Very little of my faith has involved leaving and arriving. The vast majority of it has involved wrestling, meandering, stretching, struggling. As the saying goes, it’s a work in progress. My spiritual GPS has yet to chirp, “ You have arrived.”
• Rachel Held Evans
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I encourage you to go to Rachel Held Evans’s blog and read her wonderful post, “On ‘outgrowing’ American Christianity.”
The bottom line? It’s never as simple or cut-and-dried as that.
I suspect all these claims of having left empty religion to find the true faith are ubiquitous in both evangelical and progressive Christian publishing culture precisely because they stem from the same illusion—that we are each a blank slate, that we have the ability to start over. But the idea that an American can just stop being an American, or that a Christian can just stop being religious, strikes me as naïve at best, arrogant at worst. It’s no better than the Bible reader who insists he’s not interpreting the text, just reading it, or the white male theologian who insists his theological views are the objective default, while those of women, African Americans, or Christians from the global South and East are contextual. It presumes that progressive Christians, unlike those conservative Christians, are totally unaffected by the trappings of American culture. If only it were that easy.
I certainly think there are aspects of American evangelicalism that people can outgrow, because of much of evangelicalism’s nature.
- A person can outgrow youth group style worship.
- A person can outgrow Sunday School level theology.
- A person can outgrow historical ignorance and the lack of appreciation for tradition.
- A person can outgrow a consumeristic approach to church.
- A person can outgrow religious kitsch and the marketing of faith.
- A person can outgrow simplistic forms of activism and a focus on soterian-style evangelism that ignores the fullness of what it means to love one’s neighbor.
- A person can outgrow the kind of separatist mentality that fails to honor and dignify the image of God in those who don’t share one’s narrow brand of faith and practice.
- And so on…
But on the other hand, Rachel is right when she observes that a person in our culture who leaves any tradition in search of a more mature faith and practice could have a list like this. Our American cultural assumptions affect all of the faith traditions that practice here.
I left the culture of evangelicalism — in my case a church-growth, discipleship-oriented, contemporary worship, missions-focused group — and found a more comfortable home in an ELCA Lutheran congregation. But our church is what I would call “Lutheran-lite.” Many of the emphases are there, but they are clothed in less than robust expressions of what truly attracts me to Luther and many distinctive marks of what I would call an “evangelical catholicism.” I’m not going to list any complaints, but if I did I would attribute almost all of my specific discontents to our church and denomination’s cross-pollination with liberal American political and cultural values and with envy toward the evangelical world’s success in growing churches.
When I do complain or think about finding another church, it’s not long before I look in the mirror and see an American who is steeped in the spirit of individualism and personal autonomy. Bottom line is, I want what I want the way I want it.
I’m sure every church in which I’ve been a member would have a list of complaints about me too!
Rachel is absolutely on the mark when she writes, “perhaps real maturity is exhibited not in thinking myself above other Christians and organized religion, but in humbly recognizing the reality that I can’t escape my own cultural situatedness and life experiences, nor do I want to escape the good gift of my (dysfunctional, beautiful, necessary) global faith community.”
So…in brief, welcome to the mess.
The path is never straight, the way is never clear, the goal is never certain, the context is never completely nourishing or satisfying. And I’m as much a mess as anyone else.
What is important is being on the path. With Jesus. With one another. With our neighbors.
Loving the Church means both critiquing it and celebrating it. We don’t have to choose between those two things. But those of us who remain Christian cannot imagine ourselves to be so far above the Church – including the American Church – that we are not a part of it. (RHE)