My favorite Christian author, Rachel Held Evans, recently wrote an article about why millenials are leaving the church. In it, she explains that young adults like me and you don’t need or want our churches to be cool. She says that we’re drawn to Christianity’s long held sacraments when they’re practiced with authenticity and inclusivity. For many of us, that’s true. We’re leaving church because it feels wrong and we’d return if it felt right. That’s not true for all of us, though. At least, it’s not true for me.
I mean, it is romantic to kneel on a velvet bar alongside strangers and friends. To gaze at those high cathedral arches, to echo the Lexionary across the centuries, to participate in rituals like confession, communion, and baptism—all those spiritual practices that hold us together and remind us of what our souls are apt to forget.
And as long as I attend with my erudite friends, as long as I don a sports-coat with leather patch elbows, I’m happy to rest my padded bottom on an unpadded wooden pew. I’ll enjoy those quiet moments of old-fashioned-but-never-outdated-reflection. I’ll listen to the man with the low slung glasses who speaks slowly about a tree that was cut down from his yard and how it brought to mind all the trees that Jesus interacted with: Zacheeus’s tree, the fig tree, the vine and branches, the cross itself—and I’ll open myself to whatever spiritual wisdom I might derive from trees, and Jesus, but mostly trees.
But I gotta be honest, that stuff doesn’t help me any more than the fog machine or the throbbing lights or the free cappuccinos in the mega-church lobby. For me, it’s just a different kind of inauthentic, one that makes me feel slightly less manipulated and slightly more intelligent all while in the back of my mind I’m harboring the suspicion that I’m drifting toward another abusive relationship, only this time with an older, wiser abuser.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying my perspective is the better perspective. I just think it represents some of us whose problem with church extends beyond popular Christian culture. (Also, I’m not ragging on Rachel. Rachel is terrific! Her new book is beautiful and provocative and you should definitely buy and read it.) But as much as I love Rachel (and secretly want to be friends with her and her husband) her perspective doesn’t represent me. As a pastor’s kid, a Bible School Grad, a missionary to China for six years, a church planter, a Christian conference speaker; I’ve been on the scene long enough to know that even the most Sacramental Christianity won’t fix my problem. The simple truth is that I don’t want to go back to the church until the church dies and is born again.
Not all believers want to find their way back inside the building.
If you’re anything like me, you might view the sacraments and the liturgy as good programs that good people built after Jesus split. Programs whose faithful practice has helped people follow God through the ages. Programs which should be honored and cherished and used to this very day. But man-made programs nonetheless.
I’m cool with those programs until the minute their sacraments become sacred. When people start associating rituals (communion, baptism, the sinner’s prayer), leadership structures (prophets, priests, pastors), organizational structures (denominations, theologies, creeds), and morals (sex, marriage, crime, punishment), as items which are fixed quantities that can be applied in homogeneous fashion to all—in my postmodern opinion those beliefs have themselves become calcified idols which are now undermining the very deep truths of the even deeper mystery they were originally built to point toward.
In Rachel’s new book, which is organized entirely around the sacraments, she reaches beneath the sacraments themselves to apprehend the messy, mysterious, somewhat subjective truths behind each ritual. She understands that what lies beneath is the actual pearl of great price. That’s why I’d love to share a sanctuary with her and her family some Sunday. She’s a modern day sojourner—Abraham style, rallying folks; Nehemiah style, to rebuild the broken walls of Christendom. But at the end of the day, Rachel is back in church. And I don’t mean the ethereal line of believers strung out from Abraham to Billy Graham. I mean the institution. I mean an organization of men who lay out the rules.
And as a postmodern millennial, my mind doesn’t bend that way anymore. Our world is too wide for me to believe that God definitively does or does not want a man in Dubai to share an apartment with his girlfriend, or boyfriend. I worry that to live under the spiritual roof of men who have applied God’s precise opinion on anything from tits to taxes is spiritual abuse.
That’s why I believe that Jesus and Christianity are worlds apart. For example, what if Jesus didn’t institute communion as a formal demonstration of our proximity to God? What if he simply shared a poignant meal and said, “Hey, keep eating and drinking and remember me when you do.”? Also, Jesus never flew a rainbow flag or carried a poster that God hates fags. Men did that. Men do that. Men who organize around non-negotiable statements of faith.
And that’s why I can’t return to a hierarchical church. I don’t want a church to tell me that homosexuality is a sin and I don’t want a church to tell me that it’s not. I see through a glass darkly, just like everybody else, and mine is to wait and watch and love.
What I want is a church that doesn’t have an opinion for once. That doesn’t have a vested interest in my money, time, or perfect behavior. Where there are no paid professionals. Where to follow God is an amateur endeavor forever.
I’m not the only one. Many of us are fully engaged, whether we realize it or not, in our generation’s philosophical battle for faith. We want to know the extent that spiritual Truth can be objectively understood, organized, and applied. Our postmodern minds tell us that the answer is uncertain, and for some of us, a return to what we knew could only be regression.
What I’m saying is that we could start over. We could reinvent the wheel. Throw out the baby with the bathwater. Cut off our nose to spite our face. I believe the grass is greener on the other side of professional Christianity and I believe that some of us need to pack up our things and go to a land we’ve never been before.
I don’t know what it looks like yet but I imagine it as a movement of volunteers who open their homes regularly, who are autonomous except in matters affecting the movement as a whole, and who have no objective but to find God and to love people. I see such a movement burgeoning around nothing more than the belief in a God who cares, the transformation that such a belief precipitates within our ever-softening hearts, and the attraction it produces among those who suffer under the burden of fear and pride and guilt and shame.
Does this resonate with you at all? I hope so! I’m beginning to wonder if we’re at the beginning of a new evolution. I believe such a leap could be catalyzed by a multitude of single-cell voices who dream a similar dream. If you’re like me maybe your voice has been languishing in silence for too long. And maybe it’s time to start speaking again, dreaming again, seeking others who are seeking God beyond the primordial ooze.