The pelican papers

A big bird’s eye view

Life without church

Posted by Ron George on July 31, 2010 photo by Brian Smith photo by Brian Smith

I told my pastor some months ago, “I’m just churched out.”

“Fuck the church,” she said. My relationship with God, she said, was more important than being a member of the church. I couldn’t imagine what that meant, frankly. I have believed for most of my adult life that Christian faith, Christian spirituality, a Christian’s personal relationship with God took root in the Body of Christ, the community of faith – the church, those called out of their hiding places to pray and work for the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. Or something like that.

Now that I have left the church, while not exactly fucking it, I’m finding that it’s true: It’s hard – for me, at least – to be a Christian without the church. Someone asked recently whether I was still a Christian. “I doubt it,” I said. “Probably not.” No church, no faith, at least not Christian faith.

It’s disorienting to let go of something you’ve cherished; in this case, yearning to be a meaningful member of this especially meaningful group. It’s dizzying; it’s as though you’ve cut an anchor rope and gone adrift into an eddying stream. Two minutes into a favorite film, “The Mission,” an 18th-century Jesuit missionary set adrift on the Iguazu River by a tribe he’d been sent to convert, the Guarani. The missionary had been tied to a cross and sent over almost impassable waterfalls, returned to “civilization” whence he came. No sale.

I wouldn’t dream of comparing myself with a missionary martyr, if that’s what he was, but something in me resonates with the image of his helpless journey downstream, through the rapids and over the falls.

I wonder whether I’ve had a mistaken notion of Christianity all these – well, decades. I’m certainly out of step with the idea that fucking the church is a cure for whatever spiritual disease has caused me to stumble. It simply may not be true, as I have believed for more than 40 years, that there is something essentially holy about this particular human community, which gathers in the name of Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit to the greater glory of God. It may not be the only way human communities gather for spiritual power more than the sum of their parts, but it certainly is an authentic way of being-in-relationship with God. Or so I believed.

Perhaps the church is or has become, after all, simply an organization of like-minded people who agree to be nice to each other and to do some good for themselves and for others, who gather from time to time to affirm their identity and values and who invite others to join them. Nothing wrong with that, especially if it has links with national organizations that can do good for others on an international scale. Lions do it. Rotarians do it. Optimists, too. Perhaps I’ve wasted far too much energy resisting the idea of the church-as-civic-club. There are worse things for the church to be; a country club, for example, or a personality cult. Denial of the obvious is a kind of mental illness, and God knows it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve denied the obvious. If the church is more civic organization than divinely inspired community of faith, then at least it’s somewhat comprehensible if somewhat less than sacred. As an old friend used to say, it is what it is and not something else. The duck test also applies. (Quack.) In any case, when you’re out of the club, you’re no longer a member of the club. No dues, no membership. Not a Rotarian anymore, or not a Christian.

Then there’s the church as institution, which I’ve always regarded as necessary baggage, an historic connection with the first generation of Jesus’ followers, which has more than a few warts but which, overall, has made the world a better place despite the worst behavior of its members – laity, deacons, presbyters and bishops alike. It’s fashionable nowadays to despise the institutional church. For me, it’s been a kind of love-hate loyalty. If duty is a form of love (I believe it is), then I guess you’d have to say I’ve loved the institutional church. I’ve wondered lately, though, whether a bishop’s pastoral advice to me some years ago to “put the burden down” actually had less to do with my squandered vocation than the institutional baggage of the church. OK, got it – finally. Frankly, I miss the baggage, warts and all, the vast web of connection – and God knows I miss my friends. I do not, however, miss dysfunctional leadership that undermines my feeling secure within the institutional church. From childhood, I’d always felt safe within whatever the church is or has become, but no more. 

Perhaps even more to the point, I’ve wondered for years whether I truly had the courage to be a Christian. It seems as though, at last, I have to say I don’t. I’ve not been adept at seeing how one follows Christ in the way he calls, the way of the Cross, of self-sacrifice, of the greater love that manifests the Kingdom of God here and now. I’ve relied for years on the bromide that God’s grace and mercy heal my lack of commitment, my lack of faith, my inability or unwillingness to let God love me. “Who cares if I break?” in God’s hands, Nikos Kazantzakis prays in Report to Greco. Well, I do. I don’t have the stomach to follow Christ who calls me to lose my life in order to save it. What ever made me think I did?

Well, the church – whatever it is – because where I was weak, others were strong, others who would remind me that God in Christ Jesus is loving and forgiving and would always embrace me on the doorstep no matter how far from home I strayed. No doubt, but who am I kidding? Myself, mostly, that anything I’m willing to do with or without the church or even God’s grace bears any resemblance whatever to discipleship. It’s likely, then, that my being “churched out” was inevitable. It just took a long time for the “no there there” of my faith to show.

What was I thinking? Maybe I just wasn’t, or maybe I took the bait so hard I didn’t think it through. I fell in love – or, more likely, I was infatuated with the tradition, the scriptures, the liturgy, the music, the sheer beauty of it all. Got hitched to the church and pursued a somewhat tumultuous relationship that included seminary, ordination, misconduct, divorce and, finally, disillusion – and that has come with a terrible hangover. 

Maybe I’m just a church addict getting over it one day at a time.

And where is God is all of this? I haven’t a clue.


3 Responses to “Life without church”

  1. Lissa said

    I pray God’s grace covers your pain. Many things seem to work on my faith. I refuse to give up. I can’t. I remember the pain Christ felt for me. I am not as strong as He, but I love His path of kindness. Loads of Holy Innocents hugs to you my friend. Lissa

  2. Jim A said

    Ron, It took me 2 tries to get to the end of this. The pain is so real that I can hardly form a response. The advice to “fuck the church” is the kind of sophomoric advice people give after 1 too many of whatever they are drinking.
    Your first responder is right – the kind of honesty you write with is more brave and true than 99% of what passes for spirituality. Being a Christian is not a “decision” like deciding between the SUV or the sports car. Being a Christian is a state of being, one we grow into and through as we move from birth to death and beyond.
    Falling in love with the music, the liturgy, the tradition, the feeling of connection to something bigger and better is not a bad thing. Is this a lover’s quarrel that will end in reconciliation, I hope so. Peace Jim

  3. Ralph Willis said

    RE: “Perhaps even more to the point, I’ve wondered for years whether I truly had the courage to be a Christian” BS my friend Ron. The honesty in your words takes considerably more courage than simply “deciding” to be a Christian, something many of us do, perhaps without knowing truly what it means.

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