Let me start with the statement that no one has asked me to explain why I find church — connecting myself to a church, going to a church — a non-option at present. And that’s significant, I think. It’s significant that no one from a church community has asked me why I am disenchanted with and alienated from church, and what they, as church, can do about my disenchantment and alienation.
No one from the churches asks all the people who have walked away from church and continue to walk away in recent years why we are walking away — and what church people and churches can do in response to assist disenchanted and alienated former church people. I am unaware of major studies being commissioned by churches to ask how they can deal with this situation (and what it implies about them as church). I’m unaware of major dialogues being commissioned by churches to solicit the input of the disenchanted and alienated, to ask what churches might have done differently or might do differently in future to staunch the kind of massive exodus from the churches we’re seeing right now.
In lieu of any such dialogue space, in lieu of any church member or official coming to me to ask me why I have become disenchanted and alienated, in lieu of any sign that any church really cares why I have left or why anyone else has left, here’s what I want to say:
The world in which we human beings live is not always a safe and welcoming place for many of us. Many of us live in a world that beats us up on a daily basis. Some of us live in a world that threatens our very existence on a daily basis. We live, many of us, in a world that saps us of a sense of self-worth, a world that sends us constant messages that we do not count and our humanity is not valued.
All human beings encounter such messages at some points in their lives. Too many human beings encounter such messages incessantly.
In such a world, church — if it means anything at all — should be there to counter such messages. Church at its most fundamental level is meant to be about providing — about being — a safe, welcoming, healing space alternative to the unsafe, unwelcoming, and harm-inflicting space many human beings experience in the world around them.
Church does not function this way for many human beings. Church functions, in fact, as a mirror of the world that is unsafe, unwelcoming, and harm-inflicting for many human beings, rather than an alternative to that world.
One of the most dismal revelations of the sexual abuse crisis in my own church (and in many others) has been that, not only is church not a safe, welcoming, healing space for many young people, it is quite precisely the locale in which they are sexually assaulted. And then, when those young people who have been sexually assaulted within the space called church seek, as adults, to deal with the pain the church has created for them, if they ask church officials and church members to meet with them and discuss this pain, they find themselves rebuffed.
They find themselves tagged as the enemy, re-victimized, re-abused. They find themselves told to disappear and stop troubling the church, which has more important business to do than hearing their stories and dealing with the pain the church inflicted on them when they were sexually abused as minors in the space called church. They find church every bit as unsafe, unwelcoming, and harm-inflicting as it was when it provided the social space in which they were sexually assaulted as young people.
LGBTQ human beings have long been able to offer similar testimony about church — if anyone cared to listen. For many of us who are LGBTQ, church is the very last place we’d seek to go if we wanted to seek safety, welcome, and healing in a world that is often hostile to our very humanity.
Today, as top government officials of the U.S. mount a draconian expulsion of immigrants regarded as illegal or threatening to the country’s existence, a sizable proportion of American churchgoers — notably, white ones — tell pollsters that they applaud this action. It is what they voted for when they elected the officials mounting this expulsion.
The proportion of white evangelicals supporting the Trump administration’s targeting of Muslims entering the U.S. is at about the same level — 4 in 5 — as the proportion of white evangelicals who voted for Trump. The proportion of white Catholics who voted for Trump — 3 in 5 — is near the level of white Catholics telling pollsters that they applaud the targeting of Muslims entering this country.
What these fellow Christians and I understand church is about, what these fellow Christians and I understand church is meant to be, could not be more antithetically opposed. The church these fellow Christians represent is the precise opposite of a space that is safe, welcoming, and healing for people whom the world wishes to break. It is a replica of the world that breaks the humanity of vulnerable human beings, rather than an antidote to that world.
Biblical scholars tell us that Jesus never spoke of the church. The statements in the gospels that put the word “church” into the mouth of Jesus are historical retrojections. They are attempts by the gospel writers to link theological developments that occurred in the first two generations following Jesus to Jesus and his life. They are attempts to ground the church that grew out of Jesus’ life and message, in response to his life and message, in Jesus and his life.
Jesus was a devout Jew who did not envisage the church that grew up in response to his message. His message was centered on proclaiming the reign of God that, in his view, was breaking into history through his life and message. The reign of God, he told his listeners, would be a place in which the first would be last, those in need of healing would find healing, the hungry would be fed, and the poor would have sustenance.
Jesus’ proclamation of the reign of God is at the very core of what church is called to be. It is the seed out of which church grew. It is a constant critique of everything that church does, a call to church to recognize that it is not being faithful to Jesus and his message — it is not being church — insofar as it does not seek to listen and respond faithfully to Jesus’ message about the reign of God.
Insofar as church does not seek constantly to fashion itself as a place in which the first are last, those in need of healing find healing, the hungry are fed, and the poor find sustenance, church is not authentically church. It is not authentically linked to Jesus.
It is a betrayal of Jesus and of the gospel. This is where many of us who are now unchurched in the U.S. find ourselves today: seeking church, but finding everywhere we turn a church that betrays Jesus and the gospel, and has no discernible connection to Jesus’ proclamation of the reign of God.
We have left the churches because they are not, in fact, church in any meaningful sense at all. And the response of many white Christian church members to what is happening in the America of Donald Trump — an America they have deliberately chosen in voting for him — confirms for us the wisdom of our walking away.