So we come to the final entry in my Disbelieving Church series. In addition to the Introduction the series has included reflections on Worship, Preaching, Buildings, Kingdom Building, Evangelism, God’s Plan, Salvation, Being Nice, Structures, Prayer, Answers, and Ministry. That makes a round dozen posts plus introduction and conclusion. This seemed the right place to stop, but I am finding it difficult to let go of the series. This is partly because I still have unfinished business with ‘church’ and partly because I don’t know what to explore next!
It has been my intention throughout this series to refrain from moaning or “throwing stones” at the church and focus instead on critique and deconstruction. Obviously my observations come with a sizeable helping of experience, but it is my hope that my readers realise I have not come to these conclusions merely based on “a bad experience with church.” Rather they have developed naturally out of a more than thirty years of living with and investing in churches and more than a decade of theological education. Also, I would not describe this experience as a loss of faith, for the simple reason that although my relationship with God (however conceived) was for many years mediated through my relationship with ‘church,’ it was never predicated on it.
To close this series, I offer three concluding points to balance out my three introductory disclaimers:
Firstly, I have sometimes been advised by persons who have similar problems with some of the issues I have raised to “redeem” the terms, in other words, to redefine them in ways I am happy with and, when using them, do so with this private, acceptable meaning. Similarly, I have received advice to just use the language people will understand, thus allowing collaboration towards positive common goals. While I value and respect the people who have offered this, and similar, advice, it isn’t for me. If I use a term like “evangelism” for a way of life that demonstrates the good news of Jesus’ message of love, freedom and wholeness in conversation with a church-going person who uses it to mean “saving people from eternal damnation,” and I do not explain my meaning, I am unable to understand this as anything other than deceit. I allow them to think I agree, all the time holding my own private meanings of churchy terms. It makes me feel like a spy and a liar. Equally, when I did pursue this way of life, I lived in fear of being discovered and outed as not a ‘proper’ Christian Redeeming the terms may be a helpful exercise for my faith, but I do not see how it could allow me to remain “in” “church”.
Secondly, after almost three decades in various forms of service to the church, I have discovered that my sense of self-worth has long been predicated on that service. As long as I believed myself to be contributing to the work of the church, that is the work of God’s kingdom, that is, serving Jesus in the world, I felt my life had meaning. Now that I find I can no longer serve this institution, I am bereft of my idol and in search of my God.
Thirdly, there are, of course, many people for whom this does not seem to be a problem. They take the ‘stay in and change the system’ approach. They are realists who take a long-term view of things, and if the ‘church’ of which they are a part appears to be heading in roughly the right direction over the long term, they are willing to tolerate the shortcomings and deviations that I find offensive in pursuit of that eventual good. I respect their choice, but I cannot emulate it. I have finally accepted that I am an idealist. I am also honest. I will not compromise or water-down or lie or hide myself any longer for the sake of the system. Many of these are people I like and respect, some I would even count friends, but I can no longer pretend I am willing to make the sacrifices they make – of conscience, of self, of goals – merely to prolong the life of what I have come to see as an outmoded, cumbersome, exclusivist and frequently harmful institution that has long since strayed from the message of Jesus and living divine love.
Postscript: As this series has run for several months now, I felt this was a logical place to stop, but not necessarily because I have nothing more to say. I am now considering developing my ideas further into book form for which I would welcome comments and advice.
Thanks for reading.