I read an article the other day on either Huffington Post or Religion Dispatches about pastors losing their faith and being welcomed by friendly atheists. It raised an interesting question for me: What, precisely, do we lose our faith in? Do we lose our faith in some transcendent being or object, or do we lose faith in the doctrine, dogma, or institutions that conveyed Truth to a former generation but no longer speaks to us? There is a difference, and it’s an important one.
I have had occasion recently to visit a few different churches, and have some observations to share. The observations arise from a visit to a local church of a very progressive denomination. I was greeted warmly at the door by a well-intended woman who needs to learn how to shake hands. She preferred the “lady” handshake that only grasps the end of the other persons fingers. That’s well and good, but she also had heard that a man likes a firm handshake, so she grabbed the ends of my fingers and squeezed with all her might. That hurts. Ladies, if that’s your practice, please knock that crap right off, now.
Moving toward the sanctuary, weaving my way through the endless clutter that really was more of a large room than an entryway, replete with tables filled with information and all other varieties of detritus and people milling about, I received my bulletin and hymnal and made my way to my seat. On the front cover of the bulletin I read:
We welcome babies, but their noises may disrupt the worship experience of others. For your convenience, we have a nursery downstairs, and the service can be heard via the loudspeakers in the community room.
Isn’t that special? Their community room is something we used to call a fellowship hall, in case you wondered. Here is what the message really means:
We recognize we are going to need young couples to sustain this place in the long run, so we pretend to welcome families with young children while relegating them to the dungeon, either alone or with their parents, so the people we really care about can enjoy the performance.
I say “performance” because that was clearly what was happening – it wasn’t worship. How can one tell the difference? By the fact that after the Prelude – which really wasn’t a prelude at all, since it occurred after the beginning of the formal service – and the Call to Worship came the:
****(seating for latecomers)****
I kid you not.
Now, while I appreciate that people arriving late can on very rare occasion be disruptive, this isn’t the symphony or a play, for Christ’s sake, it’s supposed to be worship! To my way of thinking, a welcoming congregation would want to reinforce that people showed up and not make them wait like recalcitrant school children in the hallway – doubtless after dropping the noisy, unwelcome fruit of their loins in the dungeon – until the ushers, like grade school teachers lining up children to return to the classroom after recess, march them in, single file!
This practice reflects another theory I have about congregations and denominations that have a relatively high level of education and earning potential: They operate almost exclusively from their heads, not their hearts. They want performance, they want lectures, they want information, and they want it in a package that will cause them to think, not feel - and most of all, whatever you do, you can’t challenge these people from the pulpit…er, podium. That’s fine, in its own way, but it isn’t worship and it isn’t spirituality, because it isn’t transformative. Take a class, for crying out loud, but can we just drop the pretense that it’s spirituality?
Then the coup de gras. A member of the Board of Trustees of the church got up, as part of the worship service, mind you, and said:
We are behind in our pledge drive, so if any of you could find it in your hearts, and in your wallets, to pledge if you haven’t already or increase your pledge if you have pledged, we would greatly appreciate it.
However, still looking for a silver lining, I noticed in the announcements section of my bulletin that a speaker was coming in two weeks who seemed interesting to me. The announcement provided a web address for registration. I came home, plugged the address into my browser, and the link did not work. That’s not uncommon, I thought, links break, so I surmised the home page of the website, found the calendar section, found the event, clicked on it to find registration information, and found instead the message:
There is no information available about this event.
Who is running this circus, anyway? So here’s what I learned as a visitor:
1. My children are not welcome, but will be tolerated if necessary – in another room.
2. I will be punished if late to the performance.
3. Money is more important than my children, because we can interrupt worship…I mean, the performance, to beg.
4. Attention to detail, courtesy, and welcoming are sorely lacking.
5. I won’t be coming back.
You see, I don’t think people lose faith in the Divine, I think they lose faith in religion – and quite often people have equated religion, doctrine, and dogma with the Divine. That amounts to equating human constructs and foolishness to God, and is bound to lead to disappointment. The truth is that, over the last several years, I too have lost my faith – in religion, but not in Divinity. That’s an important distinction, and we don’t make it often enough.