I have had the privilege of speaking with several pastors recently about church growth or the lack of growth which many churches are experiencing across the country. Some pastors are looking for gimmicks or programs to attract those who left and also looking for ways to welcome those who have never been. Others are accepting of their size and diminishing membership and are desirous to settle for being in the service of those who remain.
A predominant reason people say they don’t go to church is that they consider themselves spiritual and not religious and that the church is filled with hypocrites. It is very easy to perceive the church as being filled with people who are “holier than thou.” It is also very easy for the church to attract or foster people who “protest too much” in an effort to hide their own sinful nature. It is easy for good people to be judgmental especially if they secretly recognize sinful desire in their own hearts. On top of that, when some crime occurs in a church, we might discover that the perp was a pillar of the community, a lector, secretary, youth group leader, pastor or Eucharistic minister.
It is not that the church attracts bad people. The truth is everyone has the capacity to be a “bad” person. There was a study by Wallerstein and Wylie where they asked 3,000 NY citizens who have never been arrested about all the things they had done in their lives. 100% of them have committed misdemeanors and were never caught and 97% had committed felonies but have never been caught. So if you’ve never been caught, you must be a good person despite the bad things you’ve gotten away with.
About fifteen years ago I vacationed in Canada with a friend who illegally brought back Cuban cigars and prescription drugs which you couldn’t buy in the US but they were available in Canada. I thought it was very funny that I got flagged for a search and he, a Roman Catholic priest, waltzed right through.
Today, churches often run background checks on its members in an effort to weed out the sinners. It is good that they want to make safe sanctuaries but they need to keep in mind that most saints such as St. Paul and even Jesus, a convicted felon himself, would not be welcome in our churches for none of them would pass their background checks. Part of the problem with organized religion is that it represents only a tiny part of the story and one that is often dangerously dysfunctional at that.
People of adversity find strength within themselves and they think that that has to do with finding meaning. Instead of finding meaning we should call it forge for meaning for finding and searching are two different things. Endurance is the entry way to forging meaning and, being accepted into a community is the only place that that can happen. When we forge meaning we can incorporate that meaning into a new identity and that is what the church needs. We need to take our faults and traumas and make them part of who we’ve come to be and we need to fold the worst events of our lives into a narrative of triumph as a response of things that hurt. Instead the church tries hard to deny this.
I once encouraged a church to start a prison ministry and the response was that they didn’t want to attract or associate with those kind of people. What they failed to realize was that those people were already in the parish as convicted arsonists, drug users, DWI perps, a sex offender and burglar. A few years later one of their 20 year old boys was arrested for dealing drugs and it still didn’t dawn on them that they had the capacity to heal and the healing needed to happen in their own back yard.
When it was found out that I answered a suicide hotline, a woman grabbed me after a church service, broke down in tears and told me that her brother was arrested for committing a sex crime with a teenager, then completed suicide while in jail. We spoke for quite some time and afterward I told the pastor what had happened so that he could be aware of the situation. Instead of being compassionate, he became angry that the woman would confide in me and not him. Of course, this was in a parish who abandoned a former pastor who was arrested on a DWI charge. She never trusted anyone in the parish with her pain and she carried it silently for many years.
A woman who was raped as a teenager seemingly had her life destroyed. She dropped out of school, gave birth to the child of the rapist and never went to college or forged a career of her own. At the age of fifty she was asked if she ever thought of the rapist and she said she did and she felt sorry for him because, he has a beautiful daughter and two beautiful grandchildren and he doesn’t know that and she does. As it turns out, she considers herself the lucky one. She credits the support and love of her community for the blessings in her life.
Some things we are born to; our race, a disability, our sexuality, our gender and some are things that happen to us; being a rape victim, a prisoner, a Katrina survivor, a 9/11 survivor. Religious identity means being able to enter into a church community to draw strength from that community and to give strength there too. A church community is not for someone to enter in and say “I am here and I hurt,” but rather “I hurt and I am here.” But we are ashamed, judgmental and can’t tell our stories to the “good people” but our stories are the foundation of identity.
Just as the stories we tell come from our life experiences, our lives can grow from the stories that we tell. The bible is filled with such stories of healing, joy, forgiveness and com-passion (suffering with one another). That is the key; one another and, you won’t find that on a Facebook page. Instead, the church looks for ways to attract the wrong people because the church is interested in numbers and money. If the church’s goal is to promote healing and acceptance through pain and struggle, numbers and money will be the symptom thereof. Currently, that calling is being lived out through social services and other organizations and they are doing a better job than the church is. So, who needs the church . . .
It isn’t solely about changing ourselves but about changing the world. It doesn’t make what is wrong right but makes what is wrong precious and you won’t learn that from social services. The road less traveled is what makes all the difference and the church is abandoning that road. We can not be ourselves without the misfortune that drives our search for meaning. “I take pleasure in infirmities,” St. Paul wrote, “for when I am weak, then I am strong.” The church is trying to be strong while denying its weakness and driving out people it thinks will make them weak.
Oppression breeds the power to oppose it and that is the cornerstone of identity. However, you can’t change the church if you don’t belong to it. If a church is full of hypocrites, leaving it doesn’t change that. I know a church whose organist was arrested and half the church supported him and half wanted to abandon him. The church chose to abandon him and eventually all the supporters left and the haters won. That church’s attendance dropped and is currently in danger of closing because – hate begets hate. If the church chose love and forgiviness, who knows where it would be today.
Today’s church does not know what oppression is because they are doing the oppressing. If you banish the dragons, you banish the heroes and we’ve always been attracted to the heroes in our society. Satan doesn’t have to fight the church because he has joined it. When we shelter our children from adversity, we’ve failed as parents for it is adversity which trains and teaches children how to prepare and cope for what the real world may throw at them. Someone once asked gay activist Harvey Milk what they could do to help the cause and Harvey told him to go out and tell someone. There is always someone who wants to confiscate humanity and there are always stories to restore it but we need people to tell the story. By banishing sinners the church is denying and forgetting its story and its calling. Certainly every church will proclaim that it welcomes sinners but watch what happens if a registered sex offender or former murderer would like to join. Ask Squeaky Fromme what church she is welcome in.
If the church lives out loud, we can trounce hatred and restore everyone’s lives. Then we can truly celebrate who we are and truly see ourselves in a healthy, life-giving, complimentary relationship with creation around us. Forge meaning and build identity then, invite the world to share your discovery and joy. As the Hollywood axiom goes, “If you build it they will come.” Those who hear may even enter in for, they too have a story they’d like to share if they are brave enough and welcome to do it and then in the process, heal others too afraid to speak up. The big question is though, does the church want to listen?