugly, you’re bitter, you’re old, you’re just looking for validation, blah blah blah) so that what I’ve said can be written off, or assumptive (generally, they quote Paul and tell me how lucky I am to be single, or they try to tell me they understand) which is essentially a person being patronizing without trying to hear. Not to plug my own site, but I have said so much on this topic in a few places that I would have you read it if you are interested instead of me rehashing all of it.:
These are posts that vary in tone (written in thoughtful moments, hurt moments, angry moments, from good and painful experiences) and conclusion, but I do say a lot there that may be of interest.
In general, though, I am saddened by the Evangelical push to for convenience, though it isn’t termed that way: We tell youth to wait until they are older to marry, encourage youth to be “individuals” and be “unique”, tell them to pursue THEIR dreams, tell them to follow God’s will, tell them that being single is a higher calling, and tell them to make exacting lists of what they want in a mate. These encourage prolonging of…youth. Not maturity. Not responsibility. We then top this off by pushing abstinence until marriage, use of birth control when married (a kind of unspoken pressure), and a “focus on the family.” It’s a completely schizophrenic message. It’s often wrapped in a lot of God-talk (“focusing on ministry” or “pursuing missions” or “finding God’s direction”). It absolutely makes no sense and leaves us with aging single women who are over-thinking every moment and everything that’s ever happenend in their lives to the point of almost being relationally paralyzed, and it leaves us with guys still in the youth group culture. All these church groups delineated by age and current circumstances in life absolutely do not encourage a change from that! They merely allow us to permanently be locked in a particular generation as well as use the group as our replacement for a close relationship. This is such a summary of so much that I am trying to say that I worry it would be better to not leave it at this. However, it gives you an idea of where I’m coming from, and the various places I’ve found myself as I wrote the posts I linked to above.
For the record, I am not looking for validation. I am not really all that old, nor am I bitter. I do have some anger, but so do most of us. It’s a kind of anger stemming from something struggling to get out, which is what I attempted to do in the blog post that started all of this.