Editor's Note: This is the third 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.
I have a confession.
(That's rich, right? A minister confessing.)
I have a hard time telling people I'm a minister. Yes, really. I actually tend to handle it this way:
Person: “So, what do you do for a living?”
Me: “I'm a minister... (appropriate pause)... but not the kind you just pictured in your head.”
Sad, I know.
Honestly though, it's worse than that. I'm even very resistant to calling myself a “Christian.” And I'm not even close to the only Christian who feels that way! It's so bad that I have this very conversation with people all the time. There seems to be some kind of “Believer-like-me Radar” which tells people it's safe to talk to me about not liking the“C” word — CHRISTIANITY.
You'd be amazed at how many people resist calling themselves Christian — or maybe you wouldn't. Maybe you are one of us.
The “C” word just isn't what it used to be.
A number of researchers over the last few years (most notably David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons who published their results in unChristian) have found that the word “Christianity” has many more negative connotations than positive ones, at least in the minds of the general public.
Want to try a few of them on for size?
Okay, that's enough. I'm getting depressed.
I've been on sabbatical from ministry for a little more than a month now. I decided from the very beginning that during the three months I'm on sabbatical, I will not go to church.
I've never done that for more than a couple of Sundays in my whole life. Ever. And it worried me.
I'm finding that not only did I not need to be worried, but I don't actually miss church much.
Don't get me wrong, I really miss the people (the actual church) but I simply don't miss what Church has become. I don't miss the dogma. I don't miss the hypocrisy. I don't miss the judgment. I don't miss all of the stuff that Jesus didn't like about organized religion during his day and age. Go figure.
I'm left with this thought: “How am I supposed to follow Jesus when the place I'm told I'm supposed to do it invests so much energy in the stuff that Jesus didn't like about organized religion during his day and age?” Isn't that counterproductive? It's no wonder that so many people are walking away from church, never looking back and, in doing so, finding happier lives. The “C” word just isn't what it used to be.
Church has become about following the Church and all of those who hold power in it (both formal and informal power). Silly me, I thought we were supposed to be following Jesus. The reality is, when the rest of the world can rightfully look at us and calls us hypocritical, judgmental and irrelevant, and say that we are much more defined by what we are against rather than what we are for — well, we are not doing a very good job of following Jesus. We are not being very good Christians.
My time away from the Church has helped me see more clearly that the Church is increasingly full of Churchians rather than Christians. We've become so tied up in the power structures and dogma of the organization that we've lost focus on the “Christ” in Christian.
We put polity before people and trade love for law. We follow the Church not Christ.
If you stop and think about it, with all of that in mind, it makes a lot sense that people are leaving the churches to find their spirituality. What I still need to ponder on this journey is, can the Church change?
What would that look like?
Would it make any difference at this point?
How can we honor and respect those who have left the Church (for many valid reasons) and be in ministry with them?
Can we make the “C” word mean what it used to mean? I sure hope 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.