It’s been all about God lately, around the blogosphere.
Jenn confesses her faith (though not without trepidation), Kristi asks about the relationship between religion and science, and Gwen explores the conflict between spiritual hunger and post-Christian trauma. (I just made that term up. It’s meant to describe the after-effects of being judged, harassed, rejected, and persecuted for not measuring up to other’s people’s standards of what it means to be a Christian. Any other ideas out there? Post-Christian stress disorder?)
What all three posts have in common is their resistance to the socio-political subculture of American evangelical Christianity, especially the secret-handshake portions of it where one’s spiritual condition can be (and is) summed up with a few diagnostic questions. Smoker? Not a Christian. Catholic? Going to hell. Can’t remember the exact date on which one was born again? Better say the sinner’s prayer again just to make sure.
Such quick-and-dirty spiritual diagnoses are a key element of twentieth-century evangelism (and I use that adjective advisedly – my sense is that in the twenty-first century, the church is moving away from some of the more problematic aspects of that model). Certainly one of the least savoury parts of my own upbringing was the constant pressure to "witness." Here’s what witnessing does not mean:
- having a two-way conversation in which the saved person might actually learn something from the unsaved
- following ordinary social cues that indicate the target’s level of comfort (witnessing is all about going beyond your comfort zone, even when your discomfort arises from your sympathy with the witness-ee’s evident desire to escape)
- speaking honestly without formulas about your experience of God (who needs personal experience? – or, more to the point, who has personal experience at age ten? That’s what the Romans Road is for!)
If that’s what witnessing is not like, here’s what it is like: selling vacuum cleaners. You’d be a crappy vacuum-cleaner salesman if you went door to door talking about how wonderful the vacuum cleaner was, without ever actually making the sale. (This is an actual analogy I was presented with at the age of sixteen.) Numbers, people. It’s all about the numbers.
So there’s my little rant against the marketing-driven formulas that characterized Christian teaching in the church I grew up in. (I could also compose a little rant about anti-intellectualism, but Kristi’s post is pretty good for that already – go there and read hers.)
When posts of this nature come up, as they do periodically in the blogosphere, the comments usually offer two opposing responses:
1) I believe in God, but I haven’t much use for organized religion.
2) Hey, why don’t you try the Unitarian church?
This is the greatness of America – you can have the beliefs but not the church, OR you can have the church but not the beliefs.
Personally, option #1 has always been the door I’d be most likely to take if I wanted to leave the faith. As much as I have struggled at times with this or that tenet of my faith, in the end it’s really the people who make it hard to be a Christian. (Enfer c’est les autres …sometimes I think Jean-Paul Sartre must have attended a Baptist church.) Door #1 is also the option that has had more appeal in our culture as a whole: God-optional churches face rows of empty pews each Sunday morning, but 95% of Americans and 90% of Canadians still identify themselves as theists and consider themselves spiritual people. (I made those stats up just now, too. But I’m pretty sure they’re accurate.)
People are hell wherever you go, of course – but sometimes it seems as if being a Christian brings out the worst in people. So why do I keep going to church? (Aside from, you know, obeying God?) Here are my …
Top 10 Reasons for Being Glad I Go To Church
10) The food. I’ve mentioned it before, those platters of roast chicken and green beans that were delivered to my door each night for a week after the Pie was born. Food is love, and nobody understands that better than a country church.
9) The diversity. Last Sunday I visited an enormous stadium-style church where the music team wore ripped jeans while they played "Wipe Out" (part of a surfing theme, the first in a series linking extreme sports to the Epistle of James). The service was slick and it was obviously enjoyed by the hundreds of suburbanites who attended. But it made me homesick a little for the tiny, now-defunct Anglican church I used to attend, and it made me appreciate its counterpart across the city, the Open Door fellowship which hosted the single-mothers’ workshop I participated in last year. Located next door to the city’s largest strip club, it has a very different mission from the mega-church. Both styles of service have a place, though, and I’m glad that Christianity is broad and deep enough to embrace them both.
8) "Holy, Holy, Holy." Though the darkness hide Thee / Though the eye of sinful man Thy glory may not see / Only Thou art holy – / There is none beside Thee / Perfect in power, in love and purity.
7) The white-haired ladies. You know the ones I mean. They all sit together in a single pew, the widows with their roller-set curls and teal blouses, and you can never remember which one is Dorothy and which one is June. When I was ten, it was Mrs. McTavish giving out Halloween-size chocolate bars at the end of the service to anyone who could give her a short summary of the sermon. Two years ago, it was Evelyn Clark coming up to welcome the newborn Pie. "I gave up knitting years ago," she said in her quavery voice, "but yesterday I went out and bought a ball of wool to knit a sweater." Two weeks later she had to apologize – her arthritis wouldn’t let her finish the project. I told her it was okay, that the thought was enough – and it really was so much more than enough, that lovely thought.
6) Because I will one day be a white-haired lady. And I hope that there will be young people to pray for me when I go into hospital, to bring their babies to church so I can regret the fact I never learned to knit, to remember me after I’ve gone.
5) The nursery. An hour and a half of free day-care each Sunday morning. Need I say more?
4) The Sunday School. And the teacher who brings kittens for the two- and three-year-olds to play with, who sets up chairs on a sheet of blue fabric so they can pretend to be on Noah’s ark. These women have shown Bub how to sit in a chair, how to acknowledge his peers – they have challenged him and hugged him and he’s learned how to thrive in their presence.
3) The mix of age groups. At one time, I would have listed friendship as a major reason for going to church, but now it is not peers or social interaction I look for – instead it is the opportunity to interact with those older and younger, those on the other side of the mom-and-baby island I’m so often stranded on. That mix will be all the more important as my children get older, as I’ve learned in my small-group which includes a number of couples with teenage children. These parents worry about how strict to be about church attendance, how long to continue insisting that their children accompany them to church. And they are grateful for the role of other adults in mentoring their children – taking them to paint-ball, offering them summer jobs, setting an example of faith that isn’t contaminated by the tensions between well-meaning parents and adolescent children.
2) The sermons. "Are ye proud o’th’ gospel this mornin’?" the pastor demanded in his thick Scottish burr the first time I attended the church I now belong to. I was hooked immediately because of course I’m not, and I wish I could be.
1) Because my faith is weak. I doubt, I waver, I grow lukewarm. But once a week I am raised up by those around me. I come into God’s presence and worship, sensing not always but often that we awkward, blemished people are more than the sum of our parts: together, we are the Body of Christ on Earth. God help us all.