Dysfunctional faith

My reflex response to a social media post ;-(

Today I responded reflexively and harshly to a post by one of my FaceBook friends. I have sent an apology and asked to delete my response (and may in fact do that myself anyway). I know they’d simply reposted this as a nicety from within a Christian world(view) to suddenly experience me barreling in like a bull on a china shop (Adam Savage’s experiment aside). Yet it is something I want to explore a bit further as this kind of post is symptomatic of the paradigm I’m critiquing and urging others to reflect on.

Many Christians are raised to believe in a God they don’t experience where the evidence for God, to themselves and others, becomes their belief in God despite all evidence and simple logic to the contrary. And this is considered faith!? And though this God proves both silent and absent it is further believed that such behavior, such a proving of faith, such a ridiculous and dysfunctional hide and seek, is faith? Here it is often quoted that “faith is the evidence of the unseen” as though an address in a book may be quoted with enough authority to override Jesus’ clear example of what a relationship with God looks like.

Let’s consider a rebuttal and I’m going to stoop low with recourse to the same textual legalism:

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This year I skipped the conference …

In 2017 I returned to making the problem of God my professional focus and therewith transitioned from a ten-year break doing whatever my hands found to do. Before that break my primary work was with people on the same trajectory, albeit with different faith commitments, wrestling with the problem of God. Some were people starving for an authentic relationship with God within the church on their way out. They were tired and frustrated and many were abused and exploited by the church. And they would experience God draw near in Person and find some refuge in other churches and home groups. But I mostly spent my time with those who had long deconverted from Christianity and were now wrestling with what to do and make of their belief that “God is not” now that they had experienced God. And by “experienced God” I mean they had experienced God draw near in Person to speak directly and immediately to them and even bring healing to some.

I thoroughly enjoyed all sessions including courses, seminars, cuppas and gatherings with people. But part of the process was transitioning people over from the work I was doing to the regularity of church attendance. Both kinds of people, those finding God as Christians and those finding God as the long deconverted, experienced a strong discrepancy between wanting to further develop a relationship with God and the expectations and demands of the church that people not only do church but make church synonymous with worshipping and hearing from God. They were in church to pursue a relationship with God and rejected for being questioning and self-educating and for actually expecting to be meeting with God in and through church. But they were disappointed. It took from six months to a year for people to come back to me and not that “church is not about God”. And not only were they right but I agreed with them. Their tragedy was devastating for me. I’d see people literally transformed and renewed by experiencing God leaving as emaciated and frustrated as they were before that. But few supporting were willing to explore this and everyone beloved the answer was to plant yet another church.

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Our faith a rich heritage of Church Leavers

There is much concern among ministry professionals that people are leaving the Church and, if the stats are to be trusted, fewer than ever later return to the Church. For those who link the Ekklesia to the Church the membership and attendance of churches is linked. Here a link is maintained between ones relationship to God and the Church. And where there is a break between ones relationship with the Church there is an assumed break in ones relationship to God. This same logic carries over to dissatisfaction, frustration, hurt, disappointment, boredom, considerations of irrelevance, etc. If you feel any of those about the Church then you must be feeling those about God. And the remedy as provided by the Church is find another church for it is only in the receipt of the Word of God as Message and Eucharist in and through the Church that you are considered to be meeting with and receiving God.

There is, however, a rich heritage of church leavers going back to the Desert Fathers (and Mothers) back in the 3rd Century who withdrew from society and church to draw near to God. Over the centuries it is clear that church leavers have contributed enormously to others through seeking and finding God. And many, whether consider St Patrick (4th or 5th Century; think Celtic spirituality and its impact) or St Ignatius (1491-1556; think Contemplative Spirituality and its impact), went about searching for God as the very One who set them on their journey to begin with. Their spirituality is linked to that of the Desert Fathers (and Mothers). For them the relational presence of God was the key and their society and the Church both in desperate need of reform. Later individuals such as John Wesley (1703-1791) and Charles G. Finney (1792-1875) may not have left the Church and the link between the Church and society enabled them to make the Church their primary mission field but neither Methodism nor Presbyterianism are known for what they are known for. These later individuals also sought God as one who had already found them and set them upon their journey. What we must take from them is that, having first been found by God and later having found God, they looked to see others come to know God. Where did they find people most in need of God? Well within their churches. Continue reading “Our faith a rich heritage of Church Leavers”

E ≠ C & C ⊬ E

In the past year I’ve mindfully responded to Christian leaders who argue for church as synonymous with knowing and relating to God and for church leavers as somehow needing to make their way back to the church in order to make their way back to God. I’ve questioned their assumptions regarding church leavers and opposed them making the formal and institutional expression labeled church as synonymous with the church itself and with knowing God. Yet while Christian leaders do note that their life’s work amounts to temporary refuges amidst the broader formal church they are either unable or unwilling to accept that such exceptions simply aren’t enough to redeem the broader church or the paradigm behind it. Clearly the “doing church paradigm” is so strong that it defines the faith for them and in turn they define the faith of others in relation to it. And though they can recognize the difference between good or healthy and bad or unhealthy churches that they can’t recognize such churches as expressions of a highly problematic paradigm they have bought into and continue not only being guided by but also which they bolster, reinforce and promote. They are then complicit in perpetuating an extremely concerning “doing church paradigm”.

The power of paradigms is that you don’t see them while seeing everything through them. They are invisible yet guide our thinking and behaving. And because they’re invisible we don’t work with our paradigms while all your work is guided by them. Paradigms are unconscious and deeply rooted within us. And Church leaders are locked into a “doing church paradigm” and, in turn, lock others into this paradigm by doing church and making it central in every way. Continue reading “E ≠ C & C ⊬ E”

Church EULAs are non-binding

This is an important conversation for church leavers. It is important that we consider whether the Bible supports an independent journey with God centered in our relationships or whether people are contracted into service to the Church. Can the Bible be used as some form of End User License Agreement (EULA) by the Church to contract Christians, new and old, into weekly attendance, tithes, and volunteer services? Or does it encourage an independent relational journey with God throughout one’s life centered in their relationships?

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Moving beyond Church as the practice of the faith

I’ve been writing about the institutional model of church and understand both Catholicism and Protestantism to hold to this model, gathering people to worship and then respectively the Eucharist and Message. Yet the church is not an institution but rather an organism consisting of the people who are the Ekklesia. Nevertheless, despite the reality of the Ekklesia as the people the practice of the Christian faith as Catholics and Protestants has long centered what it means to be a practicing Christian on attending a meeting held in a building, by ordained staff or clergy with approved volunteers, and makes attendance and membership synonymous with a saving faith.

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We’re better together

Human beings live, work, and socialize with each other. We are inherently social individuals who may have our own private inner lives but who also need the company of and interaction with others. And when doing things together, and for the reciprocal benefit of ourselves and others, we prove to be mutually enriching, enabling, and contributive. It should not be surprising then that exercising and practicing spirituality is both a social and a relational endeavor rather than individualistic or self-centered.

Christians often contrast spirituality as self-centered and faith as Christ-centered, with the institutional expressions of Church demanding the sacrificial activity of going to a church, becoming an official member, and then volunteering and giving financially toward the work of the Church in service to God.

The problem I have with this contrast between spirituality and faith is that it’s a false dichotomy that isn’t being sufficiently critiqued. It also makes any questioning and critiquing of the institutional church synonymous with an offense against God. The truth is that we are not simply better together but instead only when mutually enriching each other through contributive participation. We need to question what the practice of our faith is, and the degree to which our religious institutions are enabling that practice or crippling it. And when seeking alternative gatherings, question whether we are simply changing the manner in which we organize our gathering or properly transitioning from gathering to meet about God to meeting with God.

Church, practiced as meeting only about God, may be likened to gathering for a meal where the guest of honor never pitches and where you may only ever or and eat a starter. On the menu may be a whole host of potential meals, but you don’t have access to them. Over time, a deep hunger grows within you and is coupled with a deeper frustration that something is amiss and disappointment that though you’re eating you are never truly able to get either full or nourished. But you are told to buy into the support the institution because it is the Church. You believe you are doing the right thing by doing so, perhaps even believing that you need to go to a Church in order to relate to God. But when do you meet with God? How do you meet with God during Church? How does Church enable and nurture a relational spirituality rooted in the immediate presence, voice and activity of God? Many attend and serve in Church for years and are quick to ask how we know we are hearing the voice of God or discerning God’s presence and activity. This is foundational stuff and evidence of the degree to which the Church may replace a relationship with God.

By doing church, many are doing the wrong thing for the right reasons. Let’s meet differently for the purpose of meeting with God.

In the next post we’ll look at meeting with each other and the following post meeting with God.