Readiness to Re-engage (Church Refugees, Part IV)

I’m not quite done thinking about Church Refugees by Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope.  When a book keeps me thinking this much, over the course of several weeks, it means the book is worthwhile reading–and I hope a lot of church leaders will read this book very seriously, because it turns conventional wisdom about the de-churched on its head.

The last couple of chapters are devoted to how the churches might either prevent people being “done” with church, or to re-engage those who have left and might be open to coming back at some point.  These are the people referred to in earlier research as the “open de-churched. The “closed de-churched are the ones who have been so damaged by the church there is little to no likelihood of their ever returning.  Institutional Christianity should mourn their existence, and repent of having taken action to create the category of “closed de-churched.”  But that is another discussion.

Today, I’m thinking about what it would take for the churches to be ready to re-engage those who have left, or are getting ready to leave. Yesterday’s post about silent disagreement is an important step.  Packard and Hope made a special point in saying one of the main reasons people leave is the difficulty institutional Christianity seems to have with disagreement.  People who leave aren’t looking for a church that caters to their opinions (not mostly, anyway); they’re not looking for everyone to think the same way on every possible topic. And while it’s unlikely they’re looking for knock-down, drag-out verbal conflict where one side wins and one side loses, they are looking for places where genuine differences of opinion can be expressed in safety, and where those whose views aren’t squarely with the rest of the pack can still find community.

This allergy to disagreement (bordering on an idolatry of agreement) which Christians seem to have, leads to many of the other things Packard and Hope indicated the churches do not do well, and which drive away committed and involved Christians.  The churches, according to their research, do not deal well with questions and doubts.  The churches do not welcome open discussion, but too often simply repeat doctrine (a word the researchers too often conflate with dogma, but as they’re not theologians, I’ll give them a pass).  All of which stems from an inability to engage with disagreement in constructive, healthy ways. Because doctrinal formulations from centuries ago, when they aren’t examined, discussed, and critically analyzed, are just opinions with which everyone must agree–and if you don’t agree, you can just shut up.

The churches are going to have to get a lot better at vocal disagreement before they are ready to re-engage the de-churched.  They are going to have to understand that disagreement doesn’t mean conflict, and it certainly doesn’t mean a lack of love.  Indeed, we can disagree the most energetically when we know we are with those we love best–because love transcends differences of opinion, and we know if we keep expressing and hearing those differences, we are going to come to a common understanding.  Not necessarily full agreement in every detail, but a fuller understanding than we would have if we insist we can only say exactly what everyone else in the group says.

Part of Pentecost, for me, is not only that people spoke in different languages–I think they must have tried talking about things in a variety of ways.  I can only imagine a wild riot of ideas being flung about and tried out to see what bits of each were true, good, beautiful, and holy.  And what bits of each were pure effluvia. And what parts might be useful in one context, but not in another.

That is partly what happens when people leave church but hang onto their love of God and neighbor. They read, or otherwise encounter a range of opinions on the same topic–sometimes, they put themselves deliberately in the way of doing so.  It’s exciting to learn  “what my church/pastor taught” isn’t the only possible way to look at something.  There are many ways to see it, from so many different angles and perspectives.  If someone leaves church and comes back, are they likely to be willing to return to looking from only one perspective?  I don’t think so.  I wasn’t prior to leaving (it’s part–but only part–of the reason I left), and I can’t go back to that kind of ecclesiastically imposed tunnel vision.

(Good ecclesiastics, by the way, don’t impose a tunnel vision. We need more of them.)

That leads to something that’s been on my mind for a while.  If people return to church after an absence, the churches have to expect that spiritually important things have happened for them, and they are not returning as the same people they were when they left.  Here again, Fowler’s stages are helpful. Leaving is part of the journey for many people.  Too often, church leaders make the mistake of thinking the de-churched have simply gotten off the spiritual bus and sat on the bench at the stop, and when the bus comes back around, the journey begins again.

We may have gotten off the bus, but we haven’t sat on the bench.  We’ve often walked to places we can’t go by the vehicles provided by institutional Christianity.  Some of those places are interesting and helpful.  The churches need to listen to the stories we tell of the places we’ve been, the places we couldn’t go if we traveled only via the church.

Listening.  Openness.  Respect for the journey of the de-churched.  These are things the churches need to work on internally before they are able to re-engage with those who have left (or are getting ready to do so).  My question is, will they be able to do so?

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