Salvation. Sovereignty. Baptism. Atonement. Glory. Angels. Demons. The blood of the Lamb.
How do you feel when you read those words?
It’s no secret that I have not had the best relationship with the church. I’ve been involved with church communities my whole entire life, and I’ve always been sort of the oddball out. Whether it be my childhood church, the Christian university I attended, the Christian organizations I’ve worked for, or even the church I attend now, I’ve never felt comfortable calling the church “home.”
(What’s kept me in the church is my weird affinity toward the “fantasy” aspects of the Bible, since the conceptual ideas about heaven, miracles, and more lend well to my nerdy love of The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. I know, that’s probably not what you think about when you think church, but hey, that’s just me.)
When I read those words at the top of the post, I honestly feel a little uncomfortable. I’m reminded of the times in high school youth group when I hung out with the extra talkative, really annoying kids because I didn’t play sports like the cool kids did. I remember the times when I stepped out of my comfort zone to offer service in some area to have those people brush me off and not accept my help. I recall a fellow student at Christian university telling me that “my lifestyle isn’t cut out for ministry.” (To this day, I have no idea what that meant.)
I’d say these have worn on me over time, but they probably didn’t come to a head until this past summer. There was no specific instance that triggered it; it was just that this camel had had one too many straws placed on his back. That’s when I started exploring my faith in a whole new light and also about the same time that I started this series of blog posts.
Which brings me to my first point. I believe there are two kinds of anxieties that people face, one begetting the other: a social anxiety and an existential / theological anxiety. The two are often confused, and admittedly, I confused them myself for many years.
Let’s start with the social anxiety. This is along the lines of what I already described in my personal experiences. Social anxiety is a general discomfort with the church because of poor experiences with people in the church. (Oh, and when I refer to church here, I mean basically anything with a Christian affiliation.)
This social anxiety has been increasing more and more the past few decades because the church has become very exclusive when it comes to more progressive social issues. And you can make an argument that “progressive” ideas can sometimes actually be regressive, but I personally think this came to a head in the early 2000s when the evangelical community started banning Harry Potter. I remember our pastor telling the congregation to basically expunge our households of these books, and I remember vividly my mom throwing my books in the dumpster.
I also remember strongly thinking about how ridiculous that was.
Now, I intentionally separate social anxiety from existential anxiety because I believe them to be mutually exclusive concepts. For the most part, people don’t have existential crises when they are socially comfortable with their church communities. And I hope that is pretty obvious when I say it, because it rings true of any like-minded community. Thinking about Scientology defectors like Leah Remini, she was totally okay with being a Scientologist so long as the community benefitted her. When the community started impacting her on a personal, social level, that’s when she began questioning the tenets of the philosophy and ultimately became a vocal opponent of Scientology.
If you follow this thinking, your comfort with the church can be very telling. If you are socially okay with your church community, you’re probably protecting your community and not necessarily your faith. Those can be very hard words to hear, potentially frustrating words. You might be thinking, “I know what I think!” But do you really? A 29 year old growing up in the church, it took me until just this year to start really questioning the foundations of my faith. And vice versa, your social discomfort with the church doesn’t explain away the existential anxieties associated with the church.
Before we wrap up, I want to end on a bit of a “saving grace” note. You might walk away from this post thinking one of two things: I either hate the church or am radically jealous of those who find comfort in the church. It took me the longest time to admit that, yes, both of those have been true at times. But I’ve recently begun to pivot away from that thinking thanks to help from philosopher Ram Dass. Assuming what works for one person is inherently better or worse than another position is an unhelpful, dualistic perspective.
In the case of the church, clearly the church model is working well for many people. While it might not work for me, am I supposed to hate them for it? Am I supposed to be jealous of it?
Or maybe a better question, does God hate the church model?
As Ram Dass beautifully puts it, “It’s all grist for the mill.”
Still, even if it works for you, you still need to consider how it may or may not work for others. If you don’t, the church will continue its downward trajectory toward extinction. So, when you consider your faith and your church community, remember these thoughts. Keep in mind how your comfort may be a barrier for others. Consider how you might need to make yourselves less comfortable to make others more comfortable.
That’s it for this post. Catch you in the next one.