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Redemption, Reformation, and a Revolution

Dear American Church:

If you want to know why your attendance is dropping, I’d love to tell you, at least from my own personal experience.  Because I’m pretty close to walking out on you myself.

Here’s the thing.  I’ve been a Christian since I was very young.  I’ve been going to church all my life.  And now here I am in my early thirties, and I’m about to throw in the towel.  If I hadn’t had an extremely good experience with a wonderful church in Austin last year, I think today would be the day I broke up with church.  And how did I get here, you ask?

Thirty years of seeing the ugly underside of church politics, in a nutshell.

I could tell story after story of how I’ve seen churches abuse their power and shuffle people out of their country-club-type community over the most ridiculous things.  I could talk about how working in a church exposes you to some of the nastiest, pettiest work place politics you will ever see.  I could even give evidence that this is not limited to a particular region, denomination, or creed.  But those kinds of stories—even just the ones from my own personal experience—could fill a book, so I’m not going to tell them all here.

The point is, church is broken.  I don’t care how you slice it, what arguments you make or positive spin you try to put on things, something is not working.  It had a good long run, it served its purpose for many, many years, but the church as an institution is largely failing.  My dad hates when I make sweeping statements like this about the church.  But I cannot find it in me to be less cynical about an institution that has allowed people to insult and slander—him in particular and others in general—time after time without ever making things right.  And today for me was the last straw.

I am so sick of all the petty arguments and politics in the average congregation.  I’m sick of the general attitude Christianity has toward outsiders, and those that don’t agree 100% with all their precious doctrines.  Someone recently asked me if I was “super religious” and I was like, “Hell, no!”  I have been that person; I have looked down my nose at the world for not being as Christian as I was.  And I've been on the other side of it and seen how nasty and un-Christlike that attitude is.  I never want to be that way again.  Because the truth is, attitudes like that have a way of chipping at my soul and my faith.  Honestly, some days I’m not even sure how to be a Christian anymore, and after almost thirty years in, you’d think I’d be coasting right now. 

Actually, I am coasting.  I’m not engaged.  I’m not challenged.  I don’t have people (outside my family and closest friends) who help me figure out where I should be and what I should be doing in life to be a part of God’s restorative, redemptive work.  And that’s something I could really use right about now.  Once again I’m drifting, trying to figure out my next move, and even when I hear encouraging things from the pulpit, I don’t have a body around me that enables me to take the right steps.  So instead I flounder, often surrounded by people who reinforce the notion that knowing God is all about following seven simple steps and a checklist of do’s and don’t’s. 

I had kind of a heart to heart with God today, out in the beautiful Pacific Northwest woods.  I don’t really want to give up; I don’t want to be a cynic.  Maybe it was naïve of me to think that things would get clearer and more certain the older I got.  Maybe I’m foolish to expect the body of Christ to actually emulate Christ.  I have been hurt too many times by the church; my family has been wounded, my friends have been mistreated.  To be fair, we have also, at times, been blessed, encouraged, uplifted, and served by the church.  I’m really not trying to write off every individual in America who attends church.  But something happens when we gather as an institution, an organization.  We’re supposed to be a community, a family—well, families have their problems, too, I suppose. Somehow we end up acting more like a clique, standing in a circle with our backs to the world.

So the thing is, if I’m going to keep believing in and following Jesus, it’s going to have to look radically different for me.  I’m not entirely sure what that means, I don’t have it all worked out yet.  But something has to change.  A lot of things have to change, actually.  And one of the things that bothers me about the American church is how resistant it is to change.  It’s like we’re afraid of losing something vital in the process—but I think we’ve already lost some vital things, and it’s high time we began to recover them.  Things like: loving your neighbor, loving your enemy, and helping the poor. 

So right here, right now, this is my version of 95 theses, nailed to the virtual door of the collective American church.  I can’t keep going this way.  I would rather walk away than continue to be a part of a body that would treat people so poorly.  But as much as I sometimes do want to just walk away, a deeper and better part of me wants to help reform things.  A NEW reformation.  And the thing is, I know I’m not alone in this.  I know older and wiser and younger and more passionate people are struggling just like I am to find their place in the church.  I know of them, and I know them personally.  Together, we can and will enact change on the church.  Because it is time.  The foundations for a renewed way of following Christ are already being laid. 

We are passionate, we are disillusioned, we are ready, we are afraid, we are in love with Jesus, and we love humanity, too.  We want to see the world redeemed and restored through Christ.  We want to be part of his redemptive story.  We want others to see that we are in love with God, which is sometimes hard to show when we are being attacked by our brothers and sisters in Christ.  This is part of the reason we need to stand together.  We need to encourage one another, even when we disagree.  You and I may never agree 100% on all the different theological questions.  But if we can agree on the centrality of Jesus, His divinity, life, death, and resurrection, shouldn’t that be enough to be going on with for now?  We are never going to attract more people to Christ by bickering amongst ourselves and engaging in much of the mud-slinging, fear-mongering, us vs. them rhetoric that has become so popular recently.  Indeed, it is that kind of petty behavior that turns people away from God, and even burns out long-time Christians.

Maybe I’m just a crazy heretic.  Maybe I’m preaching to the choir.  Maybe no one will ever read this and my impassioned words will fall on deaf urls.  But if you are reading this, and you do agree that the time for change is long past due, won’t you stand with me?  Viva la revolution!


Anonymous said...

after being nearly destroyed a charasmatic cult, after being physically, emotionally and spiritual beat and tortued by this same group of people, after almost losing my God-given identity, my passions and my family to the black pit called the church, i stand in agreement with your words. I hate the church. The thought of it brings the taste of blood into my mouth. Yet i love Jesus with all i am. The truth is however, im mad at him too. People who claimed to represent him abused me in every way possible. At times it is hard to separate God from the nasties sitting in the pew every sunday.... Im over them. I think to myself, why do i believe? What has it ever done for me? That is a selfish thought, but i dont care any more. I could use any encouragement you have to offer. Harmony Ramsey

J. M. Richards said...

Thanks again for sharing, Harmony. I'm going to post some of the links to the songs I was telling you about. Not that they're a solution, but maybe they'll be a little bit encouraging to others they way they have been for me.

Sleeping At Last, "Naive":

Sanctus Real, "The Redeemer":

Switchfoot, "Only Hope":

Switchfoot, "On Fire":

Mumford & Sons, "The Cave":
(check out the lyrics...it's kind of my anthem right now...)

Mumford & Sons, "Awake My Soul":

Sleeping At Last, "Emphasis":

Death Cab for Cutie, "You Are a Tourist":
(possibly the least relevant, but it's got some good lines in there...)

Sometimes the best encouragement is just to know that there are others out there, wrestling with some of the same things we are. Some of the sweetest words in existence are: "You are not alone."

And you're not. You and I, we are the Body, too. You are my sister, and we stand together.

Shannon Nutt said...

Pastor Dean got so frustrated with me challenging every questionable fact he posted on Facebook for his loyal "flock" that he actually de-friended me! Now THERE'S the "Christian" response, hey? Well, you know what they say...if you can't be right, be wrong as loud as you can, and people will believe you. So I remain one with a more limited audience...but at least they're an intelligent one.

Unlikely Oilfield Wife said...

I so get what where you're coming from, and feel like I'm in the same predicament. I'm floundering between different churches, and letting it all go and spending my sunday mornings in my backyard with the birds and Jesus, just us. I'm a new reader of your blog, and look forward to reading more.

Anonymous said...


So good to read your blog again. Sorry I've fallen off the grid for the last year. Been some rough times. As far as this post goes, the only place I disagree with you is the area of hope. I'm losing hope for the American church. I'm giving up. I don't think it will change...unless it is forced underground, at which time only the true Christians will emerge from the rubble. And they're not the people (obviously) that any of us have a problem with. But they're few and far between. Jess, I'm hurting. I'm tired. Exhausted, really. And I'm becoming quite apathetic about it all. Don't care about speaking up about wrongs being done, don't care about making a point, don't care about affecting change. Because if people don't want to change, they won't. And, after all, the church is comprised of people who don't want to change.

And Shannon, you're not the only one who's ever been defriended by a pastor. Been there, done that, got the scar to prove it. People can be so cruel, huh?

Harmony, I read your whole comment before I knew it was you, and I felt so sad for the stranger in the comment...and then I realized it wasn't a stranger. I hate cliches when people are trying to offer encouragement, so I won't go there. But I will say this: not many churches are to the extreme that your experience proved to be. Are they all messed up? To some degree. Do they all have "nasties?" Yep. I'm attending a Nazarene church currently and even it has a few in that category. Distance yourself from those people. Find the good, even if it's just a little, in any given congregation and focus on that, embrace it, be a part of it and help make it infectious. That's all any of us can do. Your cross has been heavy. Lay it at the feet of Jesus for a while and take a break from the soap opera of church if you need to. There is no shame in that. Even if it's a long break. Even if you never come back and you end up finding your own way to participate in the body of Christ. I'm sad for you, sister, and I'll pray for your healing.
Sara *double-u, h, ee, aye, tee*(Won't post my last name due to needing extreme internet privacy) Sorry, I've had many, many problems in this area. That's why I've pretty much went dark as far as the web goes.