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The Magazine: Why the church can’t or won’t get real

The Magazine: Why the church can’t or won’t get real

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.


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Murdoch Matthew

The crux of the matter was stated by Rod Gillis on Thinking Anglicans on 8 Nov:

“Despite evangelism programs, despite classical or hip liturgies, despite churches that strive for transcendence and those advertise themselves as welcoming, the basic belief system of the church is no longer accepted as credible and meaningful by the majority of society.”

He goes on to note that there are a great many clergy working with dedication, skill, tenacity, and self-sacrifice to provide care and community building despite the crisis of decline. Society needs communities, and is enriched by music and art. Parishes that provide these may thrive. But although the metaphysics may tag along; they are no longer compelling.

In 40 years of ardent churchgoing, I never felt a glimmer of spirit or presence — these were things others spoke of fervently and that I read about in devotional literature. I assumed that such experience was available — I was just missing it, or was somehow spirit blind as people are color blind. Now 40 years later, I see Christ as a story, told first and compellingly by Paul, that one can wrap oneself in, internalize, and express in one’s own life. This seems an individual matter — I see no central direction amongst Christians. Schismatics, fundamentalists, inclusionists, all claim direction from God. Our divisions speak against such.

I like the Christians who emphasize love and inclusion; I oppose the literalists and authoritarians. I applaud civic organizations like the ACLU that seem to work more for justice and fairness than do most of the merely religious.

Good luck to those who want to preach the Gospel or introduce people to Christ. Despite the difficulty of giving these concepts concrete expression, they are what needs doing to maintain the old narrative. Unfortunately, this isn’t how we think nowadays, and people are moving on to other visions.

Richard (Evanston, IL)

So, in essence, “don’t go changing to try and please me” is the idea or concept. Let us just accept people for who they are and honor their experiences. Who are the “us” that needs to be doing the acceptance? Are there boundaries on what is “acceptable”. Let’s take this further. Why do I need a church? Why do I need to follow Christ? Why do I need to believe? I can vulnerable without Christ and the Church, can’t I? There is no conversion needed to do what the author suggests. This is a call to be “authentic”, yet, authenticity is so subjected. Early Christians were first and foremost focused on Christ and a relationship with Him. Without that relationship to Christ, the Word through Whom we were made, our authenticity is lacking. We are reduced to “Christians” whose experience trumps everything, unless, of course, our experience is deemed inauthentic. Young people want to know God. Wherever I go this is what I hear from young people. God wants us to know Him. We are not simply a cosmic experiment by the Creator with the end result of us being the best we can be. The Episcopal Church has been trying in one shape or another to be authentic and experiential every which way possible for the last 40 plus years. It is not working. It will continue to not work. Teach people to pray. Teach people about the Faith. Teach people to worship. Teach people to believe. Teach people how much God forgives and loves us. Teach people about the Holy Trinity. IF we pass on to others what we have also received lives will change. Christ will show us the path to genuine authenticity, if we come to know Him. If our focus is on our self experiences and our striving to be authentic on our own then there is absolutely no need for Christ and the Church. A good therapist can do the same (and you can sleep in on Sundays). The author’s intentions seem well and good, but words like authentic, vulnerable, humility, inclusivity mean what exactly? I consider myself all of those things. Is there an authority that is in place to judge my degree and/or level of how well I am those things? Those words are not specific or concrete. Young people want to be taught about Christianity. When they find the faith of the Saints once delivered, these young people are changed and long for more. We in TEC don’t give them more. We give them jargon and the process of self gazing. They want to encounter Christ. The true Christ. The risen Christ. But we say you can only find Him in others and the way you treat others. Not so! He exists beyond and free of others, yet, He is closer to us then our next breath. When we know Jesus, He will lead us into all truth. In the meantime, I’m afraid that being “more authentic” as a program of attracting people to TEC will be as successful as 20/20 vision, or the Decade of Evangelism.

Sam Ochstein

This is a very thoughtful piece. I’m not understanding Chaz’s complaint about jargon and vague notions. It seems to me Emily is calling for some pretty specific actions; namely inclusivity, authenticity, humility, and vulnerabily. Of course, how those attitudes and actions are practiced will vary depending on the context and situation. But this is no pie in the sky gobbledegook. This is a prophetic call for the church to be the light and hope of a broken world it was intended to be. At least that’s how I read it.

Chaz Brooks

It’s all very specific until you try to explain what we’re talking about. What on earth does it even mean to be “authentic” or “vulnerable?”

Mark Ash

I for one do not sense either resentment or ridiculous expectations within Emily Rowell Brown’s words. What I do hear is call for more of the risk taking I experienced during my E.F.M. studies. Demonstrating appropriate transparency ,without needing to make the Mass a group show and tell session, does not strike me as difficult to do. Adult Forum time provides another opportunity for parish members to practice the art of being human in each other’s presence. None of this threatens Eucharistic practice or diminishes the beauty of the Book of Common Prayer. I see no better means of, “Worshiping our savior as best we can.”

— Mark Ash (Louisville, KY)

Chaz Brooks

See, you haven’t helped the situation at all. When we try to clarify what the jargon is on about, we only get more jargon. We never really get to making it clear what the problem really is or what should be done about it. Which prompts me to say “Blast it all, we’re just going to get our job done.”

David Cox

The call to change is often found in images more than specifics. Perhaps the specific that the church can rally around in this story is to ask the question, of the next 100 people who may come to “join” the congregation, who will they be and why? The call in this article seems to be asking if there is any place for the messy assembly of the broken, the different, those who are both wrestling with the world and seeking the God who calls and transforms. Perhaps we need to get to the point of hearing the vague and making it become more tangible for us to attempt to understand those who seek and yet find no place where the church is actively attempting to seek out those who seek.

Is it ridiculous to listen? Is it ridiculous to question? Is it ridiculous to engage with another enough to sense the vision of the world they may see EVEN when it is different than ours? I seek the pattern of Compassion, that leads to Community, and creates Commitment which Jesus repeatedly uses with those who interact with him in the gospels. That picture is the one we need to embrace beyond our windows, our marble, and our abodes of the holy.

Chaz Brooks

Yes, it is ridiculous to attempt change when the identified problem seems to be little more than a vague sense of resentment at how the Church is run.

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