Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Nilsen (and Others) on Leaving and Finding Church

On Rachel Held Evans’ blog today, there is a guest post by David Nilsen entitled “On Leaving—-and Finding—-Church”. Here are some of my favorite quotes from the post and the comments, along with my remarks:

1. David Nilsen says: “My favorite image from this journey has been from a Church of the Brethren we’re considering. It’s a boring, uncool church, but comfortable being what it is. They sing hymns accompanied by a piano, and no one leads the singing, and they sound shrill and awkward and I kind of love them for it. One week a partially blind old woman was sitting near the middle of the sanctuary. She was wearing a hideous pink dress she was clearly proud of. In the middle of a hymn she pulled out a flute and began playing along as loudly as she could. No one was phased. They kept right on singing around her. I get the feeling this happens somewhat regularly, and the fact that no one has suggested she leave her flute at home tells me a great deal about the hearts of these people.”

I identified with this statement because I like churches that are comfortable about what they are, even if they’re not flashy or large. I used to attend a couple of Seventh-Day Adventist churches that continually whined and complained about not having more people, and that was a turn-off to me. When I was shopping for churches a while back in Cincinnati, I visited a mainline Protestant church—-a Presbyterian Church (USA)—-and the new pastor was lamenting about the decline of mainline Protestantism. I wish that churches would just be comfortable with what they are and stop complaining about their so-called deficiencies.

I also identified with what David said because I love my own church, for, even though it’s not flashy or large, it is an accepting place. I don’t consider my church to be “boring” or “uncool”, however, for I do find that I get enough spiritual meat there for me to blog about. But it’s not the type of church that I would have attended ten years ago, for I was looking for flash, and I was a smug conservative evangelical who considered mainline Protestant churches to be “lukewarm”. Nowadays, I appreciate low-key, accepting churches that don’t try to ramrod stuff down my throat. That brings me to the next quote:

2. Ed says: “I have left several evangelical churches in the past few years, for one reason or another – relocation, being kicked out due to differences, lack of resonance, a growing cult atmosphere, etc. Some of those departures went better than others. Sometimes the disharmonious nature of the departure was my fault, and sometimes it wasn’t…I’m currently attending two churches – which makes for a busy Sunday on most weeks. On one hand I am attending a very ‘cool’ evangelical mega-church, which for much of my life I would have considered to be the ultimate experience. Sadly, now that I have found it, I no longer feel much of a kinship with it. Week after week I find it becoming less and less relevant to my journey and my emerging beliefs. Also, as I am divorced, I am looking for a non-judgmental experience. And, while this evangelical group creates TV ads promising that there won’t be any spiritual pat-downs, I tend to suspect that at the end of the day they might not be able to resist the urge to revert to form. The other side of my current Sunday experience is a UCC/Congregational church that tends, at the same time, to be far more conservative in its Sunday morning worship – yet far more liberal in its theology. I truly feel welcomed there, and like you, I was amazed to find Christians at liberal churches who sincerely loved God and were serious about spiritual growth. There is a myth in evangelical circles that suggests that evangelicals somehow have a corner on spirituality, and that is clearly not the case.”

All I can say in response to that is “Amen!”

3. Patricia says: “I know this article addresses primarily those who find themselves on the outs, but I think churches tend to rationalize, justify and spiritualize away the reasons people leave. There’s a lot books written and theories about generational leavers and such. But you’ll notice churches never want to directly ask people why they left. I’m curious, did anyone from Grace Church really want to hear about why you felt you had no choice but to leave? It’s much easier for churches to put a good spin on it (themselves always being in the right, of course) than face up to making casualties, admitting fault and actually apologizing for it to bring about some healing (even though that’s the central reality of Christianity?! - Luke 24:47). And even in the unlikely event of an apology, there’ll be an obligatory justification in there. At least, in my observations.”

Bryan says: “To also speak to your relevant point: churches often feel they way they ‘do’ church or community is a ‘chemistry’ thing; if you like it enough to join in why bother if you grow to dislike it and leave? Sounds like the issue is yours. Just seek a better fit.”

I have a lot of anger against evangelicalism—-the narrow-mindedness and arrogance that I have encountered within it, the guilt-trips that it puts on people, the self-righteous evangelical jerks whom I have met, and the list goes on. But my anger is not as great as it once was, for nowadays I wonder why exactly that belief system or the people who adhere to it should take up any space at all in my mind. So evangelicals believe in certain things, and some of them are jerks. It’s a free country. I don’t have to be a part of them!

At the same time, I have hoped that evangelicals would take notice of the many people who are leaving their ranks, and would do at least some introspection from an attitude of humility. Many of them have and will. But I think that Bryan makes an interesting point about why some do not: they don’t feel a compulsion to be all things to all people. They’re content to let people leave a group that was not a good fit for them and to seek out instead a group that is a better fit. I can respect this, on some level. I liked something that I once heard on a podcast, in which someone was saying that, rather than expecting every Christian group to accept us and complaining when one does not, we should seek out a group where we are accepted. But I still like it when churches at least try to make everybody feel welcome—-to be a home. Granted, this cannot be done perfectly, but it can be done, on some level.

4. David Nilsen says: “When you realize you can no longer grow spiritually in your current church environment and there is no possibility of that changing, leave. It’s time.”

Linda says: “If there comes a point where you are unable to worship, where you’ve tried talking with those in leadership, where staying becomes a deterrant to your life and others, it’s time to head for the door.”

There have been times in the past when I have wrestled over whether or not to leave a church or a spiritual group. In many cases, my problem is that I do not feel accepted in those groups. But can I grow spiritually in them? In some cases, the answer at which I’ve arrived is “no”. But there have been other times when I am in a group where I don’t fit in, and I am actually getting stuff out of the teaching. In those cases, the choice between staying and leaving is harder.

And then there have been times when I do feel accepted at a church, but I just do not want to go there. A while back, I left one church that I visited for a month because I didn’t like being pressured to socialize every Saturday afternoon, plus I did not get anything out of the sermons. And so I left, and I found other churches to attend, which worked out well.

I know what many will say: I’m focusing on what I can get rather than what I can give at church. But, seriously, aren’t you better able to give in a place where you feel accepted—-where you feel as if you’re a part of the group?

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