Just a couple of months ago, I had a conversation with a very dear, old friend who now lives far away from me and my family. Because we only occasionally talk by phone, and never, ever correspond by email or text, or even with birthday cards, the truth is, we really don’t know each other very well anymore. We have a Facebook kind of relationship, and I know I’m the worse for it. He’s a smart, funny, kind man who has traveled a bit and experienced a lot of life. He’s just fun to be around. He’s also someone, like me, who was raised in the Southern Baptist Church. He went off to a Baptist university in the early 70s, and then never, to my knowledge, was involved with organized religion again. He fits the profile of the Baby Boomer whose college years became the time when he shed the religious beliefs with which he was raised.
But our conversation revealed that my friend does, indeed, have deep opinions about religion, and most of them, as far as I could tell, were negative. That’s how I know he still cares about God. He offered some reasons for not going to church, and for the record, I never asked him to explain why he doesn’t—but gee jumpin’ Jehoshaphat!—there was range in his line of thinking. The two issues that upset him the most went something like this:
Sen. Lindsey Graham is a Baptist, and I can’t understand how the Baptist Church could have let itself be taken over by someone of his ilk, and
Catholics!—What they did in the Middle Ages! Those monks got a hold of stuff and they just twisted everything and then… His face likewise twisted into a grimace.
Honestly, this outpouring of spiritual frustration left me a little confounded. I care about this person, and I want him to be happy and well, both in body and in spirit. But I’m the kind of single-minded person who buys into the notion that without God in your life, there’s always going to be something missing. That God-shaped void in the human soul that Pascal wrote about—that void is real, as countless have testified, from having experienced it and then finding the only One who can fill it. So I want my friends and family to invite God to dwell there. I truly don’t know of a way to do this all by yourself, for any length of time, without being in communion with other Christians, and by that I mean, by being a real part of a real church. Even in solitude, whether chosen or imposed, what sustains is still the deep connection or commitment to Christ through his Body, the Church. We’re taught that “we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another” (RSV, Romans 12:5). Without a sense that we are, individually, always parts of a mystical whole, we’re left flailing or wandering, limbless or blind.
My friend got me thinking even more about all those who’ve left the practice of going to church behind them. It’s not hard to find a reason to stop going to church if you really don’t want to. I’m pretty sure my friend (who has never been Catholic nor lived in South Carolina) really didn’t have to look that far to convince himself that participating in “organized religion” was unappealing. Sadly, he’s part of what many are recognizing as a growing exodus from religious practice. The Pew Survey on the Decline of Christianity, published in October of last year, has received a lot of attention in the religious press. It paints a picture of a steady erosion in both Christian practice and belief in the U.S., first taking a dip with the Baby Boomers, then followed by the Millennials, less than half of whom believe in or practice Christianity. Overall the number of Americans professing Christianity has dropped by 12% in the past decade, to 65%. Church attendance reflects a steady decline as well, with only 49 % of Boomers and 35% of Millennials attending church two or more times a month.
I think this modern-day exodus may be the biggest problem we’re not really facing in the Church today. Yes, we’ve had a sexual abuse crisis to attend to, and although it’s certainly not the sole cause of lagging church attendance, it has been a contributor. And to be clear, the abuse crisis has been the biggest evil the church has ever encountered— Judas priests fronting as messengers of God. Maybe I’m naïve, but I’m praying that the worst of that lies behind us, please, God. That can only be a hope, but this I know: the insidious ripple effect of the evil of sexual predation within the Church will outlive us all, even as we seek to leave the abuse behind. And part of what we’ve lost, in many ways, is a sense that we can be communities of faith. Our churches have become fragile places.
So it matters in a lot of ways that we’re losing so many. It’s critical that we understand why, so that we can, in humility, grow stronger in our own faith and then reach out to bring our brothers and sisters, and more urgently, our children, back.
It’s worth noting again that more respondents expressed a belief in Christianity than attend church regularly. There’s certainly room for hope that faith may grow into practice down the line. But it’s probably closer to the truth that once people leave church, faith typically fades, especially when it comes to passing it on from one generation to the next. When in doubt, it’s easier to give something up than it is to make it a part of your life. And people can come up with lots of reasons (I’m not saying they all make sense) for giving up their practice of the faith in a church community. Some of the reasons are alarming (the abuse crisis) some surprising (like Lindsey Graham), and some more mundane (lackluster preaching).
But today, considering my friend, I think his real complaint was the hypocrisy in the church. It’s a common gripe, and nothing new, for those who find other activities on Sunday mornings to suppose that going to church makes those in the pews think they’re better than the rest of the world. But I’ve found that nothing could be further from the truth. My friends who are regular churchgoers are the ones who are the most humble and helpful people I know.
So my experience of hypocrisy in the church has mostly been to recognize my own. And this seems right. We all are trying to do our best, but what church helps us to do is see the sin that’s within, underneath the veneer. Are any of us close to perfect? No. No, no. I went on a women’s retreat last spring attended by hundreds of women from around the country. One especially powerful night, we all took a survey where we anonymously tallied our emotional wounds and them passed them to and fro, and then back and forth from aisle to aisle, until everyone held in her hands a piece of paper containing a checklist of terrible hurts born by someone else in the room, someone she’d likely never meet. We stood, hundreds of women, to represent each other’s pain—the assaults, the broken marriages, the betrayals, the parents and spouses and children lost.
Just to be clear, this wasn’t some kind of support group or healing seminar. It wasn’t an initiation into a twelve-step program. It was a training conference for Catholic women who lead Bible studies in their parishes. We’re the ones who seemingly have our lives together. We’d been to the sacrament of confession the night before, and there we were in a lovely hotel, eating our quinoa salads at lunchtime, then gathering in a big windowless room to discover our brokenness afresh.
Some of the fault for our brokenness could be laid at our own feet. Some was the fault of others. It didn’t matter. It was a powerful moment of unity in prayer for the heavy burdens we all carry. It did not feel like judgment; it certainly did not feel like hypocrisy, as though an imperfect leadership was demanding perfection from its foot soldiers. It felt, instead like a kind of renewed baptism. We stood up from our rose-colored conference chairs, in wave after wave, a visual embodiment of each other’s pain. I looked at the paper in my hands and heard each item called out. Abortion, alcoholism, emotional abuse, self-loathing…. We all had something to stand for, and pray for, and it felt as though we sailed on an ocean of grace. Later that night, in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament, we placed our burdens at the Lord’s feet, and let them go for one another. Together, we did our best to lay aside the sin and the sadness, and to let those burdens go.
I’ve taken a lot of time to dwell on all of this, because in retrospect, it seemed like my friend was really wrong about what goes on at church, and among churchgoers. I’m sure he carries burdens of his own: some that I’m aware of, but certainly others that I don’t see. And really, I can’t blame him for his disillusionment, because there’s such a difference when you only read about the Church, any church, from the outside. From a distance, it becomes difficult not to focus on the scandals, past and present, or to conflate faith with politics. It’s impossible to see through all of the nonsense if you don’t step inside a church for anything other than weddings and funerals.
I wish I could ask my friend to think about it this way: if the church is preaching that we’re all sinners in need of redemption—you know—a crucial point in why we need a Savior–then it stands to reason that everyone there is less than he or she should be. Oh, we’re not just the wounded, we’ve inflicted wounds on the ones we love the most. We’re hypocrites, to be sure, and what’s worse, at times we’ve been liars and cheats, and ingrates as well. Some of us have been terrible to our parents and rotten to our kids. Some of us have had abortions, some of us have left our wives and husbands, and even worse, some of us have been so unbearable that we’ve forced them to go. We’re a miserable lot. We’re not better than the rest of humanity, it’s just that we know where to seek forgiveness for our human condition.
If it bothers you that we’re hypocrites, then be honest, it sort of sounds like you think you’re better than any of us, not worse. Like you’re really too good for church. It wouldn’t take a lot! I’ve said it now, but I think saying this might hurt, not help. It might feed into the whole narrative of judgment—the very thing I think we should all avoid here.
But I know that I really belong in church. It helps me to remember that we’re all in good company with the Apostle Paul when he lamented his inability to lay his sin behind him. “I do not do what I want, but the very thing I hate “he also wrote in his letter to the Romans. I can’t think of a better description of me on a bad day, which is somehow very comforting. But even better yet, I’m encouraged to know that my sin has been conquered by someone who loves me beyond all imagining. I can lay them all down, I can be forgiven and healed. Hypocrite and sinner that I am, I can’t imagine living, or dying, without knowing that.
I last saw my dear friend at a wedding. I think he wishes he could find God at church; otherwise, I don’t know why he would have expressed such keen disappointment in the faithful, or even in our leaders. I hope that he goes looking for Him there, and I pray that God grants him the eyes of faith to see Christ at work there among his people, the blessed and redeemed hypocrites of his Holy Church.