Best selling American author, Anne Rice, recently announced her decision
to not be associated with the church. The reasons for her decision are included in her quote below:"In the name of Christ, I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life."
Anne's quote sums up what more and more people are expressing about the church and Christianity in general. People view the church as judgmental and out of touch with the real world.
Her decision to leave the church reminds me of Bono, the leader singer of U2, who while having many Christian themes run throughout his song lyrics, has decided to keep his distance from the church. His context is a bit different since he is from Ireland where he has seen the church do a lot of hurtful things in the name of God.
And yet, U2 is known as not only one of the leading rock and roll bands in the world (see their huge success with their recent 360 world tour) but also as a band that performs concerts that feel a lot like a Christian worship service. Not only that, but Bono has been known for his humanitarian work in Africa, has been a featured speaker at the National Prayer Breakfast, and has been featured at continuing education events for pastors and church leaders!
Bono has been critical in how the church has been slow to respond to the AIDS epidemic in Africa but in a more recent interview, has said that he sees how the church has been responding more and more to the challenge.
So what do we make of this growing trend where people are wanting to distance themselves form organized religion?
Well, first of all, yes, the church needs to reexamine our judgmental ways and how we have not been faithful in living out who we are called to be. I sure hope that the church is humble enough to admit where we have fallen short. Too often, the church has had a triumphalist attitude that is not God honoring. Sometimes, the church sends a signal that they have all the answers and they don't allow room for the doubts and questions people have about the faith.
And this leads me to another thought. While the church may take strong stances on various issues, the church is still called to be open to hearing other opinions and voices. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, emphasized the need to interpret scripture with the aid of tradition, reason, and experience. It's this last component, "experience," that helps the church to see various issues from the perspectives and experiences of others.
I grew up in the church from the cradle through the present day. I've now served the church as pastor for 24 years. Yes, there have been times, that I have been frustrated with the church. Yes, there have been church meetings where people have not displayed love, patience, and respect. Yes, we sometimes say things in a way that is hurtful and judgmental. Hopefully, we are humble enough to confess where we have fallen short.
But more often than not, I have seen the church say and do things that make me proud to be connected to the church. I see people serving, loving, and caring in ways that are unique to the church.
One night at church, as I was getting ready for the first session of a new member class I was leading to help people prepare to join the church, a man who had been visiting our church stopped me in the hallway to offer a complaint. He said that if someone is a Christian, that person doesn't need to join a church since they are already part of the heavenly church. He said, "You shouldn't expect people to join a particular church, since they are already part of God's family when they became a Christian."
Here was my response. I affirmed that I agreed that when someone becomes a Christian, they are already part of the larger church, or as he called it, 'the heavenly church.' But I said, in the United Methodist Church, we believe that one of the best ways to grow in your faith in Jesus Christ and experience God's grace, is by making a commitment to a local congregation. For all her faults, the church is still an important means by which God's grace is extended to us.
Sometimes our connection to the church can have a love/hate feel to it. Yes, being a member of the church has its highs and lows. But at the end of the day, it is the community of faith, a local congregation, through which we experience God's grace again and again and we grow as disciples of Jesus Christ. Scott Peck, a Christian author in referring to a marriage, says that every marriage needs a little friction in it for growth to ocurr. I believe the same is true with our relationship to the church.
Below is a prayer I pray every Sunday morning before heading over to lead the church in worship. It's a prayer that for me, really says it all. It's a prayer that is even more needed after reading about Anne Rice announcing that she is leaving the church.
In humility, pray with me:Gracious Father, we pray for your holy Catholic Church. Fill it with all truth, in all truth with all peace. Where it is corrupt, purify it; where it is in error, direct it; where in any thing it is amiss, reform it. Where it is right, strengthen it; where it is in want, provide for it; where it is divided, reunite it; for the sake of Jesus Christ your Son our Savior. Amen.