Thursday, August 24, 2006

Dear Church

Hello friends. This is a bit longer than normal. I haven't read the book and don't know the author but find the article interesting. I know some of you would too! Read if you've got time.

Today's Guest: Sarah Cunningham, Author of 'Dear Church'
It's a pleasure to have author, Sarah Cunningham with us here today. Her book, "Dear Church: Letters From A Disillusioned Generation", recently hit the shelves and will likely do well -- especially among younger and younger-minded readers who have become disenchanted with the institutional church and yet desire to be people of passionate faith and devoted followers of Jesus.
I recently completed an interview with Sarah which we'll use to kick things off today. Hopefully, you've gotten a chance to read or skim through her book, but even if you haven't, feel free to post your questions or comments here for Sarah. She'll be checking-in throughout the day to post responses, and the dialog promises to be excellent.
IN ADDITION... Sarah will be my guest for a special Skypecast this evening, at 7:00pm, Pacific (10:00pm, Eastern). This will be a great opportunity for you to ask questions and dialog with Sarah LIVE ( * a Skypecast is similar to a "conference call"). If you don't yet have Skype, you can get it here for free.

Okay then, enough preliminaries. Here's my recent interview with Sarah Cunningham:

"Dear Church" is filled with twentysomething-related statistics. What was it like for you personally, immersing yourself in studies and findings about you, and your generation?

Great question. For a while, I lived in the books, scouring the library systems, college networks, and internet for anything and everything that had been written about my generation. The result was bittersweet. It was comforting and a little bit validating to realize I wasn't alone in some of my perceptions and struggles with organized religion. And yet, at the same time, the fact that so many people strongly identified with my disillusionment was flat out sad. In the end though, the research served as fuel to press forward. I began to see that if I stumbled upon an honorable approach for processing my own disillusionment, I might aid others in their own journeys beyond disillusionment.

For twentysomethings involved in institutional churches, is it inevitable that "disillusionment happens"? Is there something inherent in the DNA of all institutional churches that causes this, and if so, has it always been there?

Disillusionment is definitely part of the church and, of course, in life in general. But I like that you hint at its timeless nature. Since the beginning of time, God has been outlining principles that lead us to the most fulfilling human existence--life as He intended it to be. However, historically, mankind has drifted on and off the path God spotlights, to suit our own convenience or pleasure. Inevitably, as you say it, our results often fall short of God's intended life for us. We end up short on wholesomeness, on peace, on purpose, etc.
But while every generation has experienced disillusionment, and while every person experiences disappointment at some level, the intensity and duration of a person's frustrations may vary. Some may barely blink at the low points in their church experience. Still others may be completely sidelined. Some of that has to do with the nature and scale of events that prompt the disillusionment and some of it has to do with how the person chooses to respond to letdowns.

What role do the tenants of individualism play in creating and/or nurturing disillusionment with one's church?

In the church, individualism is a serial killer. Individualism lures us in with promise of positives, nurturing an exaggerated sense of self-importance and personal rights. But, if we become too immersed in it, individualism eventually tricks us into detaching from human community and worse yet, Christ himself. In effect, individualism dismembers the church.
Especially in America, we are surrounded by encouragement to protect our individualism at all costs. However, equal weight is rarely placed on discerning healthy boundaries as we pursue life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. For example, our own pursuits of happiness or accumulation of wealth etc. should not deplete another person or group's well-being. Our fullness should not be derived from emptying others.

But it is more difficult, internationally and in the church, to see the flip side of the coin, which suggests that sometimes I must allow my personal preferences to fade in order to benefit the whole.

We live today in a culture of "victimization" and of "victim's rights." Is this a factor in how twentysomethings are processing their disillusionment with the institutional Church, and why or why not?

I can't speak for everyone, but in my case, victimization was a factor. My frustrations were, at least at first, filtered through a sense of entitlement. I thought the church "owed" me a better, easier experience after my lifetime of membership. This mentality allowed me to escape or postpone my own responsibility and, I am guessing, it unnecessarily prolonged my disillusionment.
Local churches are undoubtedly "communities of flawed humans" - as you point out in the book. Does this change when it comes to alternative expressions of "Church"? And if not, what dangers do such alternative communities of faith face?

You're opening the door for a crucial point here. Alternative faith communities face the exact same dangers as the traditional church. ANY approach to faith can become institutionalized. For example, if there is even an implied suggestion that "truly authentic churches should meet in homes," we institutionalize house churches. If there is an implied suggestion that "truly relevant pastors should read Relevant Magazine," we institutionalize Relevant.
Now, of course, I don't deny that there are core habits and practices that DO produce spiritual growth. Things like devotion to prayer, worship, study of Scriptures, and community. But when we place rigid expectations that people pray at our 6 a.m. prayer services, that they buy up our recommended worship CDs, that they read our devotional materials, that they attend our Wednesday night services, we may short-circuit their otherwise natural tendency to pursue other experiences that God has customized for their growth.

The church must always--ALWAYS--guard against institutionalization. It takes away from our love of personal transformation; our love of craftsmanship! The assembly line method DOES get more products across the finish line, but in doing so, it often sacrifices quality. Along with the good, it churns out more defects, poorer-workmanship, and less-original products.
In your book, letters 11 and 12 offer solid suggestions for people to consider before leaving their local church. What have your research and observations taught you about people who leave prematurely?

There isn't a great deal of research available about what happens AFTER people leave the church. (Probably the data that hits closest to that mark is Barna's book, Revolution, which examines alternative faith movements.)

But I can tell you what makes sense to me logically, based on my own observations, and Biblically, based on the principles outlined by God. When we isolate ourselves from church--and by church, I mean all expressions of Christian community--we subtract from our own well-being. Relationships are vital for health. Period.

Also, when we leave prematurely, that is, before trying to work out our frustrations, we cheat ourselves out of additional growth and maturity. And we also cheat the church out of the opportunity to respond and perhaps improve upon their own attempts to represent God to their surrounding community.

In a similar vein to the suggestions you offer to those who are thinking of leaving their local church, what practical suggestions do you have for local churches who are facing the likely departure of twentysomethings from their congregations?

From a preventative perspective, church leaders would be wise to purposefully build and maintain relationships with people from a variety of age groups within the church. If they do this, they will be more likely to catch potential problems and they will have more credibility when it comes to sorting them out.

Reactively, though, they would be wise to hear out the perspectives of members, regardless of age. In this stage, I caution them not to assume their critic is an attacker...the disillusioned person may be speaking out of intense desire to see the church live up to its spiritual potential. The disillusioned may, in fact, be among the most willing to put large amounts of energy into solutions, if given the opportunity.

But, if church leaders have already demonstrated their commitment to relationships with twentysomethings, then I suggest there is also a time to challenge twentysomethings to rise above their disillusionment.

People are often surprised when I advise church leaders to push back against the concerns of twentysomethings. I guess they expect me to protect myself and my peers. But shielding us from time-worn wisdom is not really protective, is it? There is nothing healthy or wholesome about slowly yielding to disillusionment and losing hope, while veteran Christians sit back and anticipate your drowning.

There is too much evil and complacency in this world. Church leaders can't afford to be neutral or tentative in feedback regarding someone's spiritual health. Instead, if jaded people are regurgitating the same disillusionment story, I think there is a time to point them beyond it. "You know, I understand that some of these frustrations undermine the credibility of the church. But, I find that it can be really unhealthy to dwell on the negatives. It prevents you from seeing and participating in the good God is doing, despite our flaws. How can I help you focus on the positive?"

Most twentysomethings speak to each other very bluntly and authentically, and even though they may not love to be corrected or redirected, you may be surprised at how easily they receive direction when it is offered with vision for a better, wiser future.

There were several people who, I think, tried to hint that I should "get over" my disillusionment. But they hinted for the most part. They babied me, thinking they were doing me a favor. Sometimes, I think the very best thing they could have done was to reach across the room and strangle me (lovingly of course) and tell me I needed to buck up and grow up...and then cast a vision for maturity and steadfastness that I could respond to. It may not have always sounded like it, as I was rambling, but I genuinely wanted someone to help me out of the stage I was in.

Most evangelical congregations have seemed to place far more emphasis on avoiding the dangers of "dead orthodoxy" (thought to haunt the halls of mainline denominations), than in embracing the ancient, orthodox practices of our Christian faith. And yet, twentysomethings are increasingly participating in ancient forms of prayer, spiritual pilgrimages, and the joining of neo-monastic communities. Why is this, and is there anything that institutional churches can learn from it?

Twentysomethings were raised in a media-driven culture and are naturally suspicious of stunts, ploys, and marketing campaigns crafted to get their attention. For good or bad, we carry this suspicion with us into the spiritual arena as well. So when we are confronted with new Christian trends and conferences and books pitched as the end-all-beat-all answers, we can't help but wonder if the movement at hand will have any lasting value or whether it will be one more flash in the pan. Liturgy, on the other hand, speaks to us of a timeless, unchanging God who is not reliant on magic tricks or aces up the sleeve to get people into his congregations. There is something proven, and therefore credible, about practices that extend back to ancient times.

In congregations where Spirit-inspired "vision" is married to a "passion" to accept and care for people like Jesus did (e.g. the poor, the marginalized, the hurting), are twentysomethings more willing to live with their church-related disappointments and become less likely to leave?

Interesting question. In my personal case, the answer is "yes," but I haven't studied this particular facet of disillusionment enough to be able to speak for the masses.
I will speculate a little though. Logically speaking, joining a church is somewhat similar to deciding to marry. You realize, at least at some level, that your spouse/church is flawed. And although you hope your partner continually improves, you believe you can live with the flaws you are aware of.

Along these lines, there are likely some flaws that many twentysomethings would be willing to live with (a lack of polish, for example) and there are other flaws that twentysomethings would be FAR less likely to tolerate. On this specific question, as a pretty reliable rule, twentysomethings value people from diverse groups. And when there is tension between people and procedure, in most twentysomethings' minds, people should win out.

When considering the plethora of shortcomings within the institutional church, one quickly feels overwhelmed. Is it possible, therefore, for either institutional churches or alternative communities of faith to sufficiently address all these things in order to become "all things to all people"? Where should new faith communities begin?

While we should, as you noted, strive to be all things to all people, the key here is not eliminating all potential flaws or shortcomings. That is a losing battle. Instead, Christian communities would be well served to acquaint their people with the breadth of Biblical teachings that are instructive about how to rightly respond to hardship. "As much as you try to prevent problems, they will come, be ready for it" is a better message because it promotes preparedness, more open communication, and receptiveness to outside help when problems do surface.
There is some wisdom, however, in being preventative by having ongoing honest discussions about the importance of self-management. Personal pride, selfishness, or lack of accountability can have fierce costs for the kingdom. In this way, many churches could probably improve on the "instant salvation" message offered via sinner prayers and the like by teaching a lifestyle of faith in which the Christian, although securely accepted by God, constantly re-examines himself and realigns himself with God and his teachings.

Now that "Dear Church" has been published, are you finding that there's something you wished you had said that you didn't?

I think Dear Church accurately captures the lesson from that stage of my life. But I do not plan on allowing the contents of Dear Church to be the grand finale of my spiritual journey. Since the time the manuscript was finished, I am glad to report, disillusionment seems to have run its course in my life and much healthier, more content days have dawned.

In the future, I have little to no desire to become a trendy voice on disillusionment for my generation--there will and should be other topics as God does other things in me and in our world. And I pray that my life and my continued commitments firmly on the other side of disillusionment will evidence many other important truths not included in Dear Church.


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