This is a 10-minuter. Grab a cuppa and a large donut, sit back and enjoy.
It’s easy to grumble about church.
Whether it’s the two-hour sermons, the 1980s worship hits, the mucus-green carpet or the questionable odour emitting from the gentleman in the next pew, we all have our little niggles. Our society is all about consumerism, so it’s inevitable that this will spill over into our attitudes towards church. But for someone in the middle of a faith deconstruction, these “niggles” can reach a whole new level. When you’re seriously questioning everything you thought you knew, church can become a minefield.
I have mixed feelings about that word deconstruction. It’s a bit overused and probably not always helpful. But my own experience of stepping outside the evangelical Christian bubble and questioning the unquestionable felt just like that. A slow deconstruction. Never an outright rejection of Christianity, but a gradual taking apart of intellectual and religious constructs to reveal a much wider perspective. Exhilarating and liberating – definitely. But also confusing, terrifying, isolating and often just plain inconvenient.
On top of dealing with a dizzying loss of certainty and a shattering worldview, there was the very practical problem of church. That safe haven of like-minded Christians – the place that used to feel like home (mucus-green carpet and all) – started to feel problematic and jarring. That wonderful sense of belonging, meaning and collective purpose that I had always taken for granted was displaced by feelings of frustration, confusion and disillusionment. Confident answers and a cosy sense of security gave way to anxiety, disorientation and questions. LOTS of questions.
For some people, there comes a time when leaving church altogether – either temporarily or permanently – is an appropriate and necessary thing to do. But so far in my thirteen years of deconstruction, I have always found reasons to stay. Admittedly, the first half of that period was spent in fairly small, alternative, “progressive” sorts of churches, which was about as much as I could handle at the time. But for the past five years I’ve been a member of a large evangelical Baptist church in the UK where I’ve been a house group leader and worship leader. Not too long ago I wouldn’t have imagined myself capable of such overt Christian-ness. Yet somehow, as my thinking shifts further and further from the evangelical worldview I inherited, I’m finding that participating in “ordinary” church is actually getting easier. Granted, my church is probably quite open-minded and accommodating as mainstream evangelical churches go… I’ve been lucky. But I’ve still had to make some significant changes in my own thinking to reduce the frequency of my Sunday-lunchtime faith crises. There are various church-isms that used to provoke all sorts of ugly, bitter feelings in me that I can now respond to with grace, humility, compassion and integrity. On a good day.
As I’ve said, it’s easy to be a grumbling church consumer. I doubt there are many churchgoers who couldn’t think of at least a few changes they would make if it was up to them, and during a faith deconstruction, it becomes even easier to see the flaws. In fact, it can become difficult to see anything else. I often became so fixated on the things I disagreed with that going to church at all began to seem like a terrible idea. But over the last few years I’ve started to appreciate the real, actual benefits that can come from being part of a healthy church community.
It’s an obvious place to participate in meaningful, spiritual community, for starters. Church can provide a ready-made support network, friendship groups outside of work, and a sense of belonging to one big family. It can give us a greater story to be part of; a meaning and purpose beyond our individual, day-to-day experiences. I don’t think we should underestimate how important these things are for human flourishing. So many people in our individualistic, fast-paced, commercialised culture are starved of real community and relationships, or any real sense of meaning and purpose. Even with its many flaws, church can be a great place to fulfil these primal needs.
Currently, if I’m honest, my two young kids are the main reason I find the motivation to exchange my sofa for a pew on a Sunday morning. I don’t want them brought up with twisted, damaging ideas of original sin and shame and hell, but neither do I want them to grow up completely disengaged from their rich Christian heritage. I love that they get to learn about and experience Jesus in their own little ways, explore the deeper questions of life and join in the Christian traditions of generations that have gone before them. I’m sure this will come with its own challenges as they get older, but I want them to at least be involved in the conversation. I know they will have a lot to teach me.
The kids get me through the door. But once I’m in church, I know it’s good for me, too. The singing, the stories, the sacraments, the liturgies… they give me a bigger picture to locate myself in, a bigger story to be part of, and language to describe the heights and depths of my human experience. Encountering and having the opportunity to serve people I wouldn’t naturally be drawn to reminds me that it’s not all about my own satisfaction – there aren’t many other places I’ve experienced that. It seems that the church is still my home – and probably always will be, in some form or another.
Despite the brazenly confident title of this post, I am aware that to attempt to offer any kind of foolproof Church Survival Guide would be ridiculous. Churches vary as much as people do, and every individual will have their own specific needs, preferences and concerns based on their own past experience.
But I can offer some ways of thinking about church that have really helped me. Fourteen of them, to be precise. I hope you find them helpful too.
14 Useful Ways to Think about Church After a Faith Deconstruction
1. Church has to be a safe place. To be healthy and happy in a church community, I really think you have to feel accepted and loved as you are. This will mean different things to different people, and sadly for some this probably seems like a pipe dream. But I start here, because I know how damaging, authoritarian and manipulative church can be. If it feels manipulative or abusive, it’s not a healthy church community.
2. It’s OK to disagree. Being loved and accepted as you are doesn’t mean everyone has to agree with you. Disagreement, discussion and debate are natural parts of church life. It’s how good religion and healthy community function, and it’s good practice for living in the world. In Romans 14 Paul talks about the importance of unity: “Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification” (v.19) – but he’s not talking about eliminating disagreement. He’s advocating unity despite disagreement. Fundamentally disagreeing with the preacher used to send me into crisis mode, until I realised that having a variety of opinions within a church is a good thing. Church leaders aren’t the Thought Police. (If they are, you may be in some kind of cult.) Voicing disagreement can be scary when you feel out on a limb on your own, and without at least a few people on your wavelength, it can be unsustainable. But in my experience, when presented with a viable alternative way of seeing something, it can be surprising how many people will come out of the woodwork and agree with you – or at least not vehemently disagree. Particularly if the viewpoint is presented in a non-confrontational, loving way. All that said, in order to be part of something you need to be able to sign up to the core values at the very least. We all have our red lines. Some sort of compromise is inevitable, but there needs to be enough common ground to stand on.
3. The church is a human institution. Jesus spoke about building the church (Matthew 16:18) and Paul describes Jesus as the cornerstone in the foundation of the church (Ephesians 2:20). As Christians we believe that God, through Jesus, was the catalyst for the birth of the church, and continues to work through it. But however you understand the role of the Holy Spirit and divine intervention in church affairs, it’s hard to deny that humans play a very significant role. Churches are essentially groups of people attempting to respond to something divine and mysterious. People decide what church should look like and how it should work, and this of course differs wildly between nations, denominations, communities and individuals. In and of themselves, churches are (on the whole) neither good nor bad. The church is a glorious, beautiful mess, reflecting the glorious, beautiful mess of humanity. Once I had grasped this, I was able to relate to church with a lot more grace and compassion. Of course, the church has got some things spectacularly and hideously wrong over the course of its long history, and continues to do so. But screwing up is not a uniquely churchy thing. It’s a human thing.
4. Institution, organisation and tradition are not dirty words. All these things can be beautiful and life-affirming just as often as they can be stifling and restrictive. The problem is authoritarianism – when these things become tools for control and manipulation. Which sadly, does happen quite a lot.
5. Focus on relationships. We all know that church isn’t about the building. But we often seem to think it is about correct beliefs. Getting the theology “right” has often seemed more important to me than investing in relationships, and I’m starting to think that this is all wrong. Surely, developing meaningful community of any kind has to start with spending time getting to know people. And not just the people who think like me, either. When I make the effort to really get to know people in church, it becomes much easier to see where they’re coming from, and why they think the way they do. It breeds compassion and empathy, which can lead to genuine, open dialogue. It’s so easy to dismiss or “write off” those we consider different from us. But most people really are just doing the best they can, and deserve love and grace as much as we do – no matter how backward their views might seem to us. Why did my thinking start to change? Because I was presented with alternative viewpoints in the context of loving, respectful relationships. And besides, it’s possible that God would rather we focus on loving and serving others, than forever trying to make them see things as we do.
6. Be self-aware and prioritise emotional wellbeing. Some days I just can’t handle church. Something will send me spiralling into crisis mode and it will take me days to recover. I’m gradually learning that to cope with tension or disagreement in church, I need to feel emotionally centred and grounded, and there are certain things that tend to de-centre me. Becoming more aware of my own needs, triggers and moods and knowing when to retreat for a while has helped me engage with church in a much healthier way, and to recover more quickly when I do get knocked off-balance.
7. Beware the dangers of “progressivism”. I’ve always rather enjoyed seeing myself as “more progressive” than other Christians. It feels good, like I’m a step ahead. I’ve seen the light, they’re stuck in their primitive ways. The downside of this is that it can turn me into a bit of an arse. Talk about “holier-than-thou”… being “more-progressive-than-thou” can be just as bad. I’ve definitely had a “progressive fundamentalist” phase – complaining about the conservatives and their obsession with correct doctrines, whilst fiercely defending my own “progressive” doctrines. Accusing evangelicals of “black and white”, “in or out” thinking whilst in my own mind writing off all evangelicals as misguided and closed-minded. Becoming aware of these tendencies and recapturing a shred of humility has helped a lot with my integration back into “normal” church. No, I don’t think they have all the answers. But I sure as hell don’t either (pardon the pun).
8. Individualism and faith have a complicated relationship. Our culture of celebrating the individual, of allowing people to do, think, feel, wear pretty much whatever they want, is in many ways a wonderful thing – a massive leap forward in human rights and freedoms. But when it comes to sustaining a meaningful Christian faith, it can at times be quite unhelpful. If we call ourselves followers of Jesus in any sense, we are placing ourselves within a two-thousand-year-old story, which includes all the vastly disparate forms of Christianity and church that have come and gone during that time. We are, whether we like it or not, part of a very large and very old community of people who are just trying to figure it all out. And during its long history, despite many horrendous failures, Christianity has gathered wisdom and traditions that have helped and continue to help countless people cope with life’s troubles and feel somehow connected to the divine. To attempt to go it completely alone is to miss out on all of this collective wisdom. It’s true – you don’t have to be part of a church to benefit from Christian wisdom. But many of the sacraments, teachings and traditions central to Christianity mean very little outside the life of a church community.
9. Interpret language metaphorically. Churches are full of weird ideas, imagery and jargon. They just are. If taken literally, I sometimes find it impossible to relate to what is being said from the front. How often do I find myself wondering ‘what does that even mean??’ about a phrase from the preacher or song lyric on the screen? But by allowing myself to interpret things metaphorically, I can make them mean whatever I need to in order to engage with them and not mentally check out of the room. Loads of Biblical language is metaphorical anyway, who’s to say my interpretation is any less correct?
10. Thin places. This ancient Christian concept still helps me regularly. This is the idea that the veil between heaven and earth becomes thin at certain points. Sometimes church is a ‘thin place’ for me, and sometimes it’s most definitely not. Sometimes a certain conversation or a particular line in a song can be my ‘thin place’ for that day. If the whole thing feels like a pointless waste of time, then it’s not a sign I should leave church. It’s a sign that I will find today’s ‘thin place’ elsewhere.
11. Am I actually taking a moral stand or is this just a matter of taste? I still surprise myself sometimes at how much of a consumerist mindset I have when it comes to church. I will convince myself that my dislike of something is because of a moral or theological issue, when really it has more to do with the way someone is speaking or the style of music the band is playing that day. Sometimes it takes a bit of effort to pinpoint what’s really bugging me, but often I find I’ve slipped back into consumer mode and lost sight of what I’m really there for.
12. Don’t rely on the church for teaching if you’ve outgrown it. There are good reasons to go to church apart from the teaching. If you’re finding the sermons tend to frustrate and annoy rather than inspire and stimulate you, then maybe start seeking out Christian teaching in other places where you can go into more depth and explore other viewpoints. Read books, listen to podcasts. Perhaps this will lead you further away from the “party line”, but you will maintain intellectual integrity. And as we’ve established, disagreement and dissent are good.
13. Take a wide view of church. I’ve been lucky to find a church where I feel at home. I know for a lot of people it’s not that easy. But the Christian religion is a lot bigger than it might seem. If I were to expand my horizons beyond the version of Christianity I’ve been taught is the “correct” one, I’m fairly sure I would find some wonderful followers of Jesus living out their faith in inspiring ways. Widen the net further and I’m sure I would still find loving, interdependent communities seeking to bless the world using whatever language and methods they have available to them. People who I would call “Jesus-like” or “spirit-filled” even if they wouldn’t use those words. Sometimes it takes a bit of imagination and an open mind, but life-affirming, soul-nourishing “church” community can be found in all sorts of unexpected places.
14. Things are changing. Let’s dream big. I hear an awful lot of bad stuff about the “institutional church” and specifically evangelicalism these days. But I can testify that it’s definitely not all bad. Sure, it’s still hopelessly backward in many ways and some parts simply need to die, but there is real, positive change happening within the mainstream evangelical church – or at least in the tiny corner I find myself in. And that fills me with hope. The more of us who are willing to stay and voice our opinions from within, the sooner change will come. Real and lasting change takes a LONG time, so we celebrate every small step forward, and in the meantime focus on learning how to love those we disagree with the most. We’re all part of the same great story after all.
What do you think? Leave a comment below to share your own thoughts and experiences.