Better conversations between churched and un-churched Christians

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free
'Church' photo (c) 2007, silent shot - license:

I woke up Sunday morning with swollen eyes, a headache, and absolutely no desire to go to church. 

The comments following Kim Van Brunt’s guest post on Saturday really did a number on me, so, despite the fact that they weren’t even directed at me or my family, I spent a good part of Saturday night curled up in my pouting chair (yes, I have one, don’t you?), ranting to Dan about “church people,” and ugly crying about how maybe there isn’t a God and about how even if there is one I have no business blogging about him anymore because these Christians are making me crazy. 

The response to my posts about “15 Reasons I Left Church” and “15 Reasons I Returned to The Church” had already generated quite the online conversation about young adults leaving the church. So when Kim shared a small piece of her own story about leaving the institutionalized church and connecting to a less traditional community of believers, I mixed the well-meaning, thoughtful critiques in the comment section with some of the messages I’ve been getting from critics lately, and this is what I heard: 

“You’re just a product of consumer culture.” 

“This generation is incapable of making sacrifices.” 

“You think you can just get your community from Facebook? Get a life!”

“You’re lazy.”

“You’re selfish.” 

“You’re a Burger King Christian – gotta have it your way.”

“Without a church, you will die alone!” 

This was not what was said exactly, but it’s what I heard, based on past experiences and my own insecurities. 

Now I’ve been blogging long enough to know not to take every negative comment personally. I’ve been damned to hell for believing in evolution and voting for democrats more times than I can count. But the reason a comment damning me to hell affects me less than a comment criticizing me for, say, my writing style or my church attendance, is because the latter touches on actual fears, actual insecurities. The comments that hurt the most are not the meanest, but the ones that hit close to home. So sometimes it’s important to pay attention to them. 

So after my pity party in the pouting chair, I had a good talk with God (who I think I believe in again), and a good conversation with Dan.  I sorted some things out, and we made some tentative plans regarding our own journey back to church.  I also realized that, based on what I heard from many of you, these comments and my reaction to them seem to reflect a common breakdown in communication between Christians who are “churched” and Christians who are “un-churched.” 

Clearly, we want to talk about why so many people, especially young adults, are leaving traditional churches. But when we do, we seem to miss one another. One group starts to tire of what they perceive to be “church-bashing,” while the other senses that their stories and concerns are not being heard. One group feels bombarded by cynicism; the other bombarded by shame and guilt.

So I looked back over the comments from my last three church-related posts, and between the 187 comments after Saturday’s post, the 214 after the “How was your Easter?” post, and the whopping 864 comments after the “15 Reasons” post, I noticed a few trends.

These are classic conversation-enders that immediately trigger defensiveness and break the dialog down. My hope is that identifying and discussing them here will help us engage in better conversations about church, both online and in our faith communities. 

1. Assuming motives 

Common among many of the critical comments from the “churched” was the assumption that the “un-churched” had left church, or were in transition between churches, because of unrealistic expectations based on a consumerist mindset. Now I don’t disagree that this can be a factor. But too often  assumptions like these are made after hearing only a small part of a person’s story. Kim was accused of being a “helicopter parent” who left her church because she was “selfish” and “me-oriented.” She was even told that leaving her church was comparable to leaving a marriage.  

I too have been accused of being lazy, selfish, individualistic, and unwilling to work hard in order “be the change” in the Church. But the people who make these accusations rarely know the details of my story. They don’t know the agony and prayer that accompanied our decision to initially leave our home church. They don’t know that, soon after leaving, we became leaders in a new church plant, devoting our time, money, and emotional energy to trying to build a new faith community, only to watch it dissolve for lack of funds. They don’t know the details of some of the the interpersonal dynamics that make it difficult to return to the local church—not to mention the discouragement and exhaustion that follows a failed church planting attempt. They don’t know the motivations behind our actions, which are such a crazy mix of self-preservation, pride, wisdom, uncertainty, fear, pain, generosity, apathy, and prudence, it’s hard for us to figure them out for ourselves sometimes! 

On the other hand, common among some of the comments from the “un-churched” was the assumption that the “churched” remain so because they are unthinking participants a country-club church culture. I saw comments about preserving power structures, keeping the pastor fat and happy, maintaining appearances, and joining the club. These words can be incredibly hurtful and insulting to people who have devoted their lives to being part of a community of imperfect people, for better or worse, regardless of what they may or may not get out of it. And these words are especially unfair to members of the clergy, many of whom work tirelessly at their jobs and have to walk a very fine line between shepherding their congregations and advocating for change.  

2. Invalidating Experiences 

Any first-year psychology student will tell you that just about the worst thing you can do in a counseling situation is respond to a person’s vulnerability by dismissing and invalidating her experience.  When someone opens up about the pain they’ve experienced in a church setting, only to be met with eye rolls, sighs, and accusations of selfishness, why on earth would they ever want to return?!  And yet I see this scenario play out all the time in Christian communities.  A word to the wise: When someone tells you they’ve been hurt by the Church, the proper response is “I’m so sorry; tell me what happened,” not “suck it up, kid.”

On the other hand, I must admit that among young adults (myself included), there seems to be an unhealthy appetite for stories about the church that are exclusively negative. We get to talking about all the ways in which we’ve been disappointed and ostracized, and the next thing you know, we’ve slipped right into a contagiously cynical church-bashing session, the kind that can leave those who have had beautiful, affirming, and life-giving experiences in church feeling like the odd ones out. In that sense, the “un-churced” are just as guilty of invalidating the experiences of the “churched." We need to be honest about the problems in the institutional Church, yes, but we also need to read and share and celebrate positive stories about the institutional Church. (This post from Sarah Bessey, and everything written by Kathy Escobar ever, are good places to start.)  

It’s important to keep in mind that negative encounters with “the Church” are, in reality, negative encounters with certain people in the Church, and that there are many wonderful, compassionate, God-honoring people eager to share positive stories about why church is a such a  critical part of our collective faith experience. 

3. Failure to commit to change, compromise

I’m often asked by church leaders to explain why young adults are leaving the church. I respond enthusiastically, sharing excerpts from my book, stories from my readers, and the mountain of research that consistently shows young adults are leaving because they feel that their churches are exclusive, irrelevant, overly political, anti-science, hypocritical, and unwilling to change. This presentation is usually met with a polite thank you and a question or two about how to have hipper worship music. “Don’t you see!?” I want to shout. “What we want to see is real change, not new paint on an old façade!” 

I think one of the main reasons communication between “churched” Christians and “un-churched” Christians is breaking down is because the un-churched don’t feel that their concerns are being taken seriously. Time and again, I hear evangelicals in particular dismiss my generation's concerns as a mere “PR problem.” They are convinced that young adults will come running back once the logos are updated and taglines replaced.  I am frustrated by what I sense is a reluctance to seriously consider the questions we are raising and a fear of allowing us to actually take leadership and work for change. This only fuels my cynicism and frustration, particularly with the evangelical church in which I was raised. 

While too many among the “churched” seem unwilling to change, too many among the “un-churched” seem unwilling to compromise. As much as I hate to admit it, there is some truth to the claim that mine is a consumer-driven generation that has grown so accustomed to made-to-order experiences that we sometimes struggle with the messy, imperfect relational dynamics of church. As I said earlier, I don’t think this accounts for everyone who leaves church.  But I do suspect it is a factor.  

Sometimes I need to be reminded that community is not about surrounding myself with people just like me; community is about loving my neighbor, whoever that neighbor may be. If the early church could hold together communities made up of Jews and Greeks, slaves and free, men and women, circumcised and uncircumcised, tax collectors and zealots, prostitutes and Pharisees, kosher believers and non-kosher believers, those who ate food sacrificed to idols and those who refused, I guess this evolution-accepting, hell-questioning, liberal-leaning feminist can worship Jesus alongside a Tea Party complementarian who thinks the earth is 6,000 years old and that Ghandi and Anne Frank are in hell.  I’m not saying it will be easy, or even that it will work, but I think it’s worth a try. (Note: I know this can be tricky. I really struggle with concerns that participating in a church community that restricts the roles of women in leadership, or that actively campaigns against the civil rights of gays and lesbians, makes me complicit in those activities. This has been the subject of a lot of tearful prayers lately.

Just as “churched” Christians must remain open to change, so “un-churched” Christians must be open to compromise. Otherwise, we’ll just keep butting heads. 

Well I’m at 2,000 words and that’s all I’ve got. I think I'll take a nap in my pouting chair. 

What do you think? Are there some other conversation-enders that you’ve observed in talks between the “churched” and the “un-churched.” How can we improve the dialog so we can love one another better and glorify God in the midst of conflict?

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