Shaking the Shame from Religion

Last night Vicki and I had the wonderful privilege of hearing Rev Dr Donna Schaper of Judson Memorial Church in New York City speak about public ministry—namely ‘Shaking the Shame from Religion.’

From the very start, beginning with the opening prayer, her message was one that brought a breath of fresh and invigorating air to all who sat in the pews.

Dr Schaper began by comparing church people with the growing group of 20- to 30-somethings who are choosing to be “Spiritual but nor religious’ (SBNR).  In her observations, she noted how church folk seem to always be busy doing the work of God, and—often unconsciously—believing they should be doing more, and feeling shame because they don’t. Ultimately, this leads to blaming other people, forces, or institutions for the lack of end results. ‘SBNR people want to know God, but all we [The Church] want to do is work, work, work.’

Schaper recalled how Rev James Forbes of Riverside Church in New York City was asked to compare black churches in America with white churches. He said, ‘Black churches know they need God; white churches think God needs them.’ The white churches mentioned seem to be typical of the average western progressive Church.

In proposing a way forward, Schaper makes these points:

Can we please notice what we have lost? The world for which we have been prepared has been taken away from us. We live in a society that is grossly inequitable, where the majority do not have the resources necessary to live the life they were created to live.

Would you mind if we developed self interest as a conscious motivator? Motivation from a moral grounding, or from a mentality of ‘I should do this’ won’t produce the results—this has been proved many times. If we appeal to everyone’s self-interest, we can work to eradicate poverty because giving everyone the chance to prosper is good for everybody.

Could we rethink the mission trip, the field trip, the exposure trip? People who go on a mission trip help themselves more than the people they go to help. In fact, many times they do more harm than good.

Can we learn to always say prayer at the table. We need to be grateful for what we have.

We are all broken. Dr Schaper’s favourite Bible verse is Romans 3:23, ‘For all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God.’ Why is this so important? Because it levels the playing field—we are all in the same boat as broken people who sometimes do and think wrong things. She recalled writing a letter to her family at one point in her life which started with the words, ‘I think our family is too judgmental.’ Even in saying this, she realised she had made a judgement. But we all pass judgment on others (we’re all ‘Punishmentalists’ to a degree), and always will. This emphasises our need to receive and to give grace. Shame tells us we are not worthy of a connection with God or with others. Grace says we are worthy of a connection with God and with each other. Therefore, grace should be preeminent in all our interactions.

Perfectionism, striving to be good, being afraid of stepping out of line and enduring God’s punishment, is anti-grace, and fuels the negative cycle of should, shame and blame. Our first response when faced with a negative circumstance is often, ‘What did I do wrong?’ We must reject this way of thinking and replace it with an understanding of God’s great love. There are times we, individually and as churches, will do both right and wrong things. We need to accept this as part of who we are and move on with life. If we accept each other as we are, we are living the life of grace and being channels of God’s grace to each other and to our world.

Our mission will be stronger when it is full of grace and fun. Our mission will be weaker when it is full if should and shame and blame.

Dr Schaper recognized there is so much to be done to alleviate poverty and to work for justice in our world, including the need to care for our planet. Yet it will not be ‘should, shame and blame’ that will achieve any progress in making our world a better place for all, but an outworking of God’s love and grace in the lives of ordinary people.

During the question time following, Dr Schaper spoke about many practical aspects of public ministry, encouraging us to have a look at Brene Brown’s TED talks on vulnerability (

In speaking about the best way forward in reaching those in need, she stated numerous times ‘The more we tell it instead of show it the worse it gets.’

She also observed how that many churches claim to be ‘open’ to all—welcoming people of all faiths, ethnicities, and sexual orientations, but so few are ‘open AND affirming’ (O&A). The ‘affirming’ part goes beyond welcoming into valuing and connecting with people just as they are, not imposing shame or fear on them, and not expecting anything from them except that they be who they are, fully and without shame.

I left the forum appreciating more fully the love of God and the all-encompassing grace God extends to all. I’m looking forward now to reading a few of Donna’s books and seeing how this new perspective shapes how I live and interact with others.

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I am an ordinary man, living an extraordinary life with my wife and partner-in-greatness, Vicki. We have two amazing kids who are living incredible adventures of their own. I enjoy most things I do, but especially coffee, the beach and a good read. My opinions are my own.

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