Q & R: Where are my friends?

Here’s the Q:

I’m only very new to your work and look forward to watching your impact on the ‘faiths’ debate with curiosity and excitement over the coming decades.
I was hoping you could answer something for me – Over the last few years, I am now in my mid-20s, I’ve noticed some of my friends from church who I’ve shared some incredible, edifying and intellectual discussions with, have eventually left the local church community. A number of them follow your blog though but use your work as a reason to separate themselves from a faith/church community. Because they read your blog I want to ask you, what would you say to those who use your work as a justification to separate themselves from the church?
I’m not implying that this is your intention at all. I just miss my friends and know they would listen to you.

R: Thanks so much for your question – and for setting an excellent example in not assuming my intentions are sinister. (In both our political and religious worlds, too many people do exactly the opposite!)
I share your concern that a lot of people – including many of my friends – have developed a cynical attitude towards local churches. There’s a sad irony when people say, “I don’t like the judgmental and exclusive attitude of churches. Therefore I will separate myself from them and have nothing to do with them.” I’m a firm believer in people staying in their churches and denominations whenever possible. And if people feel they must leave a particular church or denomination, I hope they will find another to participate in. I say this for several reasons, including …
1. We all need the pastoral care, connection to tradition, and mutual encouragement that comes from a healthy local church participation.
2. Local churches need people who will graciously represent openness, growth, and commitment.
3. The world needs vigorous churches that live out the mission of Jesus in the world, and if good people drop out, that’s bad for everybody.
4. The forces of consumerism, apathy, and conformity are very high, and without participation in a faith community that resists those trends, we’re all vulnerable to being co-opted and conformed to the status quo.
However, to be balanced, imagine these two scenarios:
1. Imagine that every church in your community preserved and promoted the kind of racism that was so common back in our history, or
2. Imagine that every church in your community required people to consent to upholding the pre-Copernican view of the universe – that the sun and stars circle the earth.
If these were our only options in church attendance, we would feel dishonest and unethical unless we spoke up. And if we spoke up – as gently and sensitively as we could – we might be told that we are not welcome any more. At that point, we may have no other option than withdrawing. Perhaps some of your friends feel this way – because these scenarios are playing out in our day around parallel issues. (I wrote about this at the end of A New Kind of Christianity.)
My hope is that people in this situation will not simply drop out of fellowship – and especially not with a superior or hostile attitude! – but will seek to form some kind of faith community where they don’t just “curse the darkness” but rather seek to light a candle, as the old saying goes. I would hope that if people feel they must withdraw, they will do so with an exemplary spirit – always manifesting a loving, Christ-like attitude even towards those who might criticize or misunderstand them.
It sounds like you have felt abandoned by your friends … which to me is a shame, because both you and they have lost something if there has been a needless rift in friendship.
You’re probably familiar with Anne Rice’s recent decision to publicly “quit Christianity” – in part as a needed protest against fundamentalism. (I blogged about it here and here.) But a lot of Christians commented that there are forms of Christian faith that offer an alternative to fundamentalism. I’m thankful for everyone who seeks to propose a positive alternative to the kind of Christianity that is driving so many people – especially young people – away from church involvement.
May God help us all to draw bigger circles of care that include – rather than constricting circles of disapproval that exclude. Those who stay and those who leave churches can do so in either way. Thanks for the part you’re playing in being a bridge, seeking understanding, rather than a barrier.