Saturday, August 21, 2010

Mere Churchianity

If you've ever contemplated leaving the churchthis bookis one you need to read. The late Michael Spencer author of the amazing blog internet monk wrote it just before he found out he had the cancer that took him from this life. There is an excerpt here that I hope will whet your appetite for more. The first chapter, titled the Dairy Queen Incident will resonate with any number of us who have done youth ministry or have been one of those youth ministry kids.

I remain within the institutional church for reasons even I don't fully understand. The church has been the source of both the greatest pain in my life and of the greatest healing and hope in my life. Like a dysfunctional family we bumble along hurting the ones we love the most. Sometimes I think the safest thing to do would be to opt out altogether. I know that my closest friends, at least those that aren't themselves enmeshed in the institutional church, have wondered at times why I stayed. Why I stay. The highest compliment my best friend could pay to a church is the one he paid to the one I am currently attending, when he told me "they can keep you." This after several years of begging me to leave my abusive previous church. And my current church gets much more of it "right" than my previous church did but I know all to well, being the religious mutt that I am, that no church is ever going to have it all right. I've been kicked out of or fled from a pretty good cross section of the mainline protestant ones. In my 42 years on this earth I've been Southern Baptist, Methodist, Church of Christ, back to Southern Baptist (different church), back to Methodist (same church as the first run through Methodism), and now Baptist (progressive not Southern) again. I've also worshiped with the Pentacostal church, the Catholic church, the Episcopal church, the Presbyterian church and several flavors of non-denominational churches none of which I elected to actually place membership with.

That's an interesting process that whole placing membership thing. Sometimes when I check my mailbox I feel like a religious bigamist. Apparently it is far easier to join a church than it is to LEAVE a church. I find myself simultaneously, despite notifying each one as I moved on, a member of four churches all of which send me mail. Actually the Church of Christ sends their mail addressed not to me but rather to my husband and daughter, I apparently was excommunicated at some point after her birth and despite their insistence on baptism in THEIR denomination for membership she seems to have been made a member in my place. Its quite amusing if it weren't so annoying. The Baptist Megachurch that we were members of after leaving that Church of Christ seems not to know that we left and indeed we probably confuse them by the fact that we make use of their homeschool ministry offering for enrichment classes for my daughter and we use their wonderful health club, excuse me recreation ministry, when the mood strikes us. The Methodist church that we were most recently members of has persisted in keeping me on their mailing lists since I originally joined there in 1989, through our family tenure in both the Church of Christ and the Baptist Megachurch. I guess those membership vows are like wedding vows but who do I contact to let the church know that I want a divorce? For now we rest among an amazing congregation of progressive Baptists. We are learning who our new family members are and going through the honeymoon stage of a new church relationship. Like an abused wife in a subsequent marriage I still wait for the veil to fall away and the dark side to show itself. Thus far though they have been amazing.

All that to say I see the flaws in the institutional church but I choose to be there anyway. When I was struggling my hardest, having left the church without actually LEAVING the church, I found Internet Monk and Michael Spencer. It was like water in the desert. I wasn't crazy. I wasn't alone in seeing that the emperor had no clothes. I wasn't by myself in my frustration with how different the church looked, particularly the large mega churches I moved within, from the Jesus I saw in the bible. I wasn't the only one who couldn't understand how we could care so much about who was sleeping with whom and so little about who was sleeping on the streets because they were homeless. I wasn't the only one who wondered how a quarter of a million dollars in new carpet for the sanctuary held priority over helping a fledgling church inside communist China. If you're one of those people who is bothered by this sort of thing Mere Churchianity is one you need to read. And when you do, come tell us about your reaction to it. I'll be writing more on the subject I'm sure.

Saturday, August 14, 2010


I read my own posts and I wonder, "Am I becoming bitter"? It is a danger I must guard against because I know from experience it will only end up eating me alive. I believe, at this stage in the grieving/detoxing process that what is driving me to continue to rant about what happened to me and to others at the church we left is not bitterness but frustration at justice denied. Yes, at some point I will have to let it go for my own emotional and spiritual well-being but I suppose right now I still hold out some shred of hope that the right people will hear my lament and will yet insist that justice demands a different response than the one we have seen thus far. Occasionally I ponder what that response would look like.

The person who defamed my character and had it dismissed as a "mis-communication" would be man enough to acknowledge that he handled it poorly and would at least offer an apology. Too little too late? Yes. But there is something to be said for an honest effort at trying to make amends.

The church would acknowledge that their handling of the situation involving the worship band member was inadequate and wrong and would take steps to re-train their administration in POK policy and the rules of mandated reporting. The ban against this person serving in youth work again would be for life. The church would apologize to the victim for the horrible response of their senior pastor at the time to her letter of concern and would provide details of what had been done thus far regarding counseling and disciplinary action rather than hiding behind "confidentiality". They would provide whatever assurances she needed to feel that other young women would be kept safe from his predatory behavior.

I really don't think that is too much to ask. Is it?

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Church's Response to Criticism and Why We Won't Police Ourselves

I had a blog comment of mine deleted by the administrator of the blog, not a problem that's his right I moderate comments here myself but I strongly suspect due to the nature of the comment and the fact that his blog is linked to the website of the church through which he is employed that my comment was deleted because it was critical of the way that church does things. It got me to thinking about how the Church responds to criticism and how that ties into our seeming inability to police ourselves as an organization. When people like Anne Rice (and others, myself included most days) feel the need to distance themselves from the title Christian in order to avoid being associated with the abuses and excesses of the institutional church perhaps there is a call being sounded to the Church that it is time to take an objective look at itself and evaluate the message it is sending to the world by the things it seems to value. And by how it handles, or avoids handling, criticism.

In the specific case I am thinking of the issue is one of the role/purpose of "worship" (which in this case is defined as music/media/technical production) and I commented on the danger of viewing worship as performance. I will freely admit that my views are colored by a decade of watching the worship in this particular church devolve from something led of the spirit and participatory into a slick, over produced performance that chewed up and spit out anyone who wasn't sufficiently perfect in the execution of their gifts of service. At least one of my co-authors here is intimately aware of what a refer to, although she never experienced it before it became theater rather than worship. I brought the point to the table that worship is harmed by a performance mentality and I gave specific examples, including the habit of certain children's choir directors to instruct the children to "perform well for mom and dad" rather than to exhort them that they were being given the task of helping lead the congregation into worship. I also mentioned the destruction of the technical support ministry and its impact on the youth who were involved. Very few of whom attend church anywhere anymore largely because of that very situation. The response? Delete the comment and pretend it wasn't said. Typical.

This is how the church too often responds to criticism. By ignoring it. It is actually somewhat preferable to the other way the church to often responds to criticism which is by going on the attack. Both responses are unhealthy and un-Biblical. In this case the impact of this lack of healthy responses is minor. The damage has already been done and if performance based worship is what they are trying to achieve then they need different people in place to make that happen. People who don't believe that worship isn't theater. The bigger problem comes in the fact that this is how all issues seem to be dealt with inside this particular organization. Ignore it and maybe it will go away.

When the issue is inappropriate behavior with a minor that is a completely unacceptable tactic to take. Yet I witnessed it happen. I believe it is the emphasis of this church on the performance that enabled them to put the perpetrator back into leadership in the worship band after just six weeks of counseling. They needed him for the performance to be as polished as the audience had come to expect. When excellence in performance becomes the standard it is easy to overlook all kinds of things. I recall a long time soloist in that same congregation that everyone knew was living with a man she was not married to but who was called upon anyway every time they needed her voice. It can be argued what behaviors constitute serious enough issues to preclude someone for leading in worship but I think we all have to agree that both open adultery and inappropriate behavior with a minor would be on the list somewhere. At least all of us who live in the real world can.

The church that refuses to hear criticism removes itself from any obligation to deal with the wolves in sheep's clothing that lurk wherever any flock of believers gather. This church is a mild example of the phenomenon that produces things like Ted Haggard and the Catholic Priest scandals. I cannot believe that there was not someone who was seeing what was happening. Someone who was crying out the warning and being dismissed or ignored. We are so concerned about not "tarnishing the image of the church" that we completely ignore and discount the pain of the victims of the things we sweep under the rug.

Witness the response of the church in dealing with predators in their midst. In my experience the first priority is cover it up. If that is unsuccessful then send the predator off to counseling (or set him up in an accountability group) but do nothing for the victim. Do nothing that could imply that the church is liable in any way. When confronted by the victim hide behind confidentiality rules. When questioned by the victim about his brief "treatment" and lack of real consequences blow her off and/or guilt her into believing she is being "unforgiving". Then wonder why the world looks at the church and sees nothing worth wanting to be a part of, nothing worth desiring to emulate.

The church needs to wake up and HEAR the voices, from within and from without, that are crying for justice and for reform. The habit of dismissing critics or worse going on the offensive is serving no one. Least of all the church herself.