A few weeks ago I (an ordained minster who has gone to church my whole life) walked away from church — for three months. It is what I've decided to do with my sabbatical. You can read about my initial thoughts on my blog or on The Huffington Post. As the journey unfolds, I will be blogging about it in this series entitled, “Church No More.” I hope you will not only follow along, but add your voice to the reflection by commenting or joining the discussion on my FB page.
It might be that the thing which concerned me the most about leaving the church was losing my spiritual community. It's not that I thought the spiritual-but-not-religious folk were helplessly lonely people wandering around seeking a spiritual community. Not at all. I just assumed that it might be immensely difficult to find and plug into a community like that in the course of three months. I also couldn't help but think it would be just a bit — well, fake to seek out a community for the sake of observing them and then leaving a few months latter. Not just fake but somewhat mean spirited and completely missing the point of community.
Here's the thing, I am a minister. I understand myself to be a person who ministers by following the lead and teachings of Jesus. (I also happen to follow the teachings of many other spiritual and/or thought leaders from Buddha to Neil deGrasse Tyson, but that's for another post some other time). Because of that, the idea of life without a spiritual community gives me the heebie-jeebies. (I apologize for using such a technical term, but a duck is a duck is a duck).
Why? Why do I break out in a heebie-jeebie induced sweat/panic-attack at the thought of having no spiritual community? Jesus. That is to say, at the beginning of his ministry the first thing Jesus did was create community. He marched himself down to the shoreline, yelled out to a bunch of folk (who would never really understand him or his teachings) to “follow me,” and they began ministering together. It would seem that for Jesus a prerequisite to ministering and doing the work of God (possibly even relating to God fully) is to be in community.
As I walked away from the church, I had no spiritual community. Heebie-jeebies for real.
I've spent the first few weeks of my sabbatical sitting in the dirt pulling weeds up in my front yard, alone — which is another thing that Jesus seemed to think it takes to be healthy. So, as I sat there alone I spent a great deal of time thinking about not being alone.
I imagined the spaces and places other than church that might be out there for churchless people “like me.” Bars? Starbucks? Soccer games? Bars? (Sorry, did I mention 'bars' already? I get a bit distracted when the topic of beer comes up). Quickly though, I realized I was simply rehashing clichés. So, I decided to sit quietly and stop trying to artificially find community.
Then one day I found it. More precisely, I experienced it. It was more“church” than church and it was both intentional and unintentional at the same time. I went to the Wild Goose Festival.
I think what I experienced there may be the future of church or at least point to what it will look like and it looks nothing like what most of us think of when we think of church. I'm not saying it's not already going on in places, because it is. I am saying that most “church goers” aren't aware of it and I am also saying it is the first time I experienced it so profoundly.
People who have walked away from church, people who go to church religiously (pardon the pun), people who are wandering, people who have been hurt, people who are spiritual-but-not-religious — we all gathered together for a long weekend of music, art and thinking about God. Surprisingly, that is where church broke out. There were no pews, no pipe organ, no liturgy, no polity — none of the trappings of church, but it decided to be church anyway.
For me it happened underneath a large tent. It was the kind of tent I remember seeing in my childhood in the South that would pop up on the lawns of Southern Baptist churches when a revival was coming to town. Only this one also served beer.
The event was called “Beer & Hymns.” I went to church y'all. (Sorry. Like I said, I'm from the South). It wasn't the revival of my childhood, but I am here to tell you, it was a revival. If in no other place, it was a revival in my soul.
With a beer in one hand and lyrics to old hymns in the other, we let go of all of the trappings of what people think, how they are dressed and a myriad of other completely useless measurements of faith and with our feet planted in the dirt of Shakori Hills, N.C., we reached into our deepest spaces and wailed out our hymns to the heavens.
It was joyous. And we did it with reckless abandon. It was beautiful. It was profoundly spiritual.
In that moment at Wild Goose, I experienced the Spirit in a deep and more profound way than I can ever remember doing inside the walls of any church. I turned to my buddy, Bryan McFarland, and said, "If church was like that every Sunday, we wouldn't be worrying about people walking away from church; we'd be worrying about how to fit them all in."
Joy. Pure, unadulterated, reach-to-the-core-of-your-being Joy. In a word: worship. That's what we experienced.
Now that I have had a taste of it, I thirst for it. I want more.
So, my sabbatical 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. Mark blogs for TheGodArticle.com where this post originally appeared.
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