Mandatory Church Participation

Sarah is a master of owning her story. Not just the parts she is proud of or the beliefs and understandings she currently has. But all of it. It all belongs.

The chapter this week is about church. Sarah talks of the deep wounds and scars she has from going to church and working for churches. But as I read her opening paragraphs on all of the experiences of church, good, bad, and ugly, I wept.

Because of the way she owns both the good and the bad. These are a part of her story. Without those early experiences of church, and even without those wounds, she would not be the person who sat out to write this book. So we as readers need to be thankful for those things as well.

So many times as we grow and evolve in our faith, we want to forget the past. If we move to different traditions, we don’t want to claim that we were ever a part of that “other” system. When we pick up different ways of thinking, we don’t want to admit that we ever thought any differently. Or as we look at the other people who haven’t “progressed as far as we have” we forget what it was like to be in their shoes and become judgmental. Other times as we look back on the wounds we have received in church, we don’t want to acknowledge that some (if not many) of those were dealt by people trying to love God and didn’t know any other ways. So we set ourselves apart from and above these people.

Right when we decided to go back to church, I remember sitting in a service at a church which belonged to the tradition I grew up in. We were singing a song that I had been singing my entire life.

As the song exited its first chorus, I found myself thinking: “God, I hate this song. The theology sucks. The music sucks. The effort in singing it around me sucks. This church sucks. This tradition sucks. Why I am here? I am better than this.”

As this was happening I could actually feel myself trying to emotionally distance myself from where I was actually sitting. I had an abstract idea about what this all should look like, this place didn’t fulfill that so I distanced myself.

But here’s the problem with distancing ourselves and abstracting:

When we distance ourselves we usually do so because we think we are better than that which we are disengaging from. Distance and abstraction leads to self-righteousness and superiority.

Sarah talks in the chapter about how there is an abstract idea of Church, and then there is the church you encounter in real life. And while the abstract idea of church can be (un)helpful, there is only one place we encounter the church:

It is in real life in real places. There are no abstract Church members. Only real people in our real lives.

William Isaacs talks about how abstraction pulls us apart from the real world. What he recommends is recognizing that we are participants and an intimate part of the world around us. We are not somehow disengaged from the world, but interconnected.

As a follower of Jesus, you are a participant in the Church. You may want to distance yourself from it, but that is not part of the deal. In fact, it is fooling yourself. As a follower of Jesus you participate in the body of Christ.

photo_collage_heydWhich means you are connected to all those other people who claim Jesus as well. The good and the bad. The ones who wounded you so that you are mad “at church.” The ones who are so committed to the rules and regulations that they have lost sight of what is important. The ones who are taking the call of Jesus to radically love even our enemies and are out changing the world.

All of it. They are your story too. And trying not to be a participant in that is dishonest.

Don’t get me wrong. There are bad churches out there. And there have been enormous wrongs done in the name of “church.” Sometimes taking participation seriously means saying: I am no longer willing to align myself with this. I don’t want to participate in….”

We need to take participation seriously enough to recognize when participation is no longer healthy. So we tell the truth about both the beauty and the ugliness. And we find our own place to participate.

This may be church or a support group or a community…..but somehow we participate.

It is easy today to think we don’t need to participate. We can listen to only the sermons we want to hear on podcast, pick all the right music on the play list, and have all the opinions no one can challenge because we don’t talk to anyone about them.

But that is only us trying to abstract our entire lives.

The message of Jesus is too real and gritty to abstract it. And we are in desperate need of other people and voices to keep from becoming our own echo chamber.

I have my own deep wounds and scars with church. And often I am confused about which ones are wounds and which ones are scars. It is perhaps one of the more difficult things for me to write about and think about, much less participate in.

I took a couple of years off. I skip a lot. But that is all part of my story. One of the things I love about this chapter and the chapter on the Bible is that she reminds us there is grace when we take a break. Maybe we need to stop reading the Bible or going to church for a while. Maybe we need grace to heal.

Sometimes grace comes in the form of permission to just stop for a while.

But now we go to a church where we sing that song. It is in the tradition I grew up in. It is not progressive and revolutionary. But we go. Because we have some amazing people who go to church with us. And when we decided to go to church there, we became participants in this place whether I like it or not.

So we go and we participate, because everyone is better when we decide to embrace our participation rather than run from it.

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