The Common Good

Church No More: Part 6 — Back to Church Again

"Going Home" by Cathleen Falsani for Sojourners, 2012. All rights reserved.
"Going Home" by Cathleen Falsani for Sojourners, 2012. All rights reserved.

Editor's Note: This is the sixth and final installment of Presbyterian pastor Mark Sandlin's blog series "Church No More," chronicling his three-month sabbatical from church-going. Follow the links below to read his previous installments, beginning in June.

They say you can never go home again.

The thinking is that, having left and experienced new things, you have changed and the people back home have continued in their lives just as you left them. Your experience of going back home again necessarily will be very different from your experience of home as you remember it, even though it may have changed very little.

In many ways, Church is one of my homes and I left it. I walked away for three months and experienced a bit of life outside of it. The three months are up and I'm going back home. This coming Sunday (Sept. 2) will be my first Sunday back.

The saying “you can't go home again,” probably originated from Tom Wolfe's novel, You Can't Go Home Again. It's the story of an author who leaves his home, writes about it from a distance and then tries to go home again. It doesn't exactly go well. The folks in the town are none-too-happy about him airing their dirty laundry so publicly.

So, you can't go home again? Well, I'm going to try.

Yes, I left the Church and wrote about it from a distance and judging from some of the comments and emails I received, some folks are none-too-happy about some of the things I said, but it's time to go back to the Church.

The good news for me is I'm primarily going back to church (little “c,” as in the church where I serve) and then secondarily to Church (big “C,” the institution). I love the folks at Vandalia Presbyterian Church. We're a small church with a big heart. I'm looking forward to seeing them all again and to doing ministry with them again.

Here's the thing: I've changed. That worries me a bit.

In his Gospel, Luke quotes Jesus as saying, “...no prophet is welcome in his hometown.”

While I'm no prophet, one of the things prophets do is tell people where they are falling short of what God wants from them and challenge them to fix it. I suspect that is part of what Jesus might have meant in saying a prophet isn't welcome in their hometown.

Isn't that little Jesus over there? Joseph's boy? And he's trying to tell us what we need to be doing better? Ha! That's rich!

While I'm no prophet, I have changed and I do see the Church a little differently than I did three months ago. When I go back to Church again, I'm probably going to be talking a little bit about the places I see us falling short of being the Church, the people, God calls us to be and it is likely I'm going to challenge us to fix it. Here's to hoping Jesus and Wolfe got it wrong.

Another challenge I'll face is: when I get there, even though I've changed, I immediately rejoin the ranks of the insiders.

Perhaps the most beneficial piece of my sabbatical away from Church was the input of Spiritual But Not Religious (SBNR) folks who wrote to me about their experience. Being that I'll be back in my “insider” role, I need that kind of constant input while I am busy going back to Church again.

With readers spread all across America and as far away as Christchurch, New Zealand, it'd be a bit difficult to have you all come back to church with me (assuming that some even are willing) and help the wonderful folks at my church and me revision what church should be, but I sure would like to do just that.

Let's make sure one thing is clear, I'm not trying to “save” the SBNR — quite the contrary. I simply want to help the Church save itself.

The Church should understand itself as the body of Christ. Currently, the body is incomplete. We have elevated structure, dogma and “the way it's always been done” to places of their own little godships and in doing so have ignored the one thing Jesus taught us actually mattered – each other.

We need the help of the SBNR. They complete us. So, I offer this open invitation to the SBNR folks who are actually looking for a spiritual community:

Come help us. We need you.

In the end, I can speak only for the church where I serve, but my hope is that if some of us — Church insiders and SBNR folks — can get together and re-imagine the way forward together, we might inspire others to do the same.

In the end of this sabbatical journey, I realize the journey has just started. Experiencing, seeing and understanding some of the things I did on my sabbatical away from Church is not enough. Now is the time to take action. I invite you along for the journey.

I'll begin by starting a new blog series called “Back To Church Again.” It will follow my journey back and my efforts to re-imagine church based on what I learned on this sabbatical.

I hope you'll not only read along, but will join in the conversation by adding comments on the post and by sharing on The God Article's Facebook page. There's much work to be done... and we need each other to do it.

And so, the journey continues.

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.

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