Pew Research says the Church in America is dying.1
Barna, in an earlier research project, says kids (and what demographic adds more life to the church?) are leaving the church in droves, starting at age 15.2
Lifeway Research says they’re not leaving for good, but they’re definitely on hiatus.3
Rachel Held Evans’ best-seller, Searching For Sunday, gives a millennial voice to an entire generation of young church-leavers.4
I’ve read RHE’s book and found it fascinating, actually. So much in it resonated with me. Before I ever knew Rachel’s story I was already in the mode of moving from contemporary-for-the-sake-of-relevance liturgy to a more ancient or apostolic liturgy. The symbols of the sacraments were no longer just that to my seeking heart. They have become a deeper reality, a more meaningful expression of community worship. They are alive and effectual. Churches I’ve grown up in treated baptism and the Lord’s Table with the same passion as a quarterly church business meeting – which is the frequency by which they were observed, sadly. No, I’m not looking for robes and mitres and censers. But I’d like less emphasis on the band, the preacher’s hipness, the synchronized lights and (in some cases) the fog machine.
Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t a diatribe against contemporariness (if that’s a word; auto-correct doesn’t think so). I’m just aching for something closer to the root of our apostolic faith, not dangling out on the end of some flimsy branch.
Barely a chapter in, I was already tweeting Rachel and thanked her for her reverent treatment of the sacrament of baptism. I verbalized that she and I might differ on some other matters (which we do, most assuredly), but she’s my sister and I celebrate her. This may be neither here nor there, but she replied to my tweet. Graciously. And she has at other times too. It speaks well of a well-known personality that they would respond to a lesser-known nobody like me. I’ve found it rare on social media.
But, I’m off topic. We’re talking about you, not me.
So you’re fed up with church. You’re moving dangerously in the direction of thinking you can get on without her. Think again.
Oh, I get your angst. I know when you do the whole church, steeple, open the doors and wiggle your fingers thing, everything up to the fingers is okay. It’s the people that stop you in your tracks. Yes, churches contain mean people, judgmental people, hypocrisy and opulence at the expense of your community’s poor. No argument here.
Modern church experience can be akin to the “before” picture of a weight-loss ad. Nothing to get excited about there; more to be disgusted with to be sure. But give it time. If your only church experience has been a “before” picture, switch magazines – or gyms! But you yourself need the running track, the ellipticals, the Zumba class, and the stair master too.
Why? Because you’re a walking “before” advertisement also.
Don’t leave the church. For all her faults, she is still the receptacle and conduit of hope and truth to the fallen world. For the love of all that’s good and holy, find a thriving community of faith and cleave to it, whatever expression. Just make sure the sacraments and elements of Acts 2:42 (and baptism!) are in play there.
Let me close out this post with some articulate thoughts from Barbara Brown Taylor which Rachel Held Evans uses to close out her highly readable book. Okay, okay, settle down. Easy now. I make no apologies for quoting from two progressively-inclined women in Christianity. They are my/our sisters (which makes me happy) and both make helpful points here. Barbara first:
Whether you are sick or well, lovely or irregular, there comes a time when it is vitally important to your spiritual health to drop your clothes, look in the mirror, and say, ‘Here I am. This is the body-like-no-other that my life has shaped. I live here. This is my soul’s address. After you have taken a good look around, you may decide that there is a lot to be thankful for, all things considered. Bodies take real beatings. That they heal from most things is an underrated miracle. That they give birth is beyond reckoning.
When I do this, I generally decide that it is time to do a better job of wearing my skin with gratitude instead of loathing.5
After which RHE flips the mirror:
This is the church. Here she is. Lovely, irregular, sometimes sick and sometimes well. This is the body-like-no-other that God has shaped and placed in the world. Jesus lives here; this is his soul’s address. There is a lot to be thankful for, all things considered. She has taken a beating, the church. Every day she meets the gates of hell and she prevails. Every day she serves, stumbles, injures, and repairs. That she has healed is an underrated miracle. That she gives birth is beyond reckoning. Maybe it’s time to make peace with her. Maybe its time to embrace her, flawed as she is.6
Let’s stem the tide of the recent exodus. Let’s quell the statistics. It’s the way of Jesus to give room, bear up with one another. Do I have stories? I was a pastor, remember?
I could tell you of the time an interracial couple left our church, loudly accusing my wife of racism because she didn’t give their son a solo in the children’s program – when he’d only joined weeks before (it was written, explained and understood by all that a child had to be a part of the choir for at least six months before getting an up-front part). Sandy went to their home to humble herself before them, but no matter. They saw only what they wanted to see and marred a gentle woman’s servant influence.
I could tell you of the woman who was healed of her cancer but through a series of misperceptions, left the church with a final curse of, “this church’ll close its doors a year after we’re gone.” That was years ago and the fellowship still faithfully gathers.
I could…no, I won’t. If I let it, these botherings would define the church for me. But I know different. These were the exceptions, not the standards. For every harsh punch-to-the-gut my wife and I have experienced, we are the undeserving recipients of exponential graces and blessings from our extended church family. Church is a family you choose, every week. Week after week. You put up with it, it puts up with you. And you both are better for it. Together.
So, friend, before you go for good, turn around and look again. You think it’s risky to stay? I tell you, it’s far more dangerous out there, on your own. Don’t go. You’re not alone. Stay and give beauty a chance to grow out of the ash pile.
5 An Altar In The World, Barbara Brown Taylor, pp37-8
6 Searching For Sunday, Rachel Held Evans, p168