This week I’d like to direct your attention to a recent blog post by Dr. Chanequa Walker-Barnes. I read this a few days ago, and it has stuck with me.
Dr. Chanequa compares the logic of those who try to tell people they should keep going to church with the logic of those who tell people they should stay in an abusive marriage.
(Of course, not all churches are abusive, just as not all marriages are abusive. But this is for the cases where church, like many marriages, just isn’t working. A person is not being treated well. And that person wants to leave but isn’t sure how, or if it’s okay.)
I think about this, and I think about a book I read recently-ish by a prominent (white dude) progressive Christian writer. There was a lot of good in this book. But there were also a lot of things that rubbed me the wrong way.
At one point, this writer was offering reasons why some moderate/progressive Christians may want to keep going to church—even if their more conservative counterparts don’t exactly want them there or treat them very well. He posed this question: If all the more liberal-minded folks left, where would that leave the church as a whole? The church’s worst elements, he suggested, would prevail. There would be no one left to challenge them or offer a different point of view.
I read that and thought, oof. That doesn’t quite feel right to me. Am I supposed to be the church’s (great white) savior? Maybe this author sees himself that way. But me? I think I’m good.
I don’t really think it’s my responsibility to stay in an institution that doesn’t want or value me. Or, more precisely, one that doesn’t want or value the real me (but would gladly welcome a toned-down, suppressed, highly edited version).
I think it’s my responsibility to be authentically myself. As Brené Brown suggests in Atlas of the Heart (check out the super chill book review here if you like), I want to “be [my]self and respect others for being authentic.” If a church works against those goals, I want no part of it.
To borrow Rev. Dr. Jacqie Lewis’ framework from her lovely book Fierce Love, I want to love myself, my community, and my world as well as I can. That is, fiercely. And so, I want to connect myself to communities that help me live out these things—and, when necessary, divest from spaces that work against them.
To be fair, I’m not sure if the prominent progressive Christian writer I paraphrased above was saying that the issue of Where would that leave the church? is a great reason to stay. But I also don’t recall him saying it’s a terrible reason. And I think this needs to be said.
Part of what’s at play here is that church is a voluntary organization. People choose in and out. And the assumption most of us work from is that we choose in and out based on whether or not we want to be involved. That is, whether or not we think what’s happening there is good and we want to contribute to it.
Choosing to remain affiliated with a voluntary institution, then, implies that you think things are generally going well in that institution. That you align with its values. Sure, there are always things that could be better. But in general you’re on board with what they’re about and where they’re trying to go.
If these things are not true, it doesn’t make sense to stay. Your butt in the pew—or the numbers you increase on a survey—only benefits the institution by making it seem like more people are staying (and so maybe things aren’t as dire as they are). It doesn’t benefit you. And you do not owe it to them.
It also feels worth saying that the question of Where would that leave the church? assumes a very narrow definition of church. It equates church with evangelicalism, basically.
There are so many different denominations with different beliefs and values. There are so many different ways of being Christian. If we feel the need to “save” the evangelical stream by sticking with it, we’re closing ourselves off to other possibilities. And, ironically, we’re adding credence to the lie that the evangelical stream of Christianity is the only legitimate one.
If we leave evangelicalism, where would that leave it? Probably about right where it would be anyway; after all, it certainly isn’t listening to us. We don’t need to save it. We can walk away and go find faith practices and communities that work for us—ones that heal us, affirm us, challenge us, and transform us in the ways we want to be healed, affirmed, challenged, transformed.
That’s what I’ve got for today. If you have an experience of leaving a church community, or disidentifying with a particular religious tradition—or of wanting to do so but hesitating—I’d love to hear. Any other thoughts on Dr. Chanequa’s reflections or mine are welcome too, of course.
Peace to you this weekend.