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.


Kevin Knox said...

Such a sad question. I'm sorry. I very much like your list, but I won't leave my answer there.

You seem to be listing deal-breakers for more conservative churches, and that's cool. A list of deal-breakers for a more liberal church would look very different. That's also cool. And then there'd be a list for more ecstatic churches and more intellectual churches. It goes on and on.

I like big, generalized ideas that might apply to all churches equally, so I'll throw one out here.

Jesus said, "Moses gave divorce because of the hardness of your hearts". It's some kind of hardness of heart that can't be endured, but it's complex to define. I believe it's the thing in a man that makes him believe all the world is a stage on which he's performing, and all the world is his audience. It's that world view that informs his greatest acts of magnanimity, for what performance is complete without greatness, and defines his lowest deeds of selfish cruelty, because any disrespect to him is almost a slight against the universe itself.

Let's just call it narcissism.

It's possible, or rather easy, or maybe even unavoidable, for any Christian to sometimes be narcissistic toward God; the Christian can believe God mostly exists to save him and to be sure at some times God is thankful for the gift he is to the Divine. It's easy to see that narcissism in the Pharisees, but it takes a special honesty to see it in ourselves. It's there.

And so, we come to the pastor.

There may be no job on earth more easily abused by a narcissist or more naturally attractive one. We can all be sure many of the pulpits in our land are filled by true narcissists. But to remember the point, narcissism is a part of every one of us. It's not a binary thing, but a spectrum. I can't ask whether I'm a narcissist, but to what degree.

The only church I ever fled, I left because its leader declared himself the last hope for Christianity in America. He'd so totally bought into his own narrative of romantic glory, there was no hope of recovery. As a church, we'd lost sight of others, except as a field of the needy for our message and our salvation. We'd taken to calling ourselves *the* church. There was no question I'd stayed too long, by the time I left.

We can't flee every sign of narcissism, so what's the deal-breaker? I'm voting it's the moment a church breaks fellowship with the mass of other good Christians, the moment their narrative requires them to declare themselves the beacon to whom all others should look for hope.

I'm willing to go a long way down the road of heresy with brothers and sisters who realize they're not God's gift to the world. No cult can do that, but any humble, erring group can. I can be happy around people confident enough to qualify as proud, as long as they're not narcissistic. You list a few things I don't mind at all. Altering passages, altering church teachings, and displacing creeds can all be done as experiments and prods to deeper thinking. It takes a smidge of pride to do that, but I'm happy to go there. It's when those things are done to isolate the church from other Christians and make them dependent on one man's interpretation of everything, it gets scary.

All this aligns with Jesus statement on the subject. He said you'd know a tree by its fruit. It's not the doctrine of a man or his teaching, but the way he loves others, or by contrast decides to love himself at the expense of others. Most of your list is filled with things like that, things of fruit rather than teaching, so I'm happily impressed with it.

May the Lord guide and bless you through this decision.

Martin LaBar said...

Politics (any variety) plays too big a role, so much so that rights (or lefts) don't feel welcome.

Weekend Fisher said...

Hey Kevin

Lots to think about. Thanks for that. I definitely agree that hardness of heart is all over the place, and is a huge part of why the problems are so stubborn.

& Good to see you again!

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Weekend Fisher said...

Hey Martin

I definitely agree with that. And it's almost impossible for a place that is partisan to be healthy; it cuts off too much of the view to be balanced.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF