Let the institutions fall

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.

A Lutheran church in Brazil

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.


8 Comments on “Let the institutions fall”

  1. Morgan Hubbard says:

    I’ve had similar thoughts. The few times I’ve been back to Episcopal services since 2002, I mostly experienced sense-regression. Churches have a smell, all of them. Maybe it’s subjective, but it’s there. A nothing in the world sounds like the collected sibilance of a congregation reciting a prayer in unison. It’s the ritual that I experienced, and in retrospect I think it’s the ritual I was looking for. I wanted to feel like I did as a kid, when church was home, but on Sundays.

    There are so many directions to take this. Why have some major denominations shrugged off social justice as a calling? (That’s what the beatitudes are about!) Why, like you say, do they use the wrong techniques to try to draw in young people?

    One easy explanation is historical: even as they have quietly embraced change, Christian churches basically from the 4th Century on have made a virtue of conserving doctrine. (There are a few major exceptions, obvs, like that whole Protestant Reformation thing, but whatever.) Doctrine and ritual are bound up together; they make people feel safe in a reality that’s uncertain and forever in flux. But what happens when a generation doesn’t fear flux so much as accept it?

  2. I was two and a half years into my MDiv program, still claiming that I was called to work with the church, but not in the church. I loved it, but didn’t entirely trust it. I knew that I was part of its body, but didn’t always like how that felt. I don’t know when it dawned on me, but along the way I realized something quite simple: My understanding of call was hypocritical if I thought I could get away with walking alongside the church and pointing people there without also daring to lead from there myself. Cornered.

    I come into the church like I come into the old houses in my Longfellow neighborhood; to be mesmerized by the beautiful woodwork, adoring archways and simple details, but also to move out old bags of trash and to rip out moldy walls that grow and devastate. There is work to be done in the church – that’s for damn sure – and the best way to cause change is to find a few friends, some work gloves and the will to get started. But when you need a break from the task at hand – when church feels like herding cats or apathy’s hometown – rest with NPR and some tea. Because another thing the church really needs is people who contemplate, slow down and pray in the midst of it all.

    Thanks for your post, Lady. It’s exactly the kind of poking we need to be doing.

  3. Yehuda says:

    Ahhh, yes; isn’t apostasy refreshing and wonderful…sooo enlightening. Sorry to disturb your new found bliss, but there really are absolute spiritual truths. You have chosen to ignore them. You are flirting with spiritual darkness when you play around with Buddhism. You have an MDiv and you’re not “all that concerned with other people’s salvation”?? That’s kind of like having an MBA and not really caring much for capitalism. It may be your type who is deceived by the anti-christ. Better get back to the roots of your faith. “There is a way that seems right to a person, but in the end it leads to death.” Psalms

  4. Morgan Hubbard says:

    Can we go ahead and delete Yehuda’s spiteful and entirely unhelpful comment? Sounds like a troll…

    Hey, Yehuda, news for you: You’re the reason smart, committed people like us don’t go to church very often. Congrats on thinning your own ranks.

    (Have I misunderstood? Is this a friend making a joke?)

  5. Alison says:

    @Morgan: I get where you’re coming from. Doctrine feels too stiff even as ritual often feels… like home. Lutheran churches still feel to me so comfortable and solid. I think it has to do with doctrine being subject to reason, and ritual to experience. This post seems very brave of me… but it doesn’t really ask that important question of what happens AFTER institutions fall? I guess the truth is that I don’t want them to fail, I want them to be more flexible. What that looks like… beats me. Which leads me to…

    @Meta: I like, so much, your metaphor of the church as an old home. Thank you so much for that. Grabbing some friends, donning those work gloves and getting things done in the midst of the church–that’s a great vision. Especially so, because at the end of the day, there’s always tea and prayer. :) I think it’s time you and I get together again for lunch sometime soon, eh?

    @Yehuda: Not really sure how to respond to your comment, it feels so vicious. I guess all I can say is that you’ve effectively proven that you don’t understand and more importantly, don’t care to understand what I was trying to say. Get back to me when you’re ready to speak from a perspective of love and understanding.

  6. alison says:

    Thanks for this, Alison. Exactly my sentiments. The more I read your blog, the more I am convinced that we are very similar in many many ways. Thank you again.

  7. […] the other hand, it feels far too vulnerable sometimes to expose a not-yet-formed me to, at times, strangers. This anonymous internet in which you reside, February, is a much more rocky place than I […]

  8. Steven says:

    Alison, I liked your post on religion! I am agnostic, but have no issue with people of faith as long as they don’t push it down my throat. Life is full of grey and ‘Yehuda’ with his beliefs in absolute truths isn’t someone I would care to converse with. He can try to ‘save’ my soul despite the good I bring into the world, but he should probably try harder to save his own.

    Perhaps if church’s were more flexible in the first place, free-thinkers and those of us who have no use for what others expect us to do wouldn’t be so pushed away from the church.

    It took a religious college to make me realize I didn’t believe in God… I’m not alone..

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