Friday, September 10, 2010

On llamas and leaving church

I've been amazed at how quickly our girls have adjusted to a new school and how quickly they have developed new friendships. Last night we hosted a slumber party for our oldest daughter and several of her new class mates. This tight-knit group of girls met at the beginning of this school year and seemed to form an instant bond. They began calling themselves the "llama club", and one of the gifts Alyce received at her party was a llama t-shirt. I'm not sure what prompted this rather unique group identity, but I am sure that they are each enjoying their new found sense of community.

It seems that we all have an innate desire for community. From birth on, we are looking for love and acceptance from parents, friends, and school mates. For some of us, this means desperately trying to fit in and for others it means choosing to identify with those on the fringes of society (those who say they are rejecting conformity, yet find themselves in a community of non-conformists). In either case, we are seeking a sense of community and a place of belonging.

For many Christians, the church has been that place. It was not only the place where people of faith learned and served, but where we ate, sang, and gathered together with friends. In fact, it was this strong sense of community that enticed non-church goers to give it a try. I have heard and experienced the power of the church community offering comfort, encouragement, accountability, and acceptance to people who might have never known those gifts. Yet, as I listen to many stories of those who have chosen to abandon the church, I hear of another side to the Christian community. It seems that instead of offering gifts of love and grace, experiences in some faith communities have gifted people with overwhelming shame, alienation, and a conviction that there is nothing "Christ-like" about the Christian church at all. Their response: leave church.

What type of experiences would be powerful enough to cause someone to leave a beloved community of faith and to abandon church altogether? Here's what I'm hearing:
  • After my dad died in a car accident, the church did not know how to deal with my mom as a single mother. I realized the church was not who they claimed to be.

  • My wife and I grew up hearing about what terrible people we were...all we ever felt was guilt and shame. Who needs that? We consider ourselves "spiritual" people, but have not darkened the church doors in a very long time.

  • My mom was divorced and that was looked down upon in our church. When I saw how she was treated, I decided church was not for me.

These are just a few examples. Although I realize that sometimes our expectations of community can be unrealistic, it saddens me to think that a community founded on the life and ministry of Jesus Christ has left this mark on people's lives.

The recognition of the power of community has prompted some recovering church-goers to form an online friendship that seems to be a source of healing. Communitas Collective is full of shared stories of pain and struggle, but also of hope and re-imagination. Although many people have left the institutional church, they are seeking ways to follow God AND they are still seeking community. If you've never visited this site, I encourage you to visit and listen to the conversation that's taking place. I am encouraged by the honesty, the vulnerability and the passion that I sense among this group. It makes me wonder what would happen if churches today would dare to ask their neighbors who have left the church "why?". Perhaps then we would have the opportunity to listen, to begin to heal and to imagine our future together.

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