Around this time last year, I decided I needed a break from my church. You’d have to sit down and buy me a couple of beers to get the whole story, but, suffice it to say, it was warranted. It felt like the right thing to do despite what many clergy and church leaders were telling me. I felt a growing and bitter heaviness inside of me. My concerns about the direction of my church were being ignored while the denomination was praising it. I was becoming That Grouchy Church Guy. It was time to step away for a bit. And throughout this process, though I did leave my church, I never left the Church.
Simultaneous with stepping away from my church, I began meeting with a group of friends and acquaintances for weekly prayers, meals, and uncomplicated time together. Some of us are clergy. Some of us are agnostic yogi. Some of us will likely never set foot in a traditional institutional church. Most of us are in helping professions of some kind. By our intentional weekly gatherings and mutual commitments to one another, we are learning to become the Church, though we are not a church in the traditional sense.
We are learning to draw the circle ever wider, even as we focus harder on the Spirit at the center. We are learning to become those who heal, even as we are becoming more broken. In this way, we see the Church as a people and a process, as a being and a becoming, rather than an event or a place. This mode of learning to see has allowed me to release some of my previously tightly held beliefs about what a church should do and look like. Some weeks, 12 people may show up for our weekly prayer and meals. The next week, zero. Some weeks, I’ve had really uncomfortable arguments with people in the group. The next week, we’ve reconciled and acknowledged our differences in love.
Another aspect of our community is that we cost absolutely no money. Yes, it costs money to buy beers and contribute food for meals, but that has never been a prerequisite for joining us at our gatherings. In this way, we are perceived by some as threatening. If people find the Church outside of a church, what does that mean about the purpose of churches? If people find value in a community where there is no paid staff, what does that imply about our orders of professional clergy? If people are finding Jesus in bars and random homes, why are they not finding him in our churches?
As St. Louisans, it is impossible for our group not to address what has been unfolding here over the past ten weeks. Ferguson and the Shaw neighborhood of South City have been blazing hot epicenters of anger and sadness that have erupted over the deaths of Michael Brown, Jr. and VonDerrit Myers, Jr. As these days and weeks have unfolded, however, the ensuing protests and acts of civil disobedience have centered around much broader concerns like police brutality, systemic racism, economic inequality, and the right to protest. Though we struggle daily with what roles to play as a collection of mostly white folks, many in my small intentional community have actively been protestors, public thinkers, and healers. We represent the local churches that many of us attend, yes, but we have usually been bold enough to act on behalf of the Gospel without fear of reprisal from our respective institutions. The state of belonging to a local church is gripped loosely so that we may hold tight with the other hand to the Church.
Less than a week after Mike Brown was killed, I published a blog post with some friends that attempted to hold the Church to its professed standard of seeking justice. I believe that the Church, specifically my denomination of the United Methodist Church, is failing in its response to these events. Conversations, dialogues, and panel discussions are not enough.
Seeking justice means we must step out of our churches and into the Church!
For a Jesus follower, it is not enough to love God. We can lift up all the prayers, supplications, and safe discussions about peace that we want, but we must love our neighbor. In this case, loving your neighbor can be risky. Loving your neighbor can risk losing a big donation from a parishioner. Loving your neighbor can risk your boss warning you not to get too involved. Loving your neighbor can risk harassment by police officers, even the ones you know. Loving your neighbor can risk being shunned by other church leaders. If loving our neighbors means just being nicer to people because we fear our own anger, then we do not seek love or peace. We seek the world. We do not seek the Kin(g)dom.
As I join a new local church in worship this month, I approach this ritual with a sense of great excitement and pure hope. I’m going in with no false sense of its shortcomings or of my own. I hold my membership in a church, an earthly institution, with open hands, owning it the same way I try (usually poorly) to own anything—loosely. My season of stepping away from a church is coming to a close, and I have never felt more integrally a part of God’s Church.
This post is part of an ongoing series entitled, On Going to Church.
Header image and Mike Brown image courtesy of Wikipedia, used under Creative Commons License.
Alone by Bigli-Migli used in accordance with label for noncommercial purposes, Copyright Bigli-Migli.
Kenneth J. Pruitt directs the social justice education program at a medium-sized nonprofit, and is a certified candidate for deacon’s orders in the United Methodist Church. He is proud to live among the people of St. Louis, his adopted home. He loves what you’ve done with your hair. Check him out at his personal blog or on Twitter.