Ministers are the last people you think might consider leaving church, but I’m one of them.
I’m not a purist. I was christened Church of England, became a Christian in a Plymouth Brethren “Gospel Hall,” went to Catholic school, was baptized at a Church of Christ and attended an Evangelical Free seminary. During this forty-one year journey I have swayed to and fro in my loyalties. To say that I no longer have a strong allegiance or legacy in one tradition is an understatement.
Over the last ten years I have seen more and more of my friends walking away from the church, including some good pastors and ministers. And in nearly every case, they have walked away for good reasons. They have grown tired of the judgmentalism and legalism in their church and found church to be a waste of time, filled with people who don’t really care about the poor or love their neighbor. Others are just tired, exhausted from trying to maintain the spiritual checklist they’ve been handed. They leave for good reason. Many who stay do so only for the friendships and relationships.
Ministers are the last people you think might consider leaving church, but I’m one of them. I have multiple college degrees in the fields of religion and religious education, including a Ph.D., pastored three churches over the last seventeen years and have taught religion at three universities. And I have seriously considered walking away, and I’m not alone. Some well-known ministers and leaders have walked away from traditional churches in recent years, all in my age group; Rob Bell – 43; Francis Chan – 46; Don Miller – 42, not to mention hundreds of other 40 something and under ministers and leaders. Others have left the church entirely.
And here’s why: cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is “the excessive mental stress and discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, and/or values at the same time. This stress and discomfort may also arise within an individual who holds a belief and performs a contradictory action or reaction.”
Many Christian’s beliefs and views are changing and evolving at such a rapid pace that they’re outpacing the churches in which they find themselves, creating extreme and uncomfortable cognitive dissonance. This can be an impossible state for a person to remain in long-term. It can work short-term, but when weeks turn into years, something finally has to give. It’s usually the church that they leave, because they can’t reconcile the differences between the organization and themselves.
I understand this. I get frustrated with traditional Christianity too. I hate having to fight against the stereotypes of Christians which don’t fit me. I’m tired of explaining to people that I’m not an anti-gay pastor, anti-evolution pastor or anti-poor. I also know Christianity isn’t growing in America and churches are really just moving sheep between pens through trendy church growth models. I know what I think the church should be doing, but isn’t. And as my faith continues to evolve I feel more and more hypocritical staying in a faith that doesn’t look like mine. I think about how much easier it would be if I found a model that looked exactly like the church I imagine or simply stayed at home.
I also know that my arrogance can get wrapped up in my thinking. I tend to think that my way is best and I can always find people who will agree with me. I want to wrestle with our differences, and not walk away from them. So for me, the cognitive dissonance continues.
The founders of Christianity knew something about dissonance. Their lives were filled with dichotomies and apparent contradictions. They strove to live faithfully but batted up against traditions and practices that didn’t square with their view of truth. For them, frustrations, and dissonance were par for the course. The churches they served were imperfect and in some cases, downright dangerous. But they didn’t bail. They didn’t walk away from churches or go solo. I’d like to suggest that there may be some fundamental reasons why:
1. Faith Is Best Practiced in Community
Basic faith consists of forgiveness and restoration of broken relationships, both spiritual and human. Active participation in the life of a church in which one experiences dissonance is the best way to give and receive forgiveness while witnessing ways to mend damaged relationships. No other community has this singleness of purpose.
2. Diversity Is Necessary for Growth
While it’s tempting to want to only associate with like-minded people, it’s the worst environment for growth. Growth never happens in churches of sameness and stagnation. Rather, growth occurs when ideas and values are challenged and honed and people are forced to test their beliefs.
3. The Whole Is Greater than the Sums of the Parts
Collectively, the church can do greater things for the world pooling resources and cooperating together than individuals can do alone. While it might be tempting to avoid church or leave church, your service and faith will be much stronger with a church than it can ever be alone.
There are legitimate reasons for people to leave a church. Some, including the men I mentioned, feel called by God to new models and works; others away from unhealthy churches. For most of us, our decisions to never attend church or to leave a church may deal more with the dissonance we experience with church than faith itself.
So, wherever we find ourselves, let’s resist the temptation to avoid the church community or bail. You never know, you may be the one person someone in the church needs in order to have a fresh look their faith, and to embrace their own cognitive dissonance.
And if the central thrust of faith is to “love God” and “love my neighbor,” then the church becomes the best picture of how this happens, especially when I embrace my neighbors in church with whom I disagree, learning and living the message of Jesus together. I’m not going to leave the church, but I will keep walking the road of good questions and conversation, because I want to see the church to grow together through the dissonance we experience.
Photo: Flickr/Slideshow Bruce