Friday, January 27, 2012

Why I stopped going to church

God! I have wanted to write a post about this for a long time, but every time I approached the subject, something stopped me.

Some sort of massive rock of grief.

Some sort of conviction that "someone" from my former church community would see it, become angry, feel sorry for me, try to silence me, or otherwise write me off.

For you see, after fifteen years of involvement that was often draining and frustrating, I had to leave. The immediate cause was leadership and the wrongheaded direction I felt we were travelling in; this had been going on for years and years and could not be pinned on a single individual. But as the Man used to say: if a blind person tries to lead another blind person, they're both going to stumble into a ditch.

Where do I begin? I want to start with the sense of scarcity that has become epidemic among "liberal" (i.e. not fundamentalist) churches in the past couple of decades. These churches, many of them meeting in dowdy old buildings that are outrageously expensive to maintain, are bleeding members at an alarming rate, and not replacing them. The reasons for this are either very complex, or very simple.

For a lot of people,  religion, the churchy kind of religion many of us were brought up in, now seems as dusty and antiquated as wheezy old pipe organs and hard, varnishy pews.  Most churches appear to be more interested in maintaining a pleasant space and keeping their own little private programs going than in even attempting to address the howling need among their fellow suffering humans.

So the trickle of exodus has gradually became a flood. As people peel off, not always consciously but because somehow they just don't get there on Sunday morning any more, the church's debt (which always seems to be overwhelming: isn't there a church anywhere that makes their mortgage payments?) just snowballs because there aren't enough members left to throw enough dollars into the collection plate.

What happens then is a feverish drive to make up the deficit, usually through inward-turning events like garage and bake sales mostly frequented by members. That's what passed for "outreach" in my former church. Most of the emphasis was placed on desperately trying to stay afloat. If you didn't do your part, guilt was laid on with a trowel. A few years back, you'd get a home visit from someone on the finance committee to talk over your contribution: in other words, how much you were giving, and how much you were helping the church via committees and other churchy agencies. If you weren't giving "enough" in the eyes of the church, the pressure was ever so gently applied until one day you discovered you couldn't breathe.

This attitude of scarcity just breeds more scarcity, not to mention a "help, help, we're drowning" mentality that is probably not the best thing for attracting new members. Asking people to get on-board the Titanic isn't very effective. The minute someone new comes in the door, the hands are out, and the lasso is thrown: come, teach Sunday school,  join this or that committee, join the choir! Get involved (but in our way, not yours: fit yourself into a pre-existing slot.)  And whatever you do, for God's sake, don't leave.

I wonder when my feeling of spiritual awe died. It happened gradually, and at first it took the form of feeling extremely alone. I was not able to voice any of my grief to anyone, or I would be ostracized, patronized or pitied, as in, "well, you know, she can't help it, dear." If I felt transported by a service, it was almost by accident, as everyone was scurrying around making the service happen, busy-busy-busy, and even busier afterwards at coffee time when the talk ran along the most trivial lines.


I didn't stay fifteen years for nothing, however, and I am sure there was a time when it all meant something to me, but I'll tell you this - I was never able to truly be myself. I had to be a carefully-edited version of myself, and weigh carefully everything I was going to say before I said it. This was so I wouldn't upset the applecart and be ever so slowly, ever so subtly, ever so ruthlessly edged out.

If I got carried away and cried during a service, I couldn't help it because I was evidently "suffering from depression" (poor soul!). The thing to do was remain in the middle of the middle, a kind of blandness marked by hoary old hymns from the 19th century and sermons that were generally very conventional and uninspired.  Don't upset the applecart, remember. Don't lose control.

Several years ago we had a meltdown over leadership, a very bad one (and forgive me if you've read this here before: apparently I still need to write about it),  but NOT ONE PERSON acknowledged at any time that we had created the experience ourselves by choosing that person out of all the other available candidates. He did not fall from the sky, but you would not know it from the victim mentality that prevailed in our church over the next several years, the sense we'd been "wronged" (by, in the words of the Council Chair, "a nasty, evil little man").

If you blow on a church and it falls over, doesn't that mean the structure is just a little rotten? Like is attracted to like, and (as the psychologists say) we tend to recreate the experiences that are most familiar to us. Such as dysfunction, poor communication and the oppression and abuse of the weakest members. But if anyone had suggested that these things were going on BEFORE our meltdown, the congregation would have been aghast.

And, needless to say, the messenger would have been shot.

The problem was "solved" when the nasty, evil little man was ousted by the larger church. Then came the long period of "healing", in which we replayed the awful scenarios over and over and over again, after which we told ourselves it was all over and stuck big glossy smiles on our faces.

For me, it was all gone, just all of it, whatever I had absorbed of the gospel message, of holiness, of compassion at the deepest level. I began to see things I could and would not see before. While a few other churches in our district were making a brave attempt at programs for the homeless (and by the way, they first had to overcome the common perception that no homeless people existed in our community), our church steered needy people to a social agency whose office was so far away you'd have to bus for half an hour to get there, probably to be treated patronizingly. I think we provided them with a bus ticket.

So much for "I was hungry, and you fed me; naked, and you clothed me. . . " But what does church have to do with any of that?

And how's this for muddying the waters? While that "nasty, evil little man" was in charge, he was horrified that we turned away people in need and insisted we keep some non-perishable food in the church to be given to people who were hungry. Everyone thought he was crazy: that's just not the way we do things!

I still long for a sense of community and spiritual belonging, but I see that when I had it, or thought I had it, the personal cost was astronomical. Financially, I gave more than I could really afford (because I couldn't live with the guilt if I didn't), and saw my contribution thrown into a giant abyss where it promptly disappeared, leading to cries for "more, more, more". Every annual meeting was the same. How I hated and dreaded them: it was a dirge of "not enough, not enough," and desperate ploys to make up a hopeless deficit. We seemed to sink a little bit lower every year.

But a hopeless deficit does not fall from the sky either. WE create it out of an entrenched mentality of chronic scarcity. If people stop coming, that situation doesn't land on us from the moon. They stop coming because they're bored, feel that the service is irrelevant, and need the time to catch up on sleep after an exhausting week of working long hours and looking after the kids.

Most conventional churches had their heyday during the Betty Crocker era, when men worked and women stayed home with the children and everyone dressed up in their finest on Sunday morning. It doesn't exactly work that way any more: not if your husband is a violent alcoholic or has just walked out on you, or you've just been laid off from your factory job and have nowhere to turn. It also doesn't work if all you can get is a Sunday morning shift. (I can't count the number of times I picked up subtle disapproval of people who worked on Sundays.) But most churches I know of "don't have the resources" for a service at any other time of the week.

This tells me everything about their priorities, not to mention their inflexibility and (perhaps unconscious) need to keep things the way they are.
For after all, "we've always done it this way" (and we've done just fine, thank you very much).

I sometimes go on church web sites, if they have them, and see a confused mess, with most of the links not even working. One had no email address. One had been "under construction" for three or four years. It was common to see the most recent events listed under 2008 or 2009.

It screams "out of touch". It screams "irrelevant". It screams "we don't know how to change, in fact we don't want to, so let's just hold tight and see if they come back".

There is very little acknowledgement or even awareness of the profound social turmoil that has thrown the care of needy people back on the church's resources. For the most part, government funding is no longer there. But it appals me to see how many churches protest that they have to put themselves first, to keep their little operation going from all those desperately-begged-for donations before they think about those people "out there", those poor souls (whom they'd rather not have in the sanctuary because they're messy and unkempt and drop cigarette butts on the driveway).

There's nothing wrong with being a little old lady. I'm all for it, as that's the direction I am moving in with frightening speed. But increasingly, churches are dominated by very traditional older women from the Betty Crocker era as older men die out and fewer and fewer young people join. A few years ago I went to an ordination ceremony with a couple of dozen candidates, and all of them were women between the ages of 45 and 60.  No men, and no new blood either. Maybe a 60-year-old woman can be a spiritual firebrand, but why not a 25-year-old man? Where are they,  and why are none of them even faintly interested?

But lest I come across as age-ist, let me tell you a story.  One of our most dynamic members, a great-grandmother who gave tirelessly of her time and energy for years, was asked to leave. She and her husband were presented with a report, a long list of grievances neatly typed-up, which listed all their transgressions over the years. They strayed from the Sunday School curriculum, probably making it interesting for the kids for the first time ever. He (a retired minister) preached a sermon that was a little hard to follow, and it upset people. I don't know what else they did except restore the church library from nothing and build professional-level sets for every pageant we ever put on (and this on their own dime, because everyone else screamed that they had no money).

They were coloring outside the lines, obviously, and even though every progressive thinker we ever heard of was begging people to do just that before the church sank, they were asked to leave. The minister apparently didn't want to get his hands dirty with this task (though, to be sure, that report had to be his doing). He had one of his henchmen do it for him. These two were my favorite people in my church. They were told to toe the line or get out, and the choice was clear.

I'm sorry, but I can't be part of this. It's not going anywhere. It's just not. I am tired of being squeezed for money I can't afford to give. I'm tired of editing myself, of biting my tongue. Of being so careful all the time, never saying what I really think. 

I was never much of a joiner anyway, so all those years of participation were kind of surprising. I'm not going to go out and run after another disappointing experience of listening to those howls of scarcity. I wonder if anyone in these increasingly-empty places has ever heard the story about the loaves and fishes. In my former church, people would be running around screaming, "We're running out of loaves, and look at those fishes!  Quick, pass the collection plate again!"

What would Jesus say? I'd say it would make him sick.

(A post-script. Re-reading this, which is never a good idea, I realize it  resembles a post from quite a long time ago called Why I Left the United Church. I hope this piece gets into some other issues, things I may have left out. The fact that I still need to write about it is significant in itself. Roots that deep are not pulled up without pain.)