some thoughts on the state of church (and state)

This started out as a bullet point in today’s “bufflo tips,” but then I realized I had a whole lot more to say on the subject than could be tied up nicely in a sentence or two.

If you ask me, the Church needs to do some turning.  Via Afroswede @Flickr.
If you ask me, the Church needs to do some turning. (This picture is actually of a church in a town I consider one of my homes, Little Rock, AR) Via Afroswede @Flickr.

This post by Courtney E. Martin at The American Prospect about the much-hyped Pew study on Americans’ religiosity or lack thereof, was very interesting to me as a Christian.  In particular, this portion of the report on why so many people have recently left the faith:

About half … became unaffiliated, at least in part, because they think of religious people as hypocritical, judgmental or insincere. Large numbers also say they became unaffiliated because they think that religious organizations focus too much on rules and not enough on spirituality, or that religious leaders are too focused on money and power rather than truth and spirituality.

In particular the bit about rules over spirituality speaks to me in ways similar to the kinds of things I have been reading and thinking lately. How have we, who claim to follow a Savior who told us that his yoke (his list of rules, each rabbi had one) is easy and his burden is light, become known for our Pharisaical emphasis on rules rather than for echoing our Savior’s emphasis that following him leads to a right heart from which right actions automatically flow? Again I’m going to pimp Dallas Willard, who argues against our petty gospels of “sin management.” We should be known for freeing people of their burdens, not for adding to them with lists of rules, because without the life-transformation that comes from being a disciple of Jesus in the truest sense (not merely an intellectual agreement with the idea that Jesus is Lord and died for our sins, but truly a modeling of one’s life to be like Christ), following the rules is impossible.

Also, Martin writes:

The report, which indicates that one-fourth of adult Americans have changed their religious affiliation from what they were raised with, also explains, “The unaffiliated population is a very diverse group. Not all those who are unaffiliated lack spiritual beliefs or religious behaviors; in fact, roughly four-in-ten unaffiliated individuals say religion is at least somewhat important in their lives.”

I would say this is definitely true for me.  If you asked me today, I’d probably claim “unaffiliated.”  I grew up in a Presbyterian, PC(USA), church in which I was very active, and for which I am very thankful.  I was encouraged to ask questions, to learn about theology and church history, and even to doubt.  I attended PC(USA) churches in college, and now that we have moved far far far from home, we sporadically attend an Episcopal church and go to a small group hosted by a Baptist church.  Even though I’m not attending church services as regularly as I did growing up, I’m reading my Bible more than ever and also reading books about theology and Christian living.  In particular, Rob Bell, Brian McLaren, and Dallas Willard have been topping my reading lists.  For the time being, I’m experiencing remarkable spiritual growth also remarkable because it’s taking place outside of a church.

I also really resonated with this statement, in which Martin writes of her own experience:

I have often been jealous of my evangelical Christian cousins who seem so much more sure about right and wrong than I am, so comforted by the capacity to “give it up to God.”

I have always been jealous of people for whom faith comes very easily.  I wish I had that kind of certainty, the kind so many people at least seem to have.  Perhaps I was just raised this way by my often doubting-Thomas scientist father, but I’ve just always been a questioner.  I wonder about things, I have to know reasons and histories and back stories, and despite my most fervent prayers, I have often woken up in the night, terrified that I don’t really believe in anything.  The truest sign to me that I still have faith, however, is that when confronted with such a literal dark night of the soul, it always sends me praying to God to give my faith back to me.

In college, I discovered the letters of Flannery O’Connor, collected as Of Mystery and Manners.  Though a devout Catholic, O’Connor too often struggled with her faith.  It was her advice to a young man to continue going through the motions of faith, even when he wasn’t feeling them, that transformed the way I think of liturgy and ritual.  While many, particularly contemporary Christians who favor contemporary worship styles, see liturgy and ritual as stale old traditions, I realized they serve a very important purpose.  The fact that liturgy and ritual remain the same, whether our hearts are truly in it or not, reflects, to me, the fact that indeed God always remains the same as well.  Even when I cannot feel His presence, God is no farther from me than on the momens when I am most acutely aware of Him.  By continuing to go about my religious life as usual, I acknowledge that my “feelings” can be deceiving, and I remind myself that God is still here.

I guess I have some hope that if more of us acknowledged that faith is not something that comes easy to us but is something that is vital to us nonetheless, faith might not look like such an impossible position to so many of our fellow Americans.  More of us need to be willing to talk about our individual experiences literally following Jesus, and perhaps less willing to condemn those we believe are not following God’s “rules.”  It’s only one person at a time that we can begin to confront the misperception that the Church is more concerned with rules than with spirituality, and only one person at a time that we can begin to reverse the trend shown in the Pew report of people leaving the faith.

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