Old news: church has a bad rap in the western world. According to Gallup, Americans now have more confidence in the military than we do in the peace-making, justice-seeking, Sabbath-keeping community of Jesus followers. We might expect this of a country who in the last three years saw an estimated 7.5 million people join the ranks of the religiously unaffiliated. What gets me these days, though, is how our declining faith in “the body of Christ” is often propagated by the very people who belong to it.
Earlier this month, I was a part of the most creative and spirited gathering of Christian women leaders I’ve ever experienced. We met outside of Portland at a property that was best described as “a Magical Kingdom for adults.” Amidst banquet tables and art installations and glasses of wine, we reflected on the leadership story we’ve lived and the one we’re living into. It was disheartening how many tales included times the church had made these women feel small. There were fewer stories of how the church helped them get grown. Maybe I wasn’t really listening. Or maybe these are the stories we’re not really telling.
Why do we do this? Why do we often complain and criticize and commiserate over instances of bad church more than we praise and profess and pass along examples of the good? Why do we use the term “recovering evangelicals” like the Gospel is a disease to ward off and without any hope of health? Why when I tweet out “What’s happening in your church that would compel people to stay?” does the question compel no one?
The answer is largely psychological. In her book Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces That Keep Us Apart, professor Christena Cleveland points out how we boost our sense of self-worth by disassociating with those we perceive to be “losers.” Social identity theorist C.R. Snyder calls this “cutting off reflected failure.” If the church is failing, at least according to public opinion polls, we use tales of its woe to assure people we aren’t failures, too, at least not unsuspecting ones. To be a fool in America is the worst kind of sin.
Oh, I’m part of the problem, too, you know. When I first began dating Rush, I complained about him all the time to friends, so much so that when he was on the precipice of proposing, one counseled me to break up with him. I was less worried about my tenuous reputation than the tenuous sense of self I was building around being unloved. Would I lose my edge if I found love? Will I lose my edge if I love church? There was a certain self-righteousness in not belonging, as if I wasn’t like all the rest, as if I couldn’t be wooed.
Many of us stand outside religious institutions more comfortably now than we do at the center. Doubt is more popular than belief these days. In the last few years, I’ve come across a handful of books exploring the freedom it has brought to writers’ acceptance of self and expression of God. I’ve often wondered if it’s a symptom of growing up Catholic that I didn’t doubt God for the church’s mistakes; there were too many to ignore—from the Crusades to birth control bans, the Spanish Inquisition to the pedophile cover-ups, the French Revolution to the crackdowns on American nuns. Surely these are reasons enough for anyone to find the church an inhospitable place, toxic to real human flourishing.
Still, we find ways, weed-like, to grow out of its cracked foundation.
That’s why I’m excited to launch the #OneGoodChurch series starting on this blog in April. You’ll get to read posts by contributors from the anthology, Talking Taboo: American Christian Women Get Frank About Faith, answering the question, “What’s one good thing you learned in church?” I know a lot of us grew up in churches that were indeed toxic places – and some grew up with no church at all. I also know there are good things we learn by gathering together, things like enough-ness and forgiveness, thinks like agency and interdependency.
To be clear, the Bible privileges stories of pain over any other, people feeling it and people causing it. “Pain,” theologian Walter Brueggemann says is, “the primary language of human possibility.” To tell stories of hope and perseverance and possibility in the church is not to diminish the pain it has caused but to point to pain’s logical end in the body of Christ. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus reminds us that the community gathered under God is like a “a city on a hill that can’t be hid” (Matt. 5:14). We are meant to illuminate the dark, not add to it.
Will you keep the light on for me?