Monday I wrote about why I don’t attend church regularly. I was naive to open such a sensitive conversation without expecting a backlash and was taken aback at the response. Many people thought the blog was saying people shouldn’t go to church or that I had something against church. None of that is true. And yet, most of the influential Christian leaders I know (who are not pastors) do not attend church. Perhaps it’s something we should talk about in an open, safe environment. All I can offer is my perspective, which I do not offer as an answer, only a contribution to a discussion.
On that note, one caveat: I can only give camera angles on the issue because that’s how I think. I tend to see things from multiple angles and am comfortable not choosing “the right opinion” because I’m not convinced the right opinion is even on the table or that there is one in the first place. Many opinions can be right. Binary thinking causes more false dichotomies than true answers or helpful discussions, so I’ll avoid them as best I can.
This blog will likely be misquoted, mischaracterized and parsed in an effort to demonize. This happens when anybody puts their thoughts out there on any subject. It’s expected. But I’m hoping something more happens. I’m hoping, for some, it contributes to unity. We are not that different.
So as you read thoughts that may seem foreign, please understand my intent is not to judge or pose threat. As Ravi Zacharias often prays, let there be more light than heat.
Camera angles on church, why many people don’t go, pushback to the blog and an increasing cultural inability for nuanced thought:
1. I WAS MOVED BY READER SENSITIVITY
Reading the comments from Monday’s blog let me know how far my personal spiritual journey has taken me from modern evangelicalism. Theologically, I find myself in the evangelical camp in many ways, but as for the “one way to do life and church” I’ve gone a different path. And I’m hardly alone. While I love the traditional church, I love it like a foundational part of my past, as though it were a University I’ve graduated from to join a much larger church those still in the University program are quite suspicious of. (More on church as school later)
For many, though, the church is where people find spiritual security through communion with both God and a local tribe. People love their churches, their pastors and their community. Some people believe church is the main place we worship God, that it’s superior and more sacred than worshipping with their family or friends or through other outlets such as work or daily life. My faith and intimacy with God has grown as I’ve evolved in my understanding of church, and as I said, many find that threatening. And yet, in the comments, even the heated ones, it was beautiful to see a group of people love something so much. The passion moved me as much as it frustrated me.
2. FEELINGS ARE NOT VALID?
A response I kept seeing on twitter and in the comments was that my blog was all about feelings. It wasn’t. It was actually about learning styles. I used the word “feel” a couple times and it was pounced on like a fumbled football. And yet I kept asking myself “why do these people have a problem with feelings or the concept of feelings?”
Feelings are, essentially, thoughts. They don’t come from the heart, they come from the brain. Both thoughts and feeling are chemical and electrical functions of the brain. It’s true they are different, but one is not a lie while the other is true. The reality is, neither is trustworthy without verification and consideration.
The distinction, however, that feelings are lesser trustworthy experiences is a false dichotomy. Certainly you can’t do math with feelings, but you can’t love with math. Is math an invention of God while love a worldly experience? Did God create your mind to be a calculator and Satan stuck some feelings into the mix?
The Bible itself includes a large amount of art and history and comparably few rational essays, so the evangelical tendency to dismiss “feelings” is confusing. Add to this “rational thought” can also be misleading. Both Richard Dawkins and C.S. Lewis arrived at their different positions by taking trails of thought. Both consider themselves rational and grounded in foundational philosophical principals, but they ended up in different intellectual places. Why then do modern evangelicals elevate thought as though it is the only path to truth? And why dismiss feelings as though they are weak or lesser than? Shouldn’t the issue be given a more nuanced treatment?
Add to this yet another conundrum, and that’s the myth any of us are objective thinkers in the first place. Research indicates we are given to tribal thinking and confirmation bias and defend those “feelings” with rational justifications we most often mistake for a linear line of thought, as though we are objective. We are not objective. Mark Driscoll, Tim Keller, Richard Dawkins, Bill Nye and Ken Hamm are not completely objective thinkers. They are given to tribal thinking and confirmation bias. Find me a theological rant of any stripe and I’ll show you a “thinker” using rational thought to defend the presuppositions of a tribe, likely in an effort to gain security or from a fear something is being taken away, in other words, rational thought fueled by feelings.
Before we get too irate and have a trigger reaction against the idea feelings are actually valid if verified and tested, we should consider new revelations in brain science, learning-style revelations and basic psychology. What about intuition, what about the whole brain? What about Daniel Goleman’s work on emotional intelligence? What about Sir Ken Robinson’s work on education reform? What about Jung’s early work on personality theory and motives? And even Malcolm Gladwell’s work on thinking without thinking? When evangelicals attack “feelings” they’re discrediting thinkers and researchers more knowledgeable than they on how the brain actually works.
The attack on feelings works great to sway young seminarians who like to label liberal theologians, but in the end, it’s a limited and narrow perspective.
The point, though, is this: Feelings matter. You can’t build a house on them, but they guide, shape, validate and work with rational thought to shape who we are and how we do life. When Jesus interacted with people, He cared about how they felt. And He was not weak or weird for doing so. He’s the one who made those silly little “feelings” in the first place. How odd, then, His own children would dismiss them as irrelevant.
3. CHURCH ISN’T ABOUT YOU, IT’S ABOUT GOD?
It’s a nice cliche and has some basis in scripture, but while the thought makes a great tweet, it should be parsed in a more nuanced way. Many people seemed to want me to attend church out of a sense of duty or responsibility. These were the comments I received that were most traced with guilt and shame, interestingly.
Certainly we have a duty and responsibility in many areas of life, including church, but God has no problem with us enjoying Him, each other, nature and for that matter a worship experience. And if we don’t enjoy a specific kind of worship experience, He could care less whether we go choose one we enjoy more. David danced naked, not out of responsibility, but because he went temporarily pleasure-go-nuts with emotion. He liked it. He was wired to like it. His son worshipped God as a philosopher, playwright and architect. Everybody worships differently. The church offers music. And let’s face it, most of them offer the same music. Jesus isn’t crying Himself to sleep at night because somebody wants to worship Him by planting a garden more than singing a song.
But this is a much larger issue. The subtext of these comments seemed to insinuate that God wants us to suffer for Him. But not suffer by reaching the poor or by being outcast, suffer, literally, by standing in a church service singing songs you don’t find catchy. Really?
The subtext of these comments reminded me of an elderly Catholic woman I watched in Mexico City, crawling on her bloody knees to the Metropolitan Cathedral. She’d crawled for nearly twelve miles. She was in her eighties. She wanted to suffer for Jesus. Her family followed her, wiping her brow and offering her water. It was moving to see. But in my opinion, entirely unnecessary and perhaps the stuff of bad theology. I applaud the devotion, but I don’t admire it. I don’t think when Jesus told us to take up our cross, he was talking about self mutilation.
The point is this: God has no problem with you having pleasure enjoying Him, and when we don’t through a specific methodology, He has no problem with us switching things around so we do. He’s not calling us to be sanctified through dutiful boredom.
4. WE MUST ATTEND A CHURCH SERVICE TO BE IMPACTFUL FOR GOD?
I’d say half of the most impactful people I know, who love Jesus and tear up at the mention of His name, who reach out to the poor and lonely and are fundamentally sound in their theology, who create institutions that feed hundreds of thousands, do not attend a traditional church service. Many of them even speak at churches, but they have no home church and don’t long for one. They aren’t wired to be intimate with God by attending a lecture and hearing singing (which there is NOTHING wrong with) they are wired to experience God by working with Him.
That said, they also have no opinion about church, don’t talk about it and are too busy with enjoying the global, non-arguing, non-tribal community that they consider to be the church to worry about what people think.
That said, they wisely keep their mouths closed on the issue where I went and talked about. Serves me right.
The point, though, is this: Jesus engages people inside and outside the church. It’s almost as though He sees the church as one, without walls, denominations or tribes. I’m starting to see the church that way, too.
5. NO CHURCH MEANS NO COMMUNITY?
These comments also surprised me. It was as though people thought because I hadn’t been to church in years, I had no community, that I lived in isolation. This is untrue. My community is rich, deep, spiritually sound, gracious, sacrificial and at times (because I’m an introvert) exhausting.
What I hadn’t realized before I read those comments, though, was that I had worked to create my community.Community is everywhere, and every church you’ve attended was a community that somebody sat down and created. I happen to think a lot of them look exactly the same and have no problem making mine look different, but it’s still a community. Millions of people who do not attend church have rich, meaningful communities that they created or have joined. You could create your own community out of your home in a matter of months.
6. YOU ARE EITHER WITH US OR AGAINST US
This was perhaps the most surprising response. Because I said I’d not been to church regularly in years, people supposed I had something against the church. But I didn’t and I don’t. In fact, since I left, any issues I’ve had with the church have gone away. I have nothing but kind feelings for the church and consider myself, in a strange way, part of it. Or at least I believe Jesus sees me as part of the church, part of His Bride.
But again, there’s a subtext here, and I think it involves insecurities. It’s a common human issue: If they aren’t like us, they are threatening. But I promise, Christians who do not attend church are no different than you. They are kind, they struggle, they are gracious, they are judgmental and they are trying to connect with Jesus sometimes and sometimes not. But for the most part, they aren’t against the church.
Tribal thinking often causes a great deal of harm. We think people who don’t agree with us are likely lesser people because what is foreign often feels threatening. But that’s hardly true. People are people. Some of them do bad things both inside and outside the church. I’m convinced the distrust we feel at the foreign is a divisive and deceptive thought pattern meant to cause harm.
Imagine the relationships people lose out on, the incredible life memories, the healing and community they aren’t involved in because they can’t engage or have community with people who do not agree with them theologically. I’ve no interest. People are either kind or mean. I choose kind ones, I don’t care what they believe. This is part of why I feel like my community is so healthy.
7. DO YOU ATTEND A TRADITIONAL BIBLICAL CHURCH?
Your church likely looks nothing like the church in the book of Acts, which, was not much of a prescription on how to do church anyway. There are some marching orders in the book, but there aren’t many. Mostly those direct instructions are about choosing elders and deacons and dividing up each others money so that it’s shared. But that’s mostly it.
The modern traditional church sticks to the part about the elders, very loosely nods towards the financial stuff, but is basically a large school system. The modern evangelical church is an adaptation of an ancient institution led by scholars after the invention of the printing press. It is also an evolution of a government-run institution dating back centuries. And it continues to evolve today into something else.
Unless you are Shane Claiborne, your church probably doesn’t look anything like the church in the book of Acts, so let’s not get self righteous.
As a side note, many thinkers in America credit the growth of the American church with supply and demand principals. They say the reason the church in England is struggling is because it was so influenced by the government it didn’t adapt with culture, where in America churches had to compete with each other and so adapted, evolved, grew in style, shared best practices at conferences and adopted marketing and branding strategies they learned from business leaders.
The church in America, in other words, is a product of a school-like system mingled with best business practices and is quickly moving toward entertainment-like institutions. And to be honest, that amazing adaptation and evolution has worked fantastically. I think it’s great. These practices reach tons of people who want Jesus, community and wisdom from an ancient trustworthy text. That said, to say traditional church is Biblical is a stretch because of two false presuppositions.
Those two false presuppositions are:
1. The Bible has specific, robust and complete instructions on building and running a church community. It doesn’t. As I said earlier, the book of Acts has a few marching orders, but as a writer I assure you, that’s not the author’s intent in that book. It’s a history of the early church and an encouragement for us.
2. The church you are attending is a Biblical church. If you mean it’s a church that is centered around Jesus and takes the eucharist, perhaps. But, again, your church likely doesn’t look like the church in Acts. And I think that’s fine. God wanted the orthodox theology to stay the same, but the church can, should and has evolved in style, language, customs and so forth.
It’s a hard thing for some people to get their heads around, but God shares agency with us in creating the church and we get to use our creativity and heart and passion to incorporate these loose instructions. Actually, big business could learn a thing or two from churches. And so could education reformers. Because of the passion pastors have for the gospel, their willingness to share best practices and the economic competition they face with neighboring churches, they often adapt faster than business. When I was a kid, our church looked like a school mixed with an anglican-style high church.
Today, many churches look like night clubs complete with pastors being piped in on video. It’s quite brilliant and I’ve no problem with it, it’s just not my thing. I don’t like night clubs. And I don’t like lectures and I don’t emote to worship music. And I still love Jesus. It’s shocking, but it’s true. That said, let’s stop using the word “Biblical” as some sort of ace card when it comes to how church should be done.
8. JESUS DOESN’T HAVE POWER OUTSIDE THE CHURCH?
One twitter comment said by leaving the church I was committing spiritual suicide. I read that comment to a friend (a nationally known, strong Christian leader who does not attend church but doesn’t talk about it) and both of us were taken aback.
Do people really believe there’s no spiritual life, no walk with Jesus, no community and no love outside a Sunday morning worship service? For those who’ve never taken a break from church, this will be a hard one. But I assure you, He’s alive and well and happy and working both inside and outside the traditional church. He’s going places many of us are unwilling to go, or perhaps scared to go. He exists outside our worldly tribes, even if those worldly tribes are labeled as a local church.
I’ll tell you a story, and this one may seem crazy to some, but I promise it’s true. A few years ago I was interviewing a prominent world leader. Can’t tell you who, but every person reading this knows who he is. We were two hours into a conversation about leadership and he asked me to turn off my recorder. I did. Then he began describing a kind of knowing he had in his spirit. He knew he was supposed to help people, especially the poor, those who are true victims. I said I thought that was great. But then he asked me, he said Don, I don’t believe in God, I walked away from the Catholic church when I was a young man. But I can’t explain that feeling. It’s like God is talking to me. He’s wanting me to go reach these people. I’m confused a bit.
For me, that was an intense paradigm shift in my faith. I believe he was hearing from Jesus. I just don’t think he knew it or had a category for that kind of reality. And as I continued to interact with traditional evangelicals, I realized they would have no category for that man either. Potentially, he can help millions of people (and since then, has) but evangelicals wouldn’t be able to understand that Jesus was partnering with him unless he agreed with their foundational theological positions and perhaps even attended their kind of church (of which, in the Christian tradition, there are 360,000 different kinds).
So what do we do with a man who is interacting with Jesus and doesn’t know it? Here’s what I did with it: I decided I didn’t fully know what Jesus was doing, that much of His involvement with the world was a mystery, and He was going to reach out to the poor both through, and outside the church. Quite a paradox. And most evangelicals are uncomfortable with paradox.
9. THE CHURCH CAN’T ADAPT BEYOND A LECTURE/WORSHIP SYSTEM
I do think church can evolve beyond a lecture/worship/performance institution, but the current leadership is unlikely to make that happen. When and if the church evolves, it will evolve from outside the current leadership and that evolution will pose a threat to existing tribal values as well as financial systems that are sustained by the current model. In other words, the church will be reluctant to change because things that are foreign are perceived as bad and we’ve got to keep doing it this way for job security.
The reality is, though, there can be entire avenues of church (within existing institutions) that explore all the ways God has created the brain to work, in other words, all of His children, not just those who best respond to traditional services. There can be art tracks, work tracks, business mentoring programs, community gardens and so on. In other words, the person of Jesus can be brought into every facet of the life He Himself created.
If we are honest, and look at the whole situation objectively, the greatest resistance will come from an unseen but largely inarguable hurdle: job security.
The lecture/worship system is the most efficient program to get the most people through a church experience over a given weekend. It’s an unbelievably smart business model. A staff of 50 or so can reach thousands at once, give them a brief experience, send them off into community groups and so forth and sustain church activity while still collecting offerings. Few consider that church has evolved to look as it does for financial reasons, but this is likely the first thing a truly objective thinker would notice. Current church programs involving a short lecture and worship is an astoundingly efficient financial model, and so it will be reluctant to change.
Please don’t misunderstand me. What I did not say is that pastors are in it for the money. I’ve met very few pastors who didn’t have the skill set to make much more money in the business world. Most of them are in it for the ministry, I’m convinced. The point was to sustain a church budget, the current worship experience is the most efficient model.
Neither am I arguing the current model should change. Millions are fed weekly through these kinds of programs. What I’m arguing is that nobody should be faulted for creating something different. Those who would argue “we shouldn’t simply create the church in our own image” forget it already has been created in our own image. First the image of the royal government then the image of the university or school and then big business and now moving toward the entertainment industry. The church has always been recreated in the image of the dominant institution in society. For the early church, that was the family. For our culture, it’s business and education and entertainment.
In fact, I’d argue that by making the church smaller, less formal, less organized, less institutionalized and more like the chaos of a family structure, the church would be moving MORE toward the historical church in ACTS and less like a culture-formed institution by deconstructing itself. Though I hardly consider that a God-given decree. Again, I believe we can make it what we want (within God-given parameters) and share agency with God in positively impacting the world.
So that’s about it as for camera angels. For any offense I’ve caused, I ask forgiveness. You are more important to me than this discussion and I’ll likely not talk about it again for a long time.
The final issue for me is control. I can’t control you, you can’t control me, and none of us are going to control Jesus. He’s going to do what He wants, and what He wants is to love the world through us, both inside and outside the church.