Monday, April 29, 2013

Confessions of a church insider to those not affiliated with a church

Can I seek your forgiveness in advance? What I write here may be wrong in all sorts of ways. But I'm listening, I really am. I'm trying to understand.

Here's what I know. We in North America live in a culture that has thoroughly imbibed Christian faith. It's in the air, the water. It's so much a part of our history, in some ways we can't even know how much our perception of family, volunteering, work, and leisure, are "Christian."

On the other hand, I live in Fayetteville, Arkansas. It's a very religious town. It's a very religious state. Yet even here, in what some call the Bible Belt, I encounter more people who do not affiliate with a congregation than those who do.

So many of my neighbors who are culturally Christian don't formally affiliate with a church.

And on many levels a lot of adults I know who are not affiliated with a church live more Christian lives, and are more deeply faithful, than some people who go to church.

This leaves me in sort of a pickle. I am proud of the way many of my non-churchgoing neighbors comport themselves in the community and world. With no religious ostentation, no secondary layer of do-goodism, they just go about their business. They make quality things. They work and play well with others. They serve in the community. They provide food for their children. 

They're not perfect. Like those inside the church, they could use a good challenge sometimes, even a swift kick in the pants. They make bad choices. They shout at people on the phone. They hoard their wealth.

You know what I mean. In other words, the outward marks of the lives of non-churchgoers are, on almost every level, identical to the outward marks of the life of those who wake up and go to church Sunday morning.

In addition, generally speaking, they believe. They have faith. It is articulate or inarticulate to greater or lesser degrees. But they have faith. And specifically they have faith in Christ. They believe Christ makes a difference in their life, in the world. Those who do not go to church often have more than a general religious sensibility. They identify with the life and proclamation of Jesus.

In this way also they are just like churchgoers. I know more than one lifelong churchgoer who cannot articulate the Christian faith better than those who have rarely darkened the doors of a church building.

But then on Sunday mornings, while us churchgoers head off for worship, they head off for, well, whatever it is they do on Sunday mornings. Frankly, stuff I'd also like to do some Sunday mornings--read the paper, go for a run, drink coffee, mow the lawn, sleep in.


So here comes the conundrum. There are many days, most days, when I want to invite them in to our congregational life. And I do. I'm proud of what we do, and who we are. I'm constantly inviting others.

Then there are days when I have my doubts. Why should I interrupt their lives? Why should I convince them to add an additional layer of outward religiosity to lives that are already in many aspects faithful, spirit-filled, and good? Is it even possible that by getting them to affiliate with us, I will distract them or draw them away from excellent ministry in which they would otherwise be engaged, although not overtly on behalf of the church?

In other words, is it possible that by asking them to join us as church, they will in fact become less of what we want them to be as church than prior to their affiliation? 

Is there a way to do more church by being less church?

Is this what Dietrich Bonhoeffer had in mind when he outlined some notes on "religionless Christianity"?

For example, he writes to Eberhard Bethage on July 18, 1944:

[Religious humanity] must therefore live in the godless world, without attempting to gloss over or explain its ungodliness in some religious way or other. We must live a "secular" life, and thereby share in God's sufferings. We may live a "secular" life (as one who has been freed from false religious obligations and inhibitions). To be a Christian does not mean to be religious in a particular way, to make something of oneself (a sinner, a penitent, or a saint) on the basis of some method or other, but to be a human--not a type of human, but the human that Christ creates in us. It is not the religious act that makes the Christian, but participation in the sufferings of God in the secular life.

Or again to Eberhard Bethage on July 21, 1944:

During the last year or so I've come to know and understand more and more the profound this-worldliness of Christianity. The Christian is not a homo religiosus, but simply a human, as Jesus was a human...


So if I ask inquirers returning to the church why they are returning, what do they say? Well, for the many who after long absence come back, I often hear, "I missed it." Missed what? Well, "it." Pretty much what I miss if I miss a Sunday worship. Things like liturgy, sermons, the people, Eucharist, hymns. The whole "going to church" gig. There is a kind of meaning-making in the church that can't be had by other means.

"There was just something missing in my life." Worship seems to re-frame things for us in ways we can't always comprehend. There are fathom-less depths to gathering for Christian worship in community that are often numinous even if difficult to articulate.

So, this leaves me with a couple of confessions. First, I confess that part of me wants to figure out how to turn church completely inside out. What if there were a way to bring everything people seek from "going to church" out into the daily lives of people, so that the thing they miss could come to them in the already present vocations they engage in from day to day. This is the this-wordliness of Christinaity.

Although I have trouble imagining what this might look like, it takes my breath away considering possibilities.

A second confession is more dangerous to say aloud. Essentially, the question becomes: By inviting people to church, are there any ways in which I make them less Christian? Let me give some examples. If they give 10% of their income to a local shelter, but when they join the church they hear our stewardship appeal and divert some of their giving to us, is this a good thing? 

If, prior to coming to worship on Sunday mornings, they used to use that time to care for an ailing neighbor, catch up on essential conversation with their spouse, and simply rest, is that a worthy swap of time?

Or, if by becoming more overtly Christian or religious, those we have invited into our community now think there are especially "Christian" ways to do ordinary things, is there danger here? I think there is.

Gregory Walter writes, in his recent blog post, "I would much prefer, if there is a Christian difference in giving, to see how the economy of God's promise alters or frees up ordinary giving so that we can engage in ordinary giving in all its conflict and impurity [as opposed to giving that supposedly has some missional or ecclesial or evangelical 'end']."

And what kinds of habits are new members of our community learning when they become part of our community of faith? Are we really being as faithfully Christian in this community as we should? If those outside the church are being more faithful than those inside the church (and some are) perhaps the more evangelical posture is to tell people not to go to church, not to join my church.

These are simply thought experiments. Remember, I said at the beginning this post could go all kinds of ways wrong. Perhaps I'm completely off-track.

But here's what is on my heart. I really want to invite my friends and neighbors who are not currently attending a church to come join us at mine. I can imagine the many, many ways in which our church would be stronger, and do better ministry if they were a part of our community of faith. I desperately want to invite them in ways that strengthen us, and offer them a context where they can grow spiritually, and be strengthened in faith and life.

But I'm somewhat suspicious of my motives. So I don't want to invite for the wrong reasons. And I'm especially concerned that by inviting them, they'll hear implicit in the invitation a judgment on them that I actually don't have. 

I want to offer space for those currently not affiliated to rediscover what they miss, while honoring what is already Spirit-filled in their daily vocations and work and life. It's going to be different for each family, really each individual. 

And before I try to change their habits and invite them to become a part of what I do weekly, I want to make sure I have examined myself and motivations so what I invite them into serves not me but the free course of the gospel in the world.

Or something like that.


  1. Great thoughts, Clint. It's a conundrum. I'm intrigued by the thought of creating an external church, if you will. To some extent we do this with social media, but it just feels like there is a deeper way to engage there. I'm just not sure what it is.

  2. I'd love to know the "it" better for those returning--community? The discipline of 'showing up'? A pretend earned grace checklist? Instead of securing our future as an 'institution' does not the One whom we follow demand of us to let "it" die and be reborn? I have many of these same thoughts about the motive of our invitation: butts and bucks, or making disciples? What would it look like for us to manifest the glory of God by being fully alive in our singular and communal peculiarities?

  3. These are wonderful questions and many I ask myself often. I have many friends who are wonderful and "unchurched" and I wouldn't dream of inviting them to church unless they specifically ask me about us. But I'm okay with inviting others who seem to be seeking something. I can tell you that after a long absence from church, I returned because of some major crises in my life and I needed a people, a community, that I could give love to and get love and belonging from, a community that would help me raise my child. I also wanted my child to know the love of God and Christ but also wanted him to participate in a healthy faith community so he'd be less vulnerable to some of the crazy religious stuff that is all around us. Returning to an ELCA church was also important to me. It ties me to my ancestors and family even though we don't live near each other anymore. It's a way of keeping a family together in an age when distance between families is the norm.

  4. Good thoughts. This is the question, for me and for many. One of the best arguments my mother made, about getting into the life of a congregation, was that it's a new set of people. In a big enough town, the people who cross between work environments and the church environment are fewer in number. This is a good thing, for personal autonomy and well being. The same idea came out, in a secular spiritual kind of way, in the closing lines of the movie, "About A Boy."

  5. Kathy, that's a great point. I've observed this here at GSLC, that in some of our recent programs like the catechumenate, there is a cross-section of people from different socio-economic locations who wouldn't necessarily meet each other in work or social settings. That makes the church kind of unique as a place to share life with others quite different from you on some levels.

  6. I wish there was a "like" feature on comments, because I really like many of the comments above. Thanks.

  7. Your article rings so true to me. Your thoughts are my thoughts and were my thoughts and fears when I began the journey into a different relationship with the church through seminary and ordination and vocation even today. I believe for me anyway it continues to be part of my dialogue as missionary church.

    Addition from previous comment on clergy site....I miss church when I don't attend because I miss the sacraments....I miss the word...because often my way of acting out is to avoid it! And I KNOW better! So when I am on vacation, when I am sick, I still attend church as best as I does a body good!!!! But at the same time the struggle between conforming to the ways of the world (the american Christian perception anyway...) and losing my identity as a child of God by conforming to the ways of the institutionalized church is very unsettling to is a daily struggle. As a pastor I pray that I remain open to the creativity in others...the ideas and creativity of the Spirit of God in others....the way of Christ as community in the family...and the mystery that remains here and now with us...that I don't get so stuck in the adiaphora and doctrine that I forget the wonder and awe of CreatorRedeemerSanctifier.

  8. There is no question that so many in our world hunger for God, for truth, for an experience with something larger then themselves that calls them to be about bringing transformation to their world. They just aren't finding it in the church, and they vote with their feet. Their hunger is not for church, it is for the Kingdom. Therefore we need to relearn what the Kingdom is all about. We need to then get real honest with ourselves and evaluate how much our congregation reflects the Kingdom. Whatever structures, traditions, worship styles, or theological practices that get in the way of reflecting the Kingdom to a world increasingly uninterested in church as we know and cling to must be eliminated with great prejudice. I don't claim to know what those are in every context, but in our context, the reliance on building and public worship as a means of attraction is one value we reject wholeheartedly.

  9. A wonderful post that demonstrates a huge amount humility and understanding and most importantly initiates thoughtful responses. I'll weigh in from the 'UnChurched / Culturally Christian' side of the room, as a Preacher's Kid who was at church 3 times a week until I left for college, but rarely since. And I wrestle with this very question: can I be a Christian outside of a congregational relationship?

    I have a personal relationship with God and Christ and, like so many, I often only immerse myself in that relationship in times of personal need. When my son spent his first 9 weeks in the NICU, when my Brother's wife suddenly passed away - those times I find great comfort in my faith and often great guilt. Guilt from a belief that I take but I don't give back by becoming a member of a congregation and playing the role I should every Sunday. Guilt that I don't celebrate God in times of great joy and when I witness great compassion. That guilt is my own, manufactured from my cultural experience and not handed down to me from God. But for me attending a church is a deed. A deed that demonstrates my faith, but not the only deed.

    From the pulpit, my father often spoke of the notion of "Ecclesia" and how that can manifest itself in the broadest terms. Church and the family of the church doesn't live in a building, the building is just there to keep us warm and dry. It lives in the thoughts and deeds that express a Christ-like attitude everywhere you are, irrespective of location. Maybe that's an 'easy out' to not attending, but it is something that has stuck with me.

    I believe you invite me to church and to Christ's love by your deed's and words. Through posts like this and through sharing your work via FB. Frankly, I don't want a phone call inviting me to Church, but I do want your message. It's something I really enjoy. After Newtown, your prayer was comforting. Your post about weeping after dropping your kids at school that day was important to me. I cried so much then and it was good to know you did too. Your sharing simple joys of being a WatchDog dad and the knowledge that you're that for my kids as well, that is more of an expression of Christ's love to me than you may know. You waving from your bike or sharing GSLC involvement in my community or a simple prayer post is as much an invitation to church as a printed letter. And those deeds seem to be motivated by goodness and light. I don't see how they could be seen as anything else.

    I like the term External Church, and hope one day it just can be, Church. But I think that is what you're doing and I think that is what I want to support. How I support that is the big question as I meander my way down this path.

    I even like your posts that dump so many '3 Dollar' as to only be understood by old men, sequestered in some library in Decorah IA.

  10. You've hit a nerve with me, Clint. What does "being faithful" looks like? The Great Commission (inviting)? Trees bearing fruit (individually)? The gathering of believers (corporate)? ...and how does the institution serve/dis-serve that faith? We cannot assume anything anymore.

  11. I am in awe of those who have faith and live Christian lives, but have no church affiliation. I am even more in awe of those who live what we call a Christian life, and who do not have faith. Perhaps Christ's examples for living out our faith tap into something more fundamental than faith--perhaps some part of our humanity. Most church folks I know attribute all their good deeds to their faith, but I wonder...I wonder if that's really true.

    I can tell you why I belong to a church. I'll stick to two reasons. One is that I recognize that there are some things we can do as an institution that we cannot do as individuals. The second is worship.

    I like all of the comments others have made, but am surprised at how few mentioned worship. I too miss the worhsip service if I skip a week. I miss participating in corporate worship, and the opportunity it affords to express my love for God in hymns and prayer. Sure I can sing and pray on my own--but obviously it's not the same. I miss the call to repent--to turn from sin. Yes, I can do that on my own, too--but I don't. In fact, I can let repentance slide a long time! :) I miss hearing the word of forgiveness. I know I am forgiven anyway, but it is comforting to hear it. And of course I miss the proclamation of God's Word.

    I know that not everyone is drawn to church services in the same way I am, and I have no problem with that. Like I said, I am in awe of such people. Perhaps my upbringing trained me to "need" worship and to "need" a church affiliation. It doesn't matter. I am grateful for the wonderful congregation that I have!

  12. And thank you for the thoughtful post, Clint!

  13. I have been "unchurched" for a while though technically I am still a member of a UCC in Texas. I like the idea of the church as a community of people who care about each other and and about the people in the larger communities (city, country, globe) and can respond with love and kindness to their neighbors. I also like the idea of having others with whom I can share a spiritual journey.

    However, my experiences , have mostly been that of intolerance, must and must nots, exclusion , politics, cliques, factions, and fear ...... lots of fear (often a primary tool of ensuring compliance to the must and must nots.) and plenty of answers to questions that are okay but rejecting questions that are not supposed to be asked.

    I would like to be part of a community of people seeking faith and understanding and who will welcome me as the person I am and the one I am becoming.

  14. Onedia, thank you for sharing. I am so sorry this is a common experience of those who have attended church. I know at least in our congregation, we work hard to try and not be intolerant and exclusionary. Interestingly, when we named our congregational values at a retreat last weekend, they included:

    1. Inclusive, faith, service
    2. Joy, connected
    3. Diversity, Tolerance, Teamwork, Caring

    Although we may not live up to those all the time, they are the values we are seeking to live into.

  15. I was reared in a very dysfunctional family with multigenerational addiction which was typically denied. I learned that to survive, I avoided conflict with those who would rage, participated in the denial of the painful reality of my family, served as the family "hero" child and papered over the reality with pretense of serenity in my home. I went along with actions and attitudes of which I was ashamed and embarrassed in order to survive and avoid attack for telling the truth which was denied. I was very sickly codependent. I find the church is much the same and the expectations are much the same of those of me as I grew up in a dysfunctional family. I was expected to "cover" for inappropriate ideas and actions and make the insiders look good as a called pastor. I subconsciously complied having been trained in my background to feel comfortable in the enabler role. I knew there was evil but did nothing about it in order to survive. Now, I am getting healthier. I am participating in a recovery program, ACA, yet see the similarities of the church to my family of origin. I suppose the attraction to church was the familiarity of the dynamics of the system. Hey, I knew how to deal with this! I no longer can do what I did. Now I feel more I'll let the chips fall where they will, state the reality and negative results thereof. Had I been more faithful over the years I might have been fired more, or risked being fired more, but often complied with ridiculous demands and mean dysfunction for the sake of "getting along," I believe out of fear. I have to ask for forgiveness and accept forgiveness for not doing what I knew was right and act in a new manner a day at a time. It no longer bothers me to be a pariah for simply facing reality and stating such.

    1. Mysteriously Blessed -- I was reared in a very functional, happy family. I had a very happy childhood. My pastor and Sunday School teachers taught me the Gospel. Then the "Big Change" came.

      Here are present-day Lutheran values:

      1. Inclusive, faith, service
      2. Joy, connected
      3. Diversity, Tolerance, Teamwork, Caring

      The only one that is dimly familiar to me is "faith." Maybe "service." What ever happened to holy discipline, Sola Scriptura, turning away for the lures of the world, "Fear" of God (meaning holy, filial fear), and living a holy life? Gone, for sure. I don't care about being a pariah, either. God bless you.

    2. (Pr. Clint, can you delete my earlier attempts? I was fixing some typos!)

      Mysteriously Blessed,

      I've been thinking about your post, several times, since I read it a couple of days ago. I agree with your observations, because I've also had them. And the choices are kind of drawn out ... affiliate and go it alone. When you affiliate, you have the opportunity to be surprised by goodness (as well as the inevitable not great). To visit a worship service can be a really pleasant surface experience, because it's only about the vision and the pageantry and what we bring to the experience and its messages. After a few approaches, it may develop into a habit and people in the pew or in the entrance hall seem like people you might want to talk to, and from there, yeah, it can develop into a deeper commitment and with that commitment a full awareness of more people and their limitations.

      There are so many levels to a church experience, and the surface level is much different from the messy parts that relate to the inevitable outcome of human interaction. I remember being startled, disappointed, as a Bible camp counselor and as a member of a Bible study group, to learn awkward details about the faithful adherents and leaders. And I am freshly disappointed through life, because I expect a lot of out people, and often its an unrealistic expectation.

      But, ... a faith journey in a land of imperfection is about finding the good connections, the honest efforts, and the excellent outcomes, with other people, even with their limitations ... the other side of weakness is strength. The alternative is to go it alone, or in a less structured amorphous context where the golden mean that we strive for (and never reach) is beyond the vale, over there, or evaporated or just non-essential because unnecessary in a community of one.

      Thanks for posting such thought provoking and true observations. You have blessed me.

      Kathy Stinson (a different Kathy)

  16. Joy isn't even dimly familiar to you, Kathy? I'm so sorry. Most of the other marks in our values list are, for my money, aspects of holiness--connection, caring, diversity, inclusion.

    But joy. I'm so proud joy is in the mix, because that is so central.


  17. Joy is good. I have a problem with "Inclusive, connected, Diversity, Tolerance, Teamwork, Caring."

    I have been around the block a few times, and I know they are all buzz words.

  18. well, those words you name, Kathy, they CAN be buzzwords, but they are not buzzwords to me. They are part of living holiness. And I care about living a Holy life.

  19. Holiness and discipline are also buzz words, from another perspective. Much depends upon perspective.

  20. I have to be honest that there is a selfish part of me that wants those people who are doing better at the Christian life to come over to the church and teach the rest of us.

  21. Thanks to all for these thoughtful contributions to the discussion.

  22. I found a quote in a wikipedia entry about JK Rowlings insider/outsider approach to church (having read about her new Harry Potter book and then realizing I've not looked up her biography):

    [quote]In 2007, Rowling described her religious background in an interview with the Dutch newspaper the Volkskrant:[187]
    I was officially raised in the Church of England, but I was actually more of a freak in my family. We didn't talk about religion in our home. My father didn't believe in anything, neither did my sister. My mother would incidentally visit the church, but mostly during Christmas. And I was immensely curious. From when I was 13, 14 I went to church alone. I found it very interesting what was being said there, and I believed in it. When I went to university, I became more critical. I got more annoyed with the smugness of religious people and I went to church less and less. Now I'm at the point where I started: yes, I believe. And yes, I go to the church. A Protestant church here in Edinburgh. My husband is also raised Protestant, but he comes from a very strict Scottish group. One where they couldn't sing and talk.[end quote]


  23. AMERICAN GOTHIC CHURCH: Changing the Way People See the Church.
    Reaching the unchurched requires changing their mental image of Christians according to this newly released book by Jeffery Warren Scott. Churches that that are successful in reaching the unchurched are likely to be encouraging, joyful, and compassionate.