Church Experiences

The current subtitle of the Fields of Grace blog is “There’s a place where religion finally dies.” I change this from time to time to convey the message of the song from which the title is taken. On one hand I want to proclaim, promote, and preach grace in all its fullness (which always results in gracious living and forgiving), and on the other hand there is so much dead religion and religiosity that too often gets in the way of seeing grace evidenced in the professing Church of Jesus.

Following is a reader comment that Brian McLaren posted on his blog recently which says a lot about an uncomfortableness I feel and a tension I live with every day in my journey into grace.

I have recently been reading your books and website. I am constantly amazed at how God puts people in our paths who we can walk parts of our journey with…Your story and mine are very similar. In my 30 year journey with Christ (made “official” at age 10 – though I don’t ever remember not knowing Jesus) I have been to various churches from Presbyterian, UCC, to Methodist, to Assemblies of God and other Pentacostal influence (still detoxing), to a year in Catholic school, to my current Vineyard. I have always seen beautiful things in each (I love the idea of the Rosary, I love “walking in the gifts of the Spirit”, find value in the less ‘spirit-filled’ denominations) and have grown with each new exposure. The problem I have encountered the most is the problem of feeling like I’m some sort of rebel when I start to ask questions and poke around at the theologies/hermeneutics, eschatologies that don’t sit with my spirit. I find that there are usually only a few I can share my thoughts with and not get the ‘I still love you but I’m worried about you’ look or warnings about being careful of who /what I read because there are false teachers lurking in the darkness. I have longed for a harmonizing of the positive things I see in all the faiths that call themselves by Jesus’ name, and an honoring of those who do not. I like to venture into other camps and find Jesus there. It’s awesome. But not popular, not deemed ‘safe’ unless you are a person with a proper degree in conservative Biblical studies. Finding your writings as well as those of some others (Rob Bell – gasp! He says we should contemplate!), Gulley and Mullholland (oh, no! God might save everyone?!) have been so refreshing.

This weekend I was watching a baby dedication/baptism at a Methodist church and found myself chafing under some of the language (though stated in pretty words) that seemed to indicate that this child was sinful and dirty prior to the baptism and “part of the family of faith” only AFTER water was placed on her head…I get the whole symbolism behind it, and I know the Biblical grounds for it, I just wonder if people would be better served if we baptized them into a knowledge of who they already are because of the work Christ already accomplished – especially when dedicating or Baptizing a child. Maybe that’s heretical and erroneous. I just can’t look at a child and see sinfulness.

I don’t want to leave the universal Church as Anne Rice recently declared. My xxx family has exposed me to a kind of community love that I can’t imagine leaving. I want to stay – and feel called to stay – and maybe weave into our family a broader view of our impossibly huge God.I need to know I am not alone in this…So, thanks, man, for your courage and example!! That’s all I really wanted to say. Thanks if you made it this far!!

(I guess we both suffer from long paragraph/parenthetical statement syndrome as well)….

(Brian’s comment: Thanks for your note. This sin-focused language relates a lot to the Greco-Roman narrative I talk about in New Kind of Christianity. If you’ve never read Jerome Berryman’s writings on children and God, I highly recommend them. I finished Godly Play recently and am enjoying Children and the Theologians now.)

* * * * * * *

There seems to be a ever-increasing consumerist approach to the Church today which demonstrates itself in a revolving-door Christianity. The average church isn’t growing but people are coming and going, “tasting” the church and deciding whether or not it is a place where they can settle (at least until the next distraction comes along).

I believe that it is important to be part of a community over the long haul. While my family has left churches on occasion, this is not the preferred option, and we did so only after intensive prayer and self-examination. It’s good for the family to have a sense of belonging to a group of people. It’s good for the children to see dad and mum working through problems and disagreements in a healthy, mature way and not simply leaving because it’s gotten too tough or there are too many points of contention. It’s also good the extended family to see that, despite imperfections, we have thrown in our lot with these people for better or worse; this is our church. Pastors will change. Worship styles won’t last. The way things are done now may not be the way they are done in the future (unless you’re a Baptist, prayuhz Jaaay-zusss!).

What remains constant is the people.

But we hear the moaning every day:

“My kids aren’t / I’m not getting anything from this church. I’m leaving.”

“The pastor is a control freak / not in control. I’m out of here.”

“The worship is too much like a concert / too informal. Goodbye.”

“The theology isn’t in keeping with my interpretation. See you later.”

“There hasn’t been a new convert in church in _____ years.”

“There isn’t enough _________________ (fill in the blank)”

“The members are too ______________ (Fill in the blank).”

Vicki and I were talking last night about a variety of church experiences we have shared as a family, and a particular church experience came to mind where a number of people threatened to leave the church if Pastor Z_____ didn’t leave. We heard a lot of these same statements in a congregational meeting that was called to vote him out.

This brought to mind tensions that exist in our minds because of the differences between what our church (pastor, board, congregation as a whole) promote and what we believe is our own role as followers of Jesus. Vicki turned to me and said (regarding the questions above): “What if the shoe was on the other foot and we agreed with everything that was said and done, but a lot of other people didn’t?”

Would we be gracious? Would we encourage dialogue? Would we be open to questions?

Or would those who disagreed with us “pack it in” and leave the Church?

And how would that make us feel as their family?

How much of what we all do would be dictated by a consumerist Christianity mindset–I’m happy with the way things are going (my way) so I’ll stay. When I become unhappy, I’ll leave. (This mentality is very “I” centered and truly has nothing to do with the Biblical “one another” teachings.

I think there does come a time when the tension and stress becomes too great and people must move on (see my post on spiritual abuse).

But there also comes a time when we need to say, “These are my people. This is my family. We’re not perfect. We disagree. We’re human. But we are still brothers and sisters.”

Let the conversation continue . . .

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