“Yup, all by myself,” he replied.
“Then why are there three buildings?”
“Oh, that’s easy,” the man said. “That one there is my house, and that’s my church.”
“And the third one?”
“That’s where I USED to go to church.”
Christianity, in these denominational days, is a pretty active affair. Born Catholic? Move on to a more enthusiastic group. Born Evangelical? Seek for the tradition you’re lacking. Born Orthodox? Boy, that Quaker simplicity looks good. Wait, Quakers don’t have sacraments? Back to the Catholics. And so it goes.
We’ve spent some virtual ink on iMonk talking about particular moves, from evangelicalism to Lutheran or Catholic churches. But let’s talk about the phenomenon of moving itself, since it seems that American Christians are moving from and to every denomination. Should people move? That might depend on why they’re moving. What’s important enough to move for or to stay for? I’ll toss out some of my ideas, but I’d be interested in hearing from the wider iMonastery, too.
People change churches, it seems to me,
- Because their church has changed. They want to find or recover what they see as genuine Christianity. Maybe their denomination begins teaching that Jesus was an alien and the ascension was him being beamed up to the mother ship. More realistically, some have left denominations that used to say that abortion was wrong but now are willing to allow it – or birth control, homosexuality, or ordination of women. Some took off when churches scrapped the hymnal and started projecting choruses on giant screens, while others left in disgust when hymnals were reintroduced.
- In response to their own growth or change. Here the church hasn’t changed, but people have. As they’ve matured in their faith, they are looking for more challenging spiritual disciplines or a more liberal and loving attitude toward sinners; for more scripture, or more sacrament. Of course, from someone else’s point of view, those same people might be backsliding into legalism or antinomianism and are abandoning the truth they were raised in.
- To find certain settings and programs that are important to them. A lot of people find, for example, that the church that suited them when they were single isn’t as satisfying when they have two little kids. People look around for different Sunday schools, youth groups, music styles, and architecture. They may not change denominations for this reason, but they certainly change congregations.
- To follow a personality, such as a famous preacher, or to follow a political or social agenda that has become more important to them.
- Because of family pressure. They marry someone from another church and agree to go there instead, or they follow their grown child to the church he attends.
- For personal reasons. People have been disappointed, offended, or abused at churches. They’ve gotten divorced and can’t stand to stay where their ex is. They want to sing solos or be the worship leader but aren’t asked to. Someone else takes over the rummage sale that they’ve run since 1957.
Are some of these good reasons? Are some of them insufficient to justify so major a change? That’s a hard call. We could probably agree that alien theology would be a good reason to leave a denomination, and abuse would be a great reason to leave a congregation. Maybe having a snit about the rummage sale isn’t. I expect, though, that there are people reading this who have left for most of the reasons on this list and felt happy and justified to do so.
As you know, my family and I joined the Catholic Church several years ago. Over my lifetime I was baptized and confirmed Anglican, became a member of a Quaker meeting, attended a Methodist then an evangelical church with my husband, and finally, after several years in the wilderness, crossed the Tiber. I felt I had good reasons for all those changes at the time, especially for the most recent. My reasons for moving in the past included a feeling that both a denomination (Anglicanism) and a congregation (evangelical) had changed around me to the point where I couldn’t subscribe to them any longer; also family pressure, or finding a church where my husband and I were both happy. They included personal change – when after a lengthy spiritual crisis I once again believed that Jesus was the Son of God, I couldn’t stay with the East-Coast Quakers who were essentially not Christian. (I’m not maligning them – they told me so themselves.) I had some bad reasons for moving, too – boredom, instability of life, even unacknowledged sin. Only God knows which of these prevailed in each case.
As I look at why I joined the Catholic Church, I can draw up my list of essentials for corporate faith. This list would not have looked the same had I made it in my twenties, but I think it would have in every other decade of my live, including my teens. I expect all of these things can be found in places other than the Catholic Church, but I didn’t find them anywhere else.
Damaris’ Essentials for Attending Church:
- Worship is liturgical, focused on God and not on my experience, and preserves some of the mystery and holiness appropriate to the meeting of humankind with God.
- There is a historical foundation that encompasses all the centuries of Christianity. I’m not saying I have to approve of or rejoice in all of that history, but it needs to be acknowledged in an act of simple human intelligence and out of respect for our fathers and mothers in the faith.
- I look for orthodoxy of belief. This is a hard one to define, and I’m aware that I have biases and blind spots. But the creeds, the centrality of the Bible, and the Vincentian canon (quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est, or what is believed everywhere, always, and by everyone) form a good starting place. True orthodoxy should, it seems to me, also involve some mystery and discomfort. If it doesn’t, then I’m probably worshiping a self-sized god.
- I want to be preserved from cults of personality and random changes of belief and practice.
- I want a combination of sound and silence, company and loneliness – and I want to be free from being forced into extrovert-designed, group-think worship behavior.
Things that are important but not essential to me are the quality of the music or art (but that there be some is important – I’m not an iconoclast), depth of preaching and teaching, the warmth of fellowship, or a perfect match with my culture. And I really don’t care about programs. (Honestly, I was surprised that I considered some of these inessential, but judging by my contentment with only a meager amount of them, I guess I do.)
So here I am now. I plan to stay here. You wouldn’t think, looking at my life, that there’s much chance of my doing that. Until eight years ago, I moved every few years and had lived on four continents. I’ve moved so much I’ve almost never cleaned an oven. I loved the travel and the challenge of learning to survive in other cultures. Now, though, the culture I need to learn to survive in is my own; I need to practice the Benedictine discipline of stability. When we came back from Central Asia in 2005, I prayed, as I had never prayed before, to be content to stay. God is answering that prayer in all aspects of my life, first in my home and now in my church.
So rather than just asking why move, I ask why stay? It’s true that no denomination or congregation is perfect, and we are always changing. People will offend and mistreat us, churches will not satisfy our needs for growth or comfort, and family members may want to go somewhere else. Sometimes we will have to move. But what do we do once we’ve moved? What virtue is there in staying? We’d better ask ourselves that question if we ever intend to settle and not be eternal nomads.
The Virtues of Staying:
- Loyalty. Stay out of loyalty to the denomination that welcomed you into the faith, to the congregation that put up with you over the years, to the family that raised you that way, even to the building that the church occupies. Not all Americans value loyalty highly, especially given the feuding or stagnation that it can lead to in sinful people. But it is a beautiful virtue, worth much.
- Humility. This involves entertaining the possibility that how I perceive things and how I feel about things may not be the ultimate truth of the matter, and that I might trust others to guide me. Ouch. That’s a scary one.
- Wisdom. The understanding of the broad picture, combined with patience and a sense of humor, allows us to weather with grace the changes of the world around us. Ultimately this is a sense of perspective, even the beginning of being able to see with God’s eyes.
So tell me, iMonks, in the classic words of The Clash, should we stay or should we go? What’s the balance between the virtues of seeking and stability? When do we do one, and when the other? Let us reason together.