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On (Not) Finding a Church - Part 2
Beef with Bonhoeffer and bad blind dates
Welcome to Part 2 of my series “On (Not) Finding a Church,” in which I explore the ways that culture, location/context, changes in theology, church-related trauma, childhood trauma, and more are impacting my desire and ability to find a church. If you have not read Part 1 yet, you can find it here.
For well over a year after I stopped going to church, I was pretty focused on everything that I thought was wrong with American churches. I read books, essays, and social media posts written by pastors, theologians, and self-installed thought leaders that affirmed my perspectives and justified my discontent. At the same time, I knew deep down that I wasn’t planning to stay away from the church indefinitely. I believed then and still do that healthy spiritual formation for a Christian requires participation in an embodied community of other Christians.
A subtle but important shift was starting to take place as well. Although I had always accepted conceptually that there was no such thing as a perfect community, I was starting to come to terms emotionally with the more defined reality that there was no such thing as a community that’s above reproach. And if that was the case, I really needed to figure out how to love, serve, and be a part of a reproachable community without being chronically reproachful.
[Note: I’m not discounting the fact that there are degrees of difference and that those degrees matter. Every community has problems, but some definitely do far more harm than others, and some even do more harm than good. Those communities should be avoided.]
I decided to start a journal to document this journey. I penned the inaugural entry on June 7, 2022. It was a 5-page rant. Most of it isn’t worth publishing, but the prayer I wrote at the end is worth sharing:
I’m certain, Lord, that You have accounted for these problems all along and provide wisdom for living in the midst of the unfortunate realities in Your own church. I desperately need to connect with this wisdom. Right now, I pretty much go straight to despair, cynicism, and disgust. I know I’m part of the problem, but knowing that doesn’t seem to help my posture or attitude shift… Lead me. Shape my understanding according to Your wisdom, love, and good news. My heart is in Your hand, Father; turn it wherever You will. (Proverbs 21:1)
Months went by without any perceptible change in my attitude, but soon after I wrote that prayer, God did begin to reveal some of the less constructive ways I had dealt with pain and resentment. The early fruit of that process was my three-part series on acedia. I had originally planned to include in it a section about my experience of acedia with respect to finding a church. About a thousand words into the section, however, it was obvious that the subject would require separate treatment. So I published the series without it.
I assumed it would take no longer than two or three weeks to write that essay about finding a church. But as I continued to write, everything hitting the page felt unfit for publication. I decided to step away from the effort to see if some distance might shed some light on what the problem was.
During that time, my friend Shannon, whom I hadn’t seen in quite a while, happened to be in town attending a loved one’s wedding. We met up for lunch and caught up on life. In the course of our conversation, she mentioned that she was reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book, Life Together. I bought the book years ago but hadn’t gotten around to reading it. We didn’t actually talk about the book, but her brief mention of it was the impetus that finally prompted me to pull it off the shelf and start reading.
Beef with Bonhoeffer
When I picked up Life Together, I assumed I would be adding ammunition to my ways-American-churches-are-doing-everything-wrong stockpile. [Rubs hands together in a blatant display of confirmation bias.] The joke was on me, though. I spent much of the first chapter, entitled “Community,” feeling rebuked, provoked, and put on the defensive. It was unpleasant reading. Even in the privacy of my own home, I found it embarrassing to be having such a negative reaction to a classic written by one of the spiritual giants of Christianity. I won’t get into the weeds about everything that set me off—this is not a book review—but here’s an excerpt, after which I’ll share my initial response.
Our community consists solely in what Christ has done to both of us... This dismisses at the outset every unhappy desire for something more. Those who want more than what Christ has established between us do not want Christian community. They are looking for some extraordinary experiences of community that were denied them elsewhere. Such people are bringing confused and tainted desires into the Christian community… Christian community is not an ideal, but a divine reality… On innumerable occasions a whole Christian community has been shattered because it has lived on the basis of a wishful image. (Bonhoeffer, 2015, pp. 8,9)
My immediate response: Aren’t my desires to be seen and known, cared for and nurtured, and to feel like I belong... natural and human? Isn’t church a place we can and should look for and find such thing? I can’t believe you’re calling the desire for these things "confused" and "tainted," the vision for such things "a wishful image." I suppose you'd say that I shouldn't be angry if I feel neglected or abused—that I only feel this way because my desire to be loved well is somehow illegitimate and doesn't belong in a church... because a community is just something to be thought of academically. You're killing me, dude. What if YOU were the one with the problem? What if you wrote those things because you were just emotionally shut down and cut off from your own heart? I don't have the energy or patience for this nonsense, Dietrich. Bye!
I did what people often do when confronted with material that feels dissonant. I decided it wasn’t for me and quit reading.
Reconciling with Bonhoeffer
I went back to working on my essay about church. I tried, anyway. For a week, every time I sat down in front of my computer, I would sense what I can only describe as a gentle nudge to go back and read the rest of Bonhoeffer’s book. I resisted day after day, but the gentle nudge persisted. Eventually, when it became obvious that I still wasn’t making any progress on the essay, I submitted myself to a good-faith reading of Life Together.
I powered through and finished it in two sittings over two days. This time, something completely different and quite surprising happened. A hard knot inside me unraveled.
First, it helped that in the second chapter, “The Day Together,” Bonhoeffer hit some of the same notes that Eugene Peterson did in Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer. For example:
The psalter is the vicarious prayer of Christ for his congregation… All the things of which the Psalter speaks, which individuals can never fully comprehend and call their own, live only in the body of Christ as a whole... Even if a verse or a psalm is not my own prayer, it is nevertheless the prayer of another member of the community; and it is quite certainly the prayer of the truly human Jesus Christ and his body on earth. (Bonhoeffer, 2015, p. 29)
…the prayer of the Psalms teaches us to pray as a community. The body of Christ is praying, and I as an individual recognize that my prayer is only a tiny fraction of the whole prayer of the church. I learn to join the body of Christ in its prayer. That lifts me above my personal concerns and allows me to pray selflessly. (Bonhoeffer, 2015, 30-31)
It felt as if a trusted friend (Eugene) had shown up to vouch for the guy with whom I was having a dispute (Dietrich).
By the time I arrived at the third chapter, “The Day Alone,” I was no longer in a defensive head space. It’s a good thing too because Bonhoeffer began the first paragraph with guns blazing:
Many persons seek community because they are afraid of loneliness [der Einsamkeit]. Because they can no longer endure being alone, such people are driven to seek the company of others. Christians, too, who cannot cope on their own, and who in their own lives have had some bad experiences, hope to experience help with this in the company of other people. More often than not, they are disappointed. They then blame the community for what is really their own fault. The Christian community is not a spiritual sanatorium…
Whoever cannot be alone [allein] should beware of community. Such people will only do harm to themselves and to the community. (Bonhoeffer, 2015, p. 55)
If I had stopped here, I might have been tempted to think, as I did after reading only the first chapter, that Bonhoeffer meant for Christians to show up in community as a matter of theological principle but to expect or desire nothing, end of story. But I would have missed the strong case he made in his fourth chapter, “Service,” that people who are called by God into the body of Christ owe one another a great deal. In fact, he spelled out what we owe one another rather explicitly:
the service of actively listening to one another long and patiently
to be actively helpful to one another and ready to receive each other’s demands and requests as interruptions sent across our path by God himself
to be involved in supporting and bearing the burden of one another: “It is the community of the body of Christ that is here realized, the community of the cross in which one must experience the burden of the other. If one were not to experience this, it would not be a Christian community..”. (Bonhoeffer, 2015, p. 78)
to bear the burden of other people’s freedom: “The freedom of the other goes against Christians’ high opinions of themselves, and yet they must recognize it. Christians could rid themselves of this burden if they didn’t release the other person but did violence to him, stamping him with their own image. But when Christians allow God to create God’s own image in others, they allow others their own freedom. Thereby Christians themselves bear the burden of the freedom enjoyed by these other creatures of God.” (Bonhoeffer, 2015, p. 78)
In the end, it became clear to me that Life Together offers different cautions and corrections for all comers to the Christian community: people with unbridled desires, people who are dispassionate and indifferent, people who demand to be served, people unwilling to be inconvenienced by the needs/demands of others, people who are strong, people who are weak, people in need of healing, people who seek to control others, extroverts who prefer the company of people, introverts who prefer to be alone, etc. Something else that became clear was that I’m like most people. I’m very receptive and enthusiastic toward the cautions and corrections that I think others need but far less receptive about the ones that I personally need.
Working through Life Together helped me unwind enough to be willing to start visiting churches again.
The reality, though…
But it didn’t change the fact that visiting churches while still recovering from church trauma is like trying to date again while not quite over the damage caused by a previous relationship. It doesn’t help that recent attempts to find a new church home have felt like a series of bad blind dates with totally incompatible people. I’m having flashbacks to when I was thirty, single, and totally over the dating scene.
During one church visit, the music director had picked a song that I’ve come to associate with unkind people. There’s nothing wrong with the song itself; it just happens to carry for me the taint of fight-or flight now. During a visit to another church, the priest’s patronizing, super syrupy way of speaking, coupled with his ripped hipster jeans, hipster eyeglasses, and slicked back hair, made me cringe so badly that I got up and walked out of the room. I did manage to return to my seat once I regained my composure and talked myself into exercising some patience and grace.
At yet another church we visited, one of the first things I noticed was that large sections of the sanctuary were made of frosted glass that obscured the homeless people hanging around outside. I stared at the blurry figures as the rector preached a sermon to the well-dressed people in the pews about the importance of serving the poor. He never once referenced the people outside who were, by the way, being actively prevented from coming onto the church grounds by two security guards stationed at the entrance of the parking lot, which was completely surrounded by chainlink fencing. Maybe they were there to make sure that no one mistook the church for the homeless recovery center around the corner.
When I had recovered enough from that episode to venture out again, we visited a church in a different part of town. As we were waiting for the service to begin, I flipped through the bulletin and saw an announcement that the men’s ministry would be starting a book written by a celebrity radio host known for being highly partisan and openly contemptuous toward his ideological opponents. Of all the options they had to choose from…
Sigh. Why does the search for a worshiping community feel like haphazard forays into a sketchy ecclesial meet market created by every flavor of religious entrepreneur… where Google Maps is the menu, and every option comes with 1-to-5 star ratings and reviews? This is the reality of our milieu here in America. The emotional exhaustion it provokes tempts me to give up.
I could do that. I could give up, then choose to lean my ear exclusively in the direction of the voices that will affirm such a decision. After all, there’s no shortage of people, even those who identify as Christian, preaching the gospel of self-fulfillment. If it makes you unhappy and isn’t doing anything for you, then quit. Set yourself free. They don’t even have to whisper anymore. It’s the new orthodoxy.
I’m not gonna lie. The message is appealing when you’re tired, exasperated, or in pain, and all you want is some relief.
The problem with this quit-if-it-makes-you-unhappy advice isn’t that it’s wrong. Sometimes it’s the right thing to do. It’s that it easily becomes dogma even though it’s only sometimes right; and even when it is the right course to follow, it’s often only a small part of the solution. Most of the time, the most significant demons we need to escape are not the ones we can physically distance ourselves from but the ones that reside in us. They are the most stubborn of all our problems, “the pestilence that stalks in the darkness.” (Psalm 91:6)
In Part 3, I’ll be exploring the role that childhood trauma has played and continues to play in my relationship to the church.
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Bonhoeffer D. (2015). Life Together, Reader’s Edition. (D.W. Bloesch, Trans.). Minneapolis: Fortress Press. (Original work published in 1939).
I felt this way despite having a deep respect for Bonhoeffer for actively resisting the Nazification of the German church in his time, despite knowing that he lived through the tumultuous time when large numbers of people in the German Evangelical Church started embracing anti-semitic, racist, and Führerprinzip (the Führer principle).