The 3:30 Project is a collaborative blog by three life-long friends: Maggie, Mary Margaret and Jillian. Maggie and Mary Margaret often read books in tandem; we call it our two-person book club. As summer ends and many people begin new autumn routines, this sometimes involves seeking out a new church, recommitting to church attendance, or maybe simply pondering church in general. For September, we bring you (in two parts) our thoughts on Rachel Held Evans’s book Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving and Finding the Church.
I learned while researching my own kind (oh, those Millennials!) for our recent topic that my generation is less religious than Gen X, far less churched than the Boomers, and way, way less doctrine-steeped than the Greatest Generation. We appear to be drifting away in droves from our religious institutions, and like Rachel Held Evans describes in her book, instead using Sunday as a chance to roll over, hit the snooze button, and eventually emerge from our covers to a communion table of pancakes and coffee.
I often work Sundays because of theatre matinees, so while this description resonates less with me, I can certainly relate to the fact that when I attend my church in midtown Manhattan, I don’t look around and see an overwhelming number of people in my demographic. Part of this is simply urban life; New York ain’t no Bible-belt, so actually fewer people in any demographic are regular church attendees. In the South it seems like people simply ask what church you go to, but up here, it isn’t infrequent to meet people who grew up in a household without any ties to organized religion. My peers and I are also in a grey zone in terms of life development, you might say—a span between higher education (crisis of faith!! I just took an anthropology class!), marriages and then having children, which is when you see many people seeking to reintroduce church into their lives.
No insult to Ms. Held Evans, but her book wasn’t a mind-blowing revolution to me; mostly because I’ve had so many similar thoughts to the ones she describes. I did not grow up Evangelical, but I grew up Southern in a church-going household, and I too have spent much of life going through small revivals—continuously renegotiating my relationship to my faith and to the church. She organizes her book by the sacraments, exploring these different rites as a means to understand a predominantly Millennial viewpoint on the modern American church. Her book was comforting to read in its familiarity; her descriptions of periods of doubt, frustration with overly political, non-inclusive actions of the church, the constant push and pull on the individual heart and mind by the people and ideals of the church—in how many conversations, journal pages, and soul-searching sessions have I grappled with these same topics?
So why ultimately do I belong to a church? Why do I, a 30-year old single woman without any children feel the desire to engage in a faith community? Why is simply individual prayer or personal faith not enough to sustain me? Why do I, though I see problems and politics and petty grievances in the oh-so-human institutions of the church, still believe it is a worthwhile space to spend time and energy?
For me, this basically all revolves around my non-revolutionary revelation that the church is people. Not a building, not a steeple, not a church council, or diocese. The church is nothing more and nothing less than the living, breathing human souls of people who put their trust in Christ. These bodies, minds, and hearts are the Body of Christ; no building, non-profit organizational structure, website, pamphlet, mission statement—the church is whenever, wherever, however, provided its people are present.
When I think of the church as people, it connects me to people of all denominations from all times in history, from all over the world, speaking in all different tongues, living in dramatically different circumstances. This allows for a radical inclusiveness in what it means to be a Christian, defying our modern American conceptions that being “churched” or “being religious” means buying into some white, middle-class, politically conservative, holier-than-though, heterosexual lifestyle. If my church by definition, though we don’t share a pew on Sunday, includes a Coptic nun in Egypt, a Pentecostal New Zealander, a Malawian Methodist and a gay Episcopal bishop in Sweden, how does this necessarily change my view of what it means to be in the church? How much more expansively can we approach the task of participating in a faith community when we see our inclusion as one small, incomplete aspect of a much larger whole? Can we envision the universal church as something unbounded from the aspects of time, geography, and culture that necessarily affect how individual faith communities worship and act in the world?
When we see the church as people, I think it also allows us to be more forgiving of the failings and missteps of the church, another thing Ms. Held Evans alludes to. The church is made up of flawed sinners, and therefore it will stumble. No individual store-front, brick-and-mortar church, sermon podcast, house-meeting, web-forum group of believers can be everything to it’s believers or “get it all right.” God does not tell us we will find salvation, peace, or life in Church; He tells us through His Church that we will find these things in Him and only Him. Expecting our institutions or even relationships with other believers to fill our Creator-shaped void is a path to disillusionment with participating in a faith community. In my opinion, we must never look to church to complete us; we will always be disappointed. Rather, we go to church to commune, celebrate, and worship that which WILL complete us in the company of others that share this hope.
Another reason I participate in church is because while I make a distinction between organized religion and faith, I believe in the power of church to sustain and support my faith. Confusing the two is wrong, because it leads people to imagine they must agree with everything their pastor or church organization says in order to participate in a faith community, or even be a believer. If our relationship with the church is in fact a relationship, though, this kind of thinking is an unnecessary stumbling block. We don’t agree with everything our friends or spouses say and believe, and yet we have extremely fulfilling relationships with them!
We Millennials are far too often caught up in how we “feel,” and for most of us, we will not constantly feel the presence of Christ, or feel strong and certain in our faith. We will question, we will doubt, and we may feel like the proverbial ship being tossed on the seas. But Ms. Held Evans’ writing about the sacraments was gloriously resonant to me because these are the actions done throughout time by generation after generation that connect Christ’s church across centuries. Since Jesus and His disciples walked this earth, we have in various ways as the church been baptizing, confirming, marrying, confessing, ordaining, anointing the sick, celebrating the Eucharist, and performing last rites. Part of the reason I liked the emphasis on these very specific functions of the church is because sometimes I just need to go to church and behave “as if,” as my mother would say. “As if” I felt confident in my own salvation, or the existence of a loving God, or even “as if” I was truly acknowledging my own errors.
Sometimes I need to participate in the act of kneeling, confessing, communing, reaffirming my Baptism, saying the prayers, and sharing the bread and wine, regardless of where my monkey-brain is on any given day. I need a way to participate in my faith that sometimes doesn’t necessitate feeling or thinking the “right” things, and for this I have long been grateful to the church for keeping these rites and rituals. Christianity is often thought of as more orthodoxy than orthopraxy, with a focus on holding certain beliefs rather than performing certain actions. But for me, I also need that connecting thread of practice binding me to my beliefs and binding me to other believers across time and space. There are times I get so frustrated with my own thoughts and feelings, and I instead need the physical, external encounter with water, oil, wine, bread, and the hands of other believers to sustain me.
I could likely write about this forever, since it’s important to me, and also since my relationship with the church continues to evolve day by day. Essentially, I’m always working on my “it’s complicated” relationship with church because I emphatically believe what Rachel Held Evans and the earliest believers asserted: I am a Christian, and Christianity is not something you do on your own. To walk away from church (meaning the people!) is in essence walking away from my faith. To be a part of Christ is to be a member of His Body—His Church—requiring that no matter how much this imperfect mishmash of people confuse or wound or disappoint me, I must always and ever seek to be in relationship with them.