Sara Barton serves as University Chaplain at Pepperdine University. She is the author of a wonderful book about a woman called into ministry where the environment is not always welcoming, called A Woman Called: Piecing Together the Ministry Puzzle.
Lots of bloggers are responding to Donald Miller’s post about church attendance, and I’ve been invited to contribute to that conversation on Jesus Creed. So, in one way this is a response to Donald Miller, but in reality, Miller is simply and quite courageously articulating the views of many of my own friends and family members, The conversation, therefore, propels me to consider ongoing conversations with flesh and blood people in my local context. The way I see it, if Donald Miller creates healthy, local conversations about the role of the church in individual lives, then good for him.
In the ideal, we experience the church as the communion of the Holy Spirit in which our spirituality is not individual but communal. In baptism, we experience rebirth into a family that has the unique privilege of addressing the creator of everything as “Abba Father” (or Daddy or Mommy, as we might say in our culture). Our experiences of God as a parent define us, and we can no longer delineate self without relationship to our siblings, whom God has called beloved children. As the body of the risen Christ, the church gives us vocation and calling in relation to other members of the body without whom we each counter-culturally proclaim to be nothing.
So, when it comes to communal practices, the church doesn’t merely provide any one the means to become spiritual as an individual through worship experiences, sermons, teaching, works of justice, and service opportunities by meeting individual needs and preferences or catering to learning styles. Sometimes those practices do meet individual needs, and sometimes they don’t. In short, we don’t grow spiritually through a particular communal practice that floats our individual boats. We’re capable of growing spiritually when we experience communal practices, based not on personal preferences but on the growth we experience collectively with our siblings.
A Christian’s whole identity, then, is rooted in rebirth into family, and identity is something much more than a personal decision. Identity is not so much about personal ethics or psychological wellbeing (although they are outcomes); instead, identity is radically communal. The experience of spirituality in the church is something akin to a dance with God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit and family in Christ, a dance with which we are in step, apart from the tune of natural birth or society.
So, in the ideal, we would not want to forego gathering regularly with the family with whom God has given us identity. Regular gathering for worship, teaching, and the sacraments has been consistent in Christian tradition from the very beginning, so if we’re to be the generation that breaks that tradition, I hope it’s with communal discernment rather than the idol of individualism that so wants to own us today. If departure is based on our personal likes and dislikes, personal lifestyle choices such as how to spend our weekends, the idol of busyness, conflict avoidance, or aversion to submission to authority, perhaps our culture is informing identity more than identity in Christ.
One could rightly say that we’re talking about two different things when we talk about how often we attend Sunday worship services at a local congregation and our identity in Christ through a larger set of Christian relationships. Friends of mine who have left congregational membership also see Christianity as a set of relationships, even as a dance, but maintained informally instead of formally. And, they have a good point. The church is in need of a corrective because her complete identity has for too long been found in Sunday morning services. That’s a discussion we’re having in our culture these days, and it’s vital to Christians. It shouldn’t be avoided.
My focus on the family needs a caveat. I am well acquainted with family dysfunction, church and otherwise. Unfortunately, we do not live in the ideal. Called to ministry in a group that does not recognize the call for women, I could certainly point to the dynamic as dysfunctional, at the least. The opinion of many of us is that it’s far beyond dysfunction and highly destructive. It’s not just my group that doesn’t recognize the call of women to ministry. It’s pervasive in Christianity. Even in groups that ordain women, hierarchies and glass ceilings still prevail, with women as perpetuators of the situation as much as men. And we could cite dysfunction after dysfunction in church family dynamics. We can certainly cite instances that go beyond dysfunction – some families are abusive.
So, if people are leaving the church, perhaps we need to avoid defensiveness and ask some hard questions about family. Sometimes individuals leave families of origin because of abuse, because of dysfunction that threatens to overtake the entire family system. Could it be that many of our friends and neighbors are leaving church because of dysfunction that needs deep introspection? We can easily cite stories of people for whom the church is functioning. We should celebrate those stories. But, the church is not functioning for others, to such an extent that they are leaving. Instead of being defensive, maybe what we should do for a while is merely listen.
What would it look like for the church at large to stop and listen to the all Donald Millers we know?
Could it be that in those conversations, church would break out?