I may not be attending a church right now, but I believe that I should be.
Unlike a lot of liberal Christians, I don’t flinch at the notion that we’re obligated to worship as a community. I believe that true spiritual growth can only happen when we’re challenged in life, and Christians who go it alone tend to seek out self-serving outlets for their spirituality. Confirmation bias may be a major problem for the church, but it’s a problem for the unchurched as well. It’s far too easy to fall into the trap of limiting your social circles to people who already agree with you. It’s also far too easy to fall out of the habit of prayer and devotional reading when you aren’t surrounded by peers who hold each other accountable. Sure, you can wax poetic about how spirituality shouldn’t operate on a schedule, but in our modern age we’re conditioned to live by schedules. And the deeper into an unstructured spiritual life one goes, the easier it is to let other activities take the place of worship.
This might come as a surprise given the amount of space I’ve devoted here to my misadventures in the Christian wilderness. But it was prompted by an essay by Episcopalian priest Tom Ehrich entitled Church Shouldn’t Be This Hard.
When I first read Ehrich’s post, I found myself agreeing with it enthusiastically. Church should be a safe place. It should be safe to confess our sins. It should be safe to love whoever one feels called to love. It should be safe to fail at these things. And yes, for many church is a dangerous place, and even the most dedicated churchgoers agree that people in church tend to be:
“guarded, self-protective, hemmed in by tradition and expectation, [and] required to obey rules.”
But the more I thought about it, the more I questioned Ehrich’s vision. Anyone who insists on these things as a condition for going to church is setting themselves up for disappointment. Mankind is sinful, and any institution we establish, no matter how lofty its goals, will always fall well short of its ambitions. That doesn’t mean that churches shouldn’t strive to meet Ehrich’s vision. But it does mean that part of spirituality is learning how to deal with the imperfections of those around you. For many people church is hard, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
So when I came across Rod Dreher’s critique of Ehrich, I found myself mostly in agreement with Rod. While I think Dreher jumps too quickly towards assuming that Ehrich’s vision is a “standard liberal Protestant agenda,” I also believe Dreher provides a more useful vision of a church that functions within the real-life context of sinners trying to make sense of God while they learn to get along with each other. As Dreher puts it:
This is hard. Because our hearts are so hard, the religious life has to be hard as well. Oh, it should be comforting too, in season, but any authentic religion will, at times, be hard. Dying to oneself is hard, but in a Christian sense, if you’re not dying, you’re not living. The saying goes, “The Church is not a museum of saints, but a hospital for sinners.” True! But a hospital treats the sick, and helps restore them to health. It doesn’t confirm the sick in their sickness.
As I see it, churches should be able to answer the question “Why Are We Here?” in both the theological sense and the immediate context of a Sunday morning service. I worshipped enthusiastically with a congregation of conservative evangelicals because they could succinctly answer these questions: they worshipped Christ and sought to live love each other and live their lives as He called them to. And they show up on Sunday mornings out of reverence for God rather than their own selfish desires and preferences.
I left that church when I realized that its priorities had shifted towards winning political battles rather than spiritual ones. Their church services, like those of the evangelical churches around them. functioned as a refuge from their theological and political adversaries, and as a place to launch counterattack against the community via the Gender Wars and a Randian political agenda.
But even though I believe that evangelicals have become one of the darkest forces in American politics, I also believe that they have the potential to become a light unto the world once more, and they wouldn’t need to become Episcopalians to do it. Just return to the Gospel. Shed the tea party politics, the homophobia, and the misogyny, and get back to what really matters. I’ll gladly go back to church if I can find a church that strives to follow the Gospel, even if going to church is harder than going it alone.