Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Church as a Romance

I found that if I'm up for a rather depressing read, George Barna's work is the way to go. So, tonight, on the eve of Thanksgiving, I found myself reading his archives. It actually gives me a lot to be thankful for (for instance, I'm thankful that I'm a part of the mere 15% of born again believers that thinks her relationship with Jesus is the top priority of her life -- or at least tries to live that way).

Anyway, I've been thinking about what a culture of "leavers" we are. Everyone's familiar with the divorce rate (which, according to Barna, is equal between Christians and non-Christians). Add to that the tendency for people to switch jobs every couple years, and to move every few years. My years as a music instructor always showed a lack of understanding about commitment.

"Bobby wants to quite piano."

"Okay, well, this is normal because he's gotten to a new level of difficulty, and it requires a little more thought and attention. Lots of kids like to quite at this point. But if he holds on about a month or so, this level will get more comfortable, and he'll enjoy it much more."

"Oh, well, I don't want to force him."

"Well, if he quits now then the work he's done won't be worth much since he's only studied for a year. But if we can get him to push through for about another year, then his knowledge base is much more transferable."

"Yes, but I just don't want him to be forced and be unhappy."

"Well, we can take him out of the lesson books for a while and let him work on whatever song or piece of music he's interested in."

"Well, I'll ask him what he thinks about it. I hate to make him stick with something that he doesn't want to do anymore."

It would never cease to amaze me. Obviously not every child will study piano through their entire childhood, but it was incredible how many parents would rush out to buy a piano and pay hundreds of dollars for 9 months of worthless lessons, because the kid decides he's doesn't "feel" like playing anymore. Parents would be fine with the child flitting off after a short amount of lessons (and a large amount of spent money) because they didn't want to "harm" their psyche or make them "hate music". I think all that is code for, "they're tired of getting them to practice." But it was still interesting.

What happened to the children who stuck it out through the dry spells? Most still play piano (despite the fact I closed my studio), another instrument or are involved with choirs/musical theater. I am unaware of any child who either hates music or has ended up in therapy because they took piano lessons from me after the thrill was gone. The kids who quit soon after starting? The ones I know about do nothing musical or have a string of unlearned instruments lying in their wake. It seems like such a picture of how Americans view commitment.

If you look at the big picture of commitment, you have what seems to me an interesting backdrop for trying to live out a committed Christian faith. Just how far does our cultural ability to leave something in the blink of an eye effect our daily lives? I'm sure it effects mine much more than I realize.

I was thinking about that in terms of church commitment, especially as of late as I have been following the blog of someone who is converting from Evangelicalism to Catholicism. It's been interesting to follow as the blogger has pledged to be "open" about the conversion, and insists she is, yet she's painting a picture of someone who's making a decision based on some blurry early life experiences and some feelings she's had when entering a catholic church. If anyone comments to the blog with questions or a different point of view she blasts off with an angry rant about how protestants (of which she was one merely a few weeks ago) hate all catholics and are biased,etc. So, there's really not a discussion, but it's got me thinking.

One of the red flags I saw right from the beginning was the authoritative stance that this blogger takes about the protestant church. This comes from years of being a protestant and going to many different churches. I'm thinking, since she became a christian as an adult then she probably has about 20 years or so in the evangelical church. If she has been a part of many churches (what's that 5? 10? 15?), that's not very much time with one church.

But what's really interesting is that she claims that she's happy with her current evangelical church, but God is calling her to convert to Catholicism. She's planning on being a member, or at least attending, both churches. Of course, that makes me wonder how committed someone can be to two churches. Is she going to church for what she can give or what she can get from the church? Obviously a church should be meeting the needs of its members, but also it's up to the members to make sure we are serving each other (ie, she's got some responsibility here, too). What I find interesting here, is that she's been in the current church for something like 3 years -- enough time that the honeymoon is over and the difficult work begins.

So what looks like a claim of authority over the entire Evangelical church, is it really knowledge, or is this someone who has spent her entire Christian life church hopping? Staying while it's new, fun and exciting and then moving on when that rush and newness wears off? I, of course, have no way of knowing, but it got me thinking on a larger scale.

I've met other people who've gone that route (and are often times proud of it), and it has always befuddled me -- people who go to a church for a year or two, and then move onto the next. Back when we first got married, I met a lady who was so proud that she and her husband go to a different church every week. It sounded really draining to me.

Of course, in that case, there was never a commitment, so perhaps it wouldn't be so noticeable. However, if you are a part of the body and you decide to leave, then, well, didn't your local body just lose a liver or a toe or a lung?

Apparently, that doesn't really matter to Christians in America. In a 2006 study, the Barna Group found that, "Only 17% of adults said that "a person’s faith is meant to be developed mainly by involvement in a local church." Even the most devoted church-going groups - such as evangelicals and born again Christians - generally dismissed that notion: only one-third of all evangelicals and one out of five non-evangelical born again adults endorsed the concept. Only one out of every four adults who possesses a biblical worldview (25%) agreed with the centrality of a local church in a person’s spiritual growth."

So, if you look at church as a venue for meeting your needs, and you look at it as something that should be working well for you, then to leave when you feel the nudge is the best thing you can do. What amazes me is that this is so much like the way our culture views romantic relationships: (note, my chart is terrible, but it didn't sound like to fun to figure out how to put a chart in HTML, and since I don't get paid to do this, I don't want to spend my time doing something that's not fun -- how's that for commitment?)

Romantic Relationship Commitment to Church
You Meet You get a flyer or an invite
You go out on dates You go to social events
You begin to talk seriously You start to go to worship
You realize you're in love You are really excited about this church
You get married You join the church
Your honeymoon!!!! The Honeymoon period
Life moves on, honeymoon is over You get more involved, honeymoon ends
The rush is over The rush is over
The feelings stabilize The feelings stabilize
You start to argue (can't be your fault!) You start to get uncomfortable (can't be conviction!)
You divorce for a new person Time to find a new church!

It just seems like there is such a parallel here! Just think about it! It can be really nice to be the new person at a church. There's no history or forgiveness to work through with the people, everyone pays a lot of attention to you (you're the visitor!). You still have blinders on, so you don't see all the inner workings you don't agree with. The teachings are all new because it's new people. It's all fresh and exciting. Like pursuing a new love, or buying a new house or changing jobs....

Then, when the romance ends, and it gets a little boring, or your needs are met, you just move on. God is calling you to move on. It's always a good easy thing to say, "God is calling me to move on." Who can debate that?

There's a different kind of maturity that develops when someone is in the same church for a long time (meaning 15, 20, 30 years), a maturity that is built on humility, practicing forgiveness, watching other people develop spiritually, and also building relationships where God can finally access things past the good face we put on ourselves the first couple years we know someone.

While I do think that there are legitimate reasons for leaving a church, and I do think that God can call a protestant to convert to Catholicism, I think leaving is just to easy for us. Leaving and starting something new is just what we do (Think of the Pilgrims! Yes, I'm the kind of evil American who sits around and ponders "What kind of impact for Christ would they have had if they had stayed and practiced their faith?") And, I think that you don't really start to mature until you hit the point in your commitment where you have to work at the relationship. To quote a wise person (me!): A church is a community, building community involves building relationships, building relationships takes time, time requires staying.

Back to my piano students. I don't know if Barna just always misses our part of the country, but most Christians I know are much more moral, committed and Christ-centered than his studies indicate. And when I ran a piano studio, it was always the Christians who struggled with when their children needed to quit. They were far more concerned that their children learn the nuts and bolts of healthy commitment, and working when something loses its "magical appeal", than they were about making their child unhappy. In fact, I would often have to tell them when it was time to move on.

But, still it almost feels as though leaving something has become the norm.

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