WHY I LEFT THE INSTITUTIONAL CHURCH
by Frank Viola
Since the release of Pagan Christianity? (Tyndale, 2008), I’ve been asked numerous times, “What caused you to leave the institutional church?”
When I stepped out of the institutional church back in 1988, I thought I was only one of a handful of people who had taken that particular plunge. Today, one million Christians a year leave it, and the number is increasing.
As Reggie McNeal shockingly said, “A growing number of people are leaving the institutional church for a new reason. They are not leaving the church because they have lost their faith. They are leaving to preserve their faith.”
If I had to nail it down to a list, there were essentially four things that led me out. In this piece, I’ll walk through each of them briefly...
"But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control..."
I'm convinced that certain prayers are quite dangerous:
- Praying for patience might just mean learning to wait for it.
- Praying for humility might entail being humbled.
- Praying for joy can mean having to choose it (when we don't feel it).
- Praying for love means loving the most difficult to love.
The Christian life is not an easy one. It is not a religion of wish-getting. I pray for the fruits of the Spirit in my own life, and am daily-terrified of how hard it is to learn such lessons.
But as cheesy as this is, this is how the world views Christianity's cheap and hackneyed pop-music machine. Think Grits are hard-hitting gangster rap? Zoegirl is a hip diva group? Demon Hunter is serious metal?
I'm sorry, but not only is Christian music rarely culturally relevant, but it's usually downright embarrassing...
Christians need to stop copying pop-culture and start trying to actually create something unique and beautiful. Art, anyone?
"Interesting read. Accidentally stumbled on your blog somehow, and since I've been doing a lot of reading about emergent/emerging/etc. learning a bit more.I would be really interested to hear your thoughts on Scripture-- how literally it should be taken, whether parts of it are only relevant for the culture during which it was written, how it should be applied in a Christian's life, etc..."
Sarah, thanks for the visit. I apologize for the apparent lack of substance in my last few posts. Sometimes I get lazy and avoid thinking deep thoughts. Sometimes it's exhausting to feel feelings and hurt hurts. All of which tend to follow honest reflection.
But good question: "Scripture - what do we do with it?"
I'll confess that three years ago, I enrolled at George Fox Seminary because it was the only seminary in Portland (including Western Seminary and Multnomah Seminary) that did not use the word "inerrant" in its Statement of Faith. "Inspired"? Yes. But not inerrant. And I needed that loophole.
In truth, there aren't a lot of "purist" inerrantists because the position is so extreme. True biblical inerrancy concedes nothing: the Bible is without error or contradiction, including scientific and historical features. So the universe was created in six literal days. Somehow, the two Creation stories don't contradict each other. All of the animals on earth today fit on the ark. God put dinosaur bones in the ground to confuse us. Carbon-dating is an anti-Christian conspiracy. Women shouldn't speak out loud in church. Or be touched on their periods. Tattoos are an abomination. So are fabrics made of multiple materials. Conflicting historical accounts between Israel and Judah are... what? Dual realities? Parallel universes...
I'm sure you know, the list goes on...
But of course, there are more "nuanced, educated and aware" approaches to Scripture - even in very conservative circles. Infallibility or "limited inerrancy" do concede certain points (usually for the sake of convenience).
Me? I'm really not educated enough to have an "official position." All I want is room. I want room to ask questions. Room for a little disbelief. Room to acknowledge that science is not an enemy of faith. I have a hunch that faith entails believing in something that can't be proven. I have no problem with that! But I have a real problem with trying to forcefully conform science (or history) into a religious worldview that makes certain demands of God - of how God functions.
And therein lies my deepest frustration: trying to force GOD into a box. Suggesting that our theological needs or expectations must take precedence over the universe God created and blessed us with. Denying reality for the sake of an overly-controlling dream.
I love Scripture. I hear the gentle, quiet, loving voice of God when I read the beautiful treks through Exodus and Deuteronomy. I fall in love with Jesus all over again, reading Mark and John. I get challenged - and pissed off - every time I read anything Paul wrote. And Revelation's poetry and vision stirs my imagination and hope (far beyond the mess LaHaye and Jenkins made of it).
I believe in the power of the Holy Spirit (yes, emerging Christians are allowed to "talk-spirit"). I believe in God's desire to speak to us through the incredibly vast and beautiful cannon of Holy Scripture we've been blessed with. I love the Bible. But I love the Word of God far more than I love the Bible. And Jesus Christ, crucified and resurrected, is the living Word of God. That is whom I worship.
"Yes, hello 1950 - THERE you are!"
This is (I believe) the same chain that refused to stock Dr. Leonard Sweet's books after Out of the Question: Into the Mystery was released. In that book, Sweet had the audacity to suggest that JESUS is a higher authority for Christians than the Bible. Apparently, heresy hides even in Christ-following.
And women's equality is just another "dangerous idea."
(CNN) -- In the 19 years that Teresa Hairston has published her magazine, GospelToday, she has never faced a major situation with Christian bookstores across the country that carry the publication. She's tackled any number of issues over the years,and has featured a number of celebrities and ministers, ranging from Yolanda Adams to Bishop T.D. Jakes to Kirk Franklin.
But when the Atlanta, Georgia, entrepreneur decided to feature five female pastors on her cover this month, she says, Lifeway Christian Stores treated her like she had converted her Christian publication to something akin to the tastes of porn purveyor Larry Flynt.
Apparently, the owner of Lifeway, the Southern Baptist Convention, wasn't too happy with Hairston telling the story of female pastors, because the women go against their 2000 decree that only men can serve in the role of reverend or pastor.
According to Hairston, the Christian company didn't even give her the courtesy of a heads-up.
"We got an anonymous tip," she told me Tuesday on The Tom Joyner Morning Show, and after checking it out, she discovered that the magazine had been removed from the shelves in all of Lifeway's 100-plus stores nationwide and had been placed behind the counter.
"They have never called me," Hairston said. "Never sent an e-mail. Nothing. I had to go see my distributor to verify what they had done."
The actions of Lifeway didn't stun me. I had seen this movie before.
A few years ago, my wife was a longtime Lifeway teacher. She had taught at the company's teaching centers for years, but then one day, she was notified that she would have to take down her Web site and comply with their rules against female pastors or be dropped as a teacher. Her crime? Calling herself the Rev. Jacquie Hood Martin... read more
(Anne, sorry for printing Palin's name in this post title)
A Call to Arms
How to handle the fury brought on by this election? Register voters, hit the streets, pray. Stop talking about her. Talk about Obama.
By Anne Lamott
I sat outside a 7-Eleven and had a sacramental Dove chocolate bar. Jeez: Here we are again. A man and a woman whose values we loathe and despise -- lying, rageful and incompetent, so dangerous to children and old people, to innocent people in every part of the world -- are being worshiped, exalted by the media, in a position to take a swing at all that is loveliest about this earth and what's left of our precious freedoms.
When I got home from church, I drank a bunch of water to metabolize the Dove bar and called my Jesuit friend, who I know hates these people, too. I asked, "Don't you think God finds these smug egomaniacs morally repellent? Recoils from their smugness as from hot flame?"
And he said, "Absolutely. They are everything He or She hates in a Christian."
I have been in a better mood ever since, and have decided not to even say this woman's name anymore, because she fills me with such existential doubt, such a sense of impending doom and disbelief, that only the Germans could possibly have words for it. Nor am I going to say the word "lipstick" again until after the election, as it would only be used against me. Or "polar bear," because that one image makes me sadder than even horrible old I can stand.
I hate to criticize. And I love to kill wolves as much as the next person does. But this woman takes such pride in her ignorance, doesn't have a doubt in the world about her messianic calling, that it makes anyone of decency feel nauseated -- spiritually, emotionally and physically ill. I say that with love. As we say in Texas. (Also, we say, "Bless her little heart.") We felt this grief and nausea during the run-up to the war in Iraq. We felt it after the 2004 election. And now we feel it again.
But since there are still six weeks until the election, and since the stakes are as high as the sky, which should definitely not be forced to endure four more years of the same, we have got to get a grip. There are millions of people to register to vote, millions of dollars to be raised. We really cannot go around feeling flat and defeated, with the need to metabolize the rotten meat that this one particular candidate and the media have forced upon us.
One of the tiny metabolic suggestions I have to offer -- if, like me, you choose not to have her name on your lips, like an oozy cold sore (I say that with love) -- is to check out a Web site called the Sarah Palin Baby Name Generator. There you can find out what she and her husband would have named you if you had been their baby. My name, Anne, for instance, would be Krinkle Bearcat. John, her running mate, would be named Stick Freedom. George would be Crunk Petrol. And so on.
First of all, go find out what your own name would be. Then for one day refuse to use the name of these people who are so damaging to earth and to our very souls -- so, "I don't have to understand anything, it's all fuzzy math. Trust me. I'm the decider." From now on, when working for Obama, talk about Obama, talk about his policies, the issues, the economy, the war in Iraq, poverty, the last eight years, Joe Biden. You don't have to mention Crunk Petrol, or his sidekick, Shaver Razorback.
And you sure as hell don't have to mention Claw Washout -- she is absolutely, hands-down the most ludicrous person ever to be nominated. She's a "South Park" character. There was a mix-up. Mistakes were made.
Everything you need to know about how to bear up during these two months is already inside you. Go within: Work on your own emotional acre. Stand still, and hurt, and feel crazy. Then drink a lot of water, pray, meditate, rest. Rest is a spiritual act. Now, I am a reformed Christian, so it is permissible for me to secretly believe that God hates this woman, too. I heard God slam down a couple of shooters while she was talking the other night.
Figure out one thing you can do every single day to be a part of the solution, concentrating on swing states. Money, walking precincts, registering voters, whatever. This is the only way miracles ever happen -- left foot, right foot, left foot, breathe. Right foot, left foot, right foot, breathe. The great novelist E.L. Doctorow once said that writing a novel is like driving at night with the headlights on: You can only see a little ways in front of you, but you can make the whole journey this way. It is the truest of all things; the only way to write a book, raise a child, save the world.
As my anonymous pal Krinkle Bearcat once wrote: Laughter is carbonated holiness. It is chemo. So do whatever it takes to keep your sense of humor. Rent Christopher Guest movies, read books by Roz Chast and Maira Kalman. Picture Stick Freedom in his Batman underpants, having one of his episodes of rage alone in one of his seven bedrooms. Or having one of his bathroomy little conversations with Froth Moonshine. (Bless their hearts.) Try to remember that even Karl Rove has accused him of being a lying suck.
Reread everything Molly Ivins and Jim Hightower ever wrote. Write down that great line of Molly's, that "freedom fighters don't always win, but they're always right." Tape it next to your phone.
Call the loneliest person you know. Go flirt with the oldest person at the bookstore.
Fill up a box with really cool clothes that you haven't worn in a year, and take it to a thrift shop. Take gray water outside and water whatever is growing on your deck. This is not a bad metaphor to live by. I think it is why we are here. Drink more fluids. And take very gentle care of yourself and the people you most love: We need you now more than ever.
A classmate mentioned "The Jesus Seminar" as an unfortunate end to the slippery-slope of certain dangerous questions (no matter that the 'Seminar' is wholly modern in its reason and process). Near the end of class, I thought I had a good idea but I was tired (nearing 10pm) and my brain began to mush...
We were talking about the role, validity, truth and reliability of Scripture. I said something like, "it's hard to feel impacted or energized through Scripture when you've grown up with it as a norm - as background noise. I feel numb to Scripture..." I couldn't remember where I was going with it so I reiterated: "We feel numb..."
I didn't finish that thought. And it's not necessarily profound. But I think it's important to recognize that the Body of Christ has many hands, many feet, and many (many!) mouths. Without being overly-descriptive, the Body of Christ has other parts, organs and appendages. All serve a function. Maybe those some call "enemies of the faith" (with knees jerking) are actually serving a vital (if unpopular) function. Maybe we need a liver to expel bile. Maybe we need pores that sweat to cool us down.
What part are you? I've been called a couple of parts - deservingly.
What part is your neighbor? What part are the "heretics" in Church X down the street?
That's right. A little "Lady Elaine Fairchild" up in your business! I had nightmares about Mr. Rogers' friends...
As "grown ups," do we lose perspective about what's appealing to children? As Christians, do we lose perspective about what's relevant or beautiful to the world? Hmmm... maybe that was a lame tie-in...
Good segue or not, the Church loses perspective pretty quickly when it comes to objectively evaluating its "missional" efforts. Sometimes, we're downright creepy!
A flock of geese lived together in a barnyard with high walls around it. Because the corn was good and the barnyard was secure, these geese would never take a risk. One day a philosopher goose came among them. He was a very good philosopher and every week they listened quietly and attentively to his learned discourses.
'My fellow travellers on the way of life,' he would say, 'can you seriously imagine that this barnyard, with great high walls around it, is all there is to existence?
'I tell you, there is another and a greater world outside, a world of which we are only dimly aware. Our forefathers knew of this outside world. For did they not stretch their wings and fly across the trackless wastes of desert and ocean, of green valley and wooded hill? But alas, here we remain in this barnyard, our wings folded and tucked into our sides, as we are content to puddle in the mud, never lifting our eyes to the heavens which should be our home.
The geese thought this was very fine lecturing. 'How poetic,' they thought. 'How profoundly existential. What a flawless summary of the mystery of existence.'
Often the philosopher goose spoke of the advantages of flight, calling on the geese to be what they were. After all, they had wings, he pointed out. What were wings for, but to fly with? Often he reflected on the beauty and the wonder of life outside the barnyard, and the freedom of the skies.
And every week the geese were uplifted, inspired, moved by the philosopher's message. They hung on his every word. They devoted hours, weeks, months to a thoroughgoing analysis and critical evaluation of his doctrines. They produced learned treatises on the ethical and spiritual implications of flight. All this they did. But one thing they never did. They did not fly! For the corn was good, and the barnyard was secure!
Are you afraid to fly? Are you like me, and talk more about flying, and think more about it, than actually doing it?
I confess, I spend more time talking about God than to God. I listen to more lectures on God than to God himself.
Oh, that I weren't so comfortable! Oh, that this fence was just a little lower...
A young man and his father are in a terrible accident.
Two ambulances arrive on the scene, each taking one of them - father and son.I had no idea what the answer was. When I told it to my feminist-wife, she was clueless too - and pissed when I told her.
Each ambulance goes to a different hospital.
When the son arrives at one of the hospitals, he is taken into the emergency room.
The doctor enters the emergency room where the boy is, and says, "I'm sorry - I can't operate on this patient... he's my son."
The riddle is: how is this possible?
Answer: the doctor is the boy's mother.
How deeply are gender roles burned into your psyche? Why does it not even occur to most of us that "the doctor" might be a woman?
What other roles do you struggle picturing women in? Lawyer? CEO? Soldier? Commanding Officer?
What about pastor?
I Googled "Gospel" last night for a homework project. I found some fascinating things among the top "gospel" search hits that really give us a deep and thoughtful glimpse into the comlex meaning of the gospel...
- The Ewoks Gospel - It's pretty high on the list! I guess because even silly Star Wars animals need a gospel, and keep watching, because Billy Dee Williams is along for the ride...
- Here's a Bloody Comic Book "Gospel"...
(because we'd like kids to be attracted to the love of Christ, but we'll settle for buying their fascination with cheap comic-book violence)
- This white guy is all about the Gospel...
- And finally, this lifelike Elvis figurine with realistic "action pelvis" encapsulates all of the multifaceted complexity of the Gospel...
Wild. Scientists have developed a 17 mile-long tunnel that essentially smashes atoms in attempts to recreate post-Big Bang conditions to better understand how matter varies in density. If I understand it correctly, in lay terms (which I probably don't). "By creating hundreds of thousands of head-on collisions each second, physicists hope to understand the fiery conditions of the universe a trillionth of a second after the big bang." (National Geographic)
This invention may also help us to understand the enigmatic "Dark Matter" that fills so much of our universe.
And holy Star Trek! The "Hadron Collider" actually may produce temporary, microscopic Black Holes because of how tightly matter will be packed inside the collider. Some scientists have worried that such black holes could actually swallow up bits of our universe. So far, though, we're still here...
I think about the purpose of theology, and the nature of (T)ruth and wonder, as frail, fragile beings: "how much is expected of us?"
Likely, the answer is different for each person. What does God expect of me, my beliefs and my praxis? - Me, an educated [well, semi-educated], white, upper-middle-class kid who has been blessed with very little personal trial, hardship or sorrow (apart from the standard, easily-medicated suburbanite-depression)...
Does God expect more or less from a refugee in Darfur? Does God expect a "Lost Boy" to waste his time with such theological posturing - or does God merely whisper love and hope into that young man's life, by every means available, and reward any goodness or compassion that might flower amidst the horror and wreckage of war?
I've been fascinated by singer/songwriter Tori Amos for years - by the darkness underlying so much of her music. The daughter of a conservative minister, a rape victim, and the survivor of a fundamentalist environment that demeaned women as second-class citizens, Amos rejected Evangelical faith (surprise!). In her book Piece By Piece Amos describes a Gnostic faith that later would emerge for her. In it, she found greater room for beauty, mystery, mysticism and femininity in the Divine. She found a concept of God that did not represent that abuse, misogyny and violence of her past.
Maybe the Gnostic Gospels are nothing but heresy. Maybe there are inklings of truth (as there are, everywhere). But I have a hard time condemning someone's "bad theology" once I've heard their story... Our story is the lens through which we see and understand everything else. How can we not be impacted by the cracked and dirty glass held in front of our eyes?
Does God expect us to see clearly?
Does God magically reveal True ("correct") theology?
Or does God recognize the texture of the glass through which we see, and make allowance (grace) for our blurred vision?
In grade school, I prayed to Aslan because he was easier to conjure in my mind.
It is MUCH easier to believe that Jesus is the messiah here in America in 2008 AD than it was to in Judea in 28AD. It is much easier to believe in a figure from the past than the man standing in front of you, especially when others are making the same claims as him. I do believe that Jesus was the Messiah... but why? I could spout off the historical evidence, the traditions of the Church, liturgy, etc. I could reference the scriptures of the Old Testament. I could regurgitate lectures from my professors. When it comes down to it, I cannot absolutely tell anyone why I believe in Christ, I just do. Perhaps it is experiential, but I VERY rarely feel goosebumps; that is, the supernatural does not overtake my emotions that often. Like I said I just do, it is just a deep subconscious feeling. I guess it's faith. If you were in the temple that day, would you have believed? Why do you believe today? Why don't you believe today?
Insightful, Nate. This is something I've thought about a lot. In a well-established religious culture (USAmerica) it's easy to take for granted Christianity's validity. Even if one doesn't believe, certainly the viability of faith in Christ has been proven over the last 2,000 years. Unlike the Republican VP candidate, Jesus has been thoroughly vetted.
Would I have believed, back then? Against the prevailing religious beliefs of the day? As a heretic among my family and community? With no academic or religious scholarship to guide me? No prevailing exegesis to rely on?
If I heard about Jesus second-hand, I don't know. But if I saw the man... I've gotta believe I would have believed.
Thanks for the thoughtful post, Nate.
And he's probably right. And I probably agree with him.
But hasn't "community" been a little overkilled since sometime in the late '90s? I mean, aren't we all a little "communitied-out!?"
I hear the word community so overused in Christian circles that I'm almost as tired of it as I am of "relationship." Remember relationship? As in: "Christianity isn't a religion, it's a relationship!" Yeah, that's played out too. I'm so sick of "relationship" that I think Christianity needs to go back to being a religion for a little while!
We overuse specific ideas about Christianity that may be relevant but are not foundational. They lead us to imbalanced and overstated positions that are transitory and maybe a bit kitschy. The biggest danger is that what truth was in that position (be it the value of community, relationship, being "born again"... listening to Christian radio, etc...) becomes meaningless as we numb ourselves through habitual overuse.
Many of the great monks, mystics, scholars and philosophers throughout the history of our faith were downright hermits - antisocialites. I don't think Martin Luther was "in community" while translating his first Latin Scripture to German (someone correct me here if I'm wrong) and I know Kierkegaard was a sad, creepy loner. So I believe that genuine Christian faith can emerge in isolation. I wouldn't preach, teach or encourage that sort of Christian living (it doesn't "catch on" well, care for widows or feed orphans...) but it's still valid...
I mean, what in the world is more boring than a Hindu who isn't interested in Brahman? Or a Muslim who sees little reason to split hairs over prophets and messiahs? Or a Buddhist who finds Nirvana optional? Or a Christian who says Jesus is just one name among many?
I hate intolerance. But I think in our attempts at being tolerant, we wrongly intuit the need to cool down our own faith. We moderate ourselves. We become offensively inoffensive. How positively boring! Why would any authentic person of faith appreciate someone else's spiritual compromise? I don't want to make friends with a Taoist who thinks his chosen path is no more or less than equal to my pursuit of Jesus Christ. I want to find a Taoist who is so captivated by "The Way" that his life is an undeniable icon of his path.
I want my life to be a sign of the thing I've given myself wholely to. Interesting interfaith dialogue demands nothing less. Authenticity demands nothing less of us. The Holy Spirit demands nothing less of me.
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