WHAT WAS THE STRAW THAT BROKE IT

I saw a post on Twitter recently that got me thinking.

The post was a question directed toward exvangelicals—“What was the straw that broke it for you?” My curiosity was piqued so I followed the thread and saw the responses contained a wide array of reasons people walked away from the church.

I wondered if I could put my finger on just one thing that caused me to flee this expression of Christianity. I know why I left specific congregations, but why did I turn away from a belief system I held for over 30 years?

There are a lot of things I have unlearned in the last three years. End times eschatology, dispensationalism, biblical inerrancy, and substitutional penal atonement are just a few. But, was there one specific thing I could put me finger on that ended it for me?

I think the thing that caused by feet to move was the way evangelical churches I have been part of have brought abuse and suffering to their own people.

Before anyone gets up in arms over that last statement keep in mind this is my experience in the churches I’ve attended. You may have a lovely church full of caring, giving individuals but every time I think I’ve found one I learn that appearances can be deceiving.

I’ve seen so much damage, so many people kicked out or cast off that I just can’t do it anymore. I’ve seen too much—nasty church splits; abusive doctrine; a board deciding to pursue legal charges on a former congregant which ended up separating a mother from two small children for years; families, individuals and dear friends kicked out of a congregations in order to protect a pastor’s fragile ego; a “homeless ministry” leader demanding security in an apartment complex because homeless people might sleep in a carport, church closings; infidelity among leadership; a pastor telling his denomination he would not speak to someone who was “not kicked out” of his church; and the list goes on.

What it finally came down to is that I am not OK with being part of a group where treating others badly is part of their DNA. Be it subtle (or not so subtle) racism, LGBTQ exclusion, “church discipline,” or turning a blind eye to those in need my motivation for leaving is the way people are treated by the organism called church.

The place where acceptance and love, reconciliation and forgiveness are preached every Sunday has become for me a place where these things are not found.

I think I’d prefer to hang out with the homeless guy in the carport.

75 to 25

Just heard that Minneapolis First Covenant Church has been involuntarily removed from the Evangelical Covenant denomination. It’s hard to understand how a denomination that prides itself on freedom in non salvific beliefs can remove a vibrant church that seeks to live from a place of acceptance and love for all.

The vote of 75 to 25 wasn’t even close.

The work Minneapolis First Covenant has done has changed the the city they serve. They operate a day care center from their historic downtown location as well as a homeless shelter. They even sold their parking lot to the city so Minneapolis could build low rent housing. Far more than many churches do.

Now Their brothers and sisters in Christ have turned their backs and everything could change. So many lives will be negatively impacted. My hope is that the community they serve rallies around them and support them.

The ECC has one again chosen to disobey Jesus command to “Love one another.”

If you are still part of an ECC church it just might be time to leave.

OPPOSITION TO BANNING ECC CHURCH

Just a quick update to my last post. Evangelical Covenant Church President Emeritus Glenn Palmberg has posted a letter on his Facebook page stating his opposition to removing First Covenant Minneapolis from the ECC denomination. 

It’s good to see someone at the highest level of leadership in this church share a differing opinion. Hopefully this piece will give voting members pause when it comes to involuntary removal of a church from their denomination. The vote is scheduled to take place at the annual meeting June 27–29. 

Palmberg sums up his post with this quote: ”the record of misreading in Christian history is cause for humility in our own reading of the Bible. It should cause us to pause before we make authoritative statements about a particular interpretation of a passage, especially if it is an interpretation on which Christians authentically disagree. Simply put: we sometimes get it wrong.”

You can find Palmberg’s entire letter here  https://www.facebook.com/glenn.palmberg/posts/10211234901947701

INCLUSIVE AND ACCEPTING

Anyone that has been around evangelicalism for any period of time knows there are few issues that raise more ire than same sex marriage (the obvious exception being reproductive choice). I remember the election cycles here in California and the hard fought battle that saw marriage equality becoming law. During that time the loudest voice against this new law was the evangelical church.

Recently we saw the UMC try to work through this issue during their general meeting. Arguments ensued and no decision was made. The possibility of a church split over same sex marriage looms over the denomination. Churches everywhere are coming to terms with what inclusivity and acceptance are and what that looks like in day to day practice.

Just this weekend I learned of another denomination strong arming member churches to discriminate against same sex couples: the ECC. 

I was once a member of a Evangelical Covenant Church. I  was drawn to the denomination because of the structure—each individual church was able to work independently while holding to the basic tenets of the Christian faith. These were not called doctrines but affirmations. Their dedication to acceptance, peace and reconciliation was admirable. But what appeared on paper was not practiced in the church.

The local body I was a part of prided itself on being “welcoming to all” and even boasted that members of the LGBTQ community attended their services. Often this was more had attended rather than still attending. There has been a recent focus at this church on being open to LGBTQ persons with the pastor saying he had a heart toward this community. This pastor has also said during a sermon he would “never be affirming like those progressives.” Seems like a mixed message.

Perhaps I was naive, but I’ve come to realize the ECC is not who they say they are— both locally and as a denomination.

Over the weekend a story broke that the ECC will be removing the First Covenant Church of Minneapolis because the pastors are looking into conducting same sex weddings. This is not the first time the ECC has banned a church community. 

A few years back an ECC church planter opened Christ Church in Portland. This young man was trained by the ECC and was very open about his vision for an open an LGBTQ affirming church. There was never a point at which the denomination said no, that is until he acted upon his vision. His license was revoked and the new church had to find other ways to continue meeting.

More recently a campus pastor at North Park University found herself is similar position because she believed marriage was for all. Her license was revoked and she lost her job. This little church lost a tenured pastor that had loved and cared for them simply because she married two longtime church members.

Now another pastor is on the chopping block. The congregation, who stand behind him, is also at risk of the church being “decommissioned” for their views on what acceptance really means.

You might say the ECC has every right to do this stuff, and yes they do have the right to act like jerks if they wish. But my problem is they don’t have the right to play with people’s lives this way. Don’t lie and say we love you and accept you but we can’t let you be like the rest of us—we can’t allow you to marry the person you love. Don’t say your pastors have the freedom to make decisions for themselves and their congregations if you are going to swoop in and revoke licenses when a pastor takes a truly inclusive, accepting stance. 

 Looking back I regret not understanding the ECC’s stance.

LET'S BE CLEAR

Let’s talk about two things impacting the evangelical church: LGBTQ inclusion and Women in Leadership.

Before you click away please know I don’t want to get stirred up on which side of the debate holds the better biblical argument or who the church has the right to exclude from holding which position (or being baptized or withhold communion, or prohibit leading worship, etc.). Instead let us consider enforced policy—or what a church teaches about these subjects and how the beliefs are acted upon.

Of late I’ve been looking for a community in which I might feel comfortable. That’s how I stumbled across churchclarity.org. What they do is rate churches by their stance on women in leadership and LGBTQ acceptance. Unfortunately this information is rarely available on a church website.

It’s true. The first place I go to learn about a church I might visit is to the internet. After looking at dozens of church sites over the past year I can tell you there is definite “look” to church marketing. Big photos of smiling people, some feature the racially diverse while others focus on specific age groups. Slick church logos and bright and cheery buttons that say “visit us,” “welcome,” or “be part of our community,” are prominent. There’s typically a staff page with mugshots of smiling people in trendy clothes with perfect hair and white teeth. It’s clear these websites are selling a brand.

Now I have nothing against target marketing, but it bothers me that there is very little on these sites that explains what the churches believe. Other than perhaps a creedal statement or link to a denominational website there is no mention of enforced policies of LGBTQ inclusion or Women in Leadership. To me these are important issues and I would prefer to know walking in what the church believes.

Check it out yourself. Visit your church’s website and see if you can find any policy on what roles women can hold or if the church is LGBTQ affirming. You’ll be surprised. Words seem to be crafted very carefully to dodge the specifics and disguise what may appear exclusionary.

That’s why churchclarity.org is important. Their rating scale is clear and understandable. The highest rating a church can receive is “Verified Clear.” That means that no matter what the church’s position is on these issues it is clearly stated and easily found on the website. I hope we would all agree that’s a good thing.

Now visit churchclarity.org and search for churches in your area. They have rated over 2,000 churches across the country with more added each week. While at the site don’t miss the first person stories of people who believed their church accepted them but ultimately found themselves excluded. There are also communications between mega church leaders and Church Clarity founders that shed a lot of light on the way churches mislead people in regard to enforced policies.   

Honesty and transparency used to be things the church strived for. Now it seems there are things that need to be covered or disguised because they may provoke tough questions and uncomfortable discussions. I think clarity would be something that all of us would welcome.

THE END OF "END TIMES" BS

Growing up I didn’t have any sort of religious influence in my life. It was the 70s and my parents both had bad experiences with the churches in which they were raised. So, it wasn’t until I was 17 that I began to be interested in spiritual things.

I was drawn to the whole “end times” discussion that was rampant during the late 70s and early 80s. The talk of the soon-coming apocalypse was fervent and ubiquitous. I couldn’t get away from it and in some ways I didn’t want to. In fact, I attended a church led by one of the most prominent “Prophecy Preachers” of the era. He loved to say his “Late, Great…” tome was the best selling book of the 1970s. Sadly, this was not the biggest lie I believed during that time.

Fast forward almost four decades. I’ve come to understand all of the things I learned about the end of the world are false. The numerology, interpretations, star gazing and predictions are all lies. Stuffing current events into first century Biblical metaphors is not a healthy practice and misses the point of Jesus teachings. It’s not about escaping this place, it’s about sticking around to make life better for others.

What you believe about the end changes the way you live in the middle. It seems those that hold to this apocalypse narrative turn away from things like creation care, social justice, peacemaking, and true acceptance and affirmation of others. We’re all about saying we love and accept everyone until we open the book of Revelations where millions of people are slaughtered during the tribulations and climactic “War of the Lamb.” Reading Revelation literally is terrifying at best and shows we’ve completely missed the point.

If we believe everything will burn we make decisions based on that. Our narrative begins to reflect end-times eschatology. If we’re short-timers here we don’t need to worry about climate change, or debt, or long term security, or taking care of those less fortunate, or racial reconciliation, or….[fill in the blank].

As a nation our foreign policy is driven by this bad eschatology. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Peace in the middle east is a complex problem and our support of one side over all others reflects our belief as a nation in this apocalyptic fantasy. We support military aggression by our “friends” and condemn any actions by the other side. Problem is children are dying on both sides while we root for the apocalypse. Are we that callous and unfeeling to choose our “reward” over the lives of innocents. Perhaps we are the antichrist.  

Let’s turn away from the untruths an lean into caring for one another. Love with abandon. Care for this planet and every human being living on it. 

SKEPTIC

One of the assignments this week in Atheism for Lent was to watch a video called “Messiah.” In a nutshell Illusionist Derren Brown convinces people with various belief systems that he has supernatural powers. He poses as a medium who can speak with the dead, someone who can see another person dreams, an alien abduction survivor, a psychic and an evangelist who can cause people to believe in God with just a touch. 

It was fascinating to watch people accept his story and his [false] abilities no questions asked. If anyone had simply said “Is this a trick?,” he would have confessed it was—but no one asked.

In a scene straight out of a Christian revival meeting, Brown invited a room of people to stand. After just a few words and broad arm motions from Brown these people fell as if they were struck by a supernatural force (back in the day we’d say “slain in the spirit”). What was even more fascinating was these people just a short time before they had identified themselves as atheists. He’d converted them and convinced them of a supernatural worldview in just minutes. It was amazing to watch. 

It struck me how vulnerable we are to suggestion. Looking back on my time in the church, I recall multiple times when things seemed off. But, I put my trust in a pastor or saw others have an emotional response to something deemed supernatural. I abandoned my skepticism and went along with the crowd. Because this is the way church is, right? 

When I began asking questions I was told that I needed to pray or that the spirit moves in ways we don’t understand. If I persisted the responses became a bit more intimidating. My faith was called into question and I was encouraged to join a discipleship group with people more mature in their faith than I was. I was offered private meeting with the pastor and told not to discuss  things with anyone else in the church. Ultimately,  I just learned how to say the right things and know the right passages to quote. But, the questions persisted. 

We can be convinced of almost anything. Be vigilant on what you are being told and don’t believe something just because you respect the messenger. I used to hear things like “Come to church each week expecting an encounter with God,” or “God has revealed to me…” Statements like these set us up for manipulation. Perhaps these statements are spoken innocently, but the expectation is that whatever happens and whatever is said should not be questioned. After all it’s directly from God.

So what should we do to protect ourselves? Let’s encourage one another to ask the tough questions and continue to ask until the answers make sense. Focus less on emotion and more on what is being asked of us. A little skepticism is a good thing.

 

P.S. You can watch Derren Brown’s “Messiah” on YouTube. He also has a special on NetFlix called “Miracle.” Both are worth viewing.

ATHEISM FOR LENT

The season of Lent begins Wednesday, March 6. Observing Lent is actually a rather new practice for me. I’ve only become aware of the tradition over the past five years or so. In a nutshell Lent is the 40 day of reflection prior to Holy Week and Easter Sunday.

Most people see it as a time of giving something up; chocolate, desserts, alcohol, etc. More trendy is the promise to do without Facebook, the internet or Netflix. Last year I did something different. I studied something. 

I answered the challenge from philosopher/theologian/author Peter Rollins to dive into Atheism for Lent. I have to confess, it came at a time where my faith was in a turmoil and I wanted to have nothing to do with traditional spiritual practices. Looking at Atheism was a great way to do something radical and test my beliefs.

The study is intense and requires a bit of a commitment. A different theme guides each week and readings, audio recordings and video are provided for each day. At the end of the week is a live video presentation by Rollins who also answers questions from the previous week.  Everything is online and can be completed at your own pace. 

There is also a very active Facebook group that can be joined to discuss the work with other course participants. This helps a lot when you get a bit stuck and you don’t want to wait for the live aspect of the course.

I plan on taking the journey again this year. Registration is now open. For more information visit peterrollins.com and click on Atheism for Lent.

Do something radical and join me for Atheism for Lent.  

 

BELIEF

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the power of belief. What we choose to believe—or disbelieve—has significant influence on how we see the world. I know in my case I’ve picked up some pretty odd beliefs. Things that at the time seemed right but upon closer scrutiny turned out to be an obscure opinion or twisted understanding rather than fact.

Let’s consider cults. I’m fascinated by groups of people who follow strange teachings that offer enlightenment. They claim be the only correct way to find peace, perfection, happiness, fulfillment, God…i.e whatever is missing in your life.  What ultimately drives these groups is a type of group-think or brain washing.  

Belief in a cult  is communicated through separation, isolation, paranoia and rules and affirmation. This is done through the teaching of one leader and a host of others who enforce the adherence to the belief and reward those who act appropriately.

What fascinates me most is how even the newest believers throw themselves so fully into their role of defender and evangelist. Perhaps it’s because our society  has taught us to put out head down, do what we’re told and wait for the reward.

There’s nothing wrong with doing well, following rules or being part of something bigger than us. Goals are healthy, passions should be followed and dreams should be chased after. The problem comes when we set aside our suspicion and lay hold of unquestioned beliefs. (Kinda like Multi-level Marketing but that’s a different post.)

I see a lot of practices used by cults are used within the evangelical church. Fostering and atmosphere of absolute control is unhealthy. Telling followers “we are the only ones with the truth—even among other Christian practices” is dangerous. The fear of losing faith can drive people to do and believe some very sketchy things. Being shunned is used as a weapon against those who disagree.

As an example (I know I’m grabbing at low hanging fruit here) are end times beliefs. I spent several years in a church where the pastor was revered as a prophet, writing dozens of books about the end of the world. We were told we were the only ones who knew the signs and the time frame—the pastor denies ever setting dates but he did. The interpretations didn’t pan out. Political, economic  and natural disasters didn’t come. We woke up. We were lied to.

More recently, in a small group I led, several members were convinced the world was coming to an end because of the four “Blood Moons.” Nothing happened. Yet these men persisted in looking for the end because they were taught to believe it was just around the corner.

What troubles me today is not end times hogwash but the refusal of the evangelical church to accept the possibility of differing viewpoints. We have access to great amounts of information. We should be wiser than we are. Why is it that open discourse is so distasteful to some Christian leaders? Perhaps they understand in order to control people you need to control beliefs. 

Here’s a list of documentaries I’ve watched recently on cults (and some scary practices within the evangelical church). Most can be streamed. Google them for more information:

Wild, Wild Country (Bagwan Shree Rajneesh) 

Holy Hell (Budafield)

Going Clear (Scientology)

Scientology the Aftermath (TV series)

The Cult Next Door (Bill Gothard—Institute for Basic Life Principles)

Jesus Camp (Evangelical church kids)

 

Just for fun here are some recent fictional representations of cults on TV and film:

The Eternal (Science Fiction)

The Master (Drama)

The Path (Drama series on Hulu)

Apostle (Supernatural Horror)

The Invitation (Suspense/Horror) 

TO A FRIEND

I’m sorry you had to go through this.

I’m sorry your “community” has shunned you. 

I’m sorry you had to endure the gossip, lies and half-truths. 

I’m sorry something you meant for good was twisted into something ugly by people trying to cover their own mistakes.

I’m sorry the leadership team is scared by generous, intelligent, caring people like you.

I’m sorry you committed to, supported, prayed for and helped heal a community that doesn’t have your back.

I’m sorry your “pastor” chose to cast you out rather than answer your questions.

I’m sorry that the leadership of your “community” told everyone you had not been kicked out when in fact you had.

I’m sorry some people are far more concerned with optics than the truth. 

I’m sorry this “community” can sit together on Sunday mornings and be ok with this situation.

I’m sorry for the unnecessary pain and abuse inflicted by these “brothers and sisters.”

I’m sorry you haven’t found compassion, mercy or justice.

I’m sorry you spent two years jumping through hoops for a chance at reconciliation only to be told by a third party that your “pastor” refuses to speak to you.

I’m sorry you may never get the answers to your questions. 

I’m sorry these “Christians” have been such assholes to you. 

I’m most sorry that you’ll never hear the “pastor” say the words that start this post.

WALKING AWAY FROM WHAT?

The phrase “walked away from the faith” seems to be getting a lot of traction recently. I get it. Churches are seeing a downturn in attendance and need some sort of explanation. I wonder if “walked away from the faith” is a bit of a smokescreen and possibly a warning to congregants who remain, kind of an us (truth bearers) vs. them (those who turned away from the truth).

I think in many cases, probably the majority of cases, those who leave are actually leaving the institution of the church not the faith. In fact I think they take the faith with them, just not the unseemly parts of religion that lay just below the surface like sexism, racism and discrimination.

I’ve heard that recent data actually points to younger generations having a stronger sense of morality than their older counterparts. It also points to their stronger sense of spirituality even without the formal structure of an institution. They have little need of the rules, fear, control, guilt, divisions and “culture wars” so prevalent in today’s Evangelical church.

I can sympathize.  

I didn’t grow up in the church. I discovered Christianity in my twenties. Both my parents had left the churches they grew up in—Episcopal for my dad and Catholic for my mom—because the “church” did not approve of their relationship. Thus, I and my siblings were raised without spiritual training. There was still a very strong sense of right and wrong but without the religious underpinnings. Looking back that was probably not a bad approach.

Later my siblings and I each found our way to some sort of spirituality, discovering Catholicism, traditional Protestantism and in my case evangelicalism. 

Now I’ve left. Not my faith, but the belief system that has seemed to almost weaponize that faith. It troubles me that over the past 40 years the churches I attended seemed less and less likely to reflect Jesus. I constantly heard about who and what we were against and “end times” nonsense and seldom heard about truly caring for the poor, the marginalized or the immigrant (all very important groups to Jesus). Perhaps it’s always been like this. Perhaps I was naïve. I’ve always said the church should be the most welcoming, accepting and affirming place anyone could hope to be. It’s not.

I hope to eventually find a community that is all it promises or is at least honest about its failings. But, for now, don’t say I’ve walked away from the faith. The truth is I walked away from the church.

HEADING HOME

“It doesn’t matter which side of the continuum you’re on—if you still have to contort yourself to keep from getting kicked out, you aren’t yet home. You need a space in your life where you don’t have to prove your belovedness to anyone. Where you can just be.”—Jonathan Martin

 

I share the above quote to encourage those who find themselves in spaces that have become uncomfortable and unwelcoming. Whether you’ve already been on a journey of rediscovery or are feeling it may be time to move on, please know what you are experiencing is not uncommon. Many of us have been there.

I hope you will ask tough questions and dig deeper into what you really know to be true. Don’t settle for the easy way out. Above all trust yourself.  

You may sense a need to separate from a relationship or institution that has become toxic. Perhaps it’s time to find a place you can just be. I know it feels scary to face the possibility of deep change. Breathe. Then take a step toward home.

Be encouraged. There is “home” for each of us. Keep moving toward it.