There’s probably few words in the English language that provoke so much emotion when I hear it spoken– maybe that’s true for you too. There are times in my life where I’d say the word “church” with watery eyes and a heart of gratitude, and other times when I say the word with exasperation and my hands thrown up in the air.
Looking back on life thus far, I can honestly say that church has been both the biggest tangible source of support and encouragement in my life, but has also been the biggest source of frustration and hurt.
There are seasons where I want nothing more than to run from it, and seasons where I long to be wooed by it. It’s been a love-hate relationship if there ever were one.
Often I find myself asked, “How do I find a church that I don’t have major disagreements with?”
And, that’s a good question. In fact, I’ve spent a lot of years asking it myself.
I mean, how awesome would it be to have community, friends, and to embrace a communal process of learning and growing– without having major issues with them? That would be the golden ticket right there.
I think if anyone has set out to discover if such a scenario exists, it’s been me. In the last 10 years I’ve tried out every kind of church I can think of.
Baptist. Congregational. Methodist. Non-denominational. Charismatic…
There’s been a whole long list of places I’ve tried, to the point where I doubt I could remember them all if I wanted to. And honestly, I’ve never found a church where I didn’t have some sort of issue with them.
I’ve come to accept that if you can (a) read for yourself and (b) think for yourself, you are highly unlikely to ever find a church where there’s little to no tension between what you think, and what they think.
A gift or curse? Who knows- it just is what it is.
I even find myself having major disagreements with the church I attend now– and I knew those disagreements existed within 3 minutes of my first visit to the church. My 13 year-old daughter was the first to point it out, as she elbowed me in the side and pointed to the American flag set in the position of honor, to the right of the pulpit (and we all know how I feel about that).
Yet, even with full knowledge we were attending a church that most likely had radically different views than my own, we knew we needed to plug in somewhere, and that when it comes to attending a church one has disagreements with, everywhere is somehow the same.
And this brings me to the answer to the question as I have discovered it.
“How do I avoid attending a church I have disagreements with?”
Really, stay home. Keep your comfy clothes on, and don’t worry about how many people are in line for the shower. Just don’t even bother.
If you want to avoid attending a church where you have major issues with them, don’t go anywhere, because as long as you can read and think for yourself, everywhere will somehow be the same.
A few summers ago I was sitting with my friend Frank Schaeffer in his back yard in Massachusetts. We poured a fresh cup of coffee, pulled up some adirondack chairs, and chatted about life and this thing we call “church.” During that conversation he said something I’ve said before, and that continues to stick with me:
“The only way to avoid attending a church you have serious disagreements with is to become a church of one person.”
Frank was right. He’s still right. The only sure-way to avoid attending a church you have disagreements with is to make your own, and to not invite anyone else to join.
If you want to avoid attending a church you have disagreements with, just stay home.
If you’re interested in exploring what it means to follow Jesus in the context of a group of people who may express varying degrees of brokenness and beauty, ignorance and wisdom, or peace and tension, all while seeing where this uncharted path may lead us, then there are plenty of churches that will have room for you.
As for me? I’ve tried a church of one, and I find it unfulfilling. Instead, I choose to embrace the only alternative that exists.
I have been in this highly conservative town in the Southwest for eight years and the Universalist church I now attend is the only one not to make the potluck Sunday service a three course meal of Democrats, Obama, and Muslims. Charbroiled. I have tried twenty churches thus far out of an estimated 80 in this town of 90,000. All the same. All pro death penalty, all pro guns, all pro Republican. All. I work at a local Christian TV station: it has the same voice as the general community of so-called Christians. I guess they see me as a functioning saint, like a functioning alcoholic: not ready for boiling oil yet not quite ready to be in the Book of Life.
I am not a Universalist. Yet their hearts are closer, I feel, to what Jesus taught and did than a single Christian I have met in this city. Do not get me wrong. The Christians I have met are not bad people; I count a few among my closest friends. But their marriage to conservative politics has them be extremely loyal.
“The only way to avoid attending a church you have serious disagreements with is to become a church of one person.”
Yup. Congregations are made up of people, who are flawed, who think differently than me. You can’t avoid that in any group of people. Unless you spurn community, you won’t have a “perfect church.”
I’m lucky in that I love my church, warts and all. It’s not perfect – it’s a little too priveledged, a lot too white, and exasperatingly clings to the “frozen chosen” stereotype (it’s painful watching the congregation stiffly and reluctantly attempt to clap and move with the music… like a middle school dance with less b.o.). It’s progressive, but largely without any actual risk. Nothing is at stake, so it’s easy to support cause x, y or z and feel like a reformer. But, we are trying. We really do walk the talk of being welcoming. We have quite a few gay and queer congregants, we have so many women leaders you’d think there was a shortage of men, and we are one of the only “green” buildings in the area. We take care of each other. And we aren’t done yet.
I did the church-of-one thing. There’s not much challenge there. Now I get to work up a sweat and get my hands dirty while I jump into the midst of a well-intentioned but comfortable and wealthy congregation that’s looking for a spark. It’s an exciting time to be a church-goer!
is this the ‘bargaining stage’ of grief & loss of what one knows as ‘church fellowship’? when peeps, places & things die or are dying there are stages as per kubler-ross imagined: 1) denial, 2) anger, 3) bargaining, 4) depression, 5) acceptance.
The problems start when a Church takes upon itself to try and define who is going to Heaven and who is going to Hell. Once they feel that they have got it right, all hell breaks loose for those who do not share their theology. No pun intended.
I would have thought the following would be required to in good conscience joon a church you had disagreements with:
1. They did not require you to do or condone anything you thought morally wrong.
2. You can in all good conscience join with them in worship (I.e. you can say
the words of the prayers and liturgy without being required to lie).
3. They don’t kick you out when they find they disagree with you (or require you to conceal what you believe to stay).
A good church teaches you how to drive. A bad church tells you to get on the bus and sit down.
By definition there is no such thing as a church of one, no matter how unfaithful and dysfunctional a majority of U.S. churches are. Ecclesia is a people called out of the culture.
A Church where it was accepted that we don’t necessarily all believe the same detail would be good. It’s that lack of acceptance that is my biggest problem.
I have found that community often means we have detach ourselves from the institution and find solace in a place where denominational differences in doctrine have no place. I have found that I have grown exponentially since leaving the institution we call church. I have found my community with the least of these in an at-risk school setting or the senior home at which my 91 year old mother lives. The students at the school and residents at the home have become my extended family. My husband and I meet at a local coffee shop on Sundays to do a book study. We read books written by Christian authors with whom we agree and disagree. The books have sparked some lively discussions. We are a church of two. Leaving the institutions which often hinder us from following Christ is okay. God is not limited to the building nor is he limited to the people in it.
Most excellent. While it’s nice to flock together with kindred spirits, there’s not much growth to be had in an echo chamber. Some diversity of thought and ardently committed difference is invaluable. There are some churches where people are more likely to share much in common than others. But there will always be those in them who think differently than we do. Thank God. Here are “7 Ways to find a progressive Christian congregation” http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogerwolsey/2014/01/7-ways-to-find-a-progressive-church/
Roger Wolsey, author, “Kissing Fish: christanity for people who don’t like christianity”
Oh, boy. I could really do with settling down to some serious writing today. Hold on while I find some nice music to play, then I’ll say my piece here and then I’ll write. This is a metaphor.
No one needs to go to church to be a Christian. Your church membership card (or whatever it is) is not a pass through the pearly gates. Nor will holding the wrong membership card damn anyone to hell.
I’m going to use the word ‘writer’ here, because that’s what I am and what I’m familiar with. I’m not a Christian. However, of you substitute the word ‘Christian’ for ‘Writer’ in the following I think we’ll find common ground.
Writers write. Goes without saying, doesn’t it?
Not quite because it’s surprisingly easy for a writer to forget, not least because writing is not easy and a writer knows a whole host of ways to avoid actually having to write.
Writers can do things in support of their writing. I’m a member of a writing group who meet once a fortnight and member of an authors’ collective which will help with self-publishing my books and I have a few textbooks on writing on my shelf and follow a couple of writing blogs. I also love talking about writing (you can tell) own a couple of really nice pens and I’ve personalised ‘Word’ on my laptop so it looks ‘writerly’.
But none of that matters if I’m not writing. Worse, engage in those support activities too much and they can displace the actual business of writing. It’s as though the supporting cast have killed the lead actor and think the story can carry on and no one will notice.
Writers write. The connection is so strong and unbreakable it would be better to think of writer as a verb and not a noun.
Now, writing is very personal. Ultimately, it’s only about two people: the writer and the one they’re writing for, that mysterious, slightly unknowable reader. You know who I mean by ‘reader’, don’t you.
Every writer approaches the reader differently because every writer has a unique point of view, a unique way with words, unique concerns, a unique voice. But every writer has things in common with other writers. The degree of common ground varies, but in the essential that all writers write all writers have something in common.
The use any one writer finds in a group of writers will vary. Superficially the group’s usefulness to a writer relies on finding the right group, an ideal linking of shared genre and style and intention (which needless to say does not exist) and a writer can grow frustrated at not finding that ideal group. At one time I wanted that kind of group but I’m wiser now and know that if I ever found such a group it would only have reinforced my belief in my strengths as a writer and ignored my faults because it would only have reflected my preconceptions back at myself. Instead I have discovered that writing wisdom comes from unlikely places and have improved as a writer precisely because I met with writers who did not share my aims and concerns.
Equally, a writer needs to find a writing group that accepts them and their aims and concerns. Some writing groups focus on poetry, others on specific genres, some are wholly focused on publication, others offer a form of therapy where the act of writing wholly serves the interest of the writer and there is no ‘reader’. All writing groups are good but not all writing groups are good for everyone and a writer needs to remember that. Writing groups need to remember that also.
But there is something else to consider. So far I’ve only spoke of the benefits of being a member of a group and ignored the benefit to the group of your membership. I’ve been doing this writing thing for a while now and increasingly (measured purely in the benefit it brings to my writing) I find I bring as much, if not more, to a writing group than I gain from it.
You might ask why I still bother being a member of a group if I get less out than I put in. Two reasons: when I began going to writing groups I took more out than I contributed because I knew less than those around me and though the ones I gained from are now long gone from my life it’s time to pass on what I learned to others. That’s how it works. Secondly, seeing the error in the ways of others reminds you to look for faults in your own work because you will never be perfect. Thirdly, helping others is enormous fun.
Where was I? I’ve rambled. Anyone would think I’m avoiding writing.
Find a broad group that accepts you without questioning or judging your aims or who you’re writing for. The reason you joined the group is to become the writer you wish to be and not what others think you should be.
Accept wisdom from everyone and be patient with those whose aims are different to yours. You may not yet know the kind of writer you are best suited to be and will never grow if you avoid challenges to your self-image.
Seek out those from whom you can learn and give yourself to those who would learn from you.
All who write are writers.
If Jesus is the corner stone and we are the building blocks, isn’t it about finding other “building blocks” where ever they are. I am connected to many “Christians” just by virtue of recognizing Jesus in them regardless of a church.
I am considering liturgical worship as food for the week.
It strikes me that the church of the NT (and reflected in her teaching) was never about all being the same, but agreeing on the One in spite of all being very different. Nothing we see evidenced in the Scriptures would indicate that a church of one can even exist. (Not disputing your tongue in cheek Ben.) Even by its very nomenclature the church is an assembly, and mostly an assembly for purpose. Rather than “going to a church” or “attending a church” there’s a real need for us to actually be the church, which puts all disagreements, preferences and opinions in their place — under the head of the Church, Jesus. Sadly, for me (and many), I find it too hard to place myself under Christ for the Church; it’s always easier to say: “I’ve tried but” and “I just can’t and” and “I don’t like” and “I know I should, however”..
First, thank you Benjamin Corey. I have to find a church where I can not just sit in the pew and argue in my head about so many of the ideas. For a long time I thought that if I talked about my doubts and my questions about theology that I’d be okay. But it didn’t work that way. My own desire to be part of a church was painful. So, I don’t go anymore. And I miss it. I even miss the sham ‘coffee hour’. We at least looked like we were trying to talk to each other. I read “Undilted: Rediscovering the Radical Message of Jesus,” and felt like there must be others like me. So, thank you, Benjamin Corey.
I think we really need to discuss just exactly what we mean when we toss around the word “church” in this context. I´m rather convinced the institution we so boldly encourage people to plug into is nothing like what we see in the New Testament. I also tend to think this idea of the “local church” that we toss around is more of a pastoral power play than actually an institutional body grounded in the teachings of Jesus Christ.
The books “Pagan Christianity” and “Reimagining Church” were helpful as I worked through my issues with church as an institution.
After making a similar journey I have learned to embrace (and am still embracing) Michael Ramsey’s (of Canterbury) definition of the Church as the always broken Body of Christ which turns to be a haven for all of us broken types.
As a former Christian-now-atheist, I have found the internet
the ideal “church.” It provided me the venue I needed to come to grips with the
teachings of Christ I embraced versus those claims about him that I rejected. (i.e.
I concluded I can still embrace the teachings of Jesus while also rejecting His
The best part about the internet church is that it’s always open,
includes virtually every human being on the planet, and I don’t have to shower,
shave, or get dressed to attend. 😉
I am a person who will never find a church with which I can agree on all things, but I don’t find it necessary to agree on all things; no church is a perfect fit. However, I do have a need for a church of generally like-minded people.
I really like your conclusion to this article: “If you’re interested in exploring what it means to follow Jesus in the context of a group of people who may express varying degrees of brokenness and beauty, ignorance and wisdom, or peace and tension, all while seeing where this uncharted path may lead us, then there are plenty of churches that will have room for you.”
While I cannot be part of a church that is opposed to all I am (like a fundamentalist church for example), a church with reasonable people who disagree with me on some things can be a place of growth.
Last week I posted an article on finding a new church that might be of interest to some people. https://jesuswithoutbaggage.wordpress.com/2016/01/04/5-steps-to-finding-a-good-church-fit-for-you/
Geerhardus Vos spent his waning years at home on Sundays reading his own sermons. I think about that from time to time. Brilliant man and challenging exegete and I owe him a lot, and that’s how you can end up if you decide you can’t put up with anything but your own thoughts.
I know you’re right. I do. But I live in an extremely conservative evangelical community where I think that it would cause me more pain to go to church than to not go to church. I keep looking for a place where I’m at least allowed to have differing opinions on some values that are very important to me. Or at least they aren’t made fun of during that Sunday’s message. But I do wonder if the advent of the Internet isn’t changing the face of worship somewhat. I can connect with others who see things the way I do, and even though we argue and discuss many points, I’m still accepted. Being accepted as a Christian is important. And I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be accepted in my community at most churches.