The Common Good

Church No More: Part 1 — Walking Away From Church

I'm rewriting the old African-American spiritual “Down By the Riverside.”

(Don't worry. It's OK . I'm a minister).

My new version goes something like this:

Gonna lay down my robe and stole
Down by the Riverside
Down by the Riverside
Down by the Riverside
Gonna lay down my robe and stole
Down by the Riverside
Ain't goin' to church no more.

Yep! That's it. This minister is walking away from church — well, at least for the next three months.

I've gone to church my whole life. Haven't missed more than two Sundays in a row in..., um,  I actually don't think I've even missed more than two Sunday's in a row - ever. Not even in college.

As a matter of fact, while a lot of my High School youth group friends were spreading the wings of their new found freedom in college by not going to church, I was part of a traveling worship team that helped lead worship at churches all over the state. (I know, I'm a geek. OK, a church geek. OK! A church nerd — of course, back then with the popularity of dc Talk, I just thought of myself as a Jesus Freak. In a lot of ways I still am — the more things change...).

A few years ago I started a blog. It began as a way for me to say things that sometimes didn't feel safe or pastoral (or wise?) to say in church. (How sad is that — ministers not feeling like it's alright to say things that they actually believe in church? And I say “ministers” because there's a whole lot of them that feel that way. If you go to church, yours probably feels that way at least a little bit).

From the very beginning of the blog, I've written about the many challenges the church is facing (and frequently ignoring). I've come to see that, for all the good the church does for others, it is turning a blind eye to itself.

Clearly, this isn't true of all churches, but the Church as a whole is predominantly being eaten up by a variety of cancerous issues. At this point, it seems to me, those issues are not only built into the system, but are so central to the system that those who are a part of it find it very difficult to either acknowledge the issues or do anything about them if they do manage to acknowledge them.


Me? I'm a preacher. I'm all wrapped up in the system.

From the inside, it is truly difficult to gain perspective. Conceptually, I get why an increasing number of younger generations are flocking away from — well, the “flock,” but frankly, just seeing and acknowledging the “hypocrisy” (among the other issues to which they correctly point as the problem with church) isn't enough; I need to do something about it. So, it's time to get some “perspective.”

That's why I ain't goin' to church no more — for three months, that is. A week ago, I started a three-month long sabbatical. I decided from the very beginning that I would not darken the door of a church (with the one exception of a mission trip to the Dominican Republic with my wife's church).

Frankly, it feels weird/odd/relaxing/disjointed/freeing/wrong/good.

Why am I not going to church? Because a great deal of the people with whom I'd like to figure out how to be in ministry don't. They're not heathen. They're not un-spiritual. They're – well, just like me, except they have Sunday's off.

This is my hope for the next three months: I want to understand what it is that the “spiritual but not religious” like about not being in church AND I want to understand what I, a life long churchgoer, miss about not being in church. I'm also hoping that YOU will be in dialogue with me about this.

I'll be blogging my experience in a series called “Church No More” and I hope you'll follow along, make comments below each post and interact with me on the blog's Facebook page. You can even start right now by leaving a message about why your either do or don't go to church (and please don't judge other people's story, just leave your own).

Together we can begin to understand this religious/spiritual gap a little better and figure out how the people of God may once again come together for the good of the world and not for its detriment. 

I suspect this journey will open my eyes to the new thing God is constantly doing. I hope you'll walk along with me and broaden my adventure.

Mark Sandlin currently serves as the minister at Vandalia Presbyterian Church in Greensboro, NC. He received his M. Div. from Wake Forest University's School of Divinity and has undergraduate degrees in Business Administration and English with a minor in Computer Science. He's an ordained minister in the PC(USA) and a self-described progressive.

Image: igor.stevanovic/Shutterstock.

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