In Christ, Not in Church
I was twenty three, and driving to church in my gold Saturn one Sunday with my radio turned all the way up. I have no idea which tune was rocking on my cheap stereo, but I was enjoying the fresh spring air with my windows down. As I approached the church parking lot, I instinctively reached for the radio dial, intent on turning off the music which some of the old timers would deem
offensive. But instead of following my normal pattern of conformity and people pleasing, I decided in a moment of reckless abandon to leave my stereo turned up and my windows down. I smiled and waved at my fellow church-goers, ignoring the disapproving look on some of their faces. I know it seems silly to most, including my now 42-year-old self, but it was a watershed moment for me. It was the first time I had ever made the conscious decision to be myself, conventions be damned. And it felt great.
I grew up in a world of external conformity. Faking a smile, dressing the part, and using Christian lingo was as natural as breathing for me. Even if in private, I was breaking all the rules, in public, I could turn on the church-charm and bask in the praise I received. And I was really comfortable in my good-girl identity until I met my husband. There was something wild about him that I was drawn to, a freedom I craved but was terrified by at the same time. Unlike anyone I had met in my safe Christian bubble, he ignored convention and followed his conscience, however unpleasant the results. I hitched my wagon to that star without a clue how bumpy the ride would be.
I craved approval. He loathed pretense. I was a peace keeper. He was a table turner. I had a churchified image to maintain. He cared more about truth than perception. Throughout our twenty-odd years of marriage, I’ve endured the discomfort of disapproval, mostly by other Christians, too many times to count. And you know what? I survived. He rubbed off on me. Little by little, I shed the outer layer of illusory perfection expected by the church to reveal a self that is the same, inside and out. In other words, I stopped looking to the church for my identity.
In my last blog post, I talked about the common dead-ends we all travel down in our quest for identity, and the one path that will lead us to discover our truest self. Since God is the author and giver of #identity, you would assume that Christians would be the most self-assured, inclusive, authentic people on the planet. But of course, that is not the case. I want to point the finger inward at the #church (not a specific church, but the American church in general) for this blog, and hopefully stir up some dialogue about how we can change our narrative.
Why are People Done?
You may have heard about the recent mass exodus from the church. Three years ago, researchers reported that 65 million Americans who once attended church no longer do. And, 31 million of those, who have been coined the "#dones", still claim to be Christians. When asked why they left, many cited the inauthenticity of the “show” with the perfect music, fog machines and crowd-drawing gimmicks. Some are tired of hearing political speeches from the pulpit. Others are burned out from giving all their time and energy to something they just don’t buy into anymore.
If you listen carefully to these complaints, you will hear an overarching theme, and that is identity. Christians are becoming aware of the fact that they have been lead by the church to accept an identity that has little or nothing to do with Jesus, and they are done trying to embrace the identity the church is laying out for them.
The church has a knack for presenting all sorts of avenues for being and belonging that have nothing to do with Jesus. As long as there are humans on earth, we will have tribal boxes with in/out, us/them boundaries. But the church is particularly adept at making these boxes much smaller than Jesus ever intended. We tell people to find their identity in Christ alone, but then we expand on that by adding lots of other ways to be and belong. If you have been in church for any length of time, you can easily fill in this blank, and probably with multiple answers: “To be a good Christian, you must __________.” Churches fill in that blank with their pastor’s pet peeves and extra-biblical hobby horses, creating an identity box so small it leaves no room for individuality and diversity. Church goers must either conform (at least publicly) or be outside the acceptable limitations for being a “good Christian.”
Who do they want you to be?
I’ve already shared one example of that too-small identity box I felt forced into, which is “Good Christians don’t listen to rock music.” Here are some more identity boundary lines I have experienced in the church.
1. Gender Stereotypes. I never felt like I fit into the tight gender box created by my church, and in talking to others, I know I’m not the only one. The church has some major correcting to do when it comes to defining masculinity and femininity too narrowly. Boys who don’t fit the sports/hunting/leading mold, and girls who don’t fit the crafting/baking/nurturing mold are made to feel like they are not normal. Some learn to adapt (i.e. fake) in order to be accepted, but many are leaving the church in frustration because the gender boxes are too small.
2. Singleness/Marriage. In all the sermons I’ve heard and books I’ve read on marriage, one of the favorite references used is the Genesis account where God said, “It is not good for man to dwell alone,” and so he created Eve to compliment and complete Adam. I have heard pastors say that marriage is the ideal for every human, and that only a married couple can fully reflect the Imago Dei. I have talked to many #single people who view themselves as sub-par Christians, or worse, half the image of God because they haven’t found a spouse. I’ve also seen young people rush into bad marriages just so they can be accepted by their church peers. The church must find a way of talking about marriage that doesn’t cause single people to doubt their value and worth.
3. Marital roles. I feel we owe an apology to the church members from the early days of our church plant for focusing too much and too narrowly on marital roles. In our defense, we were regurgitating the prevailing wisdom of our religious tribe, which was simply, and without nuance, “Men lead. Women submit.” As a young married woman in the church, I heard lots of teaching on meeting the sexual needs of my husband, and on respecting him whether or not he is respect-worthy. My husband was taught that it was a man’s responsibility to provide for, and lead his family, and it was to his shame if his wife had to work outside the home to make ends meet. These unbiblical boundary lines around what it means to be a good husband or a good wife are destructive to the identity of both spouses, as well as to the marriage. Thankfully, I’m seeing this topic die down in recent years, but the damage has been done, and unfortunately for some marriages, it is irreconcilable.
4. Parenting. Boy, do we have opinions on what makes a good parent! The church is not immune to the culture wars over natural vs. epidural birth, breast milk vs. formula, organic vs. non-organic, immunizations, screen time, on and on it goes. But in the church, we have the added bonus of presuming to know what kind of #parenting pleases God. And so we have books like, Growing Kids God’s Way and we make broad statements like, “Godly parents do ______.” From discipline techniques, to education choices, to media exposure, there are no shortage of identity boundary lines being drawn by church leaders as to what makes you a good parent. I would not be surprised if this issue alone has pushed many frustrated Christian parents away from organized church.
5. Ministry. This is a particularly tender spot for me since my husband and I have been in ministry for more than 15 years. From a young age, we grew up hearing that full-time #ministry was God’s highest calling. Sure, you can go work at a factory somewhere or make lots of money in the business world, but wouldn’t you rather give your life to God and serve him? It sounded so noble and sacrificial. There are certainly people who are genuinely called into ministry, but many more were manipulated into it who shouldn’t be there, and are now dealing with tremendous pressure and guilt because their identity is tied up in their pastoral profession. To quit would be to abandon this identity. And what about the people who don’t end up as professional church-workers? I’ve seen two reactions – one is to passively sit back and consume while leaving the ministering up to the “professionals”, and another is to treat the paid ministers like they are on some higher spiritual plain than them. These people are severely let down when pastors fail or leave a church ministry, and many of them become one of the “dones” because they lost faith in someone they respected. Much has been written about breaking down the secular/spiritual divide, but more work needs to be done in how we frame the identity of the full-time minister.
6. Serving in the church. While God expects his children to love and serve other people as an extension of his love, the church tends to capitalize on this expectation as way to keep its doors open. Rather than teaching the general principle and allowing its members to apply it to their individual passions and abilities, the church is notorious for filling in that “Good Christians do blank” with all forms of church service-guilt. Pastors and church leaders need to take a good hard look at the things we ask of our people, and the ways in which we ask. We need to honestly assess if we are guilting people into serving to prop up our own church’s success. We may need to apologize to our people for using them, and assure them that they are loved and valued whether they contribute to the success of our churches or not. Too many people are walking away from church because they reject the notion that you can only be a good Christian if you give hours of your week in #volunteer service to the church.
I anticipate the push back I'm going to receive on this post. "Are you saying there is nothing we should expect from church-goers?" "Are you throwing out the Bible as the certain foundation for life and practice?" Of course we should still preach messages that bring conviction and motivate change. And there will always be core tenets of the faith that we can be certain of--the believer's identity as beloved, forgiven child of God being one of the most critical. None of the ways of being and belonging I’ve just listed, however, have anything to do with Jesus or the truth of His Word. You are not “less than” if you don’t perfectly fit a church’s gender stereotype, if you are single, if you don’t follow prescribed marital roles, if you parent differently than the “norm”, if you aren’t in ministry, or if you don’t serve in the church.
"In Him we live and move and have our being." Acts 17:28
Having said this, I hate to see the mass exodus that is occurring. I wish more people would stay and commit themselves to reform rather than walking away. The church needs members who refuse to allow their church culture to define them. The church needs leaders whose identity is firmly in Christ to call its members to seek out Christ’s unique vision for their own lives.
I know there are many other false identity markers than what I listed here, from politics to philosophy to theology. In the comments, feel free to add your own thoughts about how the church has falsely led you to believe your identity is in something other than Christ. In my next blog I will shift gears and discuss how some of the elements of our personal stories contribute to the beliefs we have about ourselves.