Editor's Note: This is the fourth 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.
A little over two months ago, I decided I'd spend my three-month sabbatical not going to church . Which might seem like a perfectly normal thing to do – except that I'm a minister. I've had some strange and wonderful experiences which I've written about, but possibly more strange and more wonderful than the experiences are the responses I've received.
From the very beginning the most frustrating response I get is not folks telling me I'll lose my faith if I leave church (and they have), or the ones telling me I can't begin to understand what it's like to be Spiritual But Not Religious (SBNR) in three short months (lots of those were also disturbingly aggressively worded), but rather the ones that say, “Oh, 'sabbatical!' Thanks. Now I have a word to call what I do! I stopped going to church years ago.”
“No!” I'd think while unsuccessfully trying to figure out how to reach through my laptop screen and shake some sense into them, “You are not on sabbatical! The sabbatical I'm taking about has to do with taking a rest, not leaving. It's rest and recuperation — communion with God in a way that is restorative. It's not about leaving! Sheesh.”
More than two months into my sabbatical, I now have to say, “Boy was I wrong.” They are on sabbatical, more so than I am.
Sabbatical is about rest and recuperation. It is about communing with God in a restorative way. For a lot of church-going people that is not the way they would describe Sunday mornings. I know it wasn't for me. Sure, it was at times. I certainly always looked forward to seeing people and we definitely experienced communion with God in the fellowship and worship we shared. Rest, however? Recuperation? A restorative experience? Uh, no.
“Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.”
In the Protestant church, Sunday is our Sabbath, but there seems to be far too little sabbath in the Sabbath. While there are exceptions to the rule, for far too many people, going to church is a chore. There's nothing restful or restorative about it. However, there is a pretty good chance that someone will make a remark about how you are dressed or shoot a sideward glance at you because you are singing entirely too loud or do any number of surprisingly judgmental things while they presumably gather to learn how to follow the teachings of the one who taught “judge not” and “love your neighbor.”
And that's just the tip of the tension iceberg that Sunday morning has become. Try breaking the segregation barrier in most churches. Try helping out where you weren't asked to help. Try suggesting a new way to do outreach or invite a homeless person to worship. How about questioning the biblicalness of the Trinity or asking why Jesus seems a little different in the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of John? Ah! Feeling rested and restored yet.
Well, I am. My Sabbaths have become much more sabbath full and I'm very much afraid it has less to do with my three month break from my vocation and much more to do with the fact that I'm no longer spending my Sundays at church and that is just sad. No, it's not just sad. It is sad; it is depressing; and it is wrong — and it shouldn't be that way.
Until we figure out how to do Church better, how to make the experience of Sabbath have a lot more sabbath in it, we are just fooling ourselves if we think we are going to get SBNR folks, who are actually experiencing sabbath, to join us ever again. Frankly, we've already lost that chance with a lot of them and, as I've already pointed out, with good reason.
Now the reality is, community is a horribly messy thing. It just is. Always has been and probably always will be. What we can't do is let that reality be our excuse for no longer trying and that goes for both church-goers and the SBNR. In recognizing how messy being in relationship with each other can be, we church-going types need to be constantly working on doing it better and being a great deal more self-reflective about the places we are messing up. SBNRs need to not categorically reject spiritual community. It's important to note, just like not all churches are messing up the sabbath thing, not all SBNR reject spiritual community. They just do spiritual community in less traditional ways.
There is a space there where I see hope. There is something in those less than traditional ways and the less than traditional places where the SBNR are re-imagining what spiritual community looks like that gives me hope for the future of the Church. The question is can the institutionalized Church shake itself free of the dogma and structures which bind it long enough to experience Sabbath in a more sabbath full way? Or will we hold on tightly to our power and privilege and continue to be surprised when non-church-goers find it to be less than restful and restorative?
Looks like there is much more to learn on my personal sabbatical and time is running short. Maybe they were right about three months not being enough. At any rate, 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.
R&R illustration, Sukpaiboonwat  / Shutterstock.com