When I got the email, it felt like a slap in the face. A cold, disembodied feeling stole over me. All I could say was, “Oh.”
My husband and I had recently been embroiled in a debate with our church over the role of women in leadership. With his full support and blessing, I penned an impassioned letter to our elder board after a beautiful unity service in partnership with a local black church asking the board to reconsider our church’s position on women in leadership. Unfortunately, the debate quickly devolved from the role of women into the value of women. Thus, began our journey into the choppy waters of advocacy where we got a front row seat to all the bad stereotypes of “Christian culture.” I was condescended to, deeply disrespected, and eventually silenced. The elders kicked me off the committee they previously said “God had appointed me to” several months prior. They completely ignored my husband, which I found strangely emasculating.
Conversation about culture is not emotionally neutral in our day and time. When folks talk about culture, it has become a rather subjective topic. I live in a small southern town with an extraordinarily high church-to-household ratio. There is a widely held assumption that you not only attend church, you attend a certain kind of church. This attendance magically translates into voting a certain kind of way and for a certain brand of people. In every sense of the word, my hometown culture is very specifically a “Christian culture.”
In the last two years, however, our (now former) church has not looked much different from many other non-Christian institutions: a pastor caught in an affair with a subordinate, an elder board at odds with each other and scrambling to protect their power and influence, a staff battling the pull of income over mission, people forced out of the church when they raised concerns. The last two years of the church read like any second page news story about any corporation. This church body wasn’t living counter culturally. Sadly, it was living out a cliché.
In the last two years I have been reading widely about the intersection of culture and the Christian faith. Even though the often-quoted statistics of church hemorrhaging don’t seem to apply to my small town, they still do. In his book Irresistible, pastor Andy Stanley talks about living in a post-Christian culture. He quotes National Review editor John O’Sullivan’s definition of post-Christian culture as “a society rooted in the history, culture, and practices of Christianity but in which the religious beliefs of Christianity have been either rejected or, worse, forgotten.” Stanley goes on to say that “in a post-Christian society, the majority have been exposed to Christianity (in our case, for generations) but are opting out for a different worldview—a different narrative through which to make sense of the world.”
It is interesting that the Old Testament patriarchs leaned on just that—patriarchy. And slavery. And owning their women and children. They leaned on hierarchy and power attributing all they sought to following a God of the same nature. But when Jesus came on the scene, he was the very epitome of counterculture. He espoused love over dominance, equality over hierarchy, service over power, assembly over nation states. Jesus challenged the establishment and its leaders, openly invited women to learn at his feet, went to the margins and dregs to heal and help, and admonished his followers to be like children. Jesus was completely countercultural. The problem was he was countering not just the Greco-Roman house-holding culture of the time, but he was also countering the thousand-year-old Judaic culture. He was countering his own religious culture.
During our rough introduction into advocacy, a fellow congregant got my attention when she started to describe her work in a local ministry supported by, but not affiliated with, our church. The I58 Mission operates in our little community to meet the physical needs of its clients. They have a food pantry and do other things like connect people who need dryers with people who are getting rid of dryers. In their retirement my friend and her husband have found purpose and family in their work through that ministry. They feel fed and filled while pouring out from a place of fullness and love. As I listened to her talk, her community at I58 sounded a lot like church. Or church as it should be. It made me think about the struggles of our particular church and of the Church.
While the Church has shown a steady decline over the last 50 years with millennials walking away from faith in droves, we see no shortage of cultural movements—post-Christian cultural movements—toward equality: Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, the migrant crisis, and even the abuse scandals in the Catholic and Southern Baptist churches. While these movements share the space of being highly controversial and conversations about these movements should be thorough and nuanced, it’s hard to argue they reflect a lot more of what Jesus taught than what we see coming from some of our churches. Jesus didn’t spend his time worrying about empire—Rome’s, Jerusalem’s, or otherwise. Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s. Jesus talked about loving our neighbor, giving to the poor, taking care of the disenfranchised. He was much more concerned about God’s Kingdom than he was about building a nation state for Jerusalem.
Last year, before our turmoil with the church, I read a remarkable book called The Ministry of Ordinary Places by Shannan Martin. In the introduction she writes, “As Christ-followers, we are called to be long-haul neighbors committed to authenticity and willing to take some risks. Our vocation is to invest deeply in the lives of those around us, devoted to one another, physically close to each other as we breathe the same air and walk the same blocks. Our purpose is not so mysterious after all. We get to love and be deeply loved right where we are planted, by whomever happens to be near; we’ll find our very lives in this calling, to be among people as Jesus was, and it will change everything.”
In this season of somewhat failed advocacy, all of God’s people in my house have said, “I’m tired.” We are taking a sabbatical, not from Jesus, but from the Church. A sabbatical from the church building, the cultural institution of it. Over the last two years, the folks who were the hands and feet of Christ to us did not worship under that roof. Some have a church home under more than one roof. One friend freely visits and worships with friends and loved ones in other denominations though she loves her tiny corner of Christendom. And some, like my friend who has found a faith community in I58, have no roof at all. I am certain we will return to a church building and a culturally traditional church body because we believe in the body of Christ. In the meantime, we coach soccer, we take meals, we sit with and pray for loved ones suffering through divorce, we help friends prepare for a move. We teach our kids more than the details of the Bible stories. We teach them the truth beyond the story and challenge them to apply that truth to their everyday lives, hoping to help them develop a faith that will stand up to the rigors of real life.
This feels countercultural because I live in a hyper-evangelical conservative culture with strict rules about what a Christian should look like. But Jesus didn’t have a lot of rules. The Pharisees did, but not Jesus. Jesus said, “by this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Turns out, “one another” is bigger than the church, the Church, or even all Christians. Life is vocational ministry, and our mission field is not limited by those traditional places and addresses. “One another” is everyone.