Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Leaving [a] Church

I'm reading a great book right now by Tim Suttle, who I had a class or two with in seminary. Perhaps I'll write a review when I'm done, but probably not. I always say I'll do something on this blog and then don't, so don't count on it (I'm sure you were).

There are a lot of "take-homes" from this book. But this paragraph is particularly chewable:
I’ve noticed a pattern within this phenomenon. People who tell me they are leaving our church always begin the decision with the same three words: “We have decided.” By the time those words are uttered, faith has already been broken. These are some of the most painful words I ever have to hear. “We have decided to leave for this or that reason.” The reasons they give vary and they usually have at least some merit. Yet they pale in comparison to the egregious sin of breaking fellowship—read faith, fidelity, faithfulness, allegiance, pistis—with that part of the body of Christ to which they have been given. This is one of the most insidious forms of individualism. Why do people feel as though they can make the decision to leave their community of faith in private, without ever submitting this decision to the rest of the body? In truth this action violates the unity of the body. It runs counter to the notion that our worship runs much deeper than simply where we go to church on Sunday. Rather worship involves the whole of our lives. To “decide” privately to leave a church means we sever deep bonds of friendship and community that are meant to be reciprocal relationships. The phrase, “We have decided,” is a sign that individualism has so pervaded our lives and our Christian faith that we think we are fully justified in making decisions on behalf of everyone in our community without consulting them. This, I believe, is one of the most damaging effects of individualism on the church.

Ouch. What's often sensitively difficult about these situations is that these people most often try to demonstrate "concern" about hurting the feelings of the pastor (me). They'll make statements like, "We really like you, but..." or "It's not you, it's..." These statements only add to the disconnect between who the Church is perceived to be (largely pastor-driven, pastor-led) and who it should be (a community of people following Christ who have a pastor).*

But I also have a bit of a difficulty with what Tim's saying, as it assumes that this kind of reciprocal relationship was ever there in the first place. That's perhaps even more disturbing.

I Corinthians 12 continues to be formational for my ecclesiology (=theology of the Church). It's such a far cry from what the typical local church looks like today. For sure, we are a much more transient society than in Paul and Corinth's day. People are going to move geographically and as such, change local churches. And no one's saying that no one should ever leave a church body. But the flippancy with which it happens these days is whorish.

And if one does leave a church, let the church send you! What a beautiful way for the Body of Christ to participate in the on-going revelation of the Kingdom of God in the commissioning and sending of one another. If indeed it is right for an individual or family to move from one church to another (even if it's across the street), couldn't we all participate in that?

When a family or individual leaves a church, the most grievous moments are the ones when we remember such things as their marriage, or the baptism of their child, or the grief that we shared together in the death of a loved one.  It's these kinds of sacramental moments that make us responsible for one another in Christ and by the grace and love of Christ, can over-power the fickle temptation to run elsewhere in the moment of disagreement, misunderstanding, hurt, or offense.

(By the way, Tim does wonderfully in responding more to this issue in the book. Read it!)

*I do want to give some credit to those who would at least talk to a pastor or better yet, several people in their church community, before moving on rather than just simply moving on. But even then, as Tim says, the decision is usually already made. I also want to acknowledge that the last I knew, the average pastoral tenure in my own denomination (the Church of the Nazarene) was less than 4.5 years. Pastors apparently are no different, and perhaps even worse.