Today, it seems like more people are fed up with the Church. Specifically, many American Christians are questioning its necessity or its utility. “Why must we attend church?” or “Why does church matter?” are some of the usual questions asked. More pressingly, many Christians often find that the Church in its diverse denominational manifestations betrays the simple evangelical message of Jesus by advancing abstract, arcane dogmas, its preoccupation with its institutional stability (e.g. tithes/offerings, building campaigns, minister’s salaries, etc.) rather than focusing on its ministry to hurting people both within and outside of its walls, its conservative (read: reactionary) posture against social justice issues (LGBTIQ, racial, and gender discrimination, immigration, economic justice, and so forth), and its diverse liturgical formations (whether “high” or “low”) which are completely out of touch with 21st century lived experiences, to name a few. The aforementioned reasons are enough for many folks to warrant their exodus from the Church. Of those who remain, it’s a constant battle to understand what their place in the Church means.
Many Christians are fed up with the Church today. Many folks are leaving the churches of their youth. They are fed up with the hypocrisy, the gossiping, the lack of love shared among the “faithful.” Despite being named as a “hospital of sin-sick souls” (at least in my black church tradition), many folks are leaving because they find too many graves being dug within the sanctuaries. What is supposed to be a community bonded by the Spirit of love, the Church in the experience of many people is a place of deep hurt, pain, hatred, and sorrow. Many struggle to find a sense of community within their churches. It’s because many within the churches are unaccepting of them because of their sexual identity/orientation, gender identity/expression, (dis)ability, socio-economic status, racial or ethnic identity, or some other identity marker; in some cases it’s all of the above! For many people, Jesus was “inclusive” of those on the margins of the society: the poor and the social outcast (prostitute, leper, infirmed, lame, tax collector). Jesus loved folks radically, meaning that at the root of his ministry of liberation and reconciliation was God’s inexhaustible love for God’s people Israel, the nations, and the entire creation. Granted, this love was not always received by all (given that God’s love may come in the form of judgment against unrighteous, corrupt and/or hypocritical political and religious authorities), but this love was deeply palpable for those outside the gates of Jerusalem. So, “where is the love?” For many Christians and non-Christians, this love left the Church a long time ago.
Given the exodus of many from churches in North America, where does this leave the Christians who “believe in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church?” For once it should give Christians deep pause when we listen (or if we dare to listen) to the stories of those among us who feel forced to leave institutional Christianity due its longstanding unjust theologies and practices against women, racial and ethnic minorities, the poor, the disabled, children, LGBTIQ people, and so forth. Despite the fact that Christianity, in its various Pentecostal/charismatic forms, is growing rapidly around the world, many North American Christians are saying “so long” to the mainstream religion for more accepting and inclusive spaces, religious and otherwise.
While I think the notion of inclusion is not beyond critique, the concept points to a greater truth which Christian theology at its best cogently articulates but, being sinful creatures, we Christians frequently get so wrong namely, that in Christ Jesus God has reconciled the world to Godself (2 Cor. 5:19). The Church exists not for itself but because Christ the Reconciler founded it and called those within the Body to participate in his ministry of reconciliation (see 2 Cor. 5:11-21). What would it mean for Christians to embrace whom God has embraced? For many folks on the verge of leaving or who already have left the Church, it’s really quite simple. To love people is to accept them as they are, in all of their particularity. This proves difficult for many of us in the Church given that we have been taught (for centuries?) that sin is intolerable in churches. Given the struggle over the recognition of LGBTIQ people as God’s children and the blessing of same-sex unions, the Church is struggling to rightfully distinguish between sin and creaturely particularity (i.e. sexual and gender variance) as God’s creative goodness. And for us Western Christians deeply influenced by the Augustinian tradition, sin is so pervasive in the human condition that it might obscure our thinking on these matters. Yet have we used this cherished belief as a cop out to fear of ambiguity? Many Christians and non-Christians believe so.
If I have learned anything of value, it is that the Church is faithful to its Lord when it doesn’t close its doors to or rejects “the Other,” but embraces the Other as God’s beloved creature. What the Other reminds us is that Jesus was the Other, the Rejected One. He came to his own and his own did not receive him (Jn 1:11). He was the stone that the builders rejected (Acts 4:11) and he came to gather those who were also rejected to himself. We have been made accepted into the Beloved (Eph 1:6). Perhaps, some of those who are fed up with the Church presuppose that the Church ought to be a distinct—a holy—community of rejects. It’s a community of people who gather our once rejected bodies together around a Table to form one distinct Body, exemplifying a truth-bearing and truth-telling community, founded upon love. This love is practiced through corporate confession, worship, prayer, and justice-seeking for those on the margins, and witness to the world the coming reign of God. The embodied frustrations with institutionalized religion help break up the ossification of Christian beliefs and practices that become abstract, wooden idols that lack the life of the Spirit. What would it mean for Christians to remember that the covenant which God made through Jesus was to a bunch of “Others?” Are folks who are fed up with the Church exposing the false sense of privilege that those who confidently remain in the Church might have?