If you are dissatisfied with your church experience, either as a church member or as a member of the clergy, or are no longer in the church, you are not alone. You are not a malcontent, and there is an excellent chance that your dissatisfaction is not your fault. You are in good company. The problems you sense have been with us for a long time. They’ve been sensed by others–for over a thousand years.
Taking a cue from Angie’s List™ I’m going to share some edifying church feedback here on “Angel’s List.” It is negative, but it is edifying, which is to say encouraging. It is encouraging because it helps when we know we’re not alone. Things that have bothered you, and options you’ve considered, have been talked about before.
Danish prophet and philosopher, sometimes called the Father of Christian Existentialism.
It was a beautiful Sunday Morning in Copenhagen. The Bishop was scheduled to preach at the cathedral. He was dressed in his very finest and costliest liturgical robes. Slowly and majestically he ascended into the richly ornamented pulpit. His graying hair added a touch of wisdom to his already striking and dignified appearance. The entire Royal Family was present, dressed in their finest. The women sparkled with jewels. Several rows were filled by members of the Danish Academy of Science. The rest of the congregation consisted of the most prominent citizens of Denmark. There were bankers, lawyers, judges, and wealthy merchants, all with their families. The Bishop began to speak. He began, “Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, my text this morning is taken from I Corinthians, 1:28, Behold, God has chosen you for himself, you, the despised and rejected of the world.” The congregation listened to this with utmost seriousness.
And no one laughed.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945)
German pastor and theologian, participant in Hitler assassination conspiracy, coined the phrase “religionless Christianity.”
How can Christ become the Lord of the religionless as well? Are there religionless Christians? If religion is only a garment of Christianity – and even this garment has looked very different at times – then what is a religionless Christianity?
The church is the church only when it exists for others. To make a start, it should give away all its property to those in need. The clergy must live solely on the free-will offerings of their congregations, or possibly engage in some secular calling. The church must share in the secular problems of ordinary human life, not dominating, but helping and serving. It must tell men of every calling what it means to live in Christ, to exist for others. In particular, our own church will have to take the field against the vices of hubris, power-worship, envy, and humbug, as the roots of all evil. It will have to speak of moderation, purity, trust, loyalty, constancy, patience, discipline, humility, contentment, and modesty. It must not under-estimate the importance of human example (which has its origin in the humanity of Jesus and is so important in Paul’s teaching); it is not abstract argument, but example, that gives its word emphasis and power. (I hope to take up later this subject of ‘example’ and its place in the New Testament; it is something that we have almost entirely forgotten.)
Author of Preventing a Church Split and Church Planter, emphasizing “the Deeper Life.”
There is not so much as one passage of scripture in all the New Testament to justify the modern day pastoral practice. The modern day pastoral concept began only four hundred years ago because of an odd incident which took place in Wittenberg, Germany, during the reformation, and it’s not a New Testament concept but you are still stuck with it! The church building, of course, was invented single-handedly by Constantine in exactly 323 AD.
In fact, the whole concept of ‘pastor’ hangs on one little word in a long string of words found in Ephesians, combined with an accident of history around 1530. Dear fellow minister of the gospel, you have a totally untenable, wholly unworkable, scripturally indefensible job!
Take another look at the pastoral role as it is presently practiced. It has not a single verse in the New Testament willing to justify its existence. Step back and look at the origins of most of what you do, then take another look at the fine print and the job description. The whole concept is unworkable and quite close to a study in madness! There is nothing in Christendom that needs so radical a reworking as the modern day practice of pastor.
Quoted by Diana Butler Bass in Christianity After Religion.
The difference between religion and faith…religion seeks conformity and control–scriptural infallibility, and literalism, imposition of beliefs upon others–and cannot abide any other way of encountering God that falls outside of its defined boundaries. Faith seeks freedom and life for all to experience God on their own terms and in their own ways–and then allows for communal experiences and collaboration to build a better world.
Author of The Vampire Chronicles, The Life of Christ.
For those who care, and I understand if you don’t: Today I quit being a Christian. I’m out. I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being “Christian” or to being part of Christianity. It’s simply impossible for me to “belong” to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I’ve tried. I’ve failed. I’m an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else.
I quit being a Christian. I’m out. In the name of Christ, I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life. In the name of Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian. Amen.
Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875)
Danish children’s writer.
“What a marvellous train!”
“And the colors! The colors of that beautiful fabric! I have never seen anything like it in my life!” They all tried to conceal their disappointment at not being able to see the clothes, and since nobody was willing to admit his own stupidity and incompetence, they all behaved as the two scoundrels had predicted.
A child, however, who had no important job and could only see things as his eyes showed them to him, went up to the carriage.
“The Emperor is naked,” he said.
“Fool!” his father reprimanded, running after him. “Don’t talk nonsense!” He grabbed his child and took him away. But the boy’s remark, which had been heard by the bystanders, was repeated over and over again until everyone cried:
“The boy is right! The Emperor is naked! It’s true!”
The Emperor realized that the people were right but could not admit to that. He though it better to continue the procession under the illusion that anyone who couldn’t see his clothes was either stupid or incompetent. And he stood stiffly on his carriage, while behind him a page held his imaginary mantle.
In the interest of some semblance of balance, let me include a few words from a United Church of Christ pastor.
Reverend Doctor Lillian Daniel says: Spiritual But Not Religious? Please Stop Boring Me.
On airplanes, I dread the conversation with the person who finds out I am a minister and wants to use the flight time to explain to me that he is “spiritual but not religious.” Such a person will always share this as if it is some kind of daring insight, unique to him, bold in its rebellion against the religious status quo.
Next thing you know, he’s telling me that he finds God in the sunsets. These people always find God in the sunsets. And in walks on the beach. Sometimes I think these people never leave the beach or the mountains, what with all the communing with God they do on hilltops, hiking trails and … did I mention the beach at sunset yet?
Like people who go to church don’t see God in the sunset! Like we are these monastic little hermits who never leave the church building. How lucky we are to have these geniuses inform us that God is in nature. As if we don’t hear that in the psalms, the creation stories and throughout our deep tradition.
Jeremiah’s Description of the New Covenant
“This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” (Jeremiah 31: 33-34)