A few years ago bestselling author Anne Rice made a very public departure from Christianity. Her words – “Today I quit being a Christian…I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being Christian” – rattled around Facebook and the internet like marbles in a tin can.
Some defended her. Some attacked her. Some were confused by her. Some took the opportunity to preach her a sermon. But one thing was consistent: A gazillion talking heads and bloggers could do nothing but comment on the validity or error of her ways. With all this white noise surrounding Ms. Rice, I have been deliberate about not speaking too soon.
Plus, I just didn’t find her declaration to be that extraordinary. Maybe it is because I swim with these kind of fish all the time, but most people I have meaningful friendships with, and the people who respond most positively to what I say and write, have been singing this same song long before a New York Times best seller got around to it.
What is it that drives a wedge between these leavers’ commitment to Christianity and their commitment to Christ? There are countless factors I suppose, but when sifting through it all, and the last grains slip through the colander, it is this: The disconnect between Jesus’ words and ways with the church that bears his name, is a dissonance that some people simply can no longer hold in their minds.
Take a simple sponge, the kind you use to wash your car. Drop it in a bucket of soapy water. The sponge is now in the water, and the water is also in the sponge. Squeeze it and the water comes out. This is how church “works.” As followers of Christ we are immersed in him and him in us, so that when we are squeezed, the love and grace of God pour out.
There is recognition, however, by many leavers of institutional religion, that the church is not a sponge. It is a rock. Drop it in the bucket, and it cannot soak up and squeeze out the love of God. That love rolls over the surface and cannot penetrate. Therefore it cannot be transferred to others. When the people of God do not display the love of God, then for the sake of God, leaving is the only option some people feel they have left.
Agree with Anne Rice. Disagree with her. Go to her Facebook page and encourage her or point a finger at her. She made her opinion a public matter; if you choose, you can respond publicly. But whatever you do, especially if you consider yourself a leader in the church, do not dismiss the legitimate issues behind her struggle.
She has given voice to a multitude of people who do not have a public profile, but have come to the same painful conclusions. They have unplugged themselves from the institutional church. Some, a terribly small number, lose faith completely. Others get angry or hurt with church leadership, or become disillusioned with the structure or a particular denomination.
But some leavers, a great many I believe, depart with authentic faith and develop a healthier, happier, more hopeful perspective than many of us who fill the pew each Sunday. These are people who love their families and their neighbors. They are people of generosity and integrity. They worship their God and cling to Christ.
They simply have found church, in their experience, to be unhelpful. They want to pursue the love of Christ – for God and for neighbor – but the church has become an obstacle in this, not a help. Certainly this is not everyone’s experience, but do not ignore that this has been the experience of more people than we can even begin to count.
I know the objection. I hear it often. It goes something like this: “The church is the body of Christ, created by God. How can you or anyone else criticize it? How can you follow Jesus without the church?” Because the most practical way to follow Jesus is to love others, and if love is not what a group of people is about, then leaving may be the better option.