Maggie: Can we talk about something that has been on my mind for a while?
John: Sure. This is your blog too. So we can talk about anything that interests you, as long as it somehow relates to philosophy or religion.
Maggie: This does. But I am not sure how to say it.
John: We trust each other, so you can just say what you want to say.
Maggie: Okay, here it goes: I hate church and I don’t want to go any more. I find it frustrating and a waste of time. I know you like it, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.
John: I see you feel strongly about this. I am glad you brought it up. But before we continue, let’s set a few ground rules for the discussion.
Maggie: You’re funny. You always have rules for talking.
John: They help keep us on track, so we don’t end up talking about Zak Efron movies.
Maggie: Like we always do?
John: Well he is one of Hollywood’s most underrated, young actors. Wait, wait… Never mind. Let’s get back on track.
Maggie: Okay. What are the rules?
Ground Rules for Discussing Difficult Topics about the Church
John: Rule No. 1: First, let’s make clear that we are talking about the Christian church. Not everyone who reads this blog is a Christian. Some are Buddhist, some are Muslim, some are other religions.
Maggie: Agreed. I am just talking about the Christian church.
John: Rule No. 2: Second, I want you to think about the following philosophical concept: words don’t mean, people mean; words are simply tools we use to express that meaning. To fully understand the meaning that a person is trying to convey, we have to first understand the person who is expressing the meaning.
Let me give you an example. When you use the word “hate,” I understand what you mean by that because I understand you. Others, however, who do not know you as well, will attribute negative emotions such as anger and even rage to this word. So we need to clarify for them what you mean when you use the word “hate.”
Maggie: I don’t have any rage, that is for sure. What I really mean is that I don’t like going to church, and sometimes I greatly dislike going. I will choose my words a bit more carefully going forward.
John: So will I.
Rule No. 3: Third, we need to be careful with generalizations about the church. It is true that, generally speaking, the American church has some serious flaws. But there are some good churches and some good priests and some good ministers and some good musicians and some good board members. They just don’t get the press and attention that the others get.
Maggie: I agree. But, just so you know, I will be generalizing a bit, and that doesn’t make my opinions any less valid.
John: That is true. I agree that your opinions are valid and applicable and important as generally stated, on any topic.
Rule No. 4: Fourth, while I am not yet sure what you are going to say, I want you to remember that I understand your dislike of the church. And I am not the least bit upset by it. The best course of action is for us to have a full, frank, and open discussion.
Maggie: Agreed. I will try to be completely open and honest.
John: And I will try not to be defensive.
To begin, we need to unpack your dislikes and see if we can get at some of the details. I suggest we talk about the cultural issues first, then the theological issues, and lastly the customary issues. Okay?
Maggie. That sounds fine. What do you want to know first?
The Cultural Issues
John: Do you learn anything at church when you attend?
Maggie: Almost never.
John: Why do you think that is?
Maggie: I have thought a lot about this over the last year. It’s because the sermons, messages, homilies, prayers, or whatever are not the least bit relevant to me.
Try to wrap your head around this (as you always say): almost all sermons are given by middle-aged men, given from a male perspective, and directed towards healthy, upper-middleclass or wealthy, middle-aged adults. My generation is not their generation; my culture is not their culture; my issues are not their issues; my problems are not their problems. There is a chasm between the sermons and me. A really big chasm at times.
And you know what really bugs me? Do you really want to know? I am constantly relegated either to the weekly youth group (where the youth pastors are barely older than me, they yell their messages instead of just talking, and every single one of them talks faster than a jack-rabbit on caffeine) or to the monthly women’s group (where we mostly talk about how to be good wives and mothers). The only message I get out of this is that I am not important. Don’t they know that assigning people to fringe groups makes us feel insignificant? Why do they do that?
You know what—I am getting angry! This really makes me mad.
John: It is quite okay to be angry. You have pointed out one of the most serious flaws in the American church: it has co-opted a business-growth model designed to benefit large donors, so it focuses on those donors. Others are simply relegated to splinter groups. It really is unfortunate. I think a lot more people than we realize feel like you do.
Maggie: Okay-okay, I am going to take a deep breath and think about something else for a minute.
Aaaa-haaa. Alright, I feel better. Hey, how good were those High School Musical movies?
John: Oh, so good! Kenny Ortega is a genius. Oh, wait a minute… Don’t tell anyone I said that. I don’t want that to get around. Let’s just move on.
Maggie: Moving on. What’s your next question? (And I am telling everyone!)
The Theological Issues
John: Do you still believe in god?
Maggie: I do. But not the version of god that is preached in church.
John: What do you mean by that?
Maggie: Well, I think god is loving, kind, and generous. God cares about all people and wants the best for all people. He especially cares about kids and teens, which we know because he spent lots of time with kids.
But it seems to me that god is now being used as a tool for hate. I am so tired of hearing sermons talking about the evils of conservative politics, the evils of liberal politics, the evils of other religions, the evils of leaders in other countries, the evils of this and the evils of that. Every message is about what is wrong with other people. Why do Christians have to hate so much?
John: Wow, those are some deep thoughts. You have really given this some consideration.
Maggie: Well, I have had a lot of time in church over the past year to think about it. There wasn’t much else to do. What is your last question?
The Customary Issues
John: Do you dislike actually getting up and attending church? I am talking about the physical process of actually going to church and sitting there.
Maggie: Very much so. I don’t like getting up on Sunday mornings, dressing in swanky clothes, sitting in uncomfortable chairs, bumping up against hundreds of people as they crowd in on me, listening to terrible music played by well-meaning but mediocre musicians, and being told what to do by a man who doesn’t know me and, if he admitted the truth to himself, doesn’t care the least bit about me. I would rather not go than put up with these things every week.
John: I have a confession to make: except for getting up on Sunday mornings, I don’t like those things either. Especially the music, which makes me crazy-crazy. Have you noticed that the worse the musicians are, the louder they play? And did you notice my use of contemporary language?
Maggie: The phrase is cray-cray, not crazy-crazy, and nobody says that anymore. But keep trying, because you make me laugh.
Seriously, though, why do you go to church if you don’t like these things?
John: Let me answer that question last, after I take a shot at responding to your other thoughts. If I stumble a bit on these responses, cut me some slack. Okay? These are tough topics.
Discussion and Resolution
John: Response No. 1: The American church has failed a lot of people in a lot of ways. Covering up sexual abuse, marginalizing women in the clergy and congregation, disregarding and discounting young adults, failing to work towards full and equal integration, openly ignoring the special needs community, esteeming money and power, adopting corporate growth models: these are just a few examples.
But let me assure you that your thoughts about its failures are important to me and to many others. I think you are conveying quite powerfully what a lot of your peers also feel, but are hesitant to state out loud. So don’t be shy about expressing yourself. Sound your barbaric yawp from the roof tops! Priests, pastors, ministers, leaders, congregants, and me will all be better off for hearing your thoughts and words.
Maggie: Walt Whitman?
John: Of course.
Maggie: You can’t go a day without quoting him, can you?
John: I could try, but I would lose a quarter of my conversation vocabulary. Hey, we are off track again. Back to work.
Response No. 2: We need to remember that the church is run by real people, and real people are not perfect. All of us, every single one, has struggles, fears, insecurities, imperfections, faults, bad habits, and sins. Most of us are trying to improve, but it takes time. Lots and lots of time for some of us.
Think about the apostles and saints. These were folks with serious flaws, suffering from jealousy, greed, self-righteousness, anger, love of power, and many other problems. But they were also the leaders of the church that Christ used to help others. In other words, none of us is perfect, even the saints. So we really should cut people some slack if they don’t measure up to the standards to which we hold them.
Maggie: Is that why you read about the saints so much, because they were real people like us?
John: Yes, understanding their flaws makes me feel a little bit better about my own short-comings.
Maggie: Okay, I will try to be a little more forgiving.
John: Response No. 3: Responding to the cultural issues you raised, you are correct. The church is predominately geared towards the healthy, upper-middleclass or wealthy, middle-aged adults, and this is because they are the largest donors. You only have to look at the mega-churches to bear this out.
Americans worship wealth and power. We adore our wealthy movie stars (George Clooney and Jennifer Anniston), wealthy business moguls (Bill Gates and Richard Branson), wealthy musicians (Beyoncé and Bono), and wealthy famous-for-being-famous (anyone of the Kardashians). This love of wealth has crept into our churches, because they are predominately run by the upper-middleclass and wealthy. And ministers tend to pay the most attention to these folks for the same reason, because they themselves adore wealth and power. You just have to look at who the priests and pastors are having lunch with to bear this out. But let me be clear about one thing: wealth and power isn’t a problem when it is used for good. It is only a problem when we value people based on their money and power, as the church does.
I am sorry that this behavior has marginalized you as a result. I am truly sorry. But we need your voice in the church to effect change. So don’t leave; don’t quit; speak out! There are many ministers who are trying to reach out to other people groups and they need your help.
Maggie: I know, I know. Sound my barbaric yawp…
John: I was going to say “proclaim the truth and do not be silent through fear.”
Maggie: Catherine of Siena? You really need some new quotes.
John: I blame Netflix. We are living in a golden age of television. But I will try to read more.
Response No. 4: Let me address the theological issue you raised next. I am a little bit fuzzy on this response, but I think I have some initial thoughts worth considering.
There was a time when the church influenced culture and was a driving force for cultural change. But that does not exist anymore. Now the opposite is true: culture influences the church. And nothing bears this out more than the issue you just raised.
American culture has become increasingly fragmented, focusing more and more on our differences. This has occurred in large part due to mental laziness. It is easier to point out differences and criticize those differences, than to do the hard work of finding and complimenting similarities. And it is just a few small steps from such criticism to dislike and then to hate. You only have to read a newspaper to see that this is true. Gone are the days of in-depth reporting; now even the formally reputable papers mostly report on differences and the easily identified problems arising from these differences.
And the church has coopted this cultural phenomenon. It is easy to utilize Biblical application to critique and criticize republicans or democrats or other religions or other whatever. In turn, it is really hard to engage in deep biblical, theological, and cultural analysis and application. So, out of shear laziness, we end up with a lot of messages that identify and critique our differences, which gives the appearance of hate. I don’t think Christians hate as much as they simply give the appearance of doing so by their lazy messages. Does this make sense?
Maggie: Kind of, I think. It may be a bit beyond me. But I will spend more time thinking about it.
John: Well, keep applying brute mental strength and you will get there. And don’t be afraid to raise questions. It will help me give more depth to this notion that is just beginning to form in my brain.
Maggie: I may have a lot of questions.
John: I hope so. Questions are the beginning of knowledge, so you should raise every question you can.
Response No. 5: Lastly, let’s address the customary issues. With one exception, the things you pointed out—getting up on Sunday mornings, dressing up in nice clothes, sitting in pews, putting up with crowds, and listening to poor music—are, for the most part, just annoyances. I understand that they are big annoyances for sleep-deprived teens. But if you were going to a Seahawks game or a Taylor Swift concert or a high school musical (see what I did there?) or a friends basketball game, you would gladly put up with the same irritations.
This doesn’t mean I don’t take your comments seriously. When I was younger these same things really bothered me. And like you, I hated church.
Maggie: Are you saying that I don’t have to go to church anymore?
John: I understand that you have real and deep issues with church, and I understand that it is hard to focus in church when you are annoyed by the current customs. So, here is the deal: you do not have to attend church with us if you truly do not want to.
But I wish you would choose otherwise.
John: For several reasons.
First, we attend church to participate in communion with god, which is important for our faith. We shouldn’t pass this up because the other stuff is annoying.
Second, we are a family, which is the single, most important social unit in your life. You should attend church with your family to be an active part of the family. Doing so supports the activities of other family members who like church, just as they attend your social functions to support you. Never forget Life Rule Number One: family first, foremost, and always.
Third, by attending church, you may find friends with similar beliefs and values. Having such friends can be a source of strength and community.
Maggie: Okay, I understand. Can I think about it?
John: Sure. But if you decide not to attend, I want you to consider starting a study group with some friends that discusses theological and biblical issues. That way you will still be a part of a religious community.
Maggie: Okay. There is a lot to think about here, and some of it may be a bit beyond me. But I will really try.
John: That is all I ask.
Now, do you want to watch Casablanca with me? It’s only the greatest movie of all time! Hey, don’t roll your eyes!