Sunday, July 1, 2007

Church as a safe place

I’m half-way through “Emergent Manifesto” and hope to comment more thoroughly, and thoughtfully, after I’ve finished and processed it all. But one common theme that occurs in several of the essays is the need for church to be a safe place where people can “come clean” with their doubts, their questions, their dreams for Christianity and their struggles and still be accepted. One chapter by an addiction counselor says he finds that prisoners and AA meeting attendees tend to be best at these kind of raw, honest and often very fruitful exchanges, and suggests that in most churches people speak very cautiously – if at all – about the serious challenges posed by actively living out one’s faith for fear of being marginalized or outright rejected.

I have found this to be true in my own experience in Catholic, Presbyterian and now Methodist churches. Outside of the formal worship service (which is itself highly formalized and scripted), serious, vivid talk of God is rare in church. I don’t know if, because this is Iowa, modesty is at play, or whether church-goers tend to be shy or embarrassed about trying to discuss the ineffable. But as this book suggests, I’ve yet to really feel either safe or encouraged to go deep, and I've found that truly disappointing.

I think the real challenge facing traditional churches isn’t that they ask too much of their members, but that they ask – and expect – so very little.


nancy said...

I agree that churches need to become safe places. One of the barriers I feel is the fundamentalist mindset of Christians who feel this need to give the answer or correct the wrong doctrine. I think we have little conversation about God because in our modernist view, we need only learn the systematic theology which reduces the mystery of God, the power of forgiveness, etc. into neatly wrapped packets of information that we are to swallow whole and use as our dominant mental schema.

I crave the honest conversation as well. What happens when we let loose a bit of the "answers" and allow room for questions and dialog? I think it is a threatening place for many of us/Christians. When our belief system is dependent upon certainty and doubt is viewed as a tool of the devil to lead us astray, then our response is going to be a fearful, territorial, defense of what is "right".

So, Stephen, that is what I've experienced as a barrier to the authentic, deep, and honest exploration of faith. Our meeting last month was that safe place - and it was refreshing. Hopefully we'll have more of those conversations as we go...


Lon said...

Stephen, thanks for the good insights. I've just made my way through a couple of the chapters and I am liking what I read.

I was at a Catholic Mass a few weeks ago on the feast day of Corpus Chirsti (the body of Christ). Most of my experiences of the Catholic church have been refreshing. I really go for the ritual and mystery, but this day I was in for a surprise. The priest preached for 45 minutes on the rules of the Catholic church and wielding guilt masterfully, he exhorted us all to not take the eucharist without first being Catholic. He went on with proof after systemic proof of his position. It was enough to drive a good Nazarene to drink. Any restraint I had out of respect for my "weaker" sisters and brothers, as Paul would say, went out the window and I was determined to belly up to the table with everyone else.

There must be something in that story for us, but I will follow Ludwig Wittgenstein's advice and never do for the reader what they can do for themselves. Looking forward to meeting you in person, Stephen.

Affably, (I heard that used in one of those period movies when letter writing was not yet a lost art)


Stephen said...

Thanks to both of you for the comments and further insights. Lon, I was particularly interested to hear about your experience at Mass. I had a remarkably similar experience recently. I grew up in a pretty traditional Catholic family, Italian (on my father's side) and German (on my mother's side), and was accepted to Catholic seminary and intended to study for the priesthood before life (and love) intervened. Even with Vatican II, the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) been always been pretty conservative environment. But I have to admit, since I began attending Protestant churches almost exclusively some 15 years ago, I’ve been shocked by the RCC’s radical right turn and the trench warfare mentality that has set in as the hierarchy desperately holds on to the past.

I was in Milwaukee, attending Mass with my mother and my daughter (who has always attended Protestant church and, unlike me, never had her First Communion), and the priest spent the entire time talking about the same points you heard – basically the need to be a Baptized Catholic in good standing to receive the Eucharist. Although, technically, I was perhaps “authorized” to receive communion, I was appalled at how exclusionary the priest’s language was and deeply troubled by how much an outsider my daughter (had she been more theologically aware) could have been made to feel. This was so at odds with the prologue to communion given at the Methodist Church we currently attend where the minister openly invite's guests to partake, regardless whether they’re church members or Methodists. In spite of the priest’s comments, or perhaps in defiance of them, I took my daughter up with me to receive communion and have to admit I felt a certain (perhaps petty) triumph at having subverted the system. I think my mother may have been a bit troubled by my action, but she never said a word.