Why I Wouldn't Walk Away from Church (an ironic reflection on the 26th anniversary of my ordination): Old First E-pistle 06.03.16

Why I Wouldn't Walk Away from Church (an ironic reflection on the 26th anniversary of my ordination): Old First E-pistle 06.03.16

An old friend from college was telling me recently that he and his family had stopped going to church last year. He used the phrase “wandered off.”

He was sharing this with me because “the why” behind their falling out of their church habit is a mystery to him. “We never decided to leave; one Sunday we woke up to realize we hadn’t been for so long we couldn’t call ourselves ‘churchgoers’ anymore. We could have recommitted to attending, but we didn’t???”

He thought perhaps as a pastor, I might have some insight. I certainly know this phenomenon: that people — sometimes long time members or very enthusiastic and involved shorter time folks, and everyone else in between — just stop coming to church! We’re not talking about the case when someone moves to another congregation. Or when someone leaves town. Rather, after some degree of regular attendance, people somehow lose the way to church.

Each one probably has her or his own situation, circumstances, reasons. And some, like my friend, might be puzzled and looking for any explanation. Since we cannot know another’s heart — and sometimes not even our own! — the church is often left with a mysterious disappointment.

I asked my friend if his family was dissatisfied with their pastor, or the church’s programming or some decision or action the congregation was undertaking? No, he replied.

Did they lose confidence in the institution or in their faith? No to those too, he responded.

Then I asked as gingerly and non-judgmentally as possible, “Do you still consider yourself a Christian, even if you don’t go to church? “Yes, of course,” he answered quickly. But then, he added cautiously, “Well, I don’t know; can I be?”

All he can report is that their schedules got busier and conflicted; their attendance, less frequent; and they lost track with what was going on at church. Almost without deciding, they weren’t going anymore. But realizing this, he and his family didn’t miss it enough to go back.

My guess is that rather than a specific problem point, the issue was what they experienced church offering — the message or the ritual or the participation just didn’t matter enough to them or make enough difference in their lives. (You might remember my earlier E-pistle that suggested without a fairly deep knowledge of the Bible {which we all have less and less these days} to set church up, ecclesastical words and actions become less meaningful to people.)

His question got me thinking, could I ever leave the church? Beloved, I can quickly spin rich fantasies about not having to be the pastor (this on the 26th anniversary of my ordination!!!), but I’m pretty sure I couldn’t do without the church.

To be sure, my job gives me a discipline that helps keep me committed! Church is my livelihood, the source of my grocery money!, and it leaves me with a long list of duties that need to get done each week.

Since most of those represent responsibilities to people in some form or another, there is some value in all the activities. Not just in my own sense of being responsible or successful or helpful, but also for the other people who are counting on something from me or counting on something that is dependent on something I have to do. Even not getting everything done (which I never do!) feels like it would be letting someone else down. All this in part also means that I have a lot of strong relationships at church.

But deeper… for me — maybe this is why I am a pastor! — church is much more like the world I want to live in than the world I often inhabit or make my days through. Rather than irrelevant or boring, church usually feels like what I wish for as an alternative to the world as I know it. At least, at church people are trying to be welcoming, respectful, compassionate, forgiving, decent…

I don’t say that as some starry-eyed young, idealistic pastor, as if I’m mistaking the church for the Kingdom of God (or any close facsimile!). Pastors, of all people, know quite well that church is far from perfect. At Old First, we lean on the phrase “we are far from finished, but you can help us (as we might help you).”

Actually, I never was naive about church or blind to its faults. I have often thought that probably makes me a better pastor — less prone to rose-colored glasses as well as to disillusionment, lost hope and a broken-heart.
I grew up always needing to find and see the church’s lesser realities– the disappointments and brokenness and hypocrisies — all the church is often derided for when the non-church folks point out how we pretend to be better than we are. For me, these harsher realities were not any condemnation of the church or proof that it wasn’t all that it claims to be.

Rather they were reassurance– that there was room in the church for my less than picture book family, and space for my less than perfect self. That together church folk could be there for one another as we really are — in our unfinishedness, brokenness, imperfections — and somehow both the honesty and being there for each other promise we might get better. There’s a certain pathos in a community that is about us wanting and trying to be our better selves, despite ourselves!

I like making a community where “people are trying” being one of the major settings of my life. Trying to be better than we are. Trying to understand and respect and care for one . Try to forgive. And work and live well together. Trying love (over whatever the multitude of alternatives are). I’m sure there are other such communities in this world of ours, but the church is the one I know intimately.

Does this possibility, the hope, our effort always bear fruit? Not uniformly. Sometimes, ironically, even at church we get all tied up in ourselves, and lost instead of found. But on good days, when things do work out for the best, that makes trying all the more poignant for me. Even miraculous — when it works and one sees even in passing the glimmer and grace of a beloved community… And why God really does love us so.

I had a Conference colleague who was working with a seminarian many years back. The seminarian wasn’t making much progress towards finishing his MDiv. degree or completing the ordination process. My colleague suspected that this student had some “unfinished business” and was actually back pedaling or unconsciously slowing himself down. Trying to confront the young man with his own ambivalence, my friend suggested “the pastors I know couldn’t live without their ordinations.”

When my colleague told me the story, I chuckled to myself. I liked my colleague’s tactic for calling the seminarian to greater honesty with himself and accountability to his call and to the church. But I whispered to God, “Lord, if only you’d remove the ordination cross from my back…” It’s tiring and difficult being a pastor (I say in a week with 2 weddings; too many, heavy pastoral concerns; and conference annual meeting). I can imagine a role other than the pastor in the community of faith! (confessing a second time on my anniversary), but I cannot imagine my life without the church.

What about you?

See you Sunday,

Michael