Is Christian Privilege killing the church?
At what some of my colleagues saw as the breaking point of Occupy Oakland, January 28, 2012, one of my friends said, “Ah, Occupy Oakland, now you’re just somebody that I used to know.” For a lot of folks committed to seeing a justice-filled peace in Oakland, Occupy was a roller coaster of deep love, deep pride and deep disappointment. On January 28, we witnessed some of the most awful police actions of a months-long movement riddled with awful police actions, but it was also a reminder, as another friend of mine pointed out, that OO suffered due to a lack of intentional non-violent commitment and also intentional non-violent strategy.
(I later spoke on a panel with Erica Chenoweth, whose book “Why Civil Resistence Works” showed quantifiably how nonviolence is strategically more effective in creating lasting change at the national level when used consistently within a movement. If you don’t want to read a very dense book, she sums it up in 12 minutes in her now famous Ted Talk. A number of OO folks that day wrestled with the elitism that often shows up in accusations against people who participate in property damage or violence and also the fact that OO’s “diversity of tactics” strategy reduced safety particularly for people of color who were less likely to engage in the movement, among other complex issues.)
Long story short, the Gotye song captured a feeling about Occupy Oakland among some of us movement types: we loved you, we gave ourselves to you, you broke our heart; now you’re just somebody that we used to know. (Two years later, I believe the Occupy movement had a lot to do with creating space in the public discourse for addressing wealth inequality in America, the fast food and WalMart workers’ movements, and the gap between poor working people and the ultra-rich. However, I still regret that Occupy Oakland didn’t become the unifying strategic nonviolent movement that our city needed and deserved.)
All of this is a long prelude to my reflections on the church today. Occupy Oakland was a flash in the pan compared to my relationship with the church. I have loved Jesus like he was my best friend since I was three. When I was in fourth grade, my mother and the church’s Christian ed director said that when I grew up, I would either be a nun or a Jesus freak. Church folks have loved me and nurtured me and cultivated me for leadership. When I moved to a new school, my church youth group loved and supported me when I would have otherwise felt incredibly awkward and alone.
The church did such a good job of this love and nurture that I eventually followed my calling to become an ordained pastor. So why do I sometimes feel like the church is just somebody that I used to know?
It’s not just me. A friend of mine was tweeting from a conference this weekend where Mike Piazza of Center for Progressive Renewal noted two things: (1) the best leaders are going to the non-profit arena because they feel the church does not allow for transformative leadership, and (2) church giving is down nationally because people do not trust the church to use resources effectively to address either charity or justice as effectively as other non-profit organizations. I’ve also had several clergy friends recently talk to me about how they don’t want to work in (or going back to working in) a congregation or in denominational life; nonprofit work is more inspiring and life-giving and hope-filled for them. (Anyone who’s talked to me about the Oakland Peace Center literally sees the glow when I talk about events where our partners come together.)
I struggle to admit this, and my friends only talk to me about it anonymously, because it feels profoundly ungrateful. The church has been very gracious and nurturing and kind to me. I love to preach. I know that my role as an ordained minister matters to people and calls me to being my better self. And if I’m being really honest, I kinda like the robe.
But two years before I stepped down from my congregation, I suggested they bring on a co-pastor to handle worship, because while I was really passionate about community outreach, I no longer believed in the container of Sunday morning worship as the vehicle for helping people in our immediate community connect with God. I told them I was happy to be proven wrong, and I knew that they still believed in that model, and it was their church, but that if they wanted to see that as their primary avenue to share God’s love, they needed to find someone else to do it, because me leading something I didn’t believe in guaranteed it wouldn’t grow. Ultimately it’s probably why I left the congregation; I believed more deeply in my ability to connect with the community and effect change through the secular nonprofit the Oakland Peace Center than the deeply faithful spiritual community that gave birth to it.
Now for some folks, this is about rigidity versus flexibility; Gen Y is not patient with anyone who speaks in absolutes, and if the church is not able to embrace postmodernity then it is irrelevant to the next generation (Brian McLaren speaks to this issue regularly). Interestingly, this is an issue that shows up in Islam as well as Christianity and other traditions, at least in North America. (In fact, an essay re-posted by a Muslim friend is part of what prompted this blog post.) But the church I pastored wasn’t particularly rigid in its beliefs; it just didn’t know how to create space for people who weren’t saturated in church culture, and I’m not 100% sure it was ready to sacrifice what worked for it in order to create something that didn’t work for them and might not work for anyone else. And that’s true in most of the churches I work with and most of the ones I’ve worshipped with over the course of my life: what the church is doing now works for them; what might come in its place probably won’t. If it’s not working for more and more people (including me), they’re really sorry about that and really want what they have to work for us. That’s about as far as many churches can go, and I think it’s going to eventually lead to the modern church’s demise.
I want to be clear that I have plenty of colleagues who disagree with me. Some of the smartest people I know believe that the traditional Sunday morning worshipping community is still the best way of bringing people together to be a transformative force in the broader community. They can point to far more examples of where it is working than I can point to of alternative spiritual communities accomplishing anything similar to what they can. In fact, I post this with real trepidation because I also can think of several examples of where church is working. (Particular shout-out to Allen Harris’s Franklin Circle Church in Cleveland, Ohio and Bill Lee’s Louden Avenue Christian Church in Roanoke, VA among many.)
My only argument is a negative one: I believe those traditional communities, while still reaching some people who need them deeply, are reaching fewer people and losing more, because their style of worship resonates with fewer and fewer people (and I’m not just talking about traditional hymns versus gospel or contemporary; I’m talking about sitting in pews as spectators versus being fully participatory and being community in ways that might not even involve worship). Ultimately, this to me is about worship that does not build community, and little outside of worship that builds community either.
Of equal importance, I also think churches that have benefited from centuries of Christian privilege are unable or unwilling to take gospel-driven risks in prophetic ministry. (I sometimes sit in clergy meetings of brilliant and powerful pastors who calculate political advantage and strategic power brokering but rarely engage in political actions that will cost them power and privilege within their congregations or their communities. They pray deeply and faithfully and quote scripture with genuine sincerity but rarely apply it to conversations about power.)
I actually believe Christian privilege has a lot to do with why a lot of regular church members don’t know how to communicate in compelling ways with non-church goers about why church is important, and I believe it also has a lot to do with why the church is not bold in its actions about even the things it believes in: because there is a cost to standing against institutions of power, and the church that has benefited from privilege has too much to lose. I believe these two things—-worship that doesn’t build community and lack of moral vision—-are why the church as we know it stands little chance of survival. It stands little chance of survival because those two issues point to a church having gotten comfortable (and maybe in some instances a little lazy? or at least stuck), which make it increasingly irrelevant.
Like I said, many disagree with me. My best friend can name countless congregations that are reaching the people I care about most (at-risk youth and young adults), and all I can say is, “they’re not ever going to reach all of them, and they’re going to keep reaching fewer and not holding onto them for long.” Another friend of mine is really intentional about pointing out that mid-size churches hiring creative and entrepreneurial Gen X pastors are seeing numerical and spiritual growth and engaging in really exciting work in their communities and has a really solid formula of the elements that make for a successful pastorate. A good friend of mine, one of the smartest people I know, could not help but roll her eyes the other day when I used the phrase “alternative spiritual communities.” I was actually too embarrassed to tell her that I’m in the midst of cultivating one such community, and most of what inspires me these days are those types of communities, even if they’re not sustainable on a large scale. (Shout out to two of my favorites: The Table in Berkeley and Shalom of Oakland. I want the Ubuntu Community to be as cool as you guys when it grows up.)
But I crave a place where I can wrestle with spirituality in community with others wrestling alongside me. I crave a place where we can bring our whole cultural selves into the space. I crave a place where the people in the room have each other’s backs in times of crisis and help each other be their best selves because they are in deep relationship with one another. I crave a place where no one has the answers but we can create the answers together. I crave a place where we courageously take on systems of oppression but are not beaten down by them because we also recognize that we are part of something much bigger than a moment in time or even a movement. I think that what I crave is more akin to the church in the book of Acts than most of the churches I’ve worshipped in. I do not think I’m the only one who craves this slice of the beloved community. And, hesitant as I am to admit this, I do not think I’m the only one who does not find it in even the most dynamic church.
I also think it’s really important for me to admit to myself that the spiritual community I dream of is almost completely aspirational, although I mentioned a couple of communities that do look like that, and I would like to name an incredibly successful community like that: Church of the Saviour in Washington, DC and its offshoots over the past seventy years. But I am not the first nor will I be the last to get frustrated with institutional church and advocate for a new start. I join the apostle Paul, George Fox, Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell, and also probably more cult leaders than I’d like to admit. Part of what church is about is staying in relationship even when it is hard. But I also want to focus my energy in places where I can be about the work of the kin-dom, and I feel less and less able to do this in many of the churches I encounter. And also, the whole ministry of Jesus was aspirational.
Like I said to my congregation two years before I left, I may be completely wrong. But in addition to seeing young people in general uninterested in church (across race and class), I see some of my brightest and most innovative clergy colleagues drifting away from both parish and denominational ministry, so I write this blog post mostly just to ask the church to reflect on why that is. Is there something else we should be cultivating together alongside strengthening the traditional churches, just in case I (and hundreds and thousands of others) are right?
I used to arrogantly believe I was called to “save the people who were in the church,” which is how I defined congregational transformation. I believed my ministry was about helping people who went to church out of habit and for the sake of comfort realize that they could experience the Holy Spirit in profound ways by doing radical new things in partnership with the community outside their doors, maybe even SHAPED in part by the community outside their doors. Eight years of ministry has knocked that arrogance out of me, and colleagues have reminded me that the people who have given their lives to the church may in fact deserve the comfort of worship that feeds them even if it has stopped feeding others. So instead of making other people and myself unhappy for a living, I now spend most of my time doing something that many of the church folks who raised me would not recognize as church. And I suspect that I will spend more and more of my time doing that, because it offers me hope and energy and a sense of purpose and partners in the struggle.
For now, though, I also remain engaged with the traditional church.
I remain engaged with the church because some of the most phenomenal people I know are people of faith. I think we approach the world differently when we know we are created by the divine and we also know that everyone else is, too. It demands that we connect with something different in one another.
But I don’t remain engaged with the church because I can count on it for community. I don’t even remain engaged with the church because I can count on it for inspiration. And I don’t remain engaged with the church because I can count on it for a model for justice. I find those things in different networks.
I remain engaged with the church because I want it to provide community, inspiration and justice for far more people than it does now; and while I no longer think it’s my job to make that so, but I think it’s my obligation to offer that possibility.
I remain engaged with the church because even though the church doesn’t meet my needs, individuals within the church inspire me greatly.
I remain engaged with the church because the people of the church have loved me for a very long time, and, truthfully, I’m afraid that the church will become, like Occupy Oakland, just somebody that I used to know.
Addendum: There is one profound exception to what I have written above: the Moral Mondays and Moral March campaign led by the Rev. William Barber, chair of the North Carolina NAACP. Many traditional church folks, spurred and inspired by worship and seeking to build the Beloved Community despite ugly opposition from the state legislature, are joining forces to build the movement I initially hoped Occupy Oakland would be. If more churches were stepping into the breach as prophetically and pastorally as the Moral March churches are, I might be able to live with worship that doesn’t really feed me because I would be shoulder-to-shoulder with fellow kin-dom builders outside of worship.