Why The Church Must Die - Part 1

Essay by Rev. Jessica Shine on 24 October 2019 4 Comments

 

The church isn’t just dying. In many parts of the United States, it is already dead.

At least, its impact is. The pews are still warm, the offering plates clanking with coins, and the bodies are present. However the church itself is wasting away and has become irrelevant. It has become a hall to rent or a historic building. And that must die.

The Church must die. Churchianity[1] specifically. The elevating of an organization or institution, and its importance over that of Jesus, is what I mean by churchianity. Often in America, the words church and churchianity are virtually interchangeable. And this gospel of its death is really good news.

I know, I know, ‘but my denomination is part of the fastest growing evangelical groups.’ ‘America is Laodicea (an oft misquoted reference to Revelation 3), when will we wake up!’ ‘But the church is growing outside of North America.’

And yet, since 1990 The Pew Research Center reports that Americans have dropped from 92% to 70% reporting they believe in God. Not a Christian God only, as this statistic includes Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and other faith groups. “The recent decrease in religious beliefs and behaviors is largely attributable to the “nones” – the growing minority of Americans, particularly in the Millennial generation, who say they do not belong to any organized faith.”[2] Often considering themselves spiritual but not religious because Churchianity doesn’t align with a current understanding of social issues, including homosexuality. The church in North America is following suit behind its predecessors in Europe, where the demise of the mainline institution was exacerbated by its lack of relevance and over emphasis on a constructed building rather than human presence. In other words, crusades ended and life kept moving and nobody missed the church. Too often it seems the church is creating another crusade to prove its relevance, only distancing those who really want to know more about Jesus and encounter the Teacher.

Before you roll your eyes, understand I love the Church and what she has given me: rich experiences of building community, fellowship in other countries, a deeper understanding of scripture, the challenges (and blessings) of building community in suburbia as a woman of color, the collegiality of (a few) brothers (and more sisters) in ministry who are able to show mutual support. And yet, I could write a third testament on what Jesus never actually said, but Churchianity has made a dividing line or test of fellowship.

For example:

  1. Jesus never intended to start an institution or another religion apart from Judaism. Spoiler alert: Jesus was a brown Jewish person from north east Africa. (Feel free to argue, but there is no ‘middle east’ state, country, or continent. That label is for oppressive religious, political and economic purposes).
  2. Jesus never intended to compete with other mystical viewpoints of the Divine. I.e. Jesus’ primary audience was his Jewish communities and occasionally their immediate captors (the Roman empire), not Buddhists, not Hindus, not that weird church down the street you keep getting postcards from.
  3. Jesus really is the point, not churchianity. In the gospels and the scriptures that follow, Jesus invited his community to two simple practices. These were echoes from the Tanakh (Jewish scriptures most Christians, including progressives, harmfully label as the old testament). The two pillars of Jesus’ community were gathering together for meals and the sharing of resources (communion), and baptism (regular ritual cleansing).
  4. The Church is not a building or an institution. It’s people and we’re messy.

 
Churchianity must die because it is a tool of the modern supremacist empire crafted by political powers who want a system to control rather than commune. It is ancient, but emigrated along with Christianity to this continent under the guise of fallacies like manifest destiny. Churchianity emphasizes things Jesus never said (or did). Churchianity has bought into the empire ideology that bigger is better, and that we must have more in order to prove our relevance or importance. I recently saw a billboard advertising a ‘christian’ event that included the word ‘conquer’ in the title. Paul and Jesus had plenty to say about ‘conquering’ ourself and our ego, yet the church has taken these and other teachings and created a mandate for us to ‘fix’ each other, or make each other into an image of godliness the church says is sacred. Stuff Jesus never said.
 
And yet….
 
We need connection with each other. We need to sit across from each other at meal time, to laugh together, walk together, talk together. Jesus knew this and surrounded himself with people who would never willingly choose to eat together, even with someone like him. Jesus often honored and challenged the community that raised him. Honoring his mother’s request for wine at a wedding party or inviting himself to dinner with a tax collecting traitor. Jesus inserted himself into uncomfortable spaces because he understood the value of communing together. And yet, we face a loneliness epidemic in North America that includes a stark disconnection to the communal spirituality of our ancestors. In fact, most Americans aren’t even conscious of how their ancestors viewed the Divine.
 
Friendship expert, Shasta Nelson says, “We know more people in history, and yet we feel like we have no one to confide in… modern day loneliness is not because we need to interact more, it’s because we need more intimacy. Frientimacy is a relationship where both people feel seen in a safe and satisfying way[3].” Unfortunately, Churchianity defines how we see each other, and horrifically also defines how we navigate friendship. And yet, according to Nelson, the single greatest factor for life expectancy is meaningful relationship. Not diet, exercise, or social issues like smoking or drinking. Let that sink in. Jesus commanded his followers to love radically, yet Churchianity insists we must modify our behavior before we can have community. The church has lost its relevance as community and within community, and so it will die.
 
We need connection with the Divine. Beyond the science that proves meditative and prayerful practices actually help our healing, we inherently have an openness to God, Wonder, Awe (the Divine who has many names or no name). Writers of Progressive Christian children’s curriculum know this and often invite more of that curiosity forward to help kids become learners, rather than receptacles of pre-decided information. We are born with an inherent awareness and desire for communion with God, yet so little of our daily routine fosters that. Within the church, connection to the Divine can feel even more narrow and difficult. Stuff Jesus never said or did in his own life has been used to keep us within the confines of Churchianity and out of the realm of communion.
 
In the tradition I came from, I was inspired by nature based awareness and practices of pioneers like John Harvey Kellogg, who founded sanitariums (and invented modern breakfast cereal). Kellogg and others wrote about the benefits of fresh air, exercise, moderation. Spiritual teachers embraced this ancient wisdom in a time when our air was being poisoned by gun powder and factory exhaust. The founder of the denomination that ordained me often advocated for fresh, whole foods, adequate sleep, and avoiding extremes.
 
Our modern American society hasn’t been built by people who want to make us happy or holy. It’s been built and is still maintained by people who want to produce more faster, and who have taught us that our worth depends on what we produce. Unfortunately, like many dying corporations, the church baptized itself in a meritocracy mindset. And now, we are reaping the consequences of those ‘founding fathers’ as well as the Jesus movement (birth of modern evangelicalism) and the Jesus seminar alike. This is something I’ll be unpacking in an upcoming article, please keep reading.
 
And yet, the Jesus of the gospels stands in stark contrast to production (and deconstruction) as a means to a fulfilled life. For example, in the book attributed to Matthew, Jesus goes to the desert after a show stopping baptism, complete with descending dove and heavenly proclamation. Instead of engaging cheering crowds he retreats.
 
What?!?
 
Then, when he returns to civilization, Jesus turns down an invitation to power and instead spends time with the homeless, prostitutes, and is accused of being drunk. Imagine what would happen in your city if Christians did what Jesus did? He loves his small community, this band of misfits and mismatched beings. Then the strangest twist… HE DIES.
 
Jesus doesn’t ascend the lectern and deliver a speech to the religious leaders motivating them for the next general assembly or offer a vision of evangelism for the next 10 decades. He dies. And he makes sure his community knows how much he loves them. He offers them bread, wine, and his body. Jesus makes sure his mother has community, that his brother has community[4]. In how he dies and in how he lives, Jesus honors the deep need we all have for communion with each other and with God.
 
And when Jesus is resurrected, he STILL doesn’t establish himself on a throne or political banner (I don’t actually care if you believe the resurrection part because it’s not important to my point or the point of the story). Instead, Jesus does weird stuff like sneaking up on two of his friends walking and grieving, but he hides his identity[5]! He hides who he is and asks them questions so he can be with them in their grief. He invites them to be vulnerable, and in their vulnerability to invite community.
 
Then he shows up while his community is actually doing what he modeled for them and gives one mandate: peace[6]. ‘Do all of what you have seen and experienced, and trust that the same spirit that empowered me is empowering you.’ Jesus says this to a room of mixed races, religions, and sexes. To a room of people without theological training or certificates, or linguistic and exegetical prowess. These are the people (not plutocracy) to whom Jesus entrusts the ‘good news.’ People who have serious doubts about each other, and will argue with each other, and may even despise each other. And when one of them can’t believe it because he wasn’t actually there, Jesus shows up again and offers peace! What would happen if the church offered peace in the midst of doubt? If those who profess to follow Jesus shared a greeting of peace with those in turmoil? Most of us don’t actually need answers in our doubt, we need communion. To know we are not alone.
 
And yet, the Church in North America is dying. And the good news is that it must die. Churchianity must die because it isn’t the way of Jesus. In many ways the church has usurped the place of Jesus in importance. A building, an institution, and a theology have taken the focus rather than the way of peace. In an effort to make things cleaner, decisions easier, and more streamlined, the wrestling and messiness has been replaced by committees and mandates. In some ways, that has been helpful. However, it has also prioritized uniformity over unity, and created competition amongst denominations rather than communal compassion for a mutual mission: to further the peace the Teacher offered. In doing so, the church has also marginalized those varied people that Jesus brought together and trampled on the peace that was tantamount to those communal gatherings.
 
So here’s the really hard part (if you’re still reading this). For those of us who do love the church, where does that leave us? Not just the idea of church, but also the people.
 
As ministers, we must help midwife a transition. In North America, this means owning the complacency and complicit behavior of the church, which, through the guise of evangelism, enslaves people of color and indigenous people to white Anglo-Saxon language and culture, and robs them of their legitimate heritage[7]. By leading our congregations to do this difficult work, first internally, then as a community, we can help midwife this transition of death. We must own the white-washing of Jesus that we inherited from Romanism, Europeans, and those early pioneers who weaponized it against Native Indigenous people.
 
We must midwife the church to die a good death by living differently in our world. Not just driving less, or driving a different car, but by detaching ourselves from a narcissist capitalist system that keeps us in debt and addicted to what we do not need to be happy. Rather than industrializing the church, we as clergy, must help make the church smaller and more relevant. We must be willing to return to our prophetic calling of living in commune with each other and the Divine, as Jesus did. We must be willing to live as Jesus lived, and die as Jesus died, not as a martyr but as a person opposed to a system of oppression who offers themselves up fully.
 
The church and Churchianity must die. And thank God, it is, so that what can be reborn, or resurrected, is a new Community. Messy, meaningful, community. I believe when the churchianity of North America dies, or implodes, it will make way for small organic, messy communities to gather like they did after Jesus death. Much like Jesus gathered to himself. Much like they have in villages and tribes for centuries. In homes, in coffee shops, and in nature we will gather because we are yearning to connect with each other and with the Divine. We will share each other’s joys and burdens, without need for an employed minister or an institutional affiliation. Egalitarian community was the vision of Jesus and is rising up now in our midst through Black Lives Matter and occupy movements. This uprising is among the greatest fears of the empire of Churchianity.
 
The late prophet, Rachel Held Evans wrote, “Death is something empires worry about, not something gardeners worry about. It’s certainly not something resurrection people worry about.[8]” Death is part of the life cycle, yet so many christians are in denial about the church’s impending death, and even fewer want to believe that it must die. I was too, until I realized that there was no room for me in the Church. Not for my whole self. What hurt even more was realizing that there isn’t room in the church for the people Jesus called community. Which meant there probably isn’t much room for Jesus. I wonder how the Gardener will lovingly tend and prune those thorny branches that seem bent on destroying the vine and roots.
 
Perhaps when the church dies, then we will return to our Communal roots as an ecological partner and child of this planet, along with our relatives the trees, and winged, and swimming beings. Maybe then we will be true students of creation ever growing in community. Communing with each other and with God.

~ Rev. Jessica Shine

 

Question

I am changing from beliefs I was taught all my young life as the daughter of a minister with Southern Baptist Church. Though I do think my Dad wanted to “step outside of the box” of traditional beliefs. Ever since being “missionaries “ to West Africa back in 80’s and 90’s and I returned back to US I haven’t been the same as far as my “traditional beliefs” go. I didn’t fit into any Baptist Church anymore. I have wrestled with this for 20 years. Didn’t think I could talk to anyone I knew fearing I would lose their friendship. I read most of Dr Spong’s book “Unbelievable “ and realized I identified with most of his thoughts and beliefs. But still how can I be honest and share what I believe with the people I grew up with? Don’t think they will speak to me again. And some are my family members. How do I share my new beliefs when discussions come up?

Answer

Dear Susan,

What a delicate and powerful question. I can empathize with you in some ways. My parents were raised Southern Baptist and I have found myself struggling with the same question as I continue to find myself more settled in a set of traditions that often feel like 180 degrees and half a plant away from Christianity. I have noticed in myself that I had to get clear about my motivation to share my beliefs with my family, and with others in general. I had to decide if I was more interested in being right, or being understood. Or, if I was more interested in changing their minds, to help them “evolve” like me, or, if I just truly longed to speak with them about a piece of my spiritual life that was enlivened for me at that time.

That clarity of intention matters greatly. People know when we’re engaging with them for ulterior motives, such as changing them or judging them. For matters like this, where it can feel like relationships are at stake, it is so important to move with certainty about why you’re sharing such a deeply intimate piece of information. In my own experience, when I offer my new thoughts as less of my own and more as other ideas that exist in the world, things have gone more smoothly. If I enter a conversation and take the posture of “I know this better” or some such, it has not gone well. This seems basic, but it’s a subtlety that changes the tone of a meaningful conversation. Know why you want to say what you want to say.

Another aspect that has mattered greatly for me is adjusting what I expect of my family. I wouldn’t go to Dunkin Donuts and expect to order a Big Mac. As we grow and change we have to continuously check in about what we need and where we’re able to get it. If talking theology and spirituality enlivens you, and you don’t feel safe sharing those truths about yourself with your family, it may help to find some place to share your spiritual truths. If that’s the case, it will be important to properly mourn what it means that you’re family can no longer offer that for you. It need not mean that you disengage with them, but that you become more careful with yourself about how and what you share with them.

We’re all on different journeys. Even that truth can be difficult to say in certain company. Still, when I can remind myself that everyone has the freedom to journey as they see fit, it helps me respect that mine may not be so well understood by others. So, when I find myself in conversations like the one you have in mind, I imagine finding a way to be “the curious one” in the conversation. Instead of answering their questions about what I believe, I often try and hear more from them about why they think and feel what they do. Are there things they believe that cause them to feel they’d be outcast if they said them out loud? Have they ever experienced something unexplainable? Something that doesn’t quite fit the traditional understanding of what’s possible or “allowed” by their faith tradition. Underneath the scripts and narratives they’ve memorized, are their differing thoughts, experiences that cause them to question. By centering my family in those conversations I have found that they share more similar feelings to me than I expected. And, I can leave the conversation with a better sense of the boundaries, what else actually can be talked about. A latent effect of this centering of their perspective every once in a while is that they have learned quite a bit about me, without my need to say anything specific. They have gathered enough information about my growth from my questions. Every once in a while they even surprise me with an intuitive read of where I’m located on a certain issue. It seems that we’re always learning about one another, even if it’s not explicit in a conversation.

Susan, another challenging reality may be that you aren’t able to share your beliefs with your family. That may be a territory that you explore with a different set of select people in your life, people who “get you” in a way that your family used to. It may be that you only suspend this type of sharing with family for a short while. Change is happening all the time, they may be the next person you know to read Unbelievable and want to talk to you about it. Until then, ask yourself some questions about how you can feel like yourself without exposing so much of yourself that you lose precious relationships. Every relationship goes through seasons, and has its own set of expiration dates and limitations. It is possible, and normal, for this to happen between you and your family.

I hope this was helpful in the midst of an uncomfortable aspect of human growth. I wish for you to find a way forward with your family that doesn’t jeopardize your emotional safety or integrity. There is definitely a way forward, I trust it will emerge smoothly

~ Toni Reynolds

 

Comments

 

4 thoughts on “Why The Church Must Die – Part 1

    • David,

      Because of the formatting the footnotes did not translate onto the website archive.
      You can open your email copy and click the footnote links and they will display near the bottom of the portion.
      I am copying and pasting them here as well:

      [1] I first heard this term from The Rev Deshna Charron, who graciously cited The Rev Dr Megan Wagner, PhD. Perhaps there are others who have also identified this term.
      [2] US Public Becoming Less Religious, Article, Web: https://www.pewforum.org/2015/11/03/u-s-public-becoming-less-religious/
      [3] Nelson, Shasta Frientimacy: How to Deepen Friendships for Lifelong Health and Happiness. Seal Press, 2016. Print.
      [4] John 19:25-27
      [5] Luke 24:13-35
      [6] John 20:19-29
      [7] Deep Gratitude to my friend and teacher, Patricia St. Onge, and her offerings. Here is a helpful beginning guide for congregations: https://www.yesmagazine.org/issues/make-it-right/indigenous-rituals-heal-us
      [8] Evans, Rachel Held. Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church. Nelson Books, 2015. Print.

  1. Hello Jessica,

    I enjoyed reading your essay: Why the Church Must Die – Part 1.

    There are numerous foot notes indicated but not listed at the end of your essay.

    “Stuff Jesus never said or did in his own life” – Would you please elaborate on those things you allude to by this comment.

    Thank you.

  2. I wish the title had been different. As one of the spiritual-but-not-religious folks who thinks church is important and attends regularly, I don’t like to see people advocating for the death of churches as your title – albeit not your article – does. The people who only read the titles will have gotten the wrong idea from yours. I agree that churchianity – as you define that – should be replaced by greater efforts to live according to the teachings and example of Christ. – George

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