Why are so many people looking at the faith of their culture and youth and saying, “I’ll pass. Thanks.”?
I don’t know. I’ve spent a lot of time agonizing over this. I’m a camp counselor, a high school teacher, Sunday School teacher, mother, grandmother, aunt, sister, and friend. I struggle with the thought that all my family and friends may not have that transformative moment that proves God is real, loves them, and is waiting on them. Also that a relationship with God, as with any person, means showing up, as in worship, not just thoughts and prayers. I mean, I can’t say I love a friend when I blow off her for weeks, right?
I think and read and pray. On Sunday, I read Nicholas Kristoff’s Op-Ed “We’re Less and Less a Christian Nation, and I Blame Some Blowhards.” Then I listened to last week’s podcast of Orthodoxy Live with Fr. Evan Armitas and Fr. Anthony Savas on my post-liturgical run. I bookmarked Luke Beecham’s piece, The Prodigal Church to read for today. Each piece dealt with the steep decline of people who affiliate with Christianity. Pew calls these the “Nones.” (As an aside, it’s terribly hard to converse about the Nones when my own faith confession has nuns. It gets very confusing at times.) I have many more friends these days who are just plain done with faith. They are trying out atheism or humanism. I have my reasons for struggling with this, but this is not that blog.
When it comes to pondering this problem, I suspect the principle of what Malcolm Gladwell calls “coupling” is at work. Conditions of multiple forces are coinciding. Luke Beecham says we’re prodigal. The church is guilty of not truly being Christian. Dorothy Day said something like this in The Long Loneliness. She suspected that few people have met real Christians. Ouch. Gandhi too said more people would be Christians if more Christians were like Christ.
We Christians are doing soul-searching, or at least hand-wringing about this. What are some hypotheses?
Cause 1: Church+Republican Party
I’ve heard talk that the double-digit decline in religious affiliation is caused by the increasing identification with the evangelicals (thus all who call themselves Christians by association) with the Republican party. That party has cornered the market on the morality of abortion. But they are challenged when it comes to be whole life. Again, tomes have been written on this. This is not that tome.
Cause 2: Church + Intolerance
One of the reasons that family and dear friends cite for quitting religion is refusal to care for the poor, people of color, non-citizens and right now, members of the LGBTQ community. Oh, we say we care. Church goers give to charity at the highest rates. We send missionaries to other countries. I’m having a hard time seeing how the church is showing up for the current calls from our Black and Brown brothers and sisters. Most of what I hear about our efforts comes out like: We marched with Dr. King. We have friends who are different from us. We respected or even voted for Obama, before we voted for Trump. Lastly we don’t tell people who are not cis-gender they can’t come to church. — We just tell them the hospital is here to fix them. When they are fixed they can come to communion, or teach, or speak, or be around our kids. —
Why are people leaving the church? I ask them. I’m not satisfied with their answers. I know that’s because I don’t want to be. Maybe being a person of faith is like being a parent. Every couple that finally decides to have a baby after resisting it gets my “Awesome! You are going to love it. I mean it’s hardest thing ever. You’ll never sleep the same again and kids cost a ton, but welcome to the club.” I make it sound like we are miserable and want company, don’t I? But we aren’t. We have a powerful anchor in hard times and the good. God works in me. I change, verrrryyy slowly. But I do give up my hang ups. The sacrament of confession helps. The sacrament of marriage will definitely change a person. Holiness inches me towards wholeness.
So I am trying to figure out how to keep or recruit people to God and the Church. Having revisited a few clips from the (retired) BBC show REV, I proposed the following to my husband to chew on for a while: We’ve created consumer churches. Each Christian confession does it in its own particular way. We make ourselves a warm community and try to be convenient and inviting, but mostly to a narrow market. It’s no secret that Sunday morning carves up Christians on racial and ethnic lines, but also on socio-economics. We don’t want to worship next to someone who hasn’t showered recently, who smells of alcohol and body odor. It’s also divided on gender and sexuality. We do not want to explain the woman or man who always comes alone, let alone the two men or two women who come together every week. Maybe those people need to meet with the pastor. They need help.
We whisper this, suggest it, hint. Even if they are obtuse, they get the hint. “I don’t really belong here, do I?” What’s weird is that some of those people know they need it, so they stay. Others of us bear witness to the subtleties (or not so subtleties) of the loudest voices, and get angry. If church people don’t love the “weird ones” enough to touch them, be friends, look them in the eye or stop trying to make them into the same image as themselves, then of course, why should I trust those people? They want to remake everyone into their own image.
The hardest task of the faithful is love without secret ambition, vain conceit, or hidden motives. The greatest of the saints looked others in the eye, rather than turning away from their immorality. They covered over the shame that fellow priests and Christians heaped upon the cast outs. Right now, the LGBTQ community are our cast outs. We will touch them, with a ten foot pole of “counseling and conversion.” We don’t start with love. Everyone around them, even they, push back. Does the Church really mean it when it says we are to cover over a multitude of sins? That perfect love casts out fear? That the Holy Spirit has this?
Love is a harsh and dreadful thing. It’s so simple it’s complicated. Sometimes we mistake love for being a rainmaker and fixing. It’s why I want to “rain make” people into the arms of the Savior. Or trade my place there so they may have mine. As Dostoevsky’s Alyosha says to a woman who wants to love the whole world but can’t find love for her ungrateful, demanding daughter:
I am sorry I can say nothing more consoling to you, for love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams. Love in dreams is greedy for immediate action, rapidly performed and in the sight of all. Men will even give their lives if only the ordeal does not last long but is soon over, with all looking on and applauding as though on the stage. But active love is labour and fortitude, and for some people too, perhaps, a complete science. Dostoyevsky
Love is a harsh and dreadful thing for us. Love calls us to descend into the particulars with people. We cannot do that with the wrong motives. If a person comes unwilling to be what we think they should conform to, we cannot do that work. When we can’t change them, we make a line between us and them, the deserving and undeserving.
What can I say? Maybe I am driving people away from God because I want too much for others to know God. Maybe I am loosy-goosy about “right and wrong” or the Church’s stance on this or that.
On the one hand, I try to unclench my moral ideas about how people should be. I try not to change my friends. On the other, I’m totally guilty of attempting hail mary’s for friends about to leave a spouse or a church. I happen to think social networks of the analog type prevent much of the descent of a person into isolation, co-dependency, addiction, depression, or suicidal ideation or or or or… any other personal hell.
I might not know the right way to love and be loved. I might have wrong motives or vain conceits. Trust me, I take these to confession. Indefatigable love feels very confusing at times. What’s a Christian’s role in helping others live their best lives? In helping others know that God knows them best. We are at best, orderlies and patients in the same hospital we call the Church.
Here’s my other theory about why people no longer affiliate with the Church:
Preemptive exclusion. I think lots of those leaving the church have asked, what would it look like to love so hard that I change? And what if the moral authorities in the Church blackball me for this change? And defame me for my intimacy with the outcasts?
So those people preemtively leave. It’s easier that way. You know what makes me sad? I think some other people are relieved by this self-deportation.
But some Christians try to stay, try to speak up for the dignity, personhood, humanity of their friends –who are “not moral.” What I am here to say is that I bear testimony to what I think are their good motives. They are called to be that part of the Church that looks without judgment and loves. I bear witness too that I see these people being silenced, overtly or subtly.
Instead of seeing that these people may be called to serve this way, moral authorities feel the need to dismiss, discipline, exclude, or ignore them. I ask this, have we considered that they might be carrying a great burden of all those leaving the Church? They are taking the risk that God has the other stuff under control. Because like it or not, not every person who needs the fullness of the Church and to see the face of God in other human beings will have the grit to stick out the callow bedside manner of the orderlies.