So, here we are at an interesting time in Church history. People are leaving the Church like never before, and church leaders and bloggers are scrambling to come up with answers as to why this is and how they can bolster and shore up their numbers.
My own experience with this does not reflect the opinions often presented. For me, the decision to stop going to ‘church’ is based largely on leaving behind a lagging institution that, for all its focus on ‘gospel glory’, does not do much more than create parishioners and clergy that are too afraid to actively engage the world at large in a truly loving way.
Shedding ye olde self
Too often the love that the Church professes and exhibits comes with an almighty agenda attached – to save (read: convert) the unbeliever. We engage with the underlying desire to bring people in on a Sunday, we disciple them to keep coming and serving the body, and teach them to accept our particular statements of faith as unquestionable gospel. The end goal is to create an environment in our own individual faith communities where we all think, speak and believe alike. The newly minted believer is given time to shed their ‘old selves’ and pick up the new mantle of the church in which they now belong.
When established believers start questioning some of the statements of faith though, that’s when things start to get dicey. Regardless of the fact that different denominations believe very different things about a large number of doctrinal issues, and that scripture often presents varying views on them too, if one begins to raise a different point of view to that which is accepted within their particular setting, ‘the faithful’ start to get real nervous. Angry even. It’s not uncommon for the relationship between the flock and the sheep who have wandered away to become aggressive or abusive.
Tear out your eye and cut off your hand
This has sadly been my experience in my own church settings. Instead of engaging in honest discussions with my questions, and perhaps looking at how they could critique our faith, the people with whom I was in relationship shunned or verbally attacked me, and had no time for anything more than telling me how wrong I was, even though my questions resided well within the orthodoxy of other denominations and the christian faith in general.
Jesus said, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away… and if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; It is better to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into Gehenna.”
Sadly, the church had become the part of my life causing me to sin, discipling me into an unflinching worldview that saw too many people as the enemy and the sanctuary as the main place of encounter with the divine. I was getting sucked into a corporate mentality that was increasingly fearful of refugees, Muslims, LGBTQI advocates, and even women wanting to be recognised in leadership. What happened to the perfect love that drives out fear?
Saving my faith
And so, like Ash in the Evil Dead movies, I have had to cut off the infested and decaying appendage that was seeking to spread through my whole body. Like the proverbial cutting off my nose to spite my face, I gouged out my spiritual eye to save my faith. It was terrifying for a time, as, like eyesight, church had been such a dominant portal for my perspective of life. It had defined the way that I saw and interacted with the world. Just like someone struggling to come to terms with the loss of one of their main senses, I stumbled and fumbled for a time, grasping at what I could to replace the faith community that I had once loved, and yet had ultimately shot me down with the questions that I posed.
But just as the loss of one sense can heighten the others, the loss of my “church eyesight”, with all of its dogmatic ways to view the world, opened me up to seeing things in a whole new way. Instead of finding God at church mainly on a Sunday or attending special meetings to encounter his presence, I became increasingly aware of him in the everyday, in the mundane, in the most secular of places, interacting with me through everyone I met and in every situation I faced.
God is way better than I ever imagined!
Encounters with God were becoming more loving and inclusive than I had ever hoped they could be. The world became my tabernacle and I could see how in love with it God was. I would look at the hum of activity in a busy shopping centre and see Life, I would see the Spirit, hovering over and flowing through everyone.
Where the Church had taught me to be fearful of the other, and wary of demonic forces all around us, God showed me his unfailing love for his creation and lengths he went to in order to reveal this love to all mankind. I have found peace and rest in trusting God with his plan, and enjoying my place in it. I have not given up on the Church, and yet I have found other, more fulfilling ways to meet with God and his children here on Earth. Instead of shying away from communion with God in the world, I have embraced it, seeing His love and grace manifested in so many ways, and often in people who did not even know his name.
It has been a beautifully liberating experience, as I learned to trust the God who holds everything together to lead me into all truth, rather than circling the wagons and buying into teachings and prophecies that warned of the evil influence of unbelievers. His grace has indeed proven to be more than enough in every situation and I have seen more hope and promise in God’s good will than ever before.
The Christ mystery
I’m not suggesting that the church has lost its way, or is no longer good enough for me. I still believe in and engage positively with my brothers and sisters in the faith as regularly as I can. But the resistance to actively engaging in doubt and uncertainty and the deep and abiding reliance on certain “inerrant and infallible” views and beliefs that runs away from authentic questions is a stagnating factor for church growth, both individually and corporately.
Embracing active dialogue could draw us into a deeper revelation of the Christ mystery. Stepping into the uncertainty of a questioning faith with hope instead of fear, are big steps that the wider church could consider if they wish to remain relevant to the evolving nature of the world around us.
Russell Croft has a heart for community and reaching out to the marginalised and forgotten. He is getting to know the God of infinite goodness and is living a joy-filled life with his wife Belinda and three children in South-East Queensland, Australia.
See all previous articles by Russell Croft