“If I went to church, I’d go to yours.” Many times I have heard people say something like this. They intend it as a compliment, I think.
These words used to fill me with a flicker of hope. Maybe with a little patience and friendship, some prayers and the mysterious work of the Holy Spirit, just maybe, these people would eventually show up on a Sunday. And then gradually, warily, they’d find themselves woven into the life of our congregation.
It’s not like this has never happened. I could tell some beautiful stories of under-the-radar healing and hope. We’d call them “conversions” but that sounds too…you know.
But over time, I’ve learned that someone saying “If I went to church, I’d go to yours,” usually indicates absolutely nothing. Sometimes the people who utter it even laugh at themselves — quickly adding the qualifier “but I’m not going to church!’
I hope this essay doesn’t come across as my tale of woe. But I’m concerned it might. I don’t want it to be my rebuke to the people who’ve told me “If I went to church, I’d go to yours.” But it could sound that way. I hope you’ll hear both friendship and frustration, respect and lament. But where once their comment — “If I went to church” — buoyed my spirits, now these words dishearten me, sometimes even sting.
Who are they?
Who am I talking about? Who are these people? They are good people. They are people I enjoy. They are my friends. They are people I find myself around — at a craft beer gathering, yoga class, a Pete Buttigieg for President rally (these things happen when you live in Iowa), a farmers market, a tour of local solar arrays, a common friend’s birthday party. We sense that we share many interests and values. They sense I’m not “that kind of Christian.” I think they respect me.
Two centuries ago, Friederich Schliermacher wrote to religion’s “cultured despisers.” Despisers is a strong word, probably too strong in this case. Still, these people have a deep wariness and usually more than a bit of condescension toward the church and Christ. A colleague calls them “Christian-adjacent.” They’re not opposed to being around certain Christians — Christians like me. Still they remain adjacent, outside, acknowledging some commonality, but a little above and beyond Christians and our archaic ways.
I recently read an explanation of Jesus’ parable of the 99 sheep, written by someone familiar with sheep. Famously, the shepherd in the parable leaves the 99 in search of the one lost sheep. According to this sheep-expert, sheep aren’t prone simply to wander off. A lost sheep is rarely foolish or inattentive. Instead, a lost sheep is usually the result of negligent shepherding or an abusive, inhospitable flock.
The sheep-expert’s point was clear. People who don’t follow Jesus or aren’t involved in the church aren’t stupid or careless. They haven’t made poor decisions. They have been ignored or harassed or intimidated.
I don’t doubt that this is true both for sheep and my cultured-despiser/Christian- adjacent friends. Still, I wince. Once more it feels like I am the bad guy, the failure, the one responsible for the breach. It may be true, but it’s also deeply depleting.
Stephen Dunn’s wondrous poem, “At the Smithville Methodist Church” captures my friends in a more poetic way. It’s the tale of “Christian-adjacent” parents who send their child to Vacation Bible School. Here’s an excerpt:
It had been so long since we believed, so long
since we needed Jesus
as our nemesis and friend, that we thought he was
that our children would think of him like Lincoln
or Thomas Jefferson.
Soon it became clear to us: you can’t teach disbelief
to a child,
I wonder: Am I basically the same as these people? I don’t mean to sound superior, but I do wonder: Does my commitment to Jesus Christ and his church cause me to be different in some way?
Here’s a weird analogy but go with me — my “tire” is inflated by or filled with trust in and love for Jesus Christ, as well as the Holy Spirit, scripture, the traditions of the church, my intentions to live as a follower of Jesus. Their tire might be filled with the golden rule, a little Eat, Pray, Love, a desire to be compassionate and gentle, an introductory college course on Buddhism, some Brene Brown, and some eco-justice spirituality. But is the tire track, our tread mark, that we imprint on the world nearly identical? In other words, is the impact, the tire track, we leave on the world, about the same? Does the larger world experience us as pretty similar people even if the air that inflates our tires is quite different?
What is behind this concern of mine? I’m not better than they are. Haven’t almost all of us discovered that people of different faiths and no faith can be good and decent and generous and loving and wonderful people? Still, I have this nagging sense that if Jesus Christ is the one who I trust he is — the unique and unsurpassable revelation of God, the eternal Word made flesh for us and for our salvation — this should make some difference in the way I live vis-a-vis people who have quite different understandings. And so I wonder, have I bent too much towards a secular spirituality?
Jesus Christ and exclusivism
Many of those who tell me “if I went to church” intuitively believe that to be a Christian is to be militantly narrow and ignorantly exclusive. This repels them. They are pluralistic and tolerant people. While they may sense that I am “not that kind of Christian,” they still suspect that Christianity is an imperialistic, bullying religion.
Actually, I am “that kind of Christian” — somewhat, anyway — more than my friends might understand. I affirm classic Christian orthodoxy. I’m not a pluralist in matters of religion. I am hopeful that Christians are working on becoming humbler. At least some are. There is great work to be done. How can we become nimbler, more creative and fluent in expressing the historic claims of Christianity without being bullies?
Being burdened by bellicose and formulaic understandings of Christian exclusivity may simply be the price I have to pay for Christians having called the shots for 1500 years. The triumphal and boisterous voice of Christian uniqueness still resounds in many churches, or at least in peoples’ memories. And with it comes the noxious flipside — that anything outside of Christianity is necessarily wrong, evil, and dangerous.
Very quickly we get into deep water here. And I am not going to propose any specific solutions. My hunch is that there are ways to be an orthodox Christian that are neither arrogant about the unique and definitive nature of Jesus Christ, nor intolerant of the faith and perspectives of others. Really, it is stronger than a hunch. One of the gifts of our western Christian missionaries is that many have navigated this terrain for decades, if not centuries, already — holding together both the historic claims about Christ and respect for the other cultures and traditions. Their thoughts are careful and nuanced. Sometimes they are viewed with suspicion, as if the only way to talk about the uniqueness of Jesus is in imperialistic terms. Over ten years ago, the General Synod of my own denomination, the Reformed Church in America, adopted a paper titled “The Crucified One is Lord.” I don’t recall the specifics, but the title alone was an attempt to hold in tension the superlative title of Lord and the humble weakness of one who was crucified.
By the way, as long as we’re trying to move beyond combative and clumsy statements about Christ’s uniqueness, can we also move beyond the “all religions are essentially the same” statements? You know, those tired, flaccid “many-paths-up-the-same-mountain” claims. They’re not insightful or tolerant. Really, they are a disservice to all religions.
A Jew, a Muslim and a Christian were at the same corner in Pella, Iowa. It sounds like a bad joke, but it happened to me. I was crossing the street in my small Midwestern town when coming toward me from each side, the two adjacent corners were a Jew and a Muslim. The odds of this happening in a very “Christian” town are astronomical! I knew them both — not well, but we have amicable relationships. We smiled politely and went on our way. A theological breakthrough? Probably not. Still, I walked on amused and hopeful. The world is changing. How do we adapt?
Their trauma, my defensiveness
My wife coaxed me to do yoga. What was at first reluctance became something I looked forward to. I never was very good, and that’s okay. The gift that yoga gave me was that it exorcised from me the taunting, shouting voices of coaches and the PE teachers.
To all good coaches and fine PE teachers, I’m sorry for throwing you under the bus. Too many of mine were mean, sadistic, frustrated Marine drill sergeant wannabees who tried to make themselves feel important by belittling gangly adolescents. Calling us sissies, ladies, weenies, and worse. Making us run laps or do push-ups when we made small mistakes. Singling us out for humiliation in front of our peers.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but now I see that these negative experiences tainted, nearly ruined, physical exercise for me. Their voices — criticizing, demeaning, shaming — were always in my head when I exercised.
Yoga’s gentle, patient, and accepting ways finally helped me get over this. And not only in yoga, but in all physical activities.
I wish the people who tell me “If I went to church” would have a similar experience with faith and religion. Is there something I could do for them that would be similar to what yoga did for me? Can we heal negative experiences with Christianity? Can we exorcise the caustic voices that still rattle around in their souls? Too often I feel stymied.
Talk with these people and you will hear stories about a pinched and joyless Christian grandmother; a stern, unforgiving religious father; involvement in a controlling, cultish Christian youth ministry, a creepy priest or pastor, a pushy coworker who told them they were going to hell.
I do my best to listen to their stories and their pain. This is when I want to remind them, “I’m not that kind of Christian.” And they know that. When in a conversation with a queer person (who would, in some ways, still quietly identify as a Christian) I suggested that there were lots of churches that would embrace and affirm him. He responded, “I know. Still just the act of going to church or being with Christians feels somehow disloyal to my queer community.” What can you say to that except bow your head and grieve?
And yet, if I’m being embarrassingly honest I’ll tell you that it feels like some people wear their scars of abusive religion like badges of honor. Among cultured despisers, it can seem almost fashionable, as if there’s competition to see whose story is the most horrendous.
On occasion when I hear people practically flaunting their anti-Christian experiences, I think, “You know, there are therapists that could help you with that.” Or “Would you like to work on that and try to find some resolution or would you prefer to burnish your wounds in public with your cranky comments about Christians?”
A prominent Christian theologian once shared his experiences of trying to hold serious conversations with scientists. It felt, he said, like they were expecting him to bring out a flannelgraph or maybe an illustrated children’s Bible to explain his views. They presumed he was uninformed, naive, and probably a bit stupid. What if, he wondered, he would say to the scientists “You know, I’ve never really respected or needed science. In second grade I had to put leaves between sheets of wax paper and dry them in the pages of encyclopedias. Mine never turned out well, and I didn’t see the point. Plus my science teacher was boring. Ever since then, I just don’t trust science”? Who says that simplistic dismissals and condescending assumptions are solely the hallmark of Christians?
Certainly it’s never a good idea to tell people callously that they should get over their trauma, or that it wasn’t really that bad. It’s not the Christ-like move. Telling victims of religion that actually it is I who am the victim of their resentment? Ouch! There is no healing or hope down that path.
Reformed theology has a robust sense of group responsibility and corporate sin. It may sound odd, but most of the time I find this very helpful and insightful. I never owned slaves…I didn’t break treaties with Native Americans…I don’t run a sweatshop crammed with child laborers…I didn’t put toxins into a river…but I am part of a society that has and I have benefitted from these and countless injustices. I can own that.
It is harder for me to own the abuse and harm done by the church, by clergy, by Christians, as my own. Somehow, here I want to be exempted, to say, “That wasn’t me! Don’t dump your anger on me!” I’m not saying this reaction of mine is right or that I’m proud of it. I’m simply saying it is.
Two scary C’s
Commitment and community. We all know we need them in our lives. But we’re skeptical of the burdens they impose, the constraints they bring. This fear of commitment and community is pervasive all across contemporary society. Still, I sometimes wonder if my “if I went to church” friends are especially prone to be those who talk very glowingly and theoretically about the need for community, while simultaneously being evasive toward actual community. They speak passionately about the benefits of community but too often appear to lack the grit to live it.
Church people experience the rare joy of an intergenerational group singing together, and how potlucks build social capital. The sharing of ancient rituals and marking traditional holidays; living side-by-side with the same people for decades and walking with them through life’s milestones — these things are deeply meaningful and highly salutary. They are life-giving. And this, all of this, is the church at it’s best.
We tend not to mention the bitterness when your child doesn’t get a speaking part in the Christmas program for three consecutive years. Or the mind-numbing committee meeting that suddenly flares with anger. You go home shocked and hurt by that person’s cutting remarks. And there’s when you don’t like or agree much with the preacher. Don’t forget about those Sunday mornings you wish you could simply stay home, drink coffee, read a book or go on a bike ride. All of these feelings, they too are the church. This is life in community.
It all can be so onerous. Nonetheless, I contend that it is in this glacial grind of the church life together that disciples are formed, that sanctification, such as it is, occurs.
My “If I went to church” friends tend to frame their resistance to faith and church in intellectual and philosophical terms. I’ll grant those can be factors. However, it is my suspicion that far more practical concerns often impede their faith and participation in the church. It is the fear of community and commitment. It is avoidance of the tangible, the vulnerability of the personal, the bane of committees, the pettiness of people, the dread of yet one more thing in already overfilled schedules that make people steer clear of church.
The church is an “institution” — and to these people, and many contemporary Americans — institution connotes life-draining, staid, impersonal, cumbersome, and collapsing. An element of truth is found in all those impressions. Simultaneously, there is lots of chatter about the arrival of a post-denominational, post-COVID, post-attractional, post-Christendom, post-this and post-that church. Yes, please! Bring it on. I believe the church is more alive, more adaptable and creative than it is often given credit for. Still, won’t the church always need commitment and a structure of one kind or another? The church will never stop being all-too-human.
“Incarnate or dissipate!” was the motto of a grad school mentor. He wasn’t speaking directly about “The Incarnation” (although perhaps indirectly?). He was claiming that ideas and theories need to be incarnated, instantiated, concretized. Otherwise they dissipate, vaporize into the ether of encyclopedias. It is good advice — wisdom really — about new forms of church and new ways of being community. Community can change. Church should change, become post-whatever. But these new forms and ways will have to become tangible and incarnated, or they will dissipate.
It’s been duly noted that people increasingly find their community in less formal, less binding groups — book groups, community theatre, cycling clubs, plus all the ways the internet offers camaraderie and associations. Commitments here are unspoken and flexible. The lifespan of these groups is often but a few months or years. They dissolve and something else takes its place. No one seems the worse for it.
There is nothing wrong with such groups, except as a Christian I want to claim that they simply aren’t enough. Deep enough. Long enough. Broad enough. Will these groups walk with you through cancer? Can they address our most profound longings? I’m not convinced.
It has crossed my mind that the primary reason I’m a proponent of church, with its holy and enduring bonds, is because I’ve persevered through it — really invested my life in it. Now I want to be sure that others do so as well. Like a painful college fraternity initiation rite, I’ve had to endure mine. So now I want to inflict it on others? There have been many a time when I’ve lusted after others’ free agency.
Even more, I’ve had nostalgic dreams about a gilded time, when commitments were serious and community was stout. This was a time when people found their meaning and roles in life within a community, a time when exile as a free-roaming individual was the harshest of punishments, not the optimal situation. But I have never experienced such a time. Can we really be certain it ever existed? One thing seems quite certain. Given the value we place on individualism, choice, and mobility, there will be no going back to some rosy mist of the past.
And let’s not act like the church is composed only or even primarily of deeply committed, very active people who have invested years and years in each other. Our boundaries are porous and our connections are elastic. In my own congregation we say we are a church with a “long leash.” We don’t do much keeping track of people. We don’t push or pressure. We try to give very few musts and shoulds and oughts. And we say that this is a good thing, attractive and sensible for today’s people. Or is it? A song writer once sang, “There’s a secret worth talking about. What you’re putting in is what you’re likely to get out.”
How to be a covenant community in a world of short-lived, voluntary associations? How not to frighten people with talk of commitment and community? How not to water down too much in an attempt to appeal? And is there any real danger of tipping the other direction, toward a heavy-handed, authoritarian church? Huge questions that gnaw but are perhaps too theoretical and detached from real life together in a church.
In reality, don’t you simply accept what people give you? Some are on the once-a-month plan. Some would lay down their lives. Then there’s the proverbial Christmas and Easter crowd. Others appear every time the doors are open. It is rewarding and disheartening. At the same time, you realize people have their reasons and ways, their wounds and burdens. And the church is a place of welcome and grace.
If I went to church, I’d go to yours. An offhand comment, intended as a compliment or maybe humor. I should simply take it as such. I’ve discovered that it is really the tip of an iceberg, with so much below the waterline — vast, profound questions, yet even more, wounded and weary souls.
”Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed…”