Let the institutions fallPosted: 09/02/2010
It took me three years to complete my Master’s degree in Divinity. Of those three years in seminary, I attended a Sunday morning church service perhaps five times. It wasn’t a lack of interest, and I certainly wasn’t trying to abandon organized religion. Despite a commitment to my faith community at seminary, and a deep regard for faith-based justice work, something was lacking to compel me to attend a local community church every week.
Today, I usually grumble to myself while getting up on Sunday mornings for church. The community is great, and I adore the ministers. But at the risk of sounding wholly un-pious, I sometimes skip the service for no other reason than that I’d like to sip my coffee in peace, listen to Speaking of Faith on NPR, and do a crossword puzzle.
In “the Church” (that is, the often mainstream and Protestant church) these days, there seems to be a lot of panic around the topic of young people: Where are they? How can we get them to come here? Why aren’t they interested in Sunday morning worship? Don’t they care about faith; values; community?
I certainly consider myself as a person who cares about community, faith, ethics, social justice, and even The Church. But sometimes—and I say this as someone with a degree specializing in parish ministry—the Sunday morning worship experience seems too creedal, too suffocating; trying to claim me too much as its own. In the midst of the grand pillars, the soft candlelight, the hymnody, my ancestral tradition, the question remains: what if I want to change my mind?
Rather than courting me as one more young-person’s-body in the pews on Sunday morning (as the Church sometimes does), I’d like to be appreciated as an individual whose identity sometimes transgresses traditional religious boundaries. I’m Christian, but I’m definitely not all that concerned with other people’s spiritual salvation. And although I belong to a congregation, my faith life doesn’t abide in a church alone.
One of the most spiritual experiences I had in seminary was outside the seminary walls, on the floor of a yoga studio in New York City. It was in savasana, after a particularly compelling practice, that I realized my seminary education was changing my religious life in an entirely irreversible way. Never again would I approach the Bible with the same sense of awe, assuming that hidden beneath the Hebrew and Greek was a Truth yet to be revealed. The Church became the church. The Bible became the bible. God even took on god’s own flaws – overtly masculine, strangely hierarchical, at times wrathful. As I, a Christian seminarian, opened my heart to a Buddhist practice, I found a space to mourn and accept the changes in my faith.
Instead of believing in something explicit, I now just have faith that there is something to believe in. My faith is that Good exists, and that good is what I call God. It is not that I am not reflective, or that I don’t care, or that I am not committed to what I believe. It is that there are very few religious institutions that are flexible enough to allow me to be constantly changing my own definitions of belief, ethics, social justice, and truth.
It is my experience that many fellow young people I meet also have conflicting feelings about the creedal necessities of religion. Despite caring deeply about theological concepts and ideas, it is sometimes asking too much to identify too closely with hard and fast beliefs. In a world of crossing boundaries, flexible identities, and intermingling concepts, mainstream Protestant churches have unfortunately become institutional fundamentalists. Too afraid to lose their own identities, they have begun to claw and grasp at the last hope for tomorrow: young bodies in the pews. Too busy gnashing their teeth at the absence of young people in their midst, they are not listening to our voices as we say we’re here. We care. We matter.
Change the infrastructure. Give us a voice. Let the institutions fall.