As we all know, the American mainline is in free-fall. Its physical and organizational infrastructure is obsolete. Many church buildings contain multiple halls of empty rooms and sanctuaries that are nearly empty even on Sunday mornings. They also contain people who are shell-shocked by their losses. Hearts and theologies have hardened in the face of overwhelming social change. There is much anger and confusion among many who remain.
I myself am a sometimes angry and confused veteran of church conflict. The pain and frustration and even outright hatred I have found in some churches has more than once pushed me to the edge of my sanity, not to mention my faith. This stress, coupled with the intellectual and emotional demands of faith in even normal circumstances, has more than once made me consider an intellectually and socially cooler Buddhism. There's a monastery nearby. I even have some connections there. Wouldn't it be easier to just quit and go meditate every Sunday?
Perhaps. Yet I remain. Here are 11 reasons why.
1. My church. Plenty of churches are fully alive, despite (or even because of) historically low numbers. These churches offer full communion to all, do not fear science, acknowledge and even embrace doubt, and refuse to play the country club role. They are not concerned with appearances. They are busy figuring out what the Gospel means to them and living it out. My church is one of these, and this makes churchgoing possible for me.
2. The big picture. When I left science for seminary a few years ago, I learned that Christianity is a lot bigger, broader, deeper, and more colorful than I had ever imagined. Historically and globally, Christianity is a vast and variegated thing. And seeing this big picture somehow makes me love my own particular church, with all its foibles and peculiarities, even more. It makes me feel at home there.
3. Christianity is not self-evident. It is sufficiently counter-intuitive that one needs to be part of a community of practice in order to remain on the rails.
4. I retain a great affection for the tradition that formed me. Growing up in the church, I was not abused or shamed or rejected by it. Instead, I was accepted and loved. Yes, I'm a straight male, but plenty of folks with the same vital stats have been mortally wounded by bad religion.
5. Family. My parents, my sister and her family, and my own wife and children are all members of my church. This would not work for some people, perhaps, but it works for us. It makes doing church easier, and it makes it harder to leave.
6. The church is a storyteller, and I love the stories it tells. This includes all that crazy Old Testament stuff, the stories no one preaches. I love the stories despite -- and in some cases because of -- their obvious warts. The stories told in church are thoroughly human but if you sit with them awhile and pay attention, they have a way of letting the divine shine through.
7. I live in my head, probably to a fault. The church allows me to shut down the internal debate team and get in contact with actual people. As Goethe wrote, "All theory is gray, but the golden tree of life springs ever green." So it does for me at church. I have a job and of course I come in contact with people there too, but at church I have the freedom to remove my professional armor.
8. The most significant religious experiences I have had as an adult have occurred in the context of the church. Therefore they are clothed in Christian interpretations and are inseparable from the institution and its people.
9. Church works. At its best, the church provides a path toward enlightenment, both individual and collective.
10. Church is not cool. Therefore no one goes to church to be cool. And anymore, few if any go because of social expectations. This may be a good thing. The numbers are low, but the spirit is high.
11. Jesus. I'm in my 40s, and he's kind of under my skin by now. Not only that, but leaving the church in the face of its current trial seems wrong. After all, Jesus said "Follow me," and we all know where he's going. It's Lent, and the church is trying in its way to follow him on his last walk to Jerusalem. It's not easy, but there's joy in the journey. Besides, I want to see what happens next. If I leave the church now, I might miss out on something really, really good.