A Chapter Removed

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This is a deleted chapter that had made it through most of the book. From draft two, to the penultimate revision. All in, probably 10 drafts or revisions. As it came down to the wire to turn in the final manuscript, I was not comfortable with this going in. There are a few reasons, but honestly it still felt off. So I have reworked it, and wanted to release it where no one would have to pay for it. I hope you enjoy it.

What happens when your local church is no longer an option? What do you do when this safe harbor is no longer welcoming to your theology, lifestyle, views, or actions? What do you do when the tides are changing and you decide it is time to split from the life and group you knew? As a millennial, I have been blamed for the death of a lot of things; the future of the church and Christianity is one of them. According to the Pew Forum, 56% of us millennials identify as a form of Christian (19% Evangelical; 16% Catholic; 11% mainline Protestant; 6% historically Black Protestant 2% Mormon; 1% Orthodox Christian; 1% Jehovah’s Witness; less than 1% other) (1). At the time of writing this, that is down 14% from Generation X (25% Evangelical; 21% Catholic; 13% mainline Protestant; 7% historically Black Protestant; 2% Mormon; 1% Orthodox Christian; 1% Jehovah’s Witness; less than 1% other) (2), and down 22% from Baby Boomers (28% Evangelical; 23% Catholic; 17% mainline Protestant; 7% historically Black Protestant; 1% Mormon; 1% Jehovah’s Witness; 1% other Christian; less than 1% Orthodox Christian) (3).

What happens when we are told we are sick because we do not have enough faith? What do we do with the let down we feel after broadening our horizons and reading work from new people who stretch our idea of who God could be? Are we destined to become an embittered scapegoat for previous generations? Well, the simple answer is no, but it will take work and will look a lot different than our predecessors understand.

When my wife and I moved to Grand Rapids, we bought our first house. It was around the corner from a local bar. For better or worse, I spent a lot of time and money there. Little did I know, it was a popular hangout for kids attending Calvin College who were studying ministry or pastoral arts. So there was a lot of theological talk that I initially engaged in begrudgingly. Over the months and years of talking with many, many people in various groups like that who have experienced this same fallout, I’ve noticed they generally fall into three categories: agnostics, contemplatives (spiritual but not religious), or liturgists. Either the weight and disappointment of the life they lead and were raised in was too much, or God never showed up in the ways their faith would have expected, so why participate? For me, when I dabbled in agnosticism and some other weird stuff after the fall out from my last paid church position, and I found very little comfort in it. Initially it was pretty great, but eventually I needed something more than what was being offered. (Not to mention I did not like the person I was becoming.)        

After a terrible time and some therapy I decided it was not for me. I am not trying to belittle those it works for. It just was not something I found personally satisfying or helpful. I think you can still be a good person apart from God and show a deeper love and life that reflects the teachings of Jesus better than Jerry Falwell Junior or Franklin Graham have ever shown in their public lives. If this is where you are, and your mom or dad are worried about the state of your soul, just thank them and remember to throw 1 Corinthians 7:14 their way: “The unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.” They may be confused but if they try to throw a clobber verse at you, also remind them (if they believe the Bible to be inherent) that this is true and should hold up in their theology. Thanks to mom, you’re good to go.

Speaking in extremely broad strokes, when I talk to people who have decided to remain in faith while moving towards more high liturgy-focused churches, usually do so because there is something bigger about liturgy they cannot shake. There was something about the order and comforting boundaries liturgy provides, while also reaching back to the ages before that used it, the sense of history it provides and a sense of belonging in the larger scope of the faith.

Our friends had started attending a reformed church on our side of town that was high liturgically driven. I have always appreciated these two and their willingness to be open to almost any form of church service offered, because I do not have that gene. During this time of churchless wandering, I had been contemplating a church plant like that one, and attended a few services with them as well as an Ash Wednesday dinner and service with my wife. We loved the community. Wife and husband pastors and partners, open and affirming, caring for the poor, seeking justice for those who were denied it, and maybe because the churches I went to growing up never had them, I thought it was cool to be taught by someone in a clerical collar. But something I personally have never been able to stick with for long is formal, or high church liturgy.

Sure, I like it every now and again, but when it is the primary form of worship, I just can’t hang on (which is ironic considering I now work for the ELCA). But whatever my feelings are, there are others I know who are not sure how to continue their reconstruction and some have found themselves loving this kind of place. Where liturgy has been a reliable source for growth and worship for so many for so long, they hope it will help propel their faith forward. Rebuilding is really hard, and trying to figure out what works for you in a new place of life is difficult, so I can understand why this form is comforting for some people. Structure can be, and is often, a good thing.

In December 2016, the first non-Skywalker focused Star Wars film came out, Rogue One. In it is a character named Chirrut Imwe. Essentially, he is a blind monk in the Jedi religion who guards some of their most sacred relics in the capital, Jedah City. Multiple times in the film he sits and meditates with the mantra, “I am one with the force, the force is with me.” Now, I can spend all day writing about Star Wars and why this character is so cool, but watching it awoke something in me that had been missing for a long time. This character has an amazing arch and completes an important part of the mission, and the way he goes about it is completely faith driven. One can assume because of this faith and meditative state, the force reaches out, guides him, and things go well (to a point). This meditation practice and deep connection to the greater Force inspired me to actually take time to meditate and spend time in this presence. When I did, usually my days felt a little lighter, not greater as a whole, but there was a deeper sense of belonging to those around me. This was new for me. I have never been a prayer or contemplative person.

Then there are faith traditions that will straight up tell you someone probably died of cancer because he (and you) did not have enough faith to cure it. This is a common theme throughout most evangelicalism. Hell, one time a few fellow pastors and I were having a conversation with the lead pastor about his persistent shoulder pains that the doctors couldn’t figure out. We were all seriously talking to him about whether he had unrepentant sin that was manifesting physically. Taking a step back, it’s like we were taking crazy pills! This is not to say the divine doesn’t intercede and heal from time to time, but it was just nut show we were cranking it up to eleven and putting it back on him and calling his actions and faith into question. The truth is, it is easier to keep control of your people when you are dolling out spiritual abuse in this form. It is not like there was a voice from the other side telling us we were fine people and shit just happens, that’s life.

How do we move toward a healthy view of spirituality? This brings me to the third type of group: contemplatives, and some who may fall into this category are the spiritual but not religious. Before I go any further, I want to make something very clear: it is an unkind and a cheap shot to make fun of the “spiritual but not religious” crowd. I do not think there is anything funny about people sincerely trying to work out what they believe and how they approach it, even if it is not my flavor of tea.

Back at that corner bar, there was a bartender who was one of the religion students I became pretty good friends with, to the point of us getting together a few times for a semi-regular Bible study thing. He had been deconstructing for quite a while, and honestly, he is one of the most impressive readers and retainers of some obscure philosophy and theology of anyone I have ever met. He, at the time of most of our conversations, had been hard into the contemplative practices of some monks and desert mothers and fathers. Between him and the church, it seemed there was a mutual understanding about leaving each other behind. This is a common thread I have noticed in the spiritual but not religious crowd.

These are the people who are open and honest about there being no safe space in the church for them, because traditional evangelicalism doesn’t know what to do with them! These are the same people (traditional evangelicals) who think going to a yoga class is a form of satanic worship, so when they encounter a group that is still figuring out language to engage in God that has been different than the recent, it ruffles feathers and causes division. I really appreciate my friends who fall into this category, because they have helped me gain language for some parts of my spirituality I have been connecting with. When someone says, “I’m spiritual but not religious” I hear, “I am not jerk, and you’re in a safe space because I won’t judge you.” It is too bad the church, more often than not, is not a safe space for them. This is heartbreaking because they have so much to add to the conversation!

The Church seems to be on that cycle every 500 years. There is a schism or break which propels things forward at great personal loss to the people trying to reform. Some of the things I write in this book will cost me the ability to get some church jobs further down the line, but that is nothing compared to the people who have been forced out of their local churches because their executions of belief challenge the status quo. How do we make the church more inclusive, where all are actually welcome to explore, push back, and go forward arm in arm, into the great unknown? We name what is going on. We need a new Church, for a new generation–not one that is a copy and paste of the old guard.

That’s it. Hope you enjoyed it. Would love to hear your thoughts.

Grace and peace y’all.

1. http://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/generational-cohort/younger-millennial/
2. http://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/generational-cohort/generation-x/
3. http://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/generational-cohort/baby-boomer/

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