Some time ago, a minister working in a central London church offered this reflection as a personal “creed” of sorts. It is written in what I would consider a classic theological style – building negations that seem to lead to nihilism followed by a series of positive assertions that balance out the denied with what is affirmed. The first time I read this personal creed, I was drawn into the language and ideas, the almost shocking list of “do not believe”, but in the end the assertions seemed, somehow, to be so much more powerful and life-giving than the list of doctrines and Christian buzz-phrases denied. I wasn’t so sure at the time that I agreed with all that the author said, but I could affirm him as a brother of the faith and was glad to be able to say “I know him”.
Over the last several months, my own thoughts on belief and faith have undergone profound change. Having pursued recognised ministry in the Baptist Union for several years, I am now seriously considering just walking away when I am little more than a year from finally achieving that goal. As I have attempted to get to the bottom of this change in myself, I have made a shocking discovery. I don’t believe. There is so much I don’t believe. Being a minister-in-training helped me to see how much I don’t believe and, if I am honest, destroyed much of the faith I had left.
I have struggled with this chiefly because there are so many people, many of them minsters in churches, whom I like and respect. Some I count friends. Others I admire. Their faithfulness, commitment and sacrifice is something I wanted to emulate. I longed to join their club, but I find I can’t. So if you’re one of those people, still invested in church, I have much respect and affection for you.
But I don’t believe in church anymore.
Before I continue, let me clarify a few things. Firstly, I am well aware that the word “church” in many people’s minds should refer to a community of believers/Jesus followers, not an institution or a building. Unfortunately church as it exists today, at least in my experience, is firmly grounded in institutions and buildings, and the communities of believers that occupy these structures are shaped by these buildings and the larger institutions of which they are a part. With the culture of church we have inherited, the connection and resultant influence is inevitable. So, while I might still come to believe in communities of Jesus followers, I do not believe in “church,” as I have seen and experienced it over three decades and two countries.
Secondly, I am aware that there may well be churches functioning in our society today for whom most of the things I am going to say may be inapplicable. These churches may function healthfully and participate in life-giving, love-showing relationships within and without their building walls. They may not be prey to the negative forces that have destroyed my own belief in church. I wish them well in their journey to live the love of Jesus in their world, but for me and my house, we will serve the Lord in other ways, places and communities.
Thirdly, I am aware that this comes from a place of idealism, a quality in myself that I have long repressed, with depressive consequences. The flaws that I see in church may be inevitable, and the future for which I long in which the legacy of Jesus flourishes without institutional church may be a naive dream, but I have finally accepted that to remain “in” church and its structures is so much of a compromise of my beliefs and principles that it basically equates to living a lie. I can no longer sustain this life and must be an idealist, whatever the result of my dreams and longings.
Over the coming weeks I will post a series of reflections on those things that have contributed to my loss of faith in church. Perhaps this is rather self-indulgent, but although my posts will be cathartic in the writing, I am hoping they will also offer a timely challenge or comfort to others who are, in the end, just struggling to be true to the message of Jesus, as am I.