Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The "Leaving Church" Phenomenon

[The following is my response to “Dear Church, Here’s Why People Are Really Leaving You,” by John Pavlovitz.]

Thomas Merton, in Contemplation in a World of Action, speculated that many people experience varying degrees of mystical experience in their ordinary lives. Those “mystical encounters” can lend a personal reality and validity to those things we talk about in church. All of us who seek a spiritual life will find ourselves putting together a practice that fits with our worldview and personal experience. There will inevitably be some conflict – even perhaps some “love-hate relationship” as we sort out our connection with the established church.

A friend recently posted on Facebook the article by John Pavlovitz cited above about why people are leaving church. She invited people to read the article and share their responses. Today’s blog post arose from my initial response to Pavlovitz’ article. (You can read the article here)

Which Church?

Pavlovitz' description of the church that people are leaving seems to be the "contemporary worship" model of bands, TV screens, and shopping mall era entertainment.  I left the Baptists at the time when such Willow Creek style entertainments were coming into vogue. As I saw it at the time, all of those “new forms of worship” were part of the suburban emptiness of which I wanted no part. While I left THAT church before the entertainment lights even went up, I have never left THE church.

Moreover, what he speaks of is the difference between church and Christianity, the difference between an institution and a lifestyle based upon following Jesus. The truth is that no matter what "church" you belong to, "Christianity" cannot be done in an hour on Sunday morning. Even if you break away from your old church to form a group of true committed believers, Jesus cannot be adequately confined to an hour's worship service. No revamping of forms in order to attract people (or to keep them from leaving) will, in my view, be the end-all of authentic faith.

It is not uncommon for someone who is interested in a spiritual path to at some point find his or her inherited religious structures to be inadequate. For my part, I converted to the Catholic Church, which is also losing members* like all other churches, but I have found the ancient liturgy to be a wonderful respite from the religious hype and madness seen on much of the American religious landscape. I have also found it to be wonderfully ironic that at the heart of the Roman Catholic Church is the very Christ whose words would bring all of its wealth and form to a crashing halt if truly heard 
 yet the words and the tradition lie there waiting, readily available for whoever has ears to hear.

The Mystical Element**
How does one handle those tensions that are to be found between staid established religious institutions and personal spiritual experience? Baron Fredrich von Hugel had some helpful things to say in his classic work, The Mystical Element of Religion. He outlined three stages of religious expression after studying the life of St. Catherine of Genoa. These stages, or elements, are often in tension with one another and sometimes difficult to reconcile:
  1. The historical/institutional element
  2. The scientific/intellectual element 
  3. The mystical/experiential element
The historical/institutional element is how most people come to religion. It is the structural support, the conveyer of the tradition.

The scientific/intellectual element is a stage of inquiry to explore the meaning and validity of the received faith. In my Baptist experience, this was often seen as threatening. Some people thought higher intellectual pursuits would “ruin” the faith of a Christian believer.

The mystical/experiential is that poetic, immediate recognition of the spiritual validity of faith. Many who cling to the historical/institutional element see the mystical as dangerous and ungrounded. Those of intellectual bent often see the mystical as too emotional, not feeling comfortable with the non-rational aspects of faith.

Keeping It Real

We live today in a world in which we can build our own theology and seek out the practice that is most meaningful to us. Some will find help in traditional churches; some will seek out other avenues. Most of us, I suspect, will find ourselves grounded in one basic practice while augmenting that with insights from others.  In addition to traditional Christian practice, I have found enrichment in spiritual writings from a number of sources.  Some of the more influential  include Quaker writers Douglass Steere, Thomas Kelly, and Rufus Jones;  Catholic authors Thomas Merton and Pierre Teillhard de Chardin; and Buddhist practitioners Thich Naht Hanh and Jack Kornfield. In fact, Kornfield's book, 
 A Path with Heart,  greatly affirmed my own Christian path of meditation.  Insights from the Gospel of Thomas have also added to my spiritual practice. Here are three of my favorite passages from that work:

(3) Jesus said: If those who lead you say to you: See, the kingdom is in heaven, then the birds of the heaven will go before you; if they say to you: It is in the sea, then the fish will go before you. But the kingdom is within you, and it is outside of you. When you know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will know that you are the sons of the living Father. But if you do not know yourselves, then you are in poverty, and you are poverty.

(70) Jesus said, "If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you."

(113) His disciples said to Him, "When will the Kingdom come?" <Jesus said,> "It will not come by waiting for it. It will not be a matter of saying 'Here it is' or 'There it is.' Rather, the Kingdom of the Father is spread out upon the earth, and men do not see it."

Regardless if how we come by our religious and spiritual truths, we as a society tend to build institutions as a repository for those truths. Carrying it forward from one generation to the next can be a challenge.  A friend told me recently about a large suburban church that spent a weekend strategizing about how to keep people coming. There are, indeed, different reasons why people want to keep their churches alive. Some have had genuine spiritual encounters that were life-changing, and they want to figure out how to convey that reality to other people. Some see the church as an important institution, and they want to keep it viable. Others want to be able to pass on to their children those things that they themselves have found to be meaningful (that's a hard one!).

 One thing we must realize is that every organization that exists  whether corporate, religious, or non-profit  has a back story and an underbelly. Realizing this fact is part of what it means to be an adult. We have to move with what we have while ever striving to make things better. Within that process we will always have people who are coming and people who are leaving; people who are innovative and people who are working to maintain the status quo.  Some will want the church to be a spiritual exercise while others will want it to be an activist organization. There will also be those who find more hope and meaning by making their way in the margins (some of our true prophets and guides have been marginal people moving against the grain).  

My guess is that we will continue to create more up-to-date churches and institutions which will serve us for a time before becoming obsolete themselves (you may want to see my earlier blog post, Living Between the Times, for another commentary on the subject). 

I often remind myself of that quote from the Gospel of Thomas, “the Kingdom is spread out upon the earth” – it is just that real and just that present – yet our awareness of that presence is often lacking. Those of us on the spiritual path are all about finding that awareness.  The way I go about that will not be the way you go about it. We are all on a continuum of faith experience, each of us at a different point, and each of us coming from our own particular life experience. We can take courage from one another and learn from one another, without feeling that we must be on the same exact path. Whether you are leaving church, arriving at church, or moving to new vistas we can all benefit from listening to fellow travelers and pilgrims.


* “Losing members” may depend upon how you view statistics. One the one hand, it has been said that if “former Catholics” were a denomination, it would be the second largest in the country. On the other hand, new figures show that last year the number of Catholics in the world increased worldwide across every continent (see The “Francis Effect,” perhaps?

** The concepts outlined by von Hugel were included in a previous blog post, “More for the Spiritual but Not Religious” 

*    *    *

Addendum: A brief recommended reading list

Here are some of the writings that I have found to be particularly helpful on my journey:

  • Thoughts in Solitude, by Thomas Merton
  • Contemplation in a World of Action, by Thomas Merton
  • On Listening to Another, By Douglass Steere
  • A Testament of Devotion, By Thomas Kelly
  • The Divine Milieu, by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
  • The Jew in the Lotus, by Roger Kamenetz
  • As a Leaf Driven, by Milton Steinberg
  • Till We Have Faces, by C.S. Lewis
  • Mysticism, by Evelyn Underhill
  • A Path with Heart, by Jack Kornfield
  • Peace Is Every Step: the Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life, by Thich Naht Hanh

Photo: Church Ruins
Credit: Lesley
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons


1 comment:

  1. You give us much to ponder. I do know that number can paint a compelling picture and still be wrong.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...