Over the past couple months, a statement has been working its way around social media with regard to church attendance. Although not always the same, it goes something like this – “Stop using ‘church folk’ as an excuse to not attend church. There are messy people in the club, but you still go.” The more I saw this statement, and seeing others support the idea, it began to bother me. As I understand the argument, those who stop attending church based on mistreatment by other people in the church should look past those negative interactions and continue to attend for their spiritual well-being, especially if they are willing to put up with those types of interactions in other settings. I disagree with this premise for the following three reasons.
The first reason is that the statement contains what I find to be a logical fallacy.The presence of a similar thing in different environments doesn’t make both of those environments worthy of your presence. To argue that people should continue to come to church despite the messy people there simply because they put up with messy people in the club is like arguing that someone should continue to patronize a roach infested restaurant because they work at an insect zoo. The church is not supposed to be the club, and if I expect messy people at the club I do not have to expect messy people at church. And here is where part of the problem lies. For too long we have held the church out as a place where people have attained instead of a place where people are still growing, Moreover, we have not done a good enough job of shielding the most vulnerable among us from those who through their words and their actions can do serious and lasting damage. If we were more honest about what a church is then people would not have unrealistic expectations about the interactions they may experience.
My second reason comes in the form of a theological query – what is it exactly that makes the church a unique, special, and mandatory place for Christian community? This genuinely confuses me. Sometimes as Adventists and Christians we act as if weekly church attendance is the only way you can have a relationship with Christ and a Christian community.And while it is true that we should “not forsak[e] the assembling of ourselves together,” where is the biblical mandate that this assembly must be the institutionalized church?For example, if a person is attending a regular bible study in which they are creating the bonds of love, friendship, and community with fellow believers, I think that is more than sufficient for their spiritual well-being. Especially if their local church has become a setting for emotional trauma.
Third and finally, I think the original statement engages in misguided victim blaming. The main problem in the case of the lapsed member and the church folk is not the person who left the church. The issue is with the church folk who mistreated that person and caused them to not want to be there.To place the blame on the individual as opposed to the institution or the community is allowing the blame to roll downhill to the least powerful entity. To blame the person who left is to abdicate our responsibility as the church to love and care for the souls entrusted to our care. Instead the church should be a welcoming place where people can come to draw close to Christ, learn and grow, and find a loving community that will protect and care for them as they go through that process.
Besides the most obvious one that there may be some people who don’t go to church but don’t go to the club either. Or the one that recognizes the possibility that someone might actually be treated better at the club than they are at church.
At the same time, a change in culture (and maybe even theology) is warranted as well. It is also true that some of these negative interactions are based not only in how we act, but what we believe.
In colloquial parlance one might say that we come to church to “meet God there,” as if the physical church building was the only place you could to meet God.
Obviously any individual circumstance will be incredibly nuanced, but the pattern tends to be the same – someone (usually a younger person) is improperly and repeatedly chastised for some element of their behavior and they stop attending church because they decide they don’t have to put up with that treatment.
Jason Hines is a former attorney with a doctorate in Religion, Politics, and Society from the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University. He is also an assistant professor at Adventist University of Health Sciences. He blogs about religious liberty and other issues at www.TheHinesight.Blogspot.com.
Previous Spectrum columns by Jason Hines can be found at: http://spectrummagazine.org/authors/jason-hines
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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/8787