Trends are showing us that the mainline protestant church will ultimately die and those of us who are adherents to these traditions will do one of two things:
We will either join evangelical communities or not belong to any organized religious tradition.*
This statement literally took my breath away and it wasn’t about the fact that the mainline tradition is dwindling.The trend of what would happen to people like me – of what IS happening to people like me – was a sobering truth to hear.
I mean I get why we are dying.
I’ve experienced the fight of being a woman in ministry – how this call impacts my mental health, physical health and relational health.
I’ve experienced members of congregations treat faith leaders as if we were the hired help, present to do their bidding and at times threatened by them with the withholding of their financial resources if decisions aren’t made that align with their agenda.
I’ve come to understand our seemingly humble way of being as one marked by a false humility and our reverence, while authentic to many, is not really steeped in a spirituality that holds us accountable to our faith. Our worship experience is a Sunday morning affair that doesn’t really flow into our daily life.
As a black woman who was rooted in a historically white denomination, I’ve seen white supremacy run rampant – white supremacy as defined by the centering of whiteness; when practices, norms, and thinking are defined by heteronormative, patriarchal, white ways of being.
It has become clear to me that we will die if we don’t change. Even as I accept this reality, I still wonder what I will do when my mainline church dies.
I often vacillate between disillusionment and hope; between anger and apathy; between despair of a seemingly out of touch religious tradition and desire to renew religious thought in ways that are reflective of the space and time we find ourselves in. I am constantly wondering what to do, who to be, how to feel for such a time as this. I’m searching for something else, for something more.
What do you do when your religious tradition – the community of practice that formed and nurtured you – no longer meets your spiritual needs? What happens when a community of faith reflects your theological commitments but does not reflect your embodied existence – your ethnic/racial make-up, your identity, your cultural expression, your core convictions, and commitments? What is one to do when there is a dissonance between what is preached, what is done, and what/who is valued?
Recently I have found myself engaging more evangelical spaces. As one raised in a mainline denomination, I was taught to be weary of these communities. I can remember leaders in congregations saying that “It doesn’t take all of that” when referencing the emotive experiences of our sisters and brothers of charismatic traditions.
I was taught that right theology as marked by rigourous biblical inquiry and contextual alignment was more important than the “song and dance” that marked other worship experiences. We were taught to revere our theological inclinations and liturgical practice as things that were more holy, more righteous and more evolved. Now, this was never articulated in these crass terms, but it was certainly intimated.
When I was in seminary I remember feeling defeated when discussing spiritual practices with a professor. He told me that Lutherans don’t have a spirituality because spirituality was all about getting closer to God and there was nothing we can do to make this happen.
While I can understand the point of the comment, it sent me on a tailspin for quite some time because it felt like I was supposed to engage a faith that didn’t allow for cultural practices that were connected to my lived experience or spiritual practices that reflected a maturing faith.
These experiences led me to be judgemental about evangelicalism. I confess that I fell prey to looking down my nose at experiences that differed from mine. This was a mistake and I am so sorry for this way of being. When we judge a people or experience without knowing their story, we cut ourselves off from the Divine. If I believe that God is moving and at loose in the world, then I have to be open to the reality that another way of being might reveal another piece of who God is.
As I have entered a chapter of questioning my practice of faith and those spaces that formed me, I have found a piece of what I’ve been missing in the same spaces I was taught to question. In many ways, what I’ve witnessed in evangelical contexts has been the opposite of what formed me.
There is an embodied way of being (even as there are still struggles about the body itself) that marks worship. There is space to emote joy, passion, love, pain, grief – an array of human emotions that are acceptable to God.
These spaces tend to be marked by a “multi” reality. There are men and women. There are people of color and white folks worshipping and engaging in small groups side by side. There are elders and young people. There are different types of music that represent the diversity gathered in community. I am not the only one…
I’m so tired of being the only one in mainline spaces. A bit of my spirit deflates every time I show up in a space and I am the only black person, or the only person under 40. It’s exhausting. The evangelical spaces I have engaged draw me in simply due to the fact that I’m not the only one and I don’t feel like I have to have my guard up.
There is also a commitment to discipleship in the spaces I’ve encountered. Before I left Chicago, I became a part of a faith community called New Story. I LOVE these people and the community that is being created through intentional and proactive means. The pastors, Rich and Dori, became friends of mine.
They supported me as a black woman who was tired of being in all white spaces. They are unapologetically leading the development of a community that follows Jesus, that is rooted in context, that is open to inclusivity and that is making the connection between rigorous theological inquiry (head knowledge) and embodied, emotive experiences (heart knowledge). I was able to engage in various experiences and ministries that were as important as the Sunday worship experience.
I loved my women’s small group and weekly bible study. I loved the engagement in the community that I lived in. I loved the connection of issues of faith and life on a regular basis. Can I tell you that you’d be hard pressed to find a Lutheran church that offers small groups, weekly bible study or life groups that form around common interests and passions?
I begin to cry when I think about this community because I feel adrift. I felt like I found something that is hard to find. New Story restored my faith in church as defined by the gathered community that comes together to worship, that lives together as we deepen in faith and that shows up together in the world through acts of service and being advocates for justice.
By no means do I want to paint a romanticized image of evangelicalism. As this is not my community of origin, I am only experiencing things as a guest of a tradition. I know there are deep-seated issues around sexism, homophobia, and racism. My friends who are women of color who are native to these communities tell me of their struggles and hopes for their communities. We can point to the correlation between evangelicals and the election of our current president, and this is beyond problematic.
And herein lies the problem – do I choose the lesser of two evils? Do I go with what my heart needs and leave behind my head?
Do I drift back in forth between two communities in order to piece together experiences that speak to me?
Do I walk away from it all and continue to dive deep in my personal relationships and communities of support?
What is another way?
I know that there is no such thing as a perfect community. I am not searching for perfection. I’m searching for faithfulness, for intentionality and for a willingness to change and grow.
It’s been interesting to see the evolution of some evangelical leaders over the last decade. Whether it be around an issue or it be around a theological awakening that leads to a more inclusive read of scripture and practice, I know of evangelical leaders and communities that are changing. It’s as if they are opening up to the head knowledge that my formative tradition always uplifted.
However, I’m not seeing the same thing from my mainline family. We haven’t moved any closer to a heart way of being. We are still stoic. We are clinging to a romanticized version of our history and traditions. It does no good to live in the past and remain so loyal to a past that no longer serves us.
I am at a crossroad when it comes to my faith. Actually, that’s not an accurate statement. I’m not at a crossroad with my faith but with the religious and spiritual practices and communities that nurture my faith. In truth, I’ve been here for a while. With recent changes in my professional life and revelations regarding my spiritual needs and desires, I’m now in a place where I’m wondering what a way forward looks like.
What does the next chapter in my faith formation, in community connection, and in faithful service to the world look like? How am I being called to love God, love self, and love my neighbor in ways that embody my love of Jesus and my belief in my Christian faith? Are there communities that reflect what I’m seeking – inclusive of a multitude of experiences, identities, ethnicities, and expressions – or is it time for me to create a new thing?
*I recently attended an event sponsored by the Religion and Public Life Program at Rice University in Houston, Texas. The event was entitled “Public Religion from West to East” and featured Dr. Michael Emerson, a sociologist and urban studies expert who serves as the Provost of North Park University in Chicago, IL and Dr. Fenggang Yang, Professor of Sociology and Director of Center on Religion and Chinese Society at Purdue University. The conversation was moderated by Dr. Elaine Ecklund, Director of Rice University’s Religion and Public Life Program that dealt with trends, impact, and themes in public religion as it pertains to North American Western Christianity and Christianity in China.