The Goal of Church Isn't To Keep People in the Pews | Sojourners

The Goal of Church Isn't To Keep People in the Pews

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I grew up brown and Catholic in a predominantly evangelical context. The Catholic presence in my town was so small that a priest from another parish had to drive in every Saturday afternoon so that we could receive Mass. My young mind lamented, Does this really have to be another thing about me that is different? Most of my peers were Baptists, and so I would often attend youth group events with them.

Because being Catholic was not the norm in my community, I was often teased about our non-contemporary music and the liturgy, and I was accused of worshiping Mary. Mostly, I was told over and over again that I wasn’t a Christian. The latter happened all the way through college. I was so boggled by this because I knew I had what the Baptists liked to call a personal relationship with God. Yet I was told by children and adults alike that it wasn’t valid if it didn’t fit their formula.

In college, I was rebaptized in order to join the Southern Baptist church where I had become heavily involved. Prior to my rebaptism, I had a serious conversation with one of my mentors because I was conflicted about invalidating my original experience. Somewhere down deep, my intuition was telling me another baptism was unnecessary. But I was told my Catholic baptism didn’t count, and I believed it.

Around the same time, I signed up for a two-month mission trip in the Philippines. Let me go ahead and make it clear that the Aurelia today would not sign up to go overseas and save the poor brown people! But regrettably, the Aurelia 20 years ago believed it was her God-given duty to evangelize others into the Christian tradition. Mission trips were all too common in the Southern Baptist world, and because I was a good Christian girl, I signed up for these trips any time I had the chance.

Having grown up in such a rural part of the United States, I had never traveled so far away. But my maternal grandfather had been a Filipino immigrant, and so I thought this trip could be a beautiful opportunity to connect with a part of my heritage. When I arrived, I realized the area’s demographic was almost entirely Catholic! I didn’t understand why we were going door to door offering Bibles and tracts, trying to convert people away from an already-Christian faith tradition.

I found the courage to approach the main missionary with my questions and concerns, and yet again I was told that Catholics weren’t Christians. He even sat me down and went through the Bible to prove it. I’ll never forget how it felt to be so young and alone in a foreign country as this powerful man quite literally looked down on me, disregarding my experience. What had brought me here if not my love for God? Yet I was so deeply disconnected to my intuition that I didn’t have access to my power, much less my voice. So I swallowed my pride and assumed my instincts must be wrong.

And yet, even now, all these years later, my Catholicism continues to be a part of my faith that sustains me. I am not talking about a church tradition, a set of beliefs, or even a community.

I am speaking of the mystical faith of my childhood. It is the wonder-filled, imaginative faith of my child self, before all the indoctrination set in. I knew God intimately in this place. I had access to my intuition. I had not yet switched on the autopilot required of me.

The irony is that I would eventually become a Baptist pastor myself, albeit not the kind one might typically imagine. Still, I bring my story along with me, hopeful that it will shape the way I lead and reimagine sacred community in a post-church world. My work context is a rarity and the primary reason I have continued in church ministry. I have total freedom to do my own faith work: freedom to deconstruct, question, and evolve. I am free to do all of this beautiful work within my community, as a part of the community.

Because our leaders are able to authentically navigate our faith, we have been able to create an environment where the entire community can do the same. Deep in the heart of central Texas, we have managed to create a small oasis of people, many of whom were done with church until we found each other. This is relevant to our work of rejecting an autopilot kind of faith. As clergy, I must acknowledge that I am a part of a legacy of faith leaders who have doled out the ways people should believe, encouraging them to swallow whatever they are spoon-fed.

This is not what people need from faith leaders. It is not what they need from a sacred community. People need space to hurt. They need space to heal. Most of all, people should have space to evolve and expand. And at times, I have learned that many people need healing outside of church and how important it is to bless them, not judge them, as they go.

The end goal of a sacred community shouldn’t be to keep people in the fold. Our hope should be the same for everyone: that each one of us would fully experience the peace of God both directly and consistently, whatever that may look like. Wherever it may be.

The fact is that people are rapidly deconstructing right on out of the church doors. When this happens, those who decide to stay should send them on their way with love and support. Mostly, we should understand that this is all a part of the holy task of switching off our autopilots.

Sacred community can be extremely valuable and healing. But at the end of the day, there is no pastor, mentor, or friend who can do our faith work for us. They can support us. They can walk alongside us. They can bear witness to our growth. But, ultimately, we are responsible for our own faith journeys. And we cannot step into the fullness of our power without choosing to navigate them for ourselves.

Reprinted with permission from A Brown Girl’s Epiphany: Reclaim Your Intuition and Step into Your Power by Aurelia Dávila Pratt copyright © 2022 Broadleaf Books.

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