Leaving Church 2- discussions with Jason Clark…

(Part of a series of reflections around an exchange with Jason. The previous one was posted yesterday.)

open door, rock chapel

6. I’m not arguing for institutional church and reject the ‘black and white’ thinking that because we have buildings, staff, programs (alongside experiences and life changing growth), that what I say is aimed at promoting institutions. I actually believe we all believe to institutions, the current preference being for the self in consumer society. What imaginations drive the way we relate about church is what interests me the most.

You lost me a bit on that one I am afraid.

I think you may have been reacting a little to my suggestion that people who are part of large institutional Churches, with their paid staff and building/admin costs have a lot at stake when faced with people leaving. It is an understandable pressure on those whose life has been in faithful service of these institutions and each time someone leaves it can feel like a real kick where it hurts. It is hard to then maintain relationships and remain open to learning from that rather hurtful event. Those who remain will also likely see the leavers as having betrayed them in some way- they will now have become ‘the other’, and it will be a natural tendency to make easy judgments. Of course this works both ways. The end result is that the gap widens.

I would reiterate however that I am someone with a love for the Church- and am puzzled by my current situation on the outside (trying to find other ways to do church.) Gifted pastors are a treasure (I know several of them who need a pay rise) and in our climate a good roof is rather necessary.

But you also used that word ‘consumer’ again, as if leaving Church was primarily a consumer choice for most of us. Can I push you a little on this one too?

In an age where we have been hammered into being consumers above all else, it is not surprising that our Church members make consumer choices- including changing their religious outlet when better spiritual bargains come on the market elsewhere. But surely the same is true of those who stay. They are perhaps expressing consumer satisfaction- niche product though it may now be.

Are consumer choices not the main reason for individual Church growth in the UK? People leave to go somewhere else– where the music is better, the preaching more entertaining, the seats more comfortable, the congregation younger, trendier and more dateable. Are these always poor choices? Do we rail against this kind of consumerism when it delivers corporate success? (To be fair, I know that my friend Graham has really struggled with this in his Church.)

Also (and most crucially)- what alternative to consumerism is Church really offering? Is there a danger that we ask people to reject consumerism as far as church is concerned but change nothing else? Drive to church in the same cars, from the same big houses, full of the same gadgets? The logical extension of what you say might be to continue to attend a Church even if it tears you apart, as to NOT go would be to serve the institution of Consumerism.

There are other movements challenging consumerism head on- questioning the nature of our economic system, proposing cash-less transactions, time banks, trying to live simpler more sustainable lives based around shared common resources. I know Christians are involved in many of these movements but can you honestly say that Church is characterised by this kind of engaged criticism of the core of consumerism in our culture? I wish that we were, but most of our activists are fully engaged in something more pressing within the institution of Church…

Can we really complain of consumer choices within a Church that is fully participant in the consumer marketplace?

I would suggest that people (like me) leave Church for other reasons too. To categorise leavers as somehow having sold out to easy consumer choices might risk not listening what is going on at a deeper level. It also means that re-engagement with Church for people who have left is that much harder.

7. My post was not a diatribe against non attenders trying to get them to attend. The future of the church is not in attendance, but in participation. I just think people mistake non attendance with participation. We are all attending something weekly, and participating on ways of life, the only choice is what sets the agenda for that participation and regularity.

But given that your post was in relation to people attending corporate worship, what is the difference between attendance and participation? Can one participate without attending? The fact is that we attend less and less ‘club’ like activities as a nation- increasingly we live in interior spaces, with the odd foray into collectivised consumer ‘events’. I suspect that, like me, you would regard this as problematic on all sorts of levels, but it is a fairly well understood trend that Church has a few possible responses to;

  1. We can condemn it as another example of what is wrong with the sinful world.
  2. We can demonstrate an alternative in the form of a flowering of all that relational Holy Spirit fruit. People would then know the Church by the love we have for one another.
  3. We can take note of the new social landscape and start to re-imagine a Church that fits within it.

I would sadly suggest that there has been too much of 1, not enough of 2 and 3 is a work in poor progress. (This is a generalisation from my limited perspective, and is certainly not intended as a description of any one Church!)

8. I get tired of being pitted against fresh expressions, and consider my church to be one. But having new christians, sundays, and facilities means we are instantly labelled as institutional. Again a black and white correlation I don’t accept 🙂

Sorry if you felt that I did that in my earlier comments- I certainly did not mean to. I was more suggesting that the Fresh Expressions movement was an attempt to move Church away from corporate worship in the more traditional sense- as in meeting to sing and hear preaching in a large building.  Again, not that there is anything in the slightest bit wrong in doing just that, my suggestion was that the cat gets skinned in many different ways.

9. The state of the church in the UK is dire. If I wasn’t planting one, I’d probably struggle with the ones local to me. I hope I’d choose the one that offended me the least and let me serve, give, pray and engage in mission with others. I’d want to be part of the solution and not just walk away, which is what I hope I have done.

Me too.

But there might come a time when we all have to walk away. Your reason might be different to mine, but our hope is that the faith journey would not end there- rather we would be looking to start again.

We usually have to start small- with a few friends. Some of us will be carrying wounds and scars from the leaving. We may avoid using words like ‘Church’ and we will be suspicious of how people use power. What we start will be very fragile, shot through with the same imperfections as we are. Most of our projects will not survive- particularly without support from Church.

What this support looks like is unclear, but we will probably not be easy to support as we will be very sensitive to (perceived or actual) judgementalism. We will tend to keep away from those in Churches who do not understand the journey we have been on.

Church may chose to ignore us, watch us inevitably fail but this would be a dreadful mistake. Many of the people I have spoken to who find themselves outside Church are the very ones who have been the Church planters, the worship leaders, the youth workers, the street preachers, the messy church makers, the alternative worshipers. They burned out on Church, but are people of vast experience. They can not go back, but they might go forward with the right kind of encouragement.

10. Context is everything, and I fear people reading the comments here will do so without listening to my talk and the context within which it was made!

Fair point Jason. Observer bias in blogging is pretty hard to fight! I hope I have not been disrespectful of your comments in responding in the way that I have.

All the very best to you and yours.

Leaving Church 1- discussion with Jason Clark…

rainbow church, Dunoon

A few days ago I wrote a post reflecting on some thoughts by Jason Clark on leaving Church. The sort of issues Jason raised included;

  • whether a ‘Churchless faith’ is possible
  • the centrality or of gathered corporate worship
  • the rise of consumer choice as a determinant for Christians as they decide to stay or leave church
  • the dangers of allowing faith to collapse into private spaces, private lifestyle choices

If you are interested in this debate, I suggest you go and read Jason’s post (and listen to his podcast), as well as reading my post in response.

There were some great comments on my piece, including a poetic one from Sam and a deeply heartfelt one from a dear friend (and the Pastor of the church I attended before we moved to Scotland.) Jason also took the time to make some further comments, and I decided to extend the discussion a little in a couple of further posts.

I do so because people continue to leave Church and even though I have been a leaver too, I am certainly not done with church. I think that what both Jason and I have in common is a hope for the kind of Church that is a an engaged, hopeful, critical part of our society. One that tries to work out what living the radical call of Jesus might mean in THIS culture, not the Victorian one. What this looks like for me is small community in all its fragility and brokenness. What this looks like for Jason is large urban growing Church, in all its fragility and brokenness. We need both. Our contexts dictate that they must be different.

My journey through Church has led me to be very critical at times yet it is obvious that Church is very much alive. Many good things are happening all over the country. People are engaging in acts of service to their communities because the Church enables this. You only need to check out the website of my old Church, or Jason’s church to see this.

Jason made ten points in relation to this discussion, and I intend to split my responses to them over two posts. The first part of this is below.

I would repeat my deep respect for Jason (although we have not met.)  This debate feels rather retro really- blogs used to be full of these kinds of discussions 10 years ago. We have all moved on to tweets and short status updates now. So- those of you who persist in reading all this stuff are part of a future-retro elite, and I salute you!

KIlmory chapel door

1. Context: I’m not speaking to a US context, the talk was for my church community in the UK. I am convinced more than ever that the future of the church in the UK depends on communities of faith not disappearing into private spaces, but to have a vibrant public life. That is in contrast to the civic religion of Sunday services by many churches that are more about cultural religion than faith communities.

Making generalisations about what church is, where it locates itself and whether some forms are more vibrant/cultural than others was not the point of my post. Rather I was concerned to understand what it meant in MY context, and in my community.

My experience has taken me towards a small community that meets in private spaces but seeks also to provide worship events in public spaces. This was in part because a feeling that Church (with many glorious exceptions!) has often become a no-go zone for the vast majority of the local population. The ‘public’ meeting is anything but- it has become a private club for a dwindling minority. Sure, we talk evangelical language, but engagement with our local communities was mostly confined to hoping that they realise that we were right all along.

I know I am describing a kind of church that is NOT like the one you lead, and that many churches are fighting to change to become something else- more missional, engaged, vibrant etc. But that is your journey, I was speaking of mine.

I mention this not because I want to defend my position, but rather because I really do not think I am alone.

My friend Graham (and former Pastor down in England) rightly pointed out in his comment on my entry into this debate that my small community (Aoradh) is ‘church’. Some of our members still also attend ‘Church’.  Many of us were people who left Church. I suppose my point is that we are a bit of a melting pot- all trying to make sense of what is happening in a changing an challenging context. We respond to the reality we are faced with through the set of goggles that we are given…

2. My talk and post was not about Sunday attendance. I have no interest, as I mentioned at the start of the talk, about Sunday attendance, and calling people to that. Being church is all too often reduced to Sunday attendance, by those who attend and those who don’t. Two sides of the same coin – those just turning up thinking they are doing something and those established by their non attendance as the measure of having done something.

Apologies if I misrepresented you, I think I responded to your use of the words ‘meeting together for corporate worship’, which is usually understood to mean Sunday services. Of course, ‘corporate worship’ might mean many things.

I think every church tradition would echo your words about church not just being about Sunday. It certainly has never been this for me- in fact at some points of my life I have spent most of my available non-employed time doing church related activities. Most of this was focussed inwards though; it was planning activities for services of varying descriptions, organising music, having meetings, even doing one-to-one pastoral work. All of it felt very necessary. This was often exciting, it gave my life urgency and purpose. It was often exhausting.

The best of what I have experienced was good indeed, shadowed by inevitable human imperfections, but as to whether all the activity I was involved in was necessary, even advisable- the jury is out on this one I think.

3. I was focused on something I do believe as mentioned in 1 above as key to the church having any future. Christians will need to figure out a way to not collapse church into private lifestyles. Too much of evangelical church dispenses religious goods and services to people to fit around the lives they were making elsewhere. The logical extension to this, is to collapse church even further until it is just a resources for experience and private God spaces. I believe the church is about real concrete communities, like the household codes in the NT, visible and able to transform communities by living and being something other than personal interest groups.

I very much agree with you about how church has become as much consumer driven as the western world it is part of. I am also convinced that finding ways of living dependent lives in real community is part of the way that people of faith can show a real alternative. Sadly I am not sure that this is always a defining characteristic of Church- what we tend to form are what Scott-Peck calls ‘Pseudo communities’ (there is a discussion about this from the perspective of my community here.)

Another friend (who is a NT scholar) cautioned me once about the way we tend to suggest that our way of doing church is reflective of the NT idea of community (every new church development seems to claim this!) Firstly, we no longer live in the NT world, and have a poor and partial understanding of their culture and context. Secondly, Church tend to owe more to Victorian ideas of service to establishment than it does to embattled scattered persecuted 1st C Roman citizens/slaves.

What we do know about the NT church though is that it tended to meet in private spaces. The transformation it achieved was often in spite of persecution which prevented the visible gatherings that you seem to advocate.

I like your warning against a collapse of Church into just being a resource for ‘experience and private God spaces’. One criticism of Western Evangelicalism is that it has fallen into the trap of ‘Therapeutic Moralistic Deism’- offering a psychological God who will make your life happy if you follow a certain moral code. Church has followed the same individualising trend as the rest of the world – it offers individual salvation and an individual bonus-reward scheme.

I am not sure however the degree to which continued attendance can be seen to mitigate against this kind of privatised individualism. Perhaps we should leave this kind of church.

4. There is a current trend in thinking we can separate a relationship with Jesus from the church. We can’t, that’s the myth of consumer and secular imaginations.

You also used the word ‘myth’ to suggest describe Churchless faith. How are these things mythological? Is it because you believe they only exist in imagination? If so, they are powerful myths shared by many. Even if we are all wrong, then the relationships between church/Jesus/individuals have become a very poor one in lots of cases.

If people did not separate their belief in Jesus from their relationship with the Church then how does the church become challenged, changed? How can it respond to what may be prophetic critique? Jesus himself was hardly conformist after all.

That is not to say that we do not learn in community and in respect for those who have gone before us– I like Karen Ward’s differentiation between small and big theologies- the latter being those of our forefathers, the former being what we work out in small community. I think this is perhaps another one of those both/and paradoxes, but not a ‘myth’ surely?

On a personal level I had no choice but to go through a very painful experience of separation. I have spoken to many others who have done the same. This had little to do with consumer choice and a lot to do with survival of faith (it was touch and go for a while) by rediscovering Jesus in the midst of what can only be described as traumatic loss. To suggest that this was an easy consumer decision is to profoundly misunderstand the hurt that many people who have been through this process experience. I think this was at the core of my original response to your blog post, although I did not articulate it clearly at the time.

5. I’m not naive (at least I hope I am not), I spend a great deal of my time exploring the problems of church, and it has many. But on the other hand I do believe there is also a problem of Christians who don’t understand how to relate to church at all, that is not the fault of the church. It’s a two way problem.

I know and respect your thinking on lots of aspects of Church having been dipping into you blog for years!

But I must push you a little on this- if an institution is no longer doing the work it was intended for, is it reasonable to blame the people who no longer find it useful? That seems like a rather Stalinist argument to me!

The now rather antiquated debate around the so called ‘emerging church’ was founded on a dissatisfaction on Church and a hope for what might be developing. The question many of us still ask is what did all those blogs and conferences and books actually achieve? I suppose this is still a work in progress, but if all we did was open up some space for theological debate then it is an entirely unfinished project.

For people like me, the issue was not to try to preserve what was withering before our eyes, but rather to look in hope and expectation for what was becoming. Like a starving man grabs for bread we seized hold of ideas – missional church, new monasticism, fresh expressions, forest church etc  – some of these things were lovely, but could not really be regarded as a new stream of church, just different flavours of what was there already.

Even more worryingly for those of us whose theology had gone through something of a revolution, some Churches appeared to be doing very well- those whose version of religion was all hard lines and narrow doctrine.

Meanwhile people continue to leave Church…

Part two, including a discussion about consumerism, tomorrow.