This is a guest post written by my friend Brandon Noel. He’s written for the site before.
Brandon and I go way back. As far back as any two people can go. We’ve had many discussions about the church because we both grew up in the same ones and in the same Christian school. And both of our dads were pastors, at some point or another at least. I can honestly say that Brandon has been ahead of me on a number of ideas and beliefs that I would later choose as my own. We never argue with each other, or even debate. We have discussions and they really produce a lot of fruit in my life and I would hope they do the same in his.
We each wrote a post about the subject of leaving church or staying, and maybe we’ll write more in the future. Brandon wrote the first essay and I responded. I will post my response on Wednesday this week.
Before you read this, there are a few things that might be helpful to know about me. My name is Brandon Noel, and I’m a PK. For the uninitiated, that stands for Pastor’s Kid. That’s right, I grew up as one for those piously annoying little godawful brats that drove you crazy and seemingly got away with murder. Well, sort of. I got my fair share of the belt in my day, but that’s not important. What is important is that I no longer go to church, and I recently read an article about a high profile member of the PK club, Katy Perry, and her feelings about the church and why she walked away from it as well.
The article seemed pretty intent of trying to understand why she left in a kind of statistical, demographic kind of way. In the end I was left with the feeling that the author of the article over simplified the issue and concluded that one must “look past the shortcomings and bad experiences” and “make [their] faith their own” rather than simply walking away. This isn’t a direct response to that article, which is why I decided not to list a link to it here, but rather a reflection on my own reasons for leaving.
I have great memories of my childhood in the church, and the friendships I made during that time are of a constant value in my life. I do not regret growing up a PK, even though I also have a few bad experiences to go along with it, just like anyone does. Those aren’t the reasons why I left. I didn’t leave it, even though, in many ways, the ministry eventually cost my parents their marriage. I certainly didn’t leave it because my faith was not my own.
The reasons I left are much more fundamental. I could fill a book with all the small moments and events that shaped my life in and out of the ministry, including the short stint I did as the pastor of a church of my own. There was a time when getting my pastoral credentials and starting my own church seemed like the way to address many of the issues I had acquired over the years. I didn’t leave the church system because I failed in those efforts and felt defeated, even though I did, and still have a lingering sense of failure to this day regarding it.
To say it in the most simple way, I left because I came to believe that the way the modern church functions is in direct contradiction to what it upholds as its goal. The true intent of the church is still there under the surface, I think. However, over the course of its recent (and ancient) history, I feel it has picked up so much “stuff” that it sees the need to service, that it gets in the way of them actually accomplishing its original goal.
The best parts of the church’s ideology that it can embody, has become overshadowed by the worst parts of its functional structure and culture that it does embody. What does this mean? Before I answer that, let me make it clear that I have never once tried to dissuade a person from going to church, and I never would. That is not what this is, it is not an essay on why you, who go, should stop. Good. With that clear, here is an example of what I’m talking about.
I’m sure many of you who are reading this, who attend a church and are very happy with it, may have already said to the screen in front of you “the church isn’t perfect, it’s made of people who are imperfect, it will never be perfect”. Here’s the thing: I agree with you one hundred percent. But this is a good example of what I am talking about.
I have heard this particular idea at every level of every church I’ve ever been remotely a part of. They all confess it as an aspect of the nature of church, but I would argue that I have not been a part of a church that integrates this notion into the way their church actually functions. And that is what counts.
It doesn’t matter what a church’s stated doctrine is or their written mission statement is, it doesn’t matter what a church (or a person) believes. What matters is how they function.
A church that is made of imperfect people, that knows it will never be perfect, would see that as what informs all the other aspects of its existence. But the church, which is admittedly made up of imperfect people, contradicts itself in that there are a great number of aspects to it that are considered to be perfect. And by perfect, I mean “immutable”.
I am not against going to church, nor would I refuse to consider one day belonging to a community of faith again someday, but not in its current and predominate expression. But one of the most important things to me about such a place, I might attend, would be how they address this issue.
The imperfect church, made up of imperfect people, is not afraid of anything. Only a church which sees itself, its particular orthodoxy or doctrine, as immutable or perfect has something to fear. What we largely see are not imperfect churches, because they base themselves on a rigidity, that when challenged or questioned, falls back on the agreement of other “imperfect” people who decided on why things are the way they are.
I am not perfect. My beliefs are not perfect. They have changed so many times, and they will continue to do so. I walked away from the church, because it was not functioning in such a way where those questions and changes could be not only talked about openly, but treated with respect and equity. I have many theories as to why the church has become so self-protective of its many culturalisms, but that is a post for another time, perhaps.
Let me try to leave this on a positive note. I do think that there are many “good” churches out there. You might belong to one. Though, I might, if we were to sit down and have one-on-one chat, argue that if you were to poke around in the corners and push certain buttons, you would find some of those “immutable” places in those churches too, rearing up its “perfect” head.
Why? It’s in our nature. That’s why it would serve the church better to be honest about it, and hold it out in front of us, and not keep it in the back storage room with the old VBS decorations. But to do that, would certainly force the church, in large part, to be changed and transformed beyond current recognition.
I think the future could be filled with more and more “imperfect” churches, and maybe I’ll find one someday, perhaps it will even find me. Perhaps, in that place, we will raise our children up, as I try to raise my daughter now, knowing that I do not know everything. Giving them room, from the very start, to think differently and challenge what we think we know. We might even raise up a whole generation of “imperfect” people.
For now. For me. I don’t belong to the church, and everyday I feel increasingly distant from the moniker “Christian”. That, also, is more in the sense that Christians have a very real presence in our society that, more than not, stands for things and does things I simply cannot stand for or do. At the same time, I have never felt closer to what we might consider to be God, in my entire life, and I will continue to pursue that… wherever it leads me.