May 24, 2017

Julie Neidlinger’s Real Voice: The Internet Monk Interview

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.:


http://www.loneprairie.net/lp_studies/labels/relationships.htm

http://www.loneprairie.net/lp_studies/labels/marriage.htm

http://www.loneprairie.net/lp_blog/labels/relationships.html

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.

Comments

  1. Anyone who thinks this thread isn’t going to closely moderated should think again. All comments are on hold until I OK them, and I won’t come close to publishing anything that’s not constructive.

  2. One of the insights in Julie’s original post which didn’t get as much commentary consisted in her observations about church singles groups and, in general, the seeming obsession of the Evangelical church on marital status. I’m married, but it wasn’t so long ago that I was single and going through these same sorts of singles groups and hearing talk from the pulpit (the PULPIT!) about “get a life, seek a wife”. Although I’m not in Julie’s shoes now as regards my marital status, I really think she deserves a lot of credit for bringing this up and making us wonder why the church can’t seem to just let people be who they are, marriage-wise.

  3. As a UMC pastor for 32+ years, I can certainly agree with much of what Julie writes and has experienced. I wonder what to do in response. It seems that the gimmicks she mentions aren’t working, or are working for fewer and fewer people. Yet most churches continue to be “attractional,” as if shooting for relevance will work, if we just get it right this time. Like Julie said, I don’t buy the relevance game. But, again, I ask what do we do?

    In July, my wife and I attended a Russian Orthodox service in Auburn, New York, where her cousin’s husband is an archdeacon. I hadn’t been to an Orthodox service for many years. I came out thinking, among other things, that what most Protestants call “traditional worship” isn’t by a long shot. The Orthodox service focuses on worship of the holy God. Yes, Orthodoxy has many, many issues, as we all know, but the aim of the service is to worship God.

    That being said, agree or not, we still need some kind of connection or community. I’m not sure you’d find much more of that in Orthodoxy than in evangelicalism. I have read bloggers who suggest that we need the honesty and community often present in “12 Step” groups. Even better, in my opinion, might be a look at Life Together by Bonhoeffer.

    So, does that leave us with worship that is somewhat Orthodox in form and with 12 step-like community in some form? I’m asking, not prescribing because like Julie, I agree that something is very wrong, but have no solutions.

  4. One of the reasons I like Julie’s post very much is that she likes simple, traditional church for the right reasons.

    What’s grinding at her, and what grinds at so many of us isn’t the missional logic of being an outreaching church. It’s the incredible numb-skullness with which so many go about it. Treating people, dynamics, relationships, gifts, place and tradition as if all are disposal to satisfy the never ending appetite of some leaders for the “relevant.”

    Julie knows that relevant is a dog chasing his tail. Evangelicals do relevant very very badly, but guess what? They don’t know it. What they know is that there’s a crowd in the parking lot. A crowd of what, hearing what and doing what isn’t quite as clear.

    I am sure Julie would join me in blessing any church that is able to be what Christ wants it to be for those who need it.

    But I think the purveyors of the next big idea are not very concerned that Julie is going out the back door, and that’s a problem larger than Julie and the hemp necklaced preacher.

  5. I’m stunned and saddened that a real and critical look at the way we Christians present the church to the world would result in someone calling another’s looks “ugly”. How petty does a person have to be to resort to that kind of response? At what point does the comment “You’re ugly” actually respond to the critique offered?

    I hope that person repents out of genuine conviction and guilt.

  6. “I miss my own, small church, from back home. It’s filled with uncool, normal people who just want to help and talk and connect and be real and accountable to each other. It’s filled with people who want to go to the Dairy Queen after service and maybe have an ice cream cone.”

    Well said, Julie.

    Now church is the Dairy Queen, and we have to go outside the church to find spiritual formation.

    Her comment about youth orientation has been said many times, but she really got me thinking. My particular denomination confirms youth into adult responsibility for their own faith. This obsession with youth among evangelicals is almost a reversed or “anti” confirmation. Rather than welcoming youth into the world of adulthood, we teach a “Peter Pan” syndrome, that all of us should envy the immature and make it a goal in life to remain immature. This same attitude is creeping steadily into my denomination.

    But whether we help them or not, youth eventually grow up and shed childish things. Guess what will happen if they think church is just another vestige of youth?

    “But you’ve been told many times before
    Messiahs pointed to the door
    And no one had the guts to leave the temple.”
    – Pete Townshend

  7. Like the other UMC pastor, I too wonder what an appropriate response is to the concerns that Julie gave voice to in her original post. I have seen my current church devastated by many, many deaths (over 100 inless than seven years), and the pews are filled with only half as many people as they were when I first arrived. I have tried most of the things that have been recommended by the”church growth” experts, including starting modern worship service and strategic planning, but nothing I/we have done has made much of a difference.

    The sad fact is that out of the six churches I have pastored, I would attend only one of them if I was a lay person. I think I am a good preacher and decent pastor, but a church needs more than those things. First and foremost it needs people who are deeply in love with Jesus, and I just don’t see much evidence of that in most of the churches I have served. I think I have tried to instill this love in my capacity as a pastor, but so far I have not succeeded as far asI can tell.

    And all the while there are people like Julie who are looking for an authentic church community and a deeper relationship with Christ. What can my church with its rapidly declining resources do to reach them instead of worrying more about how to stop the decline? I wish I knew.

  8. Hi Michael,
    Here’s an email I received from a former pastor of the church I now pastor…he and part of his family came to visit here a few weeks ago and on Saturday he emailed the following note to me…I’m just venting – if you see any use in posting these comments that would be fine – if not, that’s obviously fine also (it’s probably best you don’t). I guess the bottom-line is that what Julie wrote and what you write resonate very deeply with me. I’m longing for authenticity over the “programs” and thrusts to put people in the church to work.
    Thank you for listening
    Dan

    Dear Dan,

    It was a joy visiting with you and the wonderful folks at _______ [Church].
    After the service, the K_____’s invited us over for dinner, and we had a chance to talk with them including J____ and T____.
    It does my heart good to see that the Word of God is being preached and that Christ is being lifted up at ____ [Church].
    You obviously have a sheperds heart for God’s people.
    J__ and T__ said that they were looking for a church to get involved in and to work with the youth. I encouraged them to consider [the church I – Dan – pastor], but of course the Lord may direct them elsewhere.
    Not only did I see the good things going on at ____ [church] as an outsider, but please allow me to share with you a few thoughts that may benefit the ministry there.
    As a visitor, it was apparent to me that ___ [church] was primarily for older folks, many of whom are retired. If I were to sum up what I thought the mission of ___ [church] was from my visit, I would say that you are specifically targeting older folks who are quite content to meet once a week for some singing and Bible teaching.
    I did not sense any interest or vision to reach the lost or the youth, or to disciple men and women, or to build up marriages and other family relationships.
    Perhaps these things are there and I just did not see or sense them. But if they are not, I would encourage you to consider what God would have for ___ [church] to do in these areas.
    Leadership always starts with the pastor, and flows from there to the deacons and then the congregation.
    I noticed in your bulletin that you do not have a nursery, but that you would provide one if someone asks. I doubt that a first time visitor would ask, and I doubt that they would come a second time if on their first visit they saw that ___ [church] did not have one.
    I can just tell you that proper childcare, and enthusiastic programs for youth are two of the most important things that young couples are looking for in a church, and they will keep looking until they find one that offers these things, at least on a very basic level.
    Again, my perception may be totally wrong, and I trust that it is, but if not, perhaps the Lord will use this letter to encourage you to carefully evaluate your ministry and to make whatever necessary changes that He directs you to do so.
    You have a good core of faithul folks who I believe will get behind you and work hard to make even a greater impact for Christ in the days that we have remaining, if you will lead them.
    I would be happy to discuss these things with you if I can be of any assistance, and I would likewise recommend Pastor P___ P____ at _____ [another local church] over in your neck of the woods as an excellent mentor and counselor.
    Thank you again for calling my son D___ and for inviting him over for a meal or to take part in a youth activity. He is actually a very good Bible teacher if you wanted to ask him to speak at a special youth or college event.
    Sincerely in Christian Love,
    T____ D____

    ———————————————————————-

    My initial response of 9/6/08 (not sent):
    Dear T___,
    It was good to see you and your family a few weeks ago as well. While I appreciate your constructive criticism, I must point out that you were here for only two hours…your surface observations may have some accuracy to them but your interpretation of what the Lord is not doing here I believe is amiss. I believe the Lord has us as a congregation at exactly the place He wants us for the present. I agree there is a good core of brothers and sisters in Christ here – they’re the best examples of Christlikeness I’ve ever personally known. Frankly I’m not interested in drawing young couples with a nursery and youth program – let them be drawn by God, His Son, His Spirit and His Word. What you draw people with you have to keep them with. If we have no resources in ourselves (and we don’t) in “getting them in” then we have to cast ourselves on the Lord God to do His work as we step out of the way and watch Him work for His own praise and glory. I am very interested in us as a congregation displaying the Lord Jesus Christ through our lives and serving as lights to the world and servants for our fellow believers. As I take your criticisms in prayer to the Lord, I will continue to labor in prayer and the Word in order, by God’s grace, to be the best I can be under Christ in building up my brothers and sisters in Christ for the work of ministry.
    May the Lord bless your labors in Him tomorrow,
    Dan

  9. I really like what Julie says in a couple of different places in the interview:
    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! (emphasis mine)

    And again here:
    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. (emphasis mine)

    After ten years in ministry, I’ve seen and have been a part of a lot of gimmicky things to “reach” people. I’ve been learning that me being hospitable and hanging out with other people is the most evangelistic thing I can do. After all, learning to love people is what Jesus has called us to and that’s a lot harder than passing out water bottles or being “relevant.” When all of a person’s time is spent working in church programs, there leaves little or no time for being with people. That seems to be a huge problem in many churches I’m familiar with.

    I appreciate Julie sharing some of her own struggles.

    Pax.

  10. A few months ago, “Books and Culture” had a great article on this whole issue of American Society in general not growing up.

    The picture on the front was great. It was of a young man, in a suit and tie with flames tattooed on his neck, a skateboard under his arm and Starbuck’s cup in his hand with a baby bottle lid on it instead of the ubiquitous white plastic cover.

    The trend that Julie describes so well is a nation-wide one.

    Check out Andy Crouch’s newest book “Culture Making, recovering our creative calling” In the book he speaks out against simply consuming the culture around us, but of being creative ourselves.

    Loved the illustration of the youth pastor and his trucker hats.

    I find this in being a teacher. The fastest way to lose your students is to try to “be cool” or worse “Be their friend”.

    My job and my calling is to be their teacher and their authority figure. I will require them to do things that they don’t care to do at times and they will do things that require that I discipline them at times.

    I truly appreciate and resonate with Julie’s points.

    I am not an artist, but I wish I were, and I appreciate the way that artists view the world in general.

    Keep up the good work, we need more of them in church. I would like to see more of them in my church.

  11. iMonk,
    Thank you for bringing Julie to my attention. I checked out her site last night after your first link and enjoyed it very much. I laughed and loved what I saw. At times she reminds me of my younger sister, who first made me realize the things that singles go through in churches obsessed with families. And her stuff about the prolonging of adolescence sounded like so many conversations that I have had with my sister about the singles group at the megachurch that she attends. I am pastoring a small church in Langdon, ND which is just up the road from her home base. I am blessed with a small congregation that loves each other and I get to stand at the back and shake everyone’s hand as they leave at the end of the service. I have only been a pastor for a year now, after spending 15 years working with youth, but the folks at the church are gracious in letting me learn and grow in ministry. The stuff that Dan mentioned in his letter is probably stuff that could be said about my church as well, but I think I am beyond worrying about it. I would love for the church to grow, but I am not wanting to be hip or “relevant” to try and achieve that goal. Thanks for the interview.

  12. Julie, you’ve given us believers a well-written, thoughtful piece on all that is wrong about the contemporary evangelical church in America, and we all should consider it a gift.

    We hear plenty about the pioneering church planters who are going to build great new churches of 10,000 or more for Jesus, armed with all of the knowledge they could absorb from Warren, Searcy, Catalyst, Maxwell, Acts 29, Morgan, Stevens, Meyer, Stetzer and anyone else who’s somebody in church planting and church leadership circles (iMonk, edit out the names if you prefer).

    But what about the people they’re attract? What about the ones who end up disheartened, hurt and angry because they just couldn’t be shoved into the evangelical mold?

    Julie, your observations on introverts, and on singles ministries, both really hit home for me. Fortunately I’ve found a place where I feel like I can fit in and participate despite my being an introvert, and there’s no division between singles and married couples – everyone is seen as people, each with valuable gifts to use in serving the church and the community. That also means this church has no meat market 🙂

    Stand tall, my sister – you have done well.

  13. I read Julie’s post and I was practically jumping up and down with excitement. She describes beautifully what drove me out 4 years ago. I’m a middle-aged professional married woman with a kid and I totally agree with the way she describes church set-up, along with all the age-group business. At one point, while I was still attending, I thought that if I saw one more person walk in with a coffee cup, either paper or travel mug, I was gonna throw up. And, yes, how frustrating is that cool Christian guy look?? Arrggh…

    I know that there were good things happening at that church and that this is all surface stuff but, like Julie, I found myself walking out more than once and going to visit with the people at the doughnut shop next door.

  14. Billy Belk says:

    “Now church is the Dairy Queen, and we have to go outside the church to find spiritual formation.”

    Ox, that’s what I call hitting the old proverbial nail on the head!

    BB

  15. her essay makes me just say “lex orandi lex credendi”, how we pray is how believe, our life of prayer in public that is in worship and privately is a reflection of our faith.

  16. Wow Julie!
    Thanks for keeping it real.
    I too am tired of gimmicks and trends.

    Here’s the line that resonated w/ me.
    “The children are removed from the boring main service for their benefit.”

    I’ve been struggling with the whole idea of spiritual formation lately. I’ve come to the conclusion that after growing up in church and being a “Christian” for over 20 years, I still know nothing.

    How do I help in the spiritual formation of my children when I’m not well formed spiritually myself? (This is a rhetorical question. I’m not asking for answers here.)

    (My church, to their credit, made a decision a few
    years ago to put the teenagers back in the main service. They haven’t fled the building yet. I digress.)

    I don’t think I could add anything more
    that wouldn’t just be a rehash of what
    I’ve read.

  17. Thanks for quoting me, iMonk! I’m both humbled and delighted.

    And, Julie: preach it fearlessly!

  18. We do need to keep in mind that all these gimmicks, frustrating though they are, are just our church leadership’s best attempts at relating to culture, something that, among evangelicals at least, seems to have been largely frowned upon as a whole. The frustration is certainly valid, but I don’t doubt that the hearts of those coming up with these ideas are sincere; they want to see lives changed by Christ, they just don’t have a clue how to do it. They’ve been sheltered, and now they’re giving it their best shot.

    I don’t think the solution is to drift away from the church, but to help the church do it right. Fix the problem rather than leaving it there to get worse. (To be clear, I’m not suggesting that anyone here is necessarily just giving up, simply that actually fixing the problem is what, in my opinion, needs to be done.)

  19. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    Everyone repeat after me:

    Nothing gets old faster than over-relevance.
    Except pretentious over-relevance.

    I think Chesterton said something similar, that in tying Christ to a particular style of a particular time, the church finds they have bound themselves to time and are doomed to become “old hat” once time passes on to a new style and time. The more “relevant” you try to become, the sooner you become “old-fashioned” and shunned by the new cool crowd.

    A few months ago, “Books and Culture” had a great article on this whole issue of American Society in general not growing up.

    The picture on the front was great. It was of a young man, in a suit and tie with flames tattooed on his neck, a skateboard under his arm and Starbuck’s cup in his hand with a baby bottle lid on it instead of the ubiquitous white plastic cover.

    As far back as I can remember, I have always been creeped out by adult actors in little-child roles. This is a real-life version of that vaudeville shtick, and just as creepy. As is the thirty- or forty-something youth-group leader badly imitating the style and slang and dress (and tats and piercings) of the kids in his charge.

    Tip: You are not in your teens. You do not need to dress or speak as if you were. And the teens can tell you’re not one of them. Show them a time and place and age outside of themselves, outside of the ‘burbs and skateboards and backwards caps and text-messaging that surrounds them.

  20. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    Cyoder, the same issue of Books & Culture contained this aside (in a review of the movie Idiocracy) about Mike Judge’s King of the Hill:

    Lead character Hank Hill holds down a blue-collar job in a Texas town, goes to church, and loves his family. He’s reflexively conservative, commonsensical, honest and honorable, and is weekly challenged to cope with friends and family who are anything but. When his 13-year-old son, Bobby, joins the earnestly hip youth group at church, Hank notes the leaders’ faddish dress, tattoos, and piercings. This is thrilling to Bobby, but Hank shows him a box full of his discarded childhood toys. He says, “Son, five years from now I don’t want to see you putting the Lord in this box.” No one except Hank Hill can say something like that on TV and make it sound reasonable.

  21. Wes,

    To fix the problem within the local church, requires power or influence. Those who leave via the back door, are the ones in the margins, without power, without influence. If we are introverted, we might not be able to attract others to help us.

    IF you are saying, first try to change things, before leaving, then I agree. But, there comes a point when you have to leave to save your own soul. That can be a very difficult thing to do.

  22. Julie’s input is great.

    The church is often doing the most uncool thing you can do: TRY and be cool. Other times it is just people learning to be themselves.

    I think Wes made a good point saying “They’ve been sheltered, and now they’re giving it their best shot.”

    Of course there are genuine jerks who are trying to work the system and who see people only as numbers, but I do think that a large amount of christians just don’t know how to be themselves and therefore always look like they are trying to be relevant when in fact they are mostly just testing the boundaries of how much they can be themselves. It is the backlash of fundamentalism (in whatever garb).

    I think part of the cure is really just good teaching and honesty. If we really know where the real boundaries are and get out of the habit of putting on a front in general, we would be comfortable with who we are.

  23. Responding to Pastor M’s suggestion that one wouldn’t find much community in Orthodoxy: I recently visited a nearby Orthodox Church in America parish that has a fellowship meal after every Sunday service. I visited their Saturday night vespers, and I found regular folks who were happy to sit and talk for hours about the Church and the Christ they loved. I almost converted right there.

    But I am a Protestant pastor, blessed to be part of a church where people love to meet at Dairy Queen after Sun. night activities. (No joke.) We are growing numerically, and we are tempted to be suckered into the program church model. Luckily, I am too unorganized to get it off the ground. One leader in the church was really talking it up, that we need more programs. I asked him how he got so involved in the congregation. He mentioned that there were some couples years ago who invited him and his wife over to one of their houses to play cards.

    I believe that churches like the one Julie misses from her hometown are everywhere. It’s like that line from the Gospel of Thomas, about how “the kingdom of God is spread out upon the earth, but people do not see it.”

  24. Julie’s article hit a lot of nails on the head.

    I’m in a different life stage (45, male and married with two teenagers) but have experienced many of the same things and am mostly staying away from church at the moment, largely because they have split into three age-divided services and are lurching once again from one “exciting” (why do they all have to be exciting?) program model to another (the latest being “life groups”).

    My wife and I are both mature Christians. I grew up as an MK and have a Masters in Theology. We don’t expect perfection in any church. But it’s clear what many are doing just isn’t working.

    I watched all this happen for more than two years as I taught a small SS class of adults that slowly became a community, and really the only reason we went to church. We went largely unnoticed and never got support or direction of any kind from any of the pastors, save one who sat in on the class once. I joked that we were the church outcasts and misfits, but I think we were the church for those who came. Unfortunately, no one else was able to lead the class consistently (a lack of leadership development is one of the results of the program-driven and generationally divided approach that strives for relevance). I took a break from teaching for the summer and the class has fizzled. I’m not sure I have the energy or will to re-start it.

    Similar dynamics happened with the youth programs, which didn’t challenge my kids, either.

    I want to find a place and people that strive to preach and live the Word in community. I believe that when we seek first God’s kingdom, relevance is one of all these things he will add, though it will be of a different, and greater, type than the latest fad. If we seek first to be relevant, we won’t be even that.

  25. Michael, thanks for putting up this post. Julie’s article was great and I find myself having some of the same thoughts about the contemporary church. She has several other articles on her site that are really good.

  26. There’s so much good stuff in this interview and the original post. As a fellow shy, introverted artistic-type, I can seriously dig her admission that her inability to fit in is a part of the problem. That’s been a battle I’ve been fighting for the last year or so as I’ve been halfheartedly trying to find a new church.

    At my old church, I’d been seriously frustrated for years as I constantly saw myself and other “lay leaders” being sucked dry just so that the machine of the church could keep running. Eventually, I realized that I just couldn’t take dying on the vine anymore and had to bail. The worst part about it manifested in the meeting I had with the church elders to tell them I was leaving. I was the leader of the praise band, and I told them I didn’t want to go through another season of the fall holy days, ‘cuz putting on a big show for the holy days was the #1 thing that was spiritually killing me. They begged and insisted that I stay on through the Fall Feasts. My spiritual needs didn’t matter as much as keeping the Big Show going. I think it’ll take a long time for me to not have a bit of bitterness over that.

    One more thing: regarding the family-focus issue, here’s a funny story. When I served as a deacon at my old church I was the only single among them. In fact, I think I was the only single EVER to serve as a deacon in that church. In our elder/deacon meetings, inevitably someone would pray that God would send me a wife, much to my annoyance. One meeting after the prayer, one of the elders said, “You know, I think the only person not bothered by [Obed’s] singleness is [Obed]!” Everybody laughed and acknowledged that it was silly for everyone but me to be so worried about me getting a wife. But they still prayed for it every meeting…

  27. Tom Schwegler says:

    The present-day attractional churches seem to be doing their best to live by the motto, “A youth group for every age group.” As more and more churches emulate them, it becomes harder to find a place where one feels encouraged to be a grownup.

    Ironically, as Will Humes implies, the attractional gimmicks are starting to run their course. There simply aren’t enough interested youth and young families to pack every church which is presently trying to attract them, and many churches are turning themselves upside down to draw in people who have already been drawn elsewhere. In essence, they are driving away serious believers like Julie for little or nothing in return. That’s pretty sad.

  28. I really loved Julie’s post, and thought her both brave and honest for saying it. I felt quite a tug reading it because it expressed so much of what I’d felt although in different circumstances in a different church.

    I eventually found my spiritual home in monasticism, because (and I realised this only once I’d found it) what I was looking for was an authentic, lived faith in which church was but one expression. I can tolerate the idiosyncrasies of my parish church because it’s not my spiritual home. Don’t misunderstand that: it’s still a very important part of my life, but it’s not where my heart finds nourishment. That’s the monastery.

    If it’s what she’s looking for, I hope Julie finds a spiritual home that feels ‘right’ to her.

  29. I loved Julie’s article. I read it, and saw many of the things that ultimately pushed me out of a traditional church and into the arms of Quakerism.

    Last spring, I was forced to go to church with my now ex-boyfriend and his father. The church was having the grand-opening of their new multi-million dollar building, and the whole service was dedicated to, “Aren’t we wonderful and cool?” But, I could barely pay any attention to the sermon because I was so distracted/stumbled by the presence of a two story slide in the “children’s zone.” I kept looking at the thing thinking 1) It’s a lawsuit waiting to happen. 2) For what they spent on just that slide, they could have paid the rent of a needy family for 6 months, bought groceries for a needy family for a year, or established a college fund for church youth who want to go into ministry (Bible college). But, no, they somehow think a two story slide is going to win young souls for Jesus. My meeting meets in an old converted wash house on a farm. Guess what? God is still there. Actually, God is more real/present to me there than He had been for a very long time in a traditional church.

    A single – never married – woman is a pariah in a traditional church. After I crossed my 30th birthday people started thinking (and sometimes saying) there must be something wrong with me that I haven’t caught a husband yet. They started praying out loud – in church – for me to get a husband. But, I couldn’t get within ten feet of a man without the whole church having to stop and take notice of the fact. I really started to feel like I would have been less of an object of curiosity/pity/outright derision if I had been married and gotten divorced.

    And, don’t even get me started on this culture that encourages worthlessness in men. 1 Timothy 5:8 says that a man who doesn’t work to provide for his family is worse than an unbeliever. But, I’ve seen several instances over the last twenty years of men in church who didn’t work. Who let their wives support them, and not only did the church not put them on the carpet for this behavior, they were allowed to hold positions of authority in the church!

  30. I find it interesting that this kind of post is still causing such a flurry on the internet. I’ve had these conversations for over a decade about perceived relevance, forced and encouraged adolescence, and the cultural trappings of North American based christian expressions.

    Off the top of my head, I can count dozens of my friends, acquaintances, and family who no longer have anything to do with churches of many kinds. They are women and men, older and young, some who arrived at and some who grew up in the church. Many of them, including myself, were church employess at one point.

    I guess I am surprised at how these issues are considered controversial. Unless you spend all your time in a church and with its business, walking away and staying away does not surprise me. These stories are now so widespread that they are now the norm and the stories I hear of people staying are becoming more rare.

  31. Dan,

    I didn’t know God employed mystery shoppers.

    I wonder if it’s a paid-by-critique position, hourly, or simply entitles the critique-er to an upgrade of premium communion bread and wine instead of crackers and grape juice.

    Seriously though…that e-mail is just so sad,

  32. I think it’s fascinating that Julie seems to be at the same place many who are part of the “Emerging” church movement are. Dan Kimball, et al.’s book title pretty well says it: _The Emerging Church: Vintage Christianity for New Generations_. The book _Blue Like Jazz: Non-religious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality_ is along the same lines.

    If you weren’t aware of these types of sentiments and you’re in ministry or in church work, you’ve had your head in the sand.

    This is not exactly quoted, but is one of my favorite statements in Kimball’s book (quoting a churchgoer): “When I meet a Buddhist monk, I meet a holy man; when I meet a Christian pastor, I meet a good businessman.” Ouch!

  33. Christopher Lake says:

    Bob,

    I agree with the churchgoer whom you quoted that too many Christian pastors (especially in America) could possibly be better described as “good businessmen” than “holy men.” I say that carefully and obviously without certainty, not knowing these pastors’ hearts as God does.

    However, in whose economy is a Buddhist monk truly a “holy man”? Do Buddhists worship the true God of the Bible? The Bible would seem to say no, as one must know the true God that revealed Himself to first to Israel, and later to the world, in the Person of Jesus Christ. One must *know* this one true God in order to be able to *worship* Him in holiness.

  34. I recently subscribed to your podcasts. I thought this was a very good discussion. If this is the usual quality, I’ll be a long time subscriber.