I wrote this essay in the fall of 2003 while reflecting on the Baptist Peace Fellowship’s recent summer conference. While dated this is still relevant as I look to make new church connections and reinvigorate my spirituality in the midst of dealing with depression, agoraphobia and bulimia. – MAH, 2018
Fall 2003: As BPFNA Summer Conferences often do, this year’s conference produced rumblings in my soul regarding my spirituality. More accurately, the conference intensified rumblings that I already felt. I talked with several of you about this during the conference and decided to try to write down my thoughts as an aid to making some coherent sense out of where my spirituality is going. This is something of a testimony, something of a manifesto in the making, but most of all this is a paragraph in a conversation with friends about what it means to be dechurched, what it means to be in ministry with people who have been dechurched, and what those of us who are in the church have to offer to those of us who are dechurched. As is all of my life, this is a work in progress.
Church as Community, Church as Institution
As I have thought about my place in the church as it is and my dream for the church as it may become it has become important to me to distinguish between the church as community and the Church as Institution. The communities of accountability that I have in my life are almost all built around folks who struggle with deep spiritual issues, many of them Christians. Some of the great questions of our lives as dechurched people are profoundly theological questions, and communities of faith can greatly contribute to our exploration of these questions:
- Why does God allow Her children to die from spiritual neglect?
- Who are my neighbors?
- If my enemy speaks in the name of God, how do I keep hold of my own belief in God?
- As someone who stands in a position of overwhelming privilege in most of my life, how can I be in solidarity with those who are not so privileged?
Church as Community
Church as community is a powerful reflection of Christ’s love for each one of us, and is also a reminder of the responsibility we hold to one another to act in the place of Christ. Church as community is the arms and hands of Christ in the world, living out the good news of salvation in situations where salvation is tangible and immediate, not a dream for the future.
When I was in addiction treatment in 1990 a counselor passed on a nugget of wisdom that I will always remember. Speaking to one of my group members who had said, “My parents loved me, they just didn’t know how to show it,” he replied, “Love is an action verb; if they didn’t show it, they didn’t love you.” That’s a hard statement to hear, probably not appropriate outside of an inpatient treatment setting, but I can imagine Jesus saying something similar to the church today. The church as community understands deeply the action behind love.
Church as Institution
Distinct from the church as community, the Church as Institution has concerns in addition to serving the needs of the people of the church. Buildings, boards, salaries and stewardship all are important in the life of a church institution. For most modern churches it is important to keep an eye on the future of the congregation and on the future of the denomination, for we have a duty to be sure that the church that has given us so much will be there for future generations. Without the Church as Institution a lot of those things we associate with church would not exist: a fixed, stable space dedicated to worship and meditation; a place to celebrate births, lives, unions; a place to go for help from strangers you’ve never met when you need a tank of gas, help with the electric bill, or a place to sleep for the night.
The dividing line between the church as community and the Church as Institution is somewhat fuzzy. Most of the church communities that I know have some form of associated church institution to aid them in defining and governing their communities. Community without governance equals anarchy, and anarchy is not a particularly effective model for doing good works. As many of you know, though I was dechurched as a teenager I was fortunate enough to find a spiritual home at First Baptist Granville at a time in my life when I was both spiritually and emotionally bereft. Were it not for the support my newfound family gave to me I would not have found the courage to change my life, I would not have survived my early 20s, and I would not have grown to a place where I could not only survive, but live. The Baptist Peace Fellowship has also been a community of faith for me, first as I encountered members of the Peace Fellowship at Granville for board meetings and visits and later as I became more involved with the Peace Fellowship via summer conferences and gatherings of the BPFNAQ’s (BPFNA Queers). Both families supported me as I began to discern a call to ministry and have continued to support me as my sense of call has taken some twists and turns over the years.
Transforming the Institution
For several years my response to the internal awareness of my presence and membership in an institution with which many dechurched folk are not comfortable was to attempt to transform the institution. I believed that if the institution provided the appropriate venue and enough positive regard for dechurched people then others would be able to find the joy that I had found in the institutional church. Part of the problem, I reasoned, was a PR problem. If people could just become aware of what our community had to offer they would be willing to risk the institution for the sake of the community. I also suspected that part of the problem was an issue of sensitivity on the part of the church community. Dechurched folk are ready to bolt at the first sign of anything other than unconditional positive regard, and, in all fairness, it’s not the easiest thing in the world to be unconditionally positive regarding some of us who’ve been dechurched. I searched for a way to make the church community a place where all are truly welcome.
Traitor to the Cause
Given the depth of connection I still feel with my First Baptist Granville family, one of the most difficult questions I was asked at summer conference was along the lines of, “What it is about First Baptist that causes you to be unable to come there?” As I told Julie when she asked the question, the short answer is that I don’t know. Part of the reason is that it doesn’t feel right to be part of the institution when I know that people who I care about, both some I know and some I haven’t met yet, don’t feel comfortable being in the institution. It feels like a betrayal to walk inside the doors and leave some of those I care about outside. The longer I spent inside a church building the more I heard the voices of those on the outside. Another part of why I have, at least at this point in my life, bowed out of the institutional church is that I became aware that I had slowly suppressed my sense of what it meant to be dechurched in order to feel more comfortable in my church, in my denomination and in my seminary education. While I was attending the Pacific School of Religion inevitably I struggled more with my dual identity as someone who has been both deeply wounded by and deeply cherished by the church. One of the results of that struggling was a gradual pulling back from participation in any sort of organized religion.
What’s a Minister to Do
I originally started working on a Master of Divinity degree because dechurched people in crisis were asking me questions I didn’t feel qualified to answer. I felt that I owed it to people who were asking difficult questions to take their questions seriously, and part of taking them seriously was working to come up with a coherent response to the twisted theology that leads to various sorts of dechurching. While my gut response of, “Well, that’s just bull,” is on target, it’s not particularly convincing. One of the most powerful parts of seminary for me was talking to other dechurched seminarians, most of them self-identified as queer folk, who were struggling to define their place in ministry and in the church. Though I’ve decided — at least for now — not to finish my M.Div. and not to pursue ordination to pastoral ministry, I still feel a call to be in ministry with those dechurched people who cannot feel comfortable in the pews of the institutional church. For the past year I’ve been trying to work out in my head what my ideal dechurched ministry would look like. Over time I’ve come to believe that no matter how much the institutional church transforms it will still be an institution, and as a result will be fundamentally unable to meet the needs of a certain segment of dechurched people. This is not an indictment of the institution, but a reality of the condition of being dechurched.