Monday, August 29, 2011

Church: Stepping Stone or Stumbling Block?

Peter Rollins wrote a book of parables called The Orthodox Heretic and Other Impossible Tales. I think it's exceptional. My favorite parable is called Finding Faith; a story in which a preacher has the unusual gift of causing people to lose all their religious convictions when he prays for them. The preacher doesn't see much use for this gift until he meets a man who, despite declaring his love for Christ and being very involved in his church, engaged in ruthless business practices. He explained to the preacher that the business world was a cold one and he simply did what he had to do, but he went to church every Sunday to remember who he really was. The preacher finally understood the value of his unusual gift. He prayed for the businessman, causing him to lose all his faith in God. Without his prayer groups and Bible studies to put a glossy finish on the lens through which he perceived himself, the businessman had to face the reality of how he was actually living. He started to despise his business practices, had a breakdown and left his job. Eventually he put his skills to work challenging the corrupt system he once participated in.

In the commentary that follows Pete asks if perhaps our religious convictions and church activities have become safety valves, allowing us to blow off a little steam, inoculating us against a deeper change that would permeate every aspect of our lives. I remember watching a video a few months ago in which Pete was lecturing at a university and he explained how it's actually in an employers best interest to have their employees sit around the staff room complaining about management, because if they weren't allowed that release the pressure would build to a breaking point and people would be forced to take steps toward actually changing the situation.

Does going to church inoculate (that links to a great talk our church pastor shared on a related subject) us against more meaningful spiritual practices? I think it's a big risk for some and completely true for many. I mean, if I couldn't talk about Jesus with my church family who would I be having conversations with? If I wasn't giving my time and resources to the church who would I be giving it to? If I couldn't worship on Sundays or be inspired by a good sermon where would I go to worship and be inspired? Without church to help us let off a little religious steam we'd really have to live by our beliefs because there would be nobody else to do it for us.

Don't get me wrong. I don't think the answer is to join the ranks of the de-churched but I am becoming aware of the huge potential for complacency and compartmentalization inherent in church life. When we are a part of a large institution, like a church, it's easy to lose our sense of personal responsibility. For example, I may not go out and feed the poor but if there is a group within our church who does this I probably feel that I am in some way contributing; especially if I throw a few cans of soup their way. We probably use the collective term "we" in church way too much; usually it's only a handful of people actually contributing. The next time our pastor says "We did this!" I'm going to reflect on who was actually involved and scratch my name off the list!

So that's what I've been reflecting on tonight. Any thoughts?


Brian said...

I've got Pete's book on my Kindle but haven't gotten to it yet. Wish I had. Your post has articulated precisely what my head and heart are struggling with these days. Though I do think there is merit in the "We" of the "we did this" because we are a body of sorts and eyes would never get to look or hands touch if the toes did come along or the spleen decided to take the day off.

I think there is an inoculation that an institution provides. As long as we're there on Sunday all is right with the world whether "we" were there or not.

Still wrestling through all this and the books I'm reading these days aren't really helping...just into Pete Rollins' "How (not) To Speak of God".

RevOxley said...

Hi, I found your Blog from the Naked Pastor's site...I'm an atheist, ex-Christian and I like your approach.

I think you make some very interesting observations here about the nature of charitable work in the church. As an atheist, I don't really have a singular organization to get behind to do my volunteering and giving and that's the one thing I probably miss more than any other is the sense of community and coming together that I had whilst still in the faith and the Church. We had the ability to pool our resources to make a greater impact, but we also had a tendency to pool our resources into buildings and property that didn't really serve people...kind of a fine line I think.

When I left the church, prior to leaving the faith entirely, I felt incapable of making an impact in the major ways that I wanted to. I didn't feel comfortable giving my time, putting my face and endorsement in any local church, and I didn't feel comfortable giving my money to a body that I didn't trust to use it properly and so I sort of stagnated for a while.

I have found lately that amongst my atheistic brethren there is now a push toward collective giving and volunteering, so even the atheist recognizes the need of community and collectivity (which should come to no surprise since this is a major focus of Secular Humanism really)...what I'd like to see though, what would make me happy - is to see the Christian church (Islam too, any religion really) and the atheist community get together to do good things...that would be great.

the one thing about being de-churched though...had I never left the church, I'm not sure I could have allowed myself to leave the faith. I would have felt the pressure on me to remain and to put my questions and doubts I'm glad I did that.

Michelle said...

Brian - It's a great bathroom reader. Short reads with lots of zing.

I hear what you're saying about the body, and I agree, but there are many toes that think they are fingers and spleens that never showed up to work in the first place. We are born with many birth defects! That's okay as long as we don't pretend there aren't any issues... as long as we can be honest and willing to change.

RevOxley - Hi, your blogger name is intriguing. Ironically, when I started attending a church a few years ago community was one thing I feared the most. I wanted to come in late, hide in the back, leave early and be left alone in between. That didn't last long. I place a high value on community now and I can't imagine growing spiritually without those around me to rally/challenge/inspire. If I lost my faith in God I'd be like you, seeking community elsewhere. I love your idea about religious and atheist groups getting together to do good work, as long as the Christians came without an agenda to convert (and the atheists too for that matter!).

RevOxley said...

@Michelle -

I live in the deep south, so I have to either try to commune with believers and the very few atheists I know from around here in a respectable way or walk it alone. So far the hardest part is finding Christians that are willing to even converse with someone like me - a loud, outspoken, non-believer. Those that do are generally so angered by the mere idea of atheism that they resort to anger quickly and then quoting from the Bible they've never bothered to read. Those few that I find though have become meaningful friendships where the occasional verbal joust is welcome and enlightening.

We try to convert one another, with the knowledge that we won't...that's the fun of it really.

oh, and my username - Rev. has been my title for a while now...I didn't drop it when I lost my faith. If you are interested my website is

Anonymous said...

Michelle, I really liked this post. It's so easy to live vicariously through the good works of others so long as you are part of the same "body".

Michelle said...

Matt (aka RevOxley) - I've been checking out your blog and it looks great. I'm reading with interest! I can't imagine living in the deep south where religion rules. Here, on the east coast of Canada, religion isn't a hot topic and people pretty much live and let live. Mostly a lot of lukewarm Catholics and Protestants. Evengelicals are rare and Fundamentalists even rarer. Like you, I enjoy the debate! Don't worry, it takes a lot to offend me so always feel free to speak your mind on this blog.

CognitiveDiscopants - Thanks :)