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.
- Church No More: Part 1 — Walking Away From Church
- Church No More: Part 2 — Church That Doesn't Steal Your Joy
- Church No More: Part 3 — The 'C' Word
- Church No More: Part 4 — I Don't Want to Go Back
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.
Right there, in the middle of piles of fried chicken and biscuits, campers broke out in song, complete with choreography. Suffice it to say it’s simple enough and cumulative in its themes so that pretty much anyone can get the idea within a verse or two.
We keep talking about the changing face of church and how ministry is going to look different going forward; what if this is it? Not that I expect this is “the” model for how to do church from here forward, but there’s something to this “flash mob” concept, breaking out spontaneously into something that draws others in, right here, right now, where we are.
But we might get weird looks. We might even get in trouble.
Last Sunday, the Catholic singer/songwriter/poet/theologian Pádraig Ó Tuama (who hails from County Cork, Ireland), took to Revolution NYC's "barstool pulpit," to share stories, poems, and wisdom from the spiritual journey — his, yours, ours.
Listen to Ó Tuama's talk inside the blog ...
Does anybody else feel this weight?
I woke up this morning in tears. I don’t know why today is different, but I do know the weight is for my brothers and sisters who are in pain.
I imagined what the night was like for folks in my neighborhood who had to fend off threats last night.
I imagine the young girl in a car — against her will or against her first choice — with the guy named John, and I lament for her soul.
I imagine the young guy standing out all night selling death so he can have a little life — whether it’s in the form of food, dignity or just to feel like he is meeting some need, somehow.
I imagine the mom lying in the bed next to someone she would rather not touch, but because he pays the bills for her kids to eat and sleep, she puts up with his abuse and doesn’t say anything about the other woman he also lies with around the corner.
I love the Church. I have literally been going to church my whole life — that is, until two months ago.
Then I stopped cold turkey. You can read about it in my post "Walking Away From Church."
Masses of people responded. It astounded me. Most ministers expressed concern saying things like, “My Brother, I am worried that you may be on a dangerous journey,” or, “I fear you may lose your faith.”
Frankly, what I heard them saying was, “Faith is so fragile it needs the Church to enforce it,” which only made me more certain I was making a remarkably healthy spiritual choice.
Former church-going folk frequently told me things like, “There is a large disconnect between the 'Church' of today and the teachings of Jesus,” and “I have found God in a dynamic, deep way and I love God so much more and for real now than when I was unwittingly trying to fit in with my church culture.”
I've been away from church for two months now and I have to say, I am more at peace than I ever have been. My faith is stronger than it ever has been. My family life is healthier than it ever has been. My desire to seek out God and follow the teachings of Jesus is stronger than it ever has been.
I do not want to go back to Church because life outside of Church is better. It just is. There's no dogma complicating the path to God. It is more than refreshing to escape the games church-folk play with the intent of establishing control and “rightness” on their part; it is life-giving to escape it.
Growing up, I heard things at camp and in youth group about how “the world” thought and acted one way, and how “we” were not like that. In fact the world, it seemed, was intent on unraveling everything I valued as good and true, leaving me with a smoldering pile of ideals and beliefs, all dead at the point of a secular sword. It was our job as Christians not only to defend against this frontal attack, but also to fight back in an effort to win souls for the Kingdom.
It was an epic battle, now in its beginning stages, but that would play out as depicted in the fantastical, horrifically violent pages within the Book of Revelation. The end is near; which side will you be on?
The Christianity of my youth was much like the Temple Mount in Jerusalem — a shining jewel high on a hill, beset on all sides by forces intent solely on its destruction. And our mission, as stewards of the faith, was to preserve and maintain the faith, protecting it at all costs. This, I would later learn, was the theological heart of what I now know as the Culture War. And some within the walls of the temple might argue I’ve abandoned the cause, or perhaps switched sides all together.
Anderson’s piece, “What Young Clergy Want You to Know,” has, I suspect, attracted so much attention because it dives right into the middle of the frustration, anxiety, and discouragement one increasingly finds among clergy of all ages and levels of experience, but that is amplified among younger clergy because they’ve made a vocational commitment to the Church at a time when such a choice seems crazier than ever.
This, as Anderson points out in the post, is because younger clergy “understand they are presiding over the death of American Christendom.”
Younger clergy, says Anderson, “are worried about job security — not just about getting paid (which is not always a given) — but whether they can do the job they feel called to do in congregations that don’t want to change.” He continues, “Being prophetic is an attribute we laud in seminary, but it can get you fired in the parish.”
Well, there you have it. The unvarnished truth of vocational experience in institutional contexts that over time wears out even the most patient, most tolerant, most enthusiastic of clergy. The wrenching responses to the post make clear that Anderson struck a nerve among his clergy colleagues.
Conservative commentators like Rupert Murdoch's stable and Ross Douthat of The New York Times are feasting on what they perceive as the "death" of "liberal Christianity."
They add two and two and get eight. They see decisions they don't like — such as the Episcopal Church's recent endorsement of a rite for blessing same-sex unions. They see declines in church membership. They pounce.
Such "liberal" decisions are destroying the church, they say, and alienating young adults they must reach in order to survive.
Never mind that surveys of young adults in America show attitudes toward sexuality that are far more liberal than those of older generations. Never mind that conservative denominations are also in decline.
Never mind — the most inconvenient truth — that mainline denominations began to decline in 1965, not because of liberal theology, but because the world around them changed and they refused to change with it.
Thanks to Steve Knight for alerting me to this joke, which has become one of my instant favorites. After all, it combines two things I dig: nerd humor and theology (also nerdy).
Yeah, yeah, you may be groaning, but you’re smiling while doing it. Admit it.
There’s plenty of chatter lately about the so-called “God Particle,” recently discovered , with some in the scientific field actually calling it the “goddamn particle,” because (at least as I understand it) the discovery opens up the possibility of something without detectable mass actually giving mass to other particles.
Kind of like: In the beginning there was nothing, and then…
In recent days, conservatives have attacked the Episcopal Church. The reason? The church has just concluded its once every three-year national meeting, and in this gathering the denomination affirmed a liturgy to bless same-sex unions. Conservatives assert that the Episcopal Church's ever-increasing social and political progressivism has led to a precipitous membership decline and ruined the denomination.
Many of the criticisms were mean-spirited or partisan, continuing a decade-long internal debate about the Episcopal Church's future. However, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat broadened the discussion, moving beyond inside-baseball ecclesial politics to ask a larger question: "Can Liberal Christianity be Saved?"
The question is a good one, for the liberal Christian tradition is an important part of American culture, from dazzling literary and intellectual achievements to great social reform movements. Mr. Douthat recognizes these contributions and rightly praises this aspect of liberal Christianity as "an immensely positive force in our national life."
Despite this history, however, Mr. Douthat insists that any denomination committed to contemporary liberalism will ultimately collapse. According to him, the Episcopal Church and its allegedly trendy faith, a faith that varies from a more worthy form of classical liberalism, is facing imminent death.
Learning to speak as a Christian is one of the most important and often ignored aspects of our discipleship. Nowhere is this fact more obvious than when churches try to talk about politics. When the small group leader makes a disparaging comment about Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith, or a car rolls into the church parking lot with a “NOBAMA” bumper sticker proudly displayed, what do we do?
Is bumper sticker propaganda and negativity the best we have to offer?
Admittedly it can be risky to talk about politics in the local church. All it takes is one idea or statement that flies in the face of someone’s deeply held convictions and that could be the end of our influence and the end of that person’s involvement in our ministry.
Still, the upcoming presidential election will be the defining cultural event of the next six months. If we completely ignore it we are missing a golden opportunity for discipleship.
How can churches have a healthy conversation about politics in the middle of a national election without demonizing the opposition and causing disunity?
I’ve been working on this question for months now, and as part of my preparation I wrote a book called Public Jesus. Here’s a little bit about what I’ve learned in the process:
1) Love the One You’re With
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.
A new map has divided the country into red and blue ... but this one has nothing do do with politics or the upcoming election. No, we're not talking Republicans or Democrats; we're talking Church or Beer. (Do the two have to be mutually exclusive? What if you're Lutheran?)
FloatingSheep.org compiled geotagged Tweets from June 22 - 28 comparing the geographic concentration of convos regarding church and beer.
The 2012 Wild Goose Festival East wrapped up just under a week ago and I am still trying to process my experience there. As I tweeted as I drove away from the fest, I left feeling exhausted, hopeful, and blessed – that strange combination that reflected the emotional impact of my time there. And it was a truly blessed time.
I was honored with the opportunity to speak on The Hunger Games and the Gospel as well as do a Q&A on everyday justice issues at the Likewise tent. I also was able to join Brett Webb-Mitchell on a panel discussion about living with disabilities in religious communities.
But beyond those conversations I was able to help initiate, I also found a generous and safe space to connect with friends, wrestle with difficult questions, and dream of a better world. Such spaces are so rare in my life these days, that finding such at Wild Goose was a precious gift.
There are, of course, the expected complaints about the festival. It was brutally hot (and that is coming from a Texan). I never ceased to be sticky, sweaty, and stinky and there were bugs everywhere. Camping in a field where every action (and parenting attempt) is on constant display is stressful and uncomfortable. And, as with many religious gatherings, there could have been greater diversity.
For the first hour I was there as I nearly passed out trying to set up a tent in the sweltering heat, I was in a panic mode wondering why I was stupid enough to subject myself to the discomfort and imperfection of it all again this year. Yet as I entered into the experience of being a part of this crazy wonderful gathering, those issues (although ever-present) faded in significance as I found myself fitting into a place where I felt I belonged.
By now, you have probably read about the Wild Goose Festival. You have heard about the big name speakers, you were told about beer and hymns, you know about the dunk tank and the killer music and the ticks and the scorching Carolina heat.
But, awesome as all that was, it all pales in comparison to my memory of a late night conversation at the Goose with my friend Mike.
You see, Mike is one of about 1,200 people in Wake County, N.C., who are currently without housing. Some nights he lives at the shelter, other nights he couch surfs with various friends, and some nights he sleeps in the dumpster of that downtown church with the $2 million pipe organ.
Mike is one of our volunteers at Love Wins Ministries, our little ministry of pastoral care and presence to the homeless community in Raleigh, N.C. And yes, he is currently homeless. But Mike still volunteers with us, because where you live does not decide your value or define your ability to contribute.
So, when I mentioned to Mike that we were running a booth at the Wild Goose Festival and I wanted him to come as our guest and help us run it, he was skeptical.
"These are church folks, right?" Mike said. "I don't do church folks well. You know that."
I have been thinking about the church of my youth. I have been remembering, if you will, as a guy who has read too much Updike (I'll never forgive him for the Rabbit books) might remember his youth.
There is a melding of nostalgia for what was as well as what might have been. It's a mess, to be honest, a kind of lie that draws me in no matter how often I tell myself it is a lie. Sometimes these lies of memory are the heart's truth.
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).
Two weeks after we arrived in Portland, Amy (my wife and new senior pastor at First Christian Church in downtown Portland) decided she needed to do something meaningful to express her voice as a person of faith in the community. There already were the folks handing out tracts down on the campus of Portland State University, which is definitely not us. There were plenty of community leaders to meet, hands to shake and even media outlets to connect with so we’d have a better handle on key circles of influence.
But none of what was really what we had in mind.
The annual Pride fest was taking place that weekend along the banks of the Willamette River, and we knew we should probably go. Folks in our new congregation are in various stages in their journey of discerning where they are with regard to sexual orientation, but overall, it’s an incredibly open and loving place for all people. There are gay singles and couples who attend regularly, and who participate in leadership and other ministries like everyone else. But the fact of the matter is that most people outside the walls of the church don’t know that. And honestly, how will they ever know if we’re not willing to tell them?
Better yet, why not show them?
Post-recession America is beginning to open its wallet to charities again, but is not giving as generously to religious institutions.
While charitable donations from individuals rose nearly 4 percent overall in 2011, according to the annual "Giving USA" report, donations to houses of worship and other religious bodies dropped by 1.7 percent — a decrease for the second year in a row.
The report, compiled by the Indiana University Center on Philanthropy and released on June 19, shows that individual Americans gave nearly $218 billion last year, $96 billion of which went to religious organizations.