Sunday, February 24, 2019

Church search: What is a deal-breaker (other than doctrine)?

For what reasons would people join a church, or leave one church for another?

In this post, there's something of an overlap between this and my occasional series on visiting other churches. It's somewhat personal: at my current church for years I have found myself in the situation of that proverbial frog in a pot of water, wondering if it has gone from comfortably warm to a little too warm, whether it's getting hotter, whether it's time to jump. I don't think I can belong to my current church in good conscience anymore. I've had my doubts for some time. "When to jump?" can be unclear because life is complicated: there can be reasons to stay and reasons to go at the same time. And "Where to land after the jump?" is part of the problem: there's no such thing as an association of humans that never has problems. So what is a deal-breaker?

This post goes into more than just my current situation. I'm looking at all the reasons I've either had myself or heard from others about leaving a church where they have long been a member. I am not looking to catalog my church's issues so much as working toward clarity about what is a deal-breaker.

When I first wrote this post, I split it into two lists: one about doctrinal reasons, and one about all the things that a church does besides convey doctrine. I'm also considering that dividing line between doctrinal reasons and the rest. For this current post, I'm bracketing the doctrinal reasons as something that's in the scope of a blogging series on controversies among churches (a series I've currently paused that I'd hope to resume at some point). There is some question whether it's legitimate to join or leave a church over reasons that aren't doctrinal. I think that's best discussed after we see the reasons themselves and can assess what kind of reasons they are, if not doctrinal.
  • The church or the leader shows little sign of interest in Jesus (or: the interest in Jesus is limited to his death)
  • The sermons portray God almost exclusively as wrathful and vengeful, as Someone that nobody of good conscience would serve willingly
  • The church or the leader puts themselves above the Christ or the Bible by routinely altering passages being quoted, effectively dropping passages, or having other authorities that supersede it
  • The leader uses the leadership position to teach things contrary to what the church body teaches; any supervision of that leader has proved ineffective
  • In worship services, the church or the leader uses some private or sectarian statement of faith in place of one of the ecumenical creeds
  • The leader has a temperament that is not well-suited for leadership: too thin-skinned to accept feedback and therefore address problems as they arise
  • The church or its leaders take a manipulative approach to problem-solving on matters that are internal to the church. (Examples: the effort is directed to stopping the suggestion that something needs to be addressed; the effort is directed to stopping discussion prematurely; if the leader's efforts at persuasion have been unsuccessful then the leadership suggests that the membership should fall in line as a matter of the leader's authority)
  • The church or its leaders take a "click-bait" approach to announcing or promoting certain events, using outrage-mongering or emotional manipulation to increase attendance
  • The church uses sermons to promote income-generating workshops or retreats
  • The church budget does not devote enough to helping the poor
  • The church is not warm or welcoming; there is daylight between the group of people who are members and the group of people who are welcomed and included
  • The church does not look after its own in times of crisis, or looks after certain members but not others
  • The church does not look beyond its own in times of crisis, and does not open its doors or seek out the hurting
  • The church or the leader expresses disagreement with other churches in a way that shows enmity towards them
  • The church or its leaders promote an anti-vax agenda
  • There is some concern whether the leader has lost faith, or is still a Christian, or still holds the beliefs of the same denomination as the congregation
To anyone reading, I'd be interested in hearing what you can relate to, or anything you'd like to add about either your own reasons or reasons you've heard from others. Again, for now, I'm not focusing on the doctrinal reasons so much as on the rest of what it means to be in a church, outside the contents of a catechism class.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Personal (business trip, no weekly post today)

I'm on a business trip which requires that I'll be traveling almost all waking hours on Sunday, so will miss my weekly update. Hope to see you all next weekend!

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Evangelism - Fishers of Men and Bogeymen

At church, today's reading from the gospels was when Jesus told some fishermen "I will make you fishers of men." They would spend their lives drawing people into the kingdom of God. We've been drawn in, and in turn we draw others.

I'm not completely sure that evangelism deserves its bad reputation. Its bad reputation goes something like this: some horrible person (no doubt a white man) begins verbally abusing people, and his goal is to manipulate them into loathing themselves, into seeing themselves as horrible people, and into agreeing that he is the rescuer. He uses verbal shame attacks and guilt attacks. He blames them for any mistake they have ever made. He tells them that they deserve torture and hell for how bad they are. His goal is to orchestrate such a crescendo of self-doubt and self-loathing that they lose all hope in themselves; he will then offer the solution to the problem that he caused as the result of this sickly coercive psychological dance.

I'm not sure I've ever seen it done that way in real life. But that's the thing about the Bogey Man: it's not necessary for the threat to be real, only for the fear to be real. It still shapes how we think and act. We don't want to be that; we don't want to be seen as that; so we take the easy way and stay quiet.

As for the fishermen that day -- I'm working on the premise that Jesus knew what he was talking about -- they then spent their lives drawing people into the kingdom of God. They brought people into a place of welcome at the feast of salvation and in the world to come, where sins are forgiven and we become who God had created us to be. It is a redemption story, and our souls are healed.

They weren't bogeymen, but fishers of men. They worked towards bringing hope and restoring fellowship among the people of the world. How beautiful the sight of those who bring good news. May the fear of the bogeyman be banished, and the message of joy remain.

Sunday, February 03, 2019

I'd rather be _______

Today I'm taking a brief pause in the ongoing series, for those keeping track. 

When the cat is bored, maybe he'll take a nap; or if he's got more energy maybe he'll attack something. If he attacks, his target might be a toy hedgehog, or a pillow, or my hand. And from his point of view it makes complete sense to attack. But from another point of view he wouldn't be doing that if he had something better to do with his energy. I saw the same kind of things in my children when they were growing up: if they started grousing, nothing would cheer them up so much as a better way to spend their time. 

I get the same feeling sometimes, and sometimes I think I see it in the people that I know. We could be building something beautiful, something enduring. We could be doing something that matters. We could be changing the world. And our frustration can turn into temper, and criticizing people that we dislike can look like problem-solving, even if it doesn't actually solve anything, even if it's an exercise in self-righteousness and judgmental attitudes. 

It's easy to find a scapegoat. All kinds of people have all kinds of problems, and I can justify myself by pointing the finger at anyone who isn't myself. I can stay outraged at other people all day long. It builds self-esteem, but not in a good way. Honestly, nobody else's faults are stopping me from doing something more productive, and spending my time that way turns me into part of the problem. I'm just passing the buck for my own lack of direction. 

So: here are my thoughts for a good half-dozen things I'd rather be doing than criticizing others (including things where I could hope others join the effort):
  1. Working on reunification among the Christian churches. How many of our theological differences should honestly prevent fellowship? 
  2. Striving for complete honesty and mutual respect when discussing our divisions. 
  3. Training in kindness. 
  4. Contributing to the quality and integrity of Biblical studies as an academic discipline
  5. Finding my voice outside of my blog, and no longer allowing myself to be silenced by those who claim the right to judge me or to make up stories about people like me
  6. Reclaiming fellowship and hospitality as necessary parts of the faithful life, and advocating for it in the life of the church. Church involves community, and belonging, and mattering. These are not optional parts of human life or optional parts of Christianity, and deserve better than to be dismissed as unworthy of serious consideration.