“So where do you go for worship?” a colleague asked. A small group of us were gathered at a table at a professional development workshop for seminary faculty, discussing our personal faith practices.
“I gave up church for Lent,” I told her.
“But Lent has been over for a while now,” my colleague said with a questioning look. She had a point. It was nearly Pentecost and even now, with the start of a new Christian year on the horizon, I have yet to return to my place of worship. At this point, rather than saying, “I gave up church for Lent,” perhaps I should be saying simply, “I gave up church.”
I haven’t been back to my local church for many reasons. Mostly, I could no longer stomach the way church contradicts my deeply held theological convictions about who God is, how God acts in the world, and how the people of God are to act in the world. These include beliefs about gender equality, the dignity and rights of LGBTQ persons, racial justice, and environmental issues. Indeed, in the aftermath of the overwhelming support of white Christians for an overtly racist, xenophobic, misogynist candidate for president, I can no longer pretend that these are “fringe” issues that distract us from the real mission of the Church, or “controversial matters that church leaders need to introduce gently and slowly.” For me, they have become non-negotiables.
I gave up church because I can no longer make the trade-offs between worship, theology, mission, and community that I have made for years. My congregational options usually seem to consist of historically Black church settings with prophetic preaching and action on issues of racial and social justice, but that reject women’s call to pastoral leadership; predominantly white churches that profess gender and sexual inclusivity, but are experienced as oppressive by people of color; and multiracial churches whose preaching, worship, and leadership are oriented to the comfort of white, middle-class Christians (which is, incidentally, an act of white supremacy). I gave up church because fitting into any of the spaces required me to conceal or contort too much of my womanist self. I gave up church because I cannot seem to find a place where I can worship God with my whole being. And I am not alone.
While much of the dialogue on church decline has focused on the “nones,” the growing U.S. population who do not identify with any formal religious or spiritual tradition, there is a quiet exodus of committed Christians from traditional churches. The exodus cuts across denominations, ordination status, race, age, gender, and sexual orientation. This is not a movement of the “un-saved,” “backsliders,” or “ex-Christians.” It includes ordained clergy and lay ministers, seminary faculty and students, and highly biblically-literate laity who deeply love Jesus and are firm in our Christian convictions. We “opt out” of church on Sunday mornings not because we do not want to attend church, but because we cannot find a church to attend.
We are people who take seriously what Jesus said in Matthew 25 when he stated that the test of true discipleship was solidarity and service with the “least of these.” But rarely can we find a church that makes solidarity and service its central focus. Instead, we encounter churches that endorse such hate-filled and theologically vacuous declarations such as the Nashville Statement opposing homosexuality and same-sex marriage; that refuse to engage anti-Black police violence, mass deportations of immigrant families, and unjust prison systems; that shun, silence, and demonize leaders that it deems too outspoken on matters of justice. We find ourselves feeling the deep discontent with cultural Christianity that Howard Thurman described in Jesus and the Disinherited:
“To those who need profound succor and strength to enable them to live in the present with dignity and creativity, Christianity often has been sterile and of little avail. The conventional Christian word is muffled, confused, and vague. Too often the price exacted by society for security and respectability is that the Christian movement in its formal expression must be on the side of the strong against the weak.”
We cannot find Jesus in church and we have decided, at least for a time, to stop looking for him there. Many of us find Jesus much more readily outside the walls of traditional churches: in protests for racial, gender, immigrant, LGBTQ, and environmental justice; at vigils outside prisons as states prepare to execute God’s beloved; in profanity-laced conversations with homeless persons, prostitutes, and drug dealers; and in gatherings with Muslims, Buddhists, agnostics, and atheists who work together to confront unjust laws. We find Jesus in the laughter of children, the love of our families, and the beauty of nature.
For many of us, myself included, giving up church is not the same as giving up on church. We believe that the church is called to be the body of Christ here on earth and that our Christian journey is to be lived out in community. Even in our exile, we long for and value being part of communities that shape, sharpen, and nurture us. We often maintain connections to congregations in other parts of the country, live-streaming worship services where we know we can find a good word. When our social media feeds light up with news of powerful preaching at ministry conferences, we tune in quickly. Our spiritual disciplines might even include intentional attendance at conferences or retreats where we experience community with other Christians who are committed to justice, healing, and liberation for the marginalized.
For me, giving up church during this season is part of an ongoing journey toward my own healing and liberation. It is a chance to wrest myself free of the colonized Christianity that dominates the U.S., and to grapple with a question inspired by Thurman: What word does Christianity have to offer for those of us who live with our backs constantly against the walls of white supremacist heterosexist patriarchal ableist capitalism? It’s not a word I hear coming from the church.
Perhaps, though, that word is to be found in some of the alternative Christian communities developing primarily among millennials of color and others who yearn for authentic, relational, and justice-oriented expressions of faith. These include formal and informal gatherings in homes, bars, coffee houses, and school auditoriums where people tackle tough questions about faith (and not just Christianity); where they venerate poetry as canonical expressions of who God is and what God is doing in the world; where the hymnody includes Beyoncé’s “Freedom,” Kendrick Lamar’s “Fear,” and Susan Werner’s “Why Is Your Heaven So Small;” where they pour libations to the ancestors; where they meditate and walk labyrinths; where they talk self-care and empowerment and learn to love and accept themselves as “fearfully and wonderfully made” in the image of God (Psalm 139:14); and where they support and sustain one another as they engage in the struggle for justice in the world. They are places where people find Jesus.
These communities are often small and scattered. They usually exist outside, or even between, denominational boundaries. They often do not call themselves church, but that is precisely what they are. It is my hope that they will become a leavening agent for U.S. Christianity and that one day they will be the normative image of what “church” is. Or at the very least, perhaps they will proliferate enough that those of us in Christian exile can more readily connect with them.
The forty-days of Lent are long over and we are approaching the season of Advent, where we celebrate the God who comes. But I continue to mourn the death of the church’s prophetic and life-giving witness in this modern Christian landscape of prosperity theology, nationalism, and patriarchy. I am still sitting in the despair and solace of Holy Saturday, waiting for the church to be resurrected. So perhaps the next time that someone asks me where I go to church, I’ll say, “I’m still waiting outside the tomb, looking for Jesus.”