Saturday, December 29, 2007

Church Questions ~ Dialogue Sought

We met twenty years ago in, of all places, a church. I know it was twenty years ago because The Lovely Daughter was a newborn, and I say "of all places" because, for many of us, church was an unlikely destination. The reasons were various but there we were, a group of couples with young children, trying to figure out how to live as families and a group of mothers, in particular, starving for adult companionship.

Snapshot, maybe fifteen years ago: our group has expanded a bit, but most of us are connected in significant ways to the same Methodist church. We serve on boards and committees and take classes and run events. Many of the children attend the church's cooperative nursery school, and their mothers duly take turns on the school's board. Our social lives center around events at church and events of our own in which we all participate with energy and enthusiasm.

Snapshot, oh, say, last week: the families are a good deal more tattered these days. Divorces, a couple of remarriages, some of the young adult children struggling to accomodate to the "adult" part of their identities, parents who are veterans of layoffs and any number of unexpected battles with finances, illnesses, and others of life's myriad curveballs. A couple of the families are still active in the Methodist church, where a major new addition has engaged the services of those who are architects for the past few years. I'm down the street with the Presbies. None of the children have any church involvement, and many of the adults have let it go as well.

Saturday mornings usually find me at a local bakery/coffee shop with a group of the moms. This morning I went with a mission in mind and was disappointed that only two others showed up ~ we all see so much of each other during the holiday season that I suppose most felt that today could slide ~ but I went ahead with the two questions I had for them:

Do you feel that you have a religious, or some kind of spiritual life, whether on your own or with your family?


Is there any way in which you could foresee church as having any appeal for you in the future?

I didn't ask those questions with publication in mind and I don't want to violate the privacy of my dearest friends, even in my pretty-much-anonymous blog. But I do think that some of what they said generally bears consideration for those of us who care about the church, however we encounter or define it. These are women, after all, who were at one time deeply engaged in the life of their church and full of hope that they and their husbands and children would continue in that pattern.

Both of them deem their lives spiritual, although their definitions were, to my way of seeing things, vague and had little to do with the 2,000 year old tradition of Christian spirituality -- or any other tradition of spiriutality, for that matter. Their disinterest in Christianity isn't connected to an exploration of Zen or an attraction to another faith, for instance. It's more in the way of a sense that traditional religion of whatever persuasion has little to offer in terms of an expression of that part of our lives that we would identify in some way as spiritual; a sense that that part of our lives is best engaged individually, in private, in the realm of every-dayness.

I hasten to add that my interpretation of what I heard is not necessarily complete and therefore, not necessarily accurate. I'm just doing the best I can with what I have at the moment.

With respect to the second question, I heard nothing that would indicate any attraction to the church as an institution, as a community, as a place of worship, or as a locus for encounter with God. Among the (many) reasons I have become interested in the issue of adults and the church is the recognition, as described in the blog Mark Time several days ago, that people are often hurt by the church: by its cliqueiness, by its narrow-mindedness, by its mistakes in judgment and process that are perceived as personal slights, by its inability to frame and sustain genuine welcome and hospitality. And I heard about all those things in some detail this morning. Most of the stories I knew well, and many concerned events that I had at one time or another sloughed off fairly easily. But I tried to listen really, really carefully this morning, and what strikes me now is the incredible height of the standard to which we want to hold the church. As beaten and bruised as it is, we still want it to be the insitution in which people behave differently than they do elsewhere, and we are truly and deeply devastated when they do not.

Another interest of mine: I have been wandering around thinking that as we age, my generation of Boomers is going to become more interested in end-of-life and, therefore, spiritual issues, and may turn to the church for answers and support. It seems that I might be completely wrong on that one. Neither of my friends see the church as a place in which she wants to invest energy or committment, even in exchange for support and practical services as parents die and we ourselves grow older. They expressed no interest in having long-term connections with a pastor or congregation; no sense that it might be desirable to have anything more than a drop-in relationship with respect to a worship service or a funeral. (Or, I suppose, a wedding ~ the type of event we moms are most likely to be planning in the next decade.)

My husband is not in any way religious and so, when I talked this all over with him awhile ago, he asked the question I had been trying to unearth. "What is church for, anyway?"

I suppose I could write for hours on my own relationship with the church: on my understanding of the interrelationship among tradition, community, and spirituality and how essential each is to the others; and on how those portions of my spiritual life which are indeed private and individual, some of them shared at most with just one or two other people, exist only in the context of the scripture and traditions of a history of (so I believe) revelation and relationship.

I have no argument with the discovery of relationship with God in both the beauties and the challenges of the natural world, of human relationship, of daily endeavor. I know that we can find God in all things. But it seems to me that without the community, the texts, the traditions of the church, we lose access to much of the story.

But ~ enough of me. I would love to see some dialogue around this topic.

What do you think, dear readers?


Anonymous said...

I once heard a speaker discuss the role of the church in preserving orthodoxy over time. I'm pretty sure it was Luke Timothy Johnson and I'm pretty sure it was the Speaking of Faith show on the Da Vinci Code, but I haven't had time to go back and listen. (It's here if anyone's interested.) I sympathize with the point he was making, which if I recall correctly was that if you are well grounded in the tradition you can begin to experiment a little in meaningful ways, but if you become so removed from the tradition that you have no idea what it means, your experiments become meaningless.

This makes sense to me, a middle-aged person raised with a traditional Christian faith. I view folks who proclaim the kind of vague spirituality you mention as people who have lost touch with the tradition, though many of them still seem to me to be starving for it. But I believe the mainstream Christian church as it was when I was growing up is moribund, and we don't understand yet how to replace it. I think well-meaning efforts to fill up the pews of those old churches are doomed to fail until we come up with a new paradigm. I think it's time to reimagine what church could be and move on.

I say this as a person who has been hurt by the church myself, yet I know I still need that blend of tradition, community, and spirituality you mention, and my pain led me to leave one church to find another that speaks to my hunger for those elements.

But I do also understand that those who are on the other side of this issue see no point to preserving orthodoxy.

Lisa :-] said...

You raise so many interesting points here, Robin.

Personally, I am in the same place as your other friends. I've DONE church...I was raised in one, bound myself to another for several years as a young adult. Perhaps we DO hold "church" to an impossibly high standard. But it seems to me, "church" has most recently been about very publicly holding people (specific people, like, those with whom they disagree politically) to some pretty impossible standards. My view is that if church people expect others to conform to a certain set of moral/biblical rules, they need to walk the walk themselves. When they don't, people get pissed off...

As far as community and traditions go, I'm sure those things are all very positive and valid aspects of "church," but it's hard for those things to outweigh the hideous negatives being unleashed on the world by religious zealots these days. It's like trying to excuse a serial killer by pointing out what a great dad and pillar of the community he is...

Quotidian Grace said...

Fascinating discussion, thanks so much for sharing it.

It made me realize how insular my world has become. When I think about it, I can't name any friend of mine who is NOT involved in church--most Presbyterian but many are not. Although I do have a couple of non-affiliated "seekers" in the women's Bible study group that I lead.

Is this because Texans, and people in the South generally, continue to have a high church attendance rate? (I'm deliberately not saying they are more "religious".) Is this because I spent the last few years as a church staff member and now as a regional officer in my denomination? Probably the answer to both is yes.

Note to self: you've really got to get out more and into different groups of folks.

Quotidian Grace said...

I forgot to add that I think you are spot on when you say that we hold church to an impossibly high standard.

I've been hurt by the church, too, but don't expect perfection in this world from the sinful folks (including me) who are members of all churches. Guess that's my Calvinist self coming out!

The church is a hospital for sinners, not a showcase for saints. There's a lot of discomfort in today's culture with the idea of sin and a lot of misunderstanding about what sin is. I think that is an important factor, too.

mompriest said...

I wonder if we are living in a world where this no anchor to tradition in any regard, church or otherwise. A world where we make our own traditions and then change them next year. Therefore the tradition of the Church, as meaningful as it can be, is simply not meaningful to most people.

In my area of suburban America people live in big houses on large lots. They pull into their attached garages, enter their homes without ever going outside and rarely know their neighbors. They gather, if they have children, at the sport events. For the children's soccer games or basketball or football. They form community around sports. They develop traditions around sporting activities (Homecoming, parades, etc). Their friends and social life, even their spirituality is embraced in and by the sport. Look at what we pay our athletes. They are the High Priests in our society. In a society that honors money, surely a well paid athlete is an indication of what we value most.

Don't misunderstand. I like sports. I just don't worship it. But I wonder about a lot of other people...

I'm just wondering here...

Mary Beth said...

Wow. Great questions.

In college, during my "agnostic" period, my roomie and I sat at IHOP and (ostensibly studying) talked about how we had both been raised in church and had no idea how else to raise what were we going to do, since we didn't believe!?

Neither of us has borne children, and my stepkids don't attend church. Yet I am back to church (obviously) and I find that I have a hard time thinking of being without it (because I am so IN it). It's life support.

In that vein, recently having been through the death of a very dear church friend, I know that I want and need that kind of community to see me through my end of life. Or my family members', spouse's. Absolutely.

I, like Grace, need more friends outside of church. On principle if nothing else!

Thanks for the thoughts.

Kathryn J said...

I relaxed about church when I got involved with other civic organizations. People are people and they aren't really going to change because it's church.

I am drawn to church for the tradition, the community, the exploration of my relationship with God, the ability to do good work toward social justice with a group... Endless reasons really but tradition and community are the biggest.

I could explore my relationship with God on my own but listening to and speaking to others is essential to expanding and refining my understanding of this relationship. I think it's possible to be spiritual without a connection to church but not for me. I just don't take time for it without the structure and traditions.

I have gone through periods of not being involved but I can't see that happening again. I've gone through the young adult agnostic period and the rage due to a specific event period. I could see myself in a different parish or church but not without one.

Kris said...

The past couple of years my spirtuality has grown by leaps and bounds. It is not as vague as it once was, but it is still "anything goes". However, or Whomever you (collective) wish to believe does not intrude on my own beliefs. All I have to do is believe you believe. And respect that.
As for getting involved in the church, down the road it could happen. Odds are that it would be a Catholic church for me because that is what I grew up with. And when I do go to church, it is the traditions and rituals that make it comfortable to me. I can't think of anything that would get me more involved, or get me involved sooner. I will know when it is time.

Rev SS said...

Good questions. Good thoughts. Tradition? So many to choose from. Do we hold church to too high a standard? I'm thinking we don't hold ourselves accountable to high enough standard. Community. Yes! Ingredient too often missing: authenticity. Ingredient too often present: infighting for power and control.

mompriest said...

When I returned to church 19 years ago I did so for community. My husband and I had a young child and I wanted to be with other people like us. I also returned because God was calling me. I felt God pulling me into deeper relationship and after awhile I could not resist.

I did not come to church for tradition. Nor did I come for ritual. I ended up in a church that offered both and have come to appreciate them. I believe the church has much to offer us in our broken lives. I believe the church enables us to make meaning of our lives within the context of a history of people who have struggled in similar ways. That's the tradition.

I don't care much for the in-fighting and power plays...but they are very human and wise leaders are able to see these for what they are, and sometimes enable healing through them. Then we are church at its best.

We live in a world, at least our American world, of extreme individualism with a strong dose of entitlement thrown in. That makes for some challenging dynamics when we speak of community. Being community means we have to be more than the individual. We have to be the individual in relationship...

Wayne Stratz said...

To me it looks like you experienced folk who wanted to raise their children in a church,now they see the children are raised?????

I do not have children so I speak as one who observes.

I love the tradition (raised Lutheran, returned UCC, now Episcopalian)and find the weekly eucharist an important part but if my church closed for financial reasons... I might shift to a gathering of Mennonites that sing great hymns or who knows what..... take the train to Philly and hang out with Jesuits????

But it is the lingering after church over coffee, a small Bible study I teach, and a group that hangs out on a front porch in the summer.....

As far as a higher standard... it is the loudest voices that get on the media... their are some amazing ministers who are human just like the rest of us and they can be found and they can direct us to writers like Buechner who changed my view of Christianity....

I once was more concerned about the denomination I was a member of, but now I care more about the folk who pass peace to me.... and they and our minister are just a bunch of imperfect goof-asses like myself....

I am back in church because my wife suggested we find one, she no longer attends, I go weekly... who would have thought???

what matters is the smile of being known, the handshake of peace, the knowing of one another in fellowship, the sharing of the eucharist,

Kathryn said...

Here in the UK church is even lower on the collective agenda - it's a minority pursuit, which reflects our failure as an insitution to be what we are called to be..a group at the service of those who do not belong...a group modelling unconditional love...a group that shows life lived in a way that is irresistably attractive.
When I look at my own beloved C of E, where I feel most fully myself, most fully at home, I still cannot understand why this is so...if I weren't already in it up to my ears, would I ever think to cross the threshold? I doubt it.

Virginia said...

Sorry, can't help you with this question. I was raised in protestant churches, went to a protestant college, took way too many religion courses for a biocheistry major, and in the end, found none of it to be relevent to my understanding of "all that is".

Church has never been community for me. It has always made me feel an outsider and less than, so from that point of view, I see church entirely different than your other readers. And as I spend more time connecting to the natural world around me, I have come to not have any interest in any practice that puts humans apart from the rest of the world, which as far as I can tell is every traditional practice, with the possible sometimes exception of buddhism. I have to go all the way "back" to the animists to find a spiritual practice that makes sense to me.

I have been on the receiving end of so much negativity (and yes hatred) from people that profess to be Christians that I generally stay away from them, unless I know first hand they are an exception to my experience - and are in fact of an open mind and an accepting heart. Thus my view of our culture and the role of church in it is entirely different than most.

Gannet Girl said...

Wonderful conversation, folks. I have comments back -- maybe tonight -- for now I'm off to -- ahem -- church.

Carry on!

Kathryn J said...

Yours is the only blog I read where I frequently go back and read comments on a specific post to see what has been added.

Interesting discussion. Thanks for starting it!

Mark Smith said...

I appreciate the link, and it's fine with me.

I think the problem is not that people hold the church to a standard of "incredible height". The church holds itself to that standard - indeed the church created that standard. (Or maybe even worse - it holds US to that standard while demanding the right to fail to meet it themselves.) To say that someone is wrong for pointing out the hypocrisy of demanding perfect behavior while not behaving perfectly is simply blaming the victim.

Perhaps the postmoderns have it right - that we need to redefine "standard" as "goal". As in "I'll try to be the best person that I can be." There is no hypocrisy in not meeting a goal. There is hypocrisy in not meeting a requirement that you impose on others.

This is the likely reason that young people view Christianity as "judgmental" and "dictatorial" (per some survey that I can't name at the moment). So many of our leaders - both religious and secular - have failed to meet the standard that they set for others. Small wonder that people stop taking them seriously.

Anonymous said...

Your post was so timely for me. A few years ago we left a church for a lot of reasons, n ot the least of which was disappointment and hurt over some genuine slights and insults. We found another church, but of course we took our baggage with us and so never really made a home there. As the years have gone by, church attendance has completely disappeared for us. for a while that was fine, but lately I find myself longing for that sense of community and just BELONGING somewhere.Lately I am asking myself why I seem to want to hang on to the hurt that others inflicted. I mean, it's not like I have never wronged another myself.

I once heard a minister discribe the church as being similar to Noah's ark. It was dirty, probably filled with poop and just generally a stinky place to be, but it was the only safe place to be. I always felt that the church was my safety net and indeed there were times when it was. I just need to figure out how to overlook the holes that any net is bound to have a few of. aAny suggestions?

Carol said...

If it's any consolation to you, GG, I find that my synagogue is also held to a higher standard. As a board member I often hear that the temple isn't warm or welcoming or that we condemn rather than support choices that seem to show less than a 100% commitment to Judaism and our congregation. I'm not sure how this helps clarify your own thesis other than to let you know that it seems to be a universal issue.

Gannet Girl said...

So many provocative statements here -- I thought I would try to respond in the comments but they're a bit overwhelming. I think I'll come back to the various ideas over time instead. Thank you all for such a generous and open discussion!

Jodie said...

I was done with church at one time.

The only reason I came back was because in a very tangible yet mystical way, Jesus asked me to. In a dream. On a specific day for a specific occasion at a specific congregation for an event of which I had no prior knowledge.

The topic was forgiveness. On that day He taught me what forgiveness was all about.

A lesson hard to forget.

So it may be true that the Church is dying, and the reasons could be many, but that is beyond my pay grade. The purpose of God's people is to teach the world about forgiveness.

You can't teach what you don't know about first hand.

So hurt is a big part of our life as God's people. Hurt is an essential part of the human condition. Forgiveness is an essential part of the Kingdom of God. The church fulfills its calling when it knows the human condition and mediates God's gift that overcomes it.

The rest is a distraction.

It is hard to teach a proud and obstinate people to forgive and to be forgiven... In such a culture the church will die.

Purechristianithink said...

I've noticed a trend of folks dropping out of church life once their kids are grown and off to college. I wonder about this. So many "pillars" of church life--Sunday School, youth group, kids' choir, VBS, etc. are kid centered. If those ministries have been your primary connection to the church, it's a challenge to re-discover reasons to be part of the community. Could we do a better job walking with people through this transition?