Loving Church Even When It’s Boring

Screen Shot 2014-02-06 at 10.51.35 PMI’m only vaguely familiar with Donald Miller, so it feels awkward to dive into the recent controversy surrounding him. Miller is the author of Blue Like Jazz, which was a mini-sensation in evangelical circles a few years ago. All II knew about the book was that Christian teens loved it and youth pastors spent a lot of time condemning or praising it.

The firestorm began when Miller confessed that he had no interest in attending church. Initially I was shocked that a bestselling evangelical author would risk his writing career with such a scandalous confession, but Miller’s appeal resides in his willingness to dance on the edge of acceptable evangelical beliefs a la Rob Bell. But both of his posts dovetail nicely with my last post.

Last week I stated that my comfort level with a church is largely based on its ability to answer the question “Why are we here?” in a universal sense and an immediate “why are we here on thhs particular Sunday morning?” sense.

Miller approaches this from a more immediate angle: he doesn’t get much out of church, and for him it’s a design flaw rather than a problem with one particular style of worship.

I’ll confess that I share some of his frustrations. Personally I’d rather suffer through a Two and a Half Men marathon than listen to contemporary worship music. For me it’s not about the song choice or the quality of the performance; I just find  CCM mind-numbingly vapid, no matter how sincere or reverent its lyrics. I used to tell my Campus Crusader friends that I felt CCM never stops trying to sell its listeners on its sincerity (i.e. We’re really really joyful, and we can prove it if you listen to us sing the word joy forty seven times!)

So for me worship music was thirty minutes of service that I tuned out. I figured that this is the part of the service that other people loved, and I had no business pissing on their joy or tapping into my inner hipster and looking down on their musical tastes. As I see it, there is no worship music that truly moves me, so quibbling over the music seemed like wasted energy.

The irony was that, due to my lack of interest in CCM, I rarely heard the original versions of the songs my church sang. Inevitably I discovered that the rag-tag sing alongs evangelical churches sang every Sunday turned out to be horrifically overproduced dreck, and if anything, the congregations’ lo-fi versions were better than the originals.

All of this is a roundabout way to say that I share many of Miller’s frustrations, and i’m not sure how church – particularly the contemporary worship format-  can be done differently. However, I also don’t expect my needs to take center stage when I worship.

I love going to church (even though I don’t currently have one I’m attending), even when I’ve hit a dry spot where the sermons or Sunday School classes leave me wanting. I look at church the way people look at school: the more you invest in it, offer your services, and connect with people, the more rewarding it will be. Except church has the added bonus of serving and worshipping God, and no matter how rewarding work is, it can’t compare to worshipping with fellow believes. As Jonathan Leeman so adeptly puts it:

“I don’t know how we can say we love and belong to the church without loving and belonging to a church. Or saying we want to connect with God, but we won’t listen to God’s Word for only 45 minutes out of all the minutes in a week. Ultimately, it’s like claiming we’re righteous in Christ, but not bothering to “put on” that righteousness with how we live.”

Church Is Hard

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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.

6 Good Questions About Singles And The Church Pt 2

014a71524333b2e3da7ccadfa7a9d6ebThis is the second part of my response to Kate Hurley’s post at The Sexy Celibate. I’ll jump right into the rest of her questions:

3. Have you ever felt ashamed for feeling so much grief over being single? 

Here’s where my church experience diverges from most singles. I’ve never gotten grief over being single. I’ve never been asked when I’m going to get married, why I’m not married, or had people in my church play matchmaker for me.

I’m sure my gender has a lot to do with it, but I’ve seen other single men get the typical comments and questions most singles face. The difference was my attitude. When I decided to start attending church again in the early 2000’s, I explicitly decided to not make my singleness part of my identity. I would not let my marital status become part of the conversation people had about me. I made no attempt to join singles ministries (and the church did have a college-oriented singles ministry) or associate with them (due to my hilariously dysfunctional experiences with Christian singles.)

So when I joined a Bible Study, I joined a married couples’ Bible Study. That group had its own share of problems, but the bottom line was that I could relate to them better than I could other singles. I made a point to befriend the married couples and invite them over for dinner. I overcame the stigma of being single by not acting like I was single. The end result was exactly as I had planned: no one thought much about the fact that I wasn’t married because I didn’t seem preoccupied with it. As a former Elder in my church said, people never worried about it because I seemed happy to be where I was in life.

4. Have you had experiences in your church body or with your pastor where you felt seen and validated? 

Absolutely. My strategy of not acting like a single person led me to all kinds of opportunities most singles missed out on. I served as deacon for eight years and chaired three different ministries over the course of six years. And I know that most churches would not have given my those opportunities due to my singleness. But I also knew that the image I projected erased most peoples’ concerns over my singleness.

5. Have you ever struggled with being a leader in your church or in ministry because you are single?

No. For the reasons I listed above, I overcame the stigma by avoiding the singles crowd in church. If I didn’t seem to care about being single, the congregation didn’t seem to care, either.

6. What can we do to give a voice to single people in the church?

Here’s where I’ll loop back to my answer to Hurley’s first question. Unless your  church is founded by young Christians or is largely dependent on singles,  you do not matter. Singles are viewed as people caught in a temporary phase in their lives. The stereotype is that they lack the discipline, maturity, and dedication of married couples, therefore since few people can relate to the needs and experiences of singles, they are easily dismissed.

I think this blanket disregard for singles explains the hostility we’ve seen towards Millennials. For most churches Millennials represent youth, singleness, and staving off marriage. That messes with their expectations of how we’re supposed to live our lives, and they resent that cultural shift. I’ve noticed a number of pastors have tried to promote getting married earlier so they can reverse this trend.

If singles want a voice, then they need to do three things: show up on Sunday mornings in droves, volunteer your time, and tithe regularly. A church’s attitude towards singles won’t shift unless the demographics of the congregation shift significantly. I’ve seen it happen with married couples, too. Back when I first joined the church I served in for eleven years, the ministries were geared towards young couples. Then the young couples got older, their kids grew up, and the ministries shifted to serve middle-aged couples. When there was a big surge of young married couple in our church in the early 2010’s, the church reverted back to young couple focus.

And by the way, tithing doesn’t matter because church leadership is greedy. It matters because the biggest tithers hold the most power. In many churches the most entrenched members of the congregation hold more power than the pastor or Elders. If they don’t like the direction the church is going they can (and sometimes do) threaten to withhold their donations and send the church spiraling into a financial collapse. if singles want more of a say, then they’ll have to donate at level where their contribution equals or exceeds what the married couples give.

Campus Crusaders Part 7: Love In The Air

HellblazerIt took me a few months for people to figure out my role in the Campus Crusade Bible Study.  Aside from Jason (who still defended my character and my faith to the other Campus Crusaders), I had been pegged as a Seeker.

In Christian lingo, a Seeker is someone who is genuinely trying to figure out who God is or if God even exists, and they’re open to hearing the Gospel. Many evangelicals like the idea of Seekers more than they like Seekers themselves. Don’t get me wrong: there are a lot of evangelical Christians who truly care about and respect Seekers wherever they’re at, but there’s also a very lopsided dynamic in the Believer-Seeker relationship. It’s assumed that anything a Seeker has to say indicates the status of their journey towards accepting Christ. As a result, no one really takes a Seeker’s opinions seriously. You get a nod and a figurative pat on the head for your contributions, but Believers are convinced that you have no spiritual insights to offer. The irony is that Believers listen very closely to what you have to say. This creates the illusion that they respect you. But Believers listen to you because after you’re gone they’re going to dissect your comments and determine their next move.

I actually enjoyed my role as a Seeker. It gave me room to play contrarian and offer unpopular opinions and thorny theological questions. Intellectually it was invigorating, because I found myself reading and studying books about the Bible to bone up on my theology. It also motivated me to read more scripture.

I found that I really didn’t care whether they thought I was saved. I gave up trying to defend my faith because I realized that their understanding of God was a lot more dysfunctional than mine was. So I’d show up at Bible Study wearing a John Constantine t-shirt, knowing that it would mess with their heads. When they’d point to my shirt and ask why I was wearing a shirt with a blonde guy standing in front of demons and skeletons, I’d proudly and politely explain the Hellblazer comic book to them.

But as the semester neared its end, I began to hear more and more about Laura and Fred, the couple who normally ran the Bible Study. Even though the members of the Bible Study still didn’t seem to like or trust each other, I was wary of Laura and Fred’s imminent return. I learned that a lot of the decisions made by the Bible Study were actually made by Laura and Fred from afar. On one hand it was nice to see how quickly they squashed the animosity over my knee incident with Marcy. In fact, at this stage any lingering suspicions regarding my supposed sexual motives had virtually disappeared. But on the other hand I got the strong sense that Laura and Fred wouldn’t tolerate Hellblazer t-shirts at their Bible Study.

But spring also brought love. Not for me, of course. (I was about to get walloped by cupid’s arrow in a few short weeks by a woman traveling well outside of evangelical circles.) But the Bible Study members were developing crushes on one another, and like the song Love Stinks, everybody was pining for someone who didn’t give a rip about them.  Oddly enough, Kaitlyn – the mousey, nervous woman who first invited me to the Bible Study -was at the center of most of the drama. Two guys- Jason and Dwight-  had approached her in secret. She rebuffed Jason immediately and strung Dwight along for weeks. Kaitlyn wasn’t anywhere near the most attractive, confident, or friendly woman in the Bible Study, so it was strange to see her become the center of attention. But she was desired because she fit the model of a Strong Christian Woman. And in spite of my insistence otherwise, she was still convinced that I longed for her.

I will give Kaitlyn credit: even though Bible Study had become one big, tangled mess of unrequited love and growing animosity between Jason and Dwight, she handled herself well. Anyone who was out of the loop would have no idea what she was dealing with.

Things came to a head when Kaitlyn finally agreed to go out on a date with Dwight.  Now in normal social circles, the two of them would just go out on a date.  But for the Campus Crusaders this was a major problem. Dwight, Jason, and Kaitlyn were the leaders of the Bible Study. Someone had to rise to the occasion to make unbiased decisions for the group, so a sweet but boisterous woman named Monica became our default leader in the absence of objectivity among the other three.

So one night Monica announces that she consulted with Laura and Fred to find out whether she should give Dwight and Kaitlyn permission to date. Keep in mind that this took place before I Kissed Dating Goodbye and the courting craze. So while the evangelical neurosis about sexual relationships wasn’t as rigid and legalistic as it is now. Laura and Fred gave Monica permission to green-light Dwight and Kaitlyn’s  budding relationship.

The amazing twist to all of this is that no one minded Monica’s presumptive decision to contact Laura and Fred except for Jason – the guy who was about to be left out in the cold! Everyone else thought that Monica’s proactive intervention was a sign of maturity and responsibility, and Dwight in particular was thrilled to receive an official blessing from Laura and Fred. But Jason and I stood alone in our protests that nobody had the right to decide who dated whom.  And unbeknownst to us, Dwight and Kaitlyn had sown the seeds of destruction for the Campus Crusaders.

Not Going To Church

1185971_10151788580394814_1477306092_nIt’s Saturday night again. I hate Saturdays.

Saturday nights mean that I have to go through another series of mental gymnastics: Should I go to church? Do I want to go to church? Can I justify not going to church?

My answer to these question changes by the hour. If I’m lucky I’ll wake up on Sunday, look at the clock, and realize that I overslept. It was too late to make any service. My body made my decision for me. But most Sundays I wake up with plenty of time to choose (or not choose) which service to attend.

I love the concept of church, but it’s getting harder and harder to say that I love The Church. When I think about attending a worship service, my mind runs through a gamut of arguments: can I enjoy the service and slip out before anyone recognizes me? Can I try a liberal church without getting harassed by acquaintances at my previous church?

Six years a woman who was a rock of support in my old evangelical church came out of the closet and left her husband for her lover. She switched from my church to a liberal church, and got harassed with warnings of hellfire and damnation from her former friends.

I left that evangelical church two years ago. Unlike her, I didn’t announce my decision, so I never got any hellfire speeches. There was no point making a case for change or announcing my departure in some dramatic fashion. She made a big speech about how far off the tracks the church had gone, but no one listened to her. I still care a lot about the people there. Over time I’ve been pleasantly surprised to learn that my quiet departure was so successful that most people thought I had moved away.

A few weeks ago I wound up attending a Baptist Church out of respect to a friend of mine visiting from Maryland. I didn’t want to go. As I at there in my metal chair, part of me hoped that being away from contemporary worship would rejuvenate me, and I’d realize how wrong I was to leave. But I felt just as numb as the day I left my evangelical church. It was this empty feeling of knowing that, while I believed every tacky verse in the awful songs we mumbled through, in so many ways the Church had become a force of darkness in this world. Many people give up on God when they realize that, and it’s easy to understand why. But I still believe in God, Jesus, and the whole concept of sin and a fallen world.

Last year I tried going to an Episcopal church, but they were even more explicitly political than the conservative church I had left. Part of me loved the companionship of other liberals, but my big beef with the Church is that it had become too political. For consistency’s sake I could not justify the Episcopal agenda just because I agreed with it. It was still pushing the Sacred out to make room for the secular. Plus the longer i stayed, the more I had to deal with my disagreements with liberal theology. When the Rector stopped acknowledging me when I shook his hand at the end of the service, I decided to leave quietly again.

I’ve thought about opting for trying a mainline church, but in my town that’s like marrying Mitt Romney to get away from Michelle Bachmann. You still get the right wing politics, it’s just much more polite and less tea partyish.

So should I go to church? The theological answer is yes, I should. Do I want to go to church? If I could reclaim the joy I used to feel on Sunday mornings, then yes, I do. But I’m not an idealist. I know what’s waiting for me, and I don’t want to deal with it anymore. Can I justify not going to church? No, I can’t. But I’m not going to church.

Hopefully I’ll oversleep again.

Campus Crusaders Pt 5: It’s Just A Flesh Wound

tumblr_mj5r97sDch1s2b58zo1_500In my last installment about my adventures with Campus Crusade for Christ,  I tried to describe my Bible Study’s dysfunction. I think it’s only fair that I also share my own eccentricities.

I’ve always struggled with depression, and in the 90’s it was so pervasive that I got used to it. I know that sounds strange, but at a certain point it becomes the norm and the incentive to try to overcome depression diminishes. I don’t wear my depression on my sleeve the way a lot of people do. I can play social butterfly and engage people and enjoy life and friendship, and in 90’s I got very good at it.  So in a strange way, Campus Crusade was a big help. Granted, it added to my misery, but it gave me a chance to connect with people, and it also gave me great anecdotes to share.

In hindsight, my willingness to endure the unpleasantries of people who clearly wanted me to vanish amazes me even more than their dysfunction. Even at my lowest I’ve always maintained a perverse optimism about connecting with new people, so back then I ignored signals that I wasn’t really welcome. Although I almost always came away from a Bible Study meeting feeling aggravated or baffled, I kept going back. And when I commit to something, I go in all the way.

As a way to make up for my past transgressions with the women in the group, I offered to help prep for meetings. The leaders wanted to keep me far, far away from any lesson planning, so I was appointed the cookies-and-chips guy. And I was a shopping zealot; I always kept track of who liked diet soda, who wanted caffeine-free coke, and so on. And I always bought more than we needed.

How dedicated was I to my newfound role? Well, one night before Bible Study, I clipped my scalp while I was walking downstairs. I grabbed my head and doubled over, cursing myself for being so clumsy. When I removed my hand, it was covered in blood. I tried putting a wet washcloth on it, but more blood lapped up each time.

A sane person would have gone to the hospital. But I didn’t want to miss a night of spirited debate, so I headed off to the meeting with my bags of chips and soda and hoped for the best. I spent the whole meeting periodically touching my head and checking my hand. I could feel the blood tickling my scalp, and I had to wipe my fingers very carefully so people didn’t see the blood on them. I didn’t want to cause alarm, plus I figured I’d find out fast if any blood dribbled down my forehead. At the end of the  night, I politely said goodnight and got four stitches at the emergency room.

Small Group Nightmares Pt 1

downloadTodd Engstrom has a post today about church-based small groups that brought back a lot of nightmares. Don’t get me wrong; there’s nothing in his post outlining his vision for church community that is inherently problematic. If you asked me to design a model for fostering church community, I’d probably use many of his ideas.

But that’s because it’s a model that works for the vast majority of people. It’s so effective and popular that it’s hard to think of an alternative approach. But what works for 90% of the congregation can be hell for the remaining 10%. I’m part of that 10%.

Before I get into my experiences, let’s start with the basics. Small groups are the means by which churches -especially bigger churches- develop a sense of connection and community. They usually consist of 6-12 adults who meet on a weekly basis for Bible Study, dinners, and the occasional social outing. Our church had a bulletin board that advertised all of the small groups, so people could check out the meeting times and addresses and join a group of their choice.

The problem is that most small group are started by a core group of 2-3 couples who have known each other since forever. Given their busy lives, the small group becomes their best chance to catch up with each other. It’s the one night when they’ve all got baby sitters, and it’s the one night when they have no volunteer or work commitments. It’s extremely hard for new people to become part of that core group, particularly if they’re at a different life stage. When new couples do manage to become part of that core, a critical mass takes place. Everyone still gets along great and enjoys each other’s company, but the core can’t take in new friends, and more importantly, they don’t want to. They’re happy to host these new members and invite them on all of the small group activities, but they’re not really interested in them.

My former pastor recognized this dynamic and tried to counter it. He approached the leaders of each small group and asked them to consider splitting up into new groups. He got mixed results. Some groups recognized the problem and split up, while others stood defiant. For him, the problem then became how to handle the defiant groups. They were the oldest groups with the closest friends.  Taking these groups off of the bulletin board would have angered them, because it would imply that they weren’t welcoming or that they didn’t really want new members. In truth, they did not really want new members – they just couldn’t admit it out loud. So he decided to keep the peace. He left these groups alone and kept their photos up on the board.

And to be fair, I could empathize with the groups that refused to split up. The reality is that in a large church, leaving a small group is like moving to another town. All of the activities you used to do with your old friends are now spent with new people, so you have less time to spend with your closest friends. Over time these couples end up either miserable or happy enough with their new group to let their old friendships whither.

I’ll share my personal experiences in Part 2.