Thursday, June 10, 2010

Between Churches: Why I Left, Part One

There are many in American Christianity who survey the landscape and complain that the church is under attack. I am not one of them. I look around and see, in American Christianity, an embarrassment of riches, both metaphorically and literally.

The church in America is unusually powerful, exerting remarkable influence on the cultural and political system it inhabits. A few complainers notwithstanding, the general public sees no problem with the longstanding practice of presidents employing “spiritual advisors”; the military faces no serious critique for continuing to sponsor a chaplaincy program; the most constructive programs run in the nation’s prisons are sponsored and maintained by religious organizations; no one as yet has mounted a serious challenge to the tax-free status of any organization that claims religion as its reason for being; and every week—though not as pervasively as in years past—Sunday mornings are widely accepted as sacred, with communities ceding the time to religious observance. This is the influence of Christianity in America: the Jewish Sabbath is Saturday, and the Islamic Sabbath is Friday, but Sunday—the Lord’s Day in Christian tradition—gets all the press. So, despite paranoid protests to the contrary, I’m not terribly concerned about the security of the church as an American institution.

The church in America has benefited from the laissez-faire posture of other powerful institutions. Without significant intrusion from government, business or other social movements, the church has been free to flourish. Diversity of belief and practice is widespread. Whole industries undergird and append to the church’s secure base.

And yet the church fails to thrive. Membership rolls in churches across the country steadily decline every year. Congregations and denominations split in bitter disputes over money, power and piety. Adolescents complete their confirmation and confirm to their parents that they’re done, thank you very much. Revenue to churches from wedding planning and hosting is shifting to hotels and resorts. By some accounts, the church isn’t simply failing to thrive, it’s free-falling.

Oh, it’s not as dire as all that. But there are some serious, unchecked, intrinsic problems in the shared space of Christianity and contemporary culture, with its peculiar philosophies, politics and priorities. There was a time that a church centered a town; the tall steeple oriented the surrounding terrain, the bell tower kept everyone apprised of what time it is. That time is now past; the church is on the peripheries of relevance, the steeples themselves are quaint anachronisms that embarrass some and whisper sweet nostalgic nothings to others. The church as we know it is failing to thrive; it’s dying on the vine.

But that’s not why I left.

***

This is the first of a series of posts--"Between Churches"--chronicling my departure from our church of several years and our exploration of the church in our area. I welcome your feedback.

15 comments:

Sam Van Eman said...

Dave, I remember hearing Christian friends discuss their fears about what would happen to the Church if Obama were elected. I had no way of predicting anything, and even though I doubted that his possible presidency would ruin the Church, I did think: So let's say that it does lead to bad things. Isn't that what the Church needs more than anything right now?

Your critique may be dire, but something needs to awaken us.

--

It's been a while since I visited here, but L.L. Barkat reminded of your blog. Once I got here, I remembered that Marcus Goodyear told me about you a long time ago. Then I got distracted when I saw Kami Rice in your blog list! She and I worked together years ago.

L.L. and Marcus and I all write for HighCallingBlogs.com and I wonder if we've ever invited you to visit us. I'll be back to hear more of your church story.

Sam

Anonymous said...

The Church expands and contracts throughout history. We are in many ways reflections of society. In part to an ever growing and intrusive government (over the past 60+ years) society has changed. We have become more fragmented in the home and community. So has the church and its role. We forget that as individuals we are the church regardless of building or location. And the activity and charity that once stemmed from a local church has expanded into many loving and charitable activities. This in many ways is good. The negative is we are lacking a sense of community and friendship. This is why in an ever increasingly connected world....people feel more alone.

David A. Zimmerman said...

Hey--thanks for both your comments. I'll be throwing up some quotes here and there that pertain to this little writing aside, but the one I ran across today comes from Alan Hirsch in The Forgotten Ways: "We too quickly identify the concrete-historical expressions of church as the body of Christ. And while there is a truth to this, for the church is the body of Christ, perhaps the greater truth is that the body of Christ is the church."

Sam--I'm a big fan of all your friends. :) I haven't had much occasion to interact creatively with High Calling, but I love what you're doing. If you need writers and think something fits me, I'd be happy to do it.

Pete Juvinall said...

First, on a personal note, we left our church and my denomination I had since being a kid a few years ago and it was one of the best things that ever happened to me. People complain about 'oh it was a dry time', but honestly it was liberating to walk into a Presbyterian church, a charismatic church, a mega church, etc. that were all within the evangelical 'Standard Deviation' and have absolutely no assumptions on my behavior or dress or actions. It was freeing even as a couple to start to carve out a new identity.

Mind you we settled in a PCA church and it was one that looked and felt alot like my InterVarsity chapter in school. Sure, instead of Seniors, there were *seniors* but there are a number of people who were just quirky or fun that we hang out with.

Anyway, those are some great observations. I really look forward to hearing your thoughts. It seems the Church has too many distractions in our culture and if you move to Ethiopia, for example, the air is clearer and the Church is way more effective and way more pure and way more attractive.

David A. Zimmerman said...

Pete--what church are you at? My wife wound up at a PCA church in Normal before graduating and really liked it.

Winn Collier said...

I look forward to reading, David. I like your voice, and I'd love to hear your rumblings in this season. I recently started a blog series on why the church?. It might be interesting to interact with you on this, though I I have no idea what that means, sounded good.

Anyway, eager to listen.

David A. Zimmerman said...

Winn, you ignorant slut. (Am I the only one old enough to remember this?) Do you have plans for your series beyond the blog? Wink wink.

Dr. William M. Struthers said...

Davey, we should talk soon. Sounds like we are exploring some of the same questions about what church is really all about.

David A. Zimmerman said...

Seriously, Bill. I've been meaning to come visit you guys since you first told me about it. Let's get something on the calendar. Maybe you want to go to one of Chris's concerts with me? Not sure when the next one is . . .

Winn Collier said...

Dave, you pompous ass. Something's brewing, along similar themes.

Winn Collier said...

I'm wondering if a little context might be in order for our kindly words. Maybe not, I'm fine if your blog goes down in flames : )

David A. Zimmerman said...

Good point, Winn. It's from Saturday Night Live, back in the 1970s--at least my comment was; Winn may just be a pottymouth.

thisistemporary said...

My friend's church had to remove the steeple because the insurance company wouldn't insure the church if they kept it - apparently those things are prone to falling down/getting struck by lightning (unlikely for this particular church, considering the church is presently wedged between two apartment buildings).

Looking forward to reading the blog.

It's got me hooked and I hate that these entries are like chapters... I just want to keep reading!!! This is why I watch tv series on DVD :P You don't have to wait until next week....

Judi said...

I caught the SNL reference. Not to get all technical or anything but, um wasn't it actually, "Jane, (as in Jane Curtin) you ignorant slut." ???

Sam Van Eman said...

Thanks for the offer.