By Emily Rowell Brown
A dear friend from college sighed as she told me about how she was struggling to find a church after her recent move to DC. She had a church in New Haven, where she had lived previously, but she confessed to me that it never really felt like home. “I never really knew them,” she said. “Sure, I knew where they stood on any number of doctrinal issues, but I always found it difficult to speak around them. They were so educated, so intellectual. Whenever I was around them, I thought I might misspeak or say something stupid.”
My brother never goes to church anymore, not even on Christmas Eve with the family. My family doesn’t force it. We want him to want to be there. And for someone who hates dressing up, making small talk, and dealing with crowds, the Christmas and Easter services are a pretty hard sell.
I have a few more serious and tragic stories to share, too, that cut deeper than just anecdotes about the church being a little off, not quite right, not what people I have encountered over the years were hoping or searching for. For some people, the idea of church is a very good thing, but there is never the time. How good is the church, actually, then, if out of the 168 hours we all have in a week, many people do not find it worthwhile to spend at least one of them on church-related events or activities?
Two of my lesbian friends have found either explicit condemnation or apathy from their faith communities who are more focused on supporting single young adults and young families than engaging people who do not fit in their pre-defined, well-known boxes. Both women care deeply about social justice, and they have left the church, instead taking their hearts and able minds and bodies to the non-profit world, where they—and those around them—have flourished.
And there are still others who find the paltry outcries of the church to injustices such as racism, rape, and economic disparity unsatisfactory, wrong-headed, or even unfaithful. In short, it is easy to find many things that the church does wrong or does not do well. Sometimes the church severely damages; sometimes the church merely disappoints.
But what I think lies beneath these stories of failure is a struggle that is not unique to faith communities. I think all organizations and institutions, and indeed, each one of us, continually face the decision either to be real or look good.
Do you explain how hurt you are one day when someone asks how you are doing, or do you tell them that you are just fine, but super busy because your job is so important? Does the priest in the pulpit model our simultaneous blessedness and brokenness by talking about some of her own screw-ups or does she remove herself from the equation, instead delivering timeless wisdom that applies to all the other normal, non-priestly people? Does a congregation whole-heartedly accept LGBT couples—even those who have complicated pasts and relationships that differ from idealized 1950s heterosexual relationships—affirming that love can find numerous expressions, which also means recognizing that love creates tumult along with beauty? And do our larger institutions not only create clear pathways to report abuse and injustice when it happens inside the church but make themselves available to the perpetrators and victims of oppression because all people bear God’s image?
In other words, will the church embrace messiness, even some chaos?
We progressive mainline churches can comfort ourselves by knowing that we do not fall prey to the majority of the extremes which inflict the most harm—biblical inerrancy and literalism, a larger-than-life view of the pastor, black-and-white thinking. But, in our own way, we’re afraid to shed our neat, tidy veneer. We like order and certainty as do many of our more evangelical and conservatively-minded brothers and sisters.
I’m not trying to demonize order and process. Established procedures can stifle and repress, but by systematizing and organizing, they also make possible much more than would be going at it alone and from scratch. Yet the further we lose touch with real people, individuals, we forget the complexity of the human experience. Let us not forget that the body of Christ is made up of many individual human bodies, who are fearfully and wonderfully made, who are divine co-creators and sinners and disciples and kingdom obstructers, all at once. The church, then, inevitably will reflect these tensions.
So let’s stop trying to be perfect. Let’s admit it when we don’t know something. Let’s laugh at ourselves when accidentally begin singing a verse the bulletin told us to omit. Let’s go there and talk about sex and relationship complications because God cares about all forms of love, not just those resulting in families with 2.6 kids and a dog. Let’s create the spaces to talk about and figure out how faithfully to respond to controversial issues such as the shootings of black males in the United States and child slave labor for chocolate in Africa, knowing that we will disagree and that at times it will get, yes, messy.
Instead of trying to hide our ugliness, our scars from fights weathered and mishaps endured, let’s display it proudly. This is why God gave us the church: to support one another in being true to our calling as God’s children (Ephesians 4:22-32), simultaneously beautiful and corrupted. In order to do this, we must be authentic. Authenticity is the church’s gift to the world, one that none of our workplaces or the media or even civic-minded organizations can offer in quite the same way, because the church isn’t ultimately about impressing people or grossing lots of money or convincing the universe of its necessity (churches may do all of these things, but they are not inherent to or essential byproducts of its purpose). The church should be the place where we can come as we are and see the complexity of God’s creation surrounding and reflected right back to us.
When the church becomes not another obligation, not another item to check off our to-do list, not a source of embarrassment or shame, not a stumbling block, but where we are free to be who we really are, humble creatures on a path to discovering and working towards a better future, God’s future, we know we’ve done something right.
Emily Rowell Brown enjoys black coffee, reading, and discussing personality types, and dislikes sweet tea and attempting to summarize herself in one-sentence bios. She is a candidate for the priesthood in the Diocese of Alabama and serves as Assistant to the Rector for Christian Formation at St. John’s, Georgetown and Episcopal Campus Minister at Georgetown University.