-Pastor Melissa Fain-
This can also be titled: "What I learned, being outside the Church: Part III"
What I'm about to say is the reason I didn't post anything last week.
Mentally, I was not in the right head space.
Did you know I've been writing fiction in my free time? I have four books.
One is written, edited, beta tested, and now I'm beginning to query it.
One is almost done being written. Then I'll begin editing and cleaning that one up.
Two have been written for about seven years now, and after I'm done with the second, those will go through a revision and reediting process.
I wrote them because I know the only people who read theology books are pastors, and mostly only people of faith read books on faith. The Christian world have very selective blinders, and the world outside is blind to Christianity. It means I can yell, scream, dance around... no one will see me because of blinders or blindness.
I read so much. I picked up old and new fiction. I did what most don't: I read between the lines. If you pick apart what you read like ministers do with theology books, you begin to see a writer's theology. It's the part of the writing few spend more than a glance considering unless the book is a breakout hit, but it is one of the most important parts.
Writers are telling you what to believe. It might be something classic like good triumphs over evil. It might be something relevant, like bad people can win big. It could beat you over the head, or subtly take you on a journey.
I wanted to write modern wisdom literature. Nothing explicitly religious. Nothing that beats you over the head with a theology if you read between the lines. Just stories that leave you with questions. Who was bad? What is good? Is there freedom? In true wisdom literature fashion, any answer opens new questions. Someone might think, "I loved that, but why did the character hate it?" It just cracks the door to a more open discussion in a world where the doors are cemented shut.
Being a woman, in the deep south, and being called by God to become a minister, I have my own open-ended questions about faith and life. I've been outside the Church for a decade, attempting to understand myself, God and the world around me. The longer I've been on the outside, the easier it has been to see the dangers within Church structures, and the completely obliviousness the Church has of the culture around her.
I'd be fine with this if the result wasn't to turn the sinner into the enemy instead of the need. In other words, to maintain our "otherness" we must become the temple workers Jesus specifically ostracized. In that world, we are wrong.
What kept me from posting last week?
Last week I sat in my inability. I'm a nobody from a nobody family. I'm a gal. I was an average student with a soft voice, and meek disposition. I had just learned that people don't want to make my job easier, they just want the free labor. They want me to make their job easier without considering that I want the same thing in return.
I already saw how incredibly broken and disconnected everyone already is from one another.
I stood on a mountain last week, looked over the ancient hills, and asked God, "Why?"
Why have I spent the greater part of my life trying to change something I can't possibly change?
I still don't think those around me gets it.
I don't want to be a mega-pastor. Seeing the billboards with the minister front and center makes me ill. Any minister worth their salt knows it's about God, not them. Yet I keep seeing them.
I don't want to make you happy. I'm not here to help you feel good about your life choices. There are so many that have come through here thinking Fig Tree will be the next self-help church. I'm just gonna drop some warm fuzzies all up in here, and we'll sing Kum-by-yah. Then they leave when they realize that's not what this is about, and I've yet to find the people who can sit with the necessary Cold Prickilies I need to drop. It ultimately leads to the phrase, "You're doing the right thing!" and the silent addition, "but I can't be part of it."
I do what to talk about those who were and are wounded and lost. I realize, with almost a horrible dread, that speaking to those things will require a secular voice. That's really why I write. I'm a woman in the deep south, who sees the problem and wants to speak to it. I can't do that in the church. Not authentically. That is also why I was in a dark place last week. I have spent decades trying to talk about these issues, and I've been met with ambivalence.
Why am I writing fiction? Because it speaks the truth.
-Pastor Melissa Fain-
Culture is the customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group. (Merriam Webster)
When many hear the word “culture,” they think of some society in another country. Often, we don’t think of ourselves, or if we do, we don’t think small enough.
Generally speaking, there is a national culture. There are also community cultures, like in a town or a city. There are also tiny cultures that form from a group of people being together like an office or school. Then there are cultures that form beyond boundaries. Baseball families have a culture. Football fans have a culture. D&D players have a culture.
One of the truths about culture is it often runs in the background. It’s the culture that holds the unwritten rules of the community and the punishment for breaking those rules. Because it runs in the background, the people within it don’t realize how it changes them and their actions.
Church culture is creepy.
To be fair, any hyper-focused culture looks creepy to the average outsider. This is because the hyper-focus causes the culture to look and act differently than the culture they naturally inhabit. Sports and D&D fans are great examples of how those cultures beyond borders can seem odd or manic to the outsider, but just runs in the background for these cultural insiders.
But Church culture is creepy.
I was completely invested in Church culture growing up. I was so invested, I had friends that made fun of me, because I was the creepy one! Seriously! I lived at the Christian bookstore, buying the Karaoke version of Christian songs so that I could sing them in Church. My music selection was almost entirely from a local Christian radio station. That was just music. Everywhere else I was completely invested too. I lived and breathed the Church.
Boy, did atheists enjoy talking to me. They knew my zealous nature, and searched me out. More often than not, to try to get me riled up like many others before me probably were. Only I wasn’t there to protect my religion like those they talked to before. I was there to test it. Many weeks ago, I explained I was systematic in my theology. This was part of that. If my faith couldn’t exist outside the Church, then it wasn’t the right faith. God created everything. God is in the darkest corners of the universe. What God wants in my life should be able to stand up to, you know, life.
None of that changed my achilles heel. I could not see the Church because I was far too invested in it. I was fully immersed in Church culture, and therefore, couldn’t truly see Church culture.
Then I wasn’t. I was forcefully taken out of Church, and the veil was lifted. It had to be lifted because…
Church is also very dangerous.
I discovered what those atheists above really wanted to do was bring out the inner monster lurking in many single minded Christians. They were specifically after the ones that never questioned their faith outside the Sunday morning walls. They wanted to see the good Christian person start to bite out when their faith was questioned. I have never met an atheist that can’t see beyond the simplicity of faith, and I was always taught to dig deeper into the text. That’s why there wasn’t an atheist that has ever caused me to bite. And, if they hit on something in my faith that didn’t make sense, they were doing me a favor because it gave me an opportunity to strengthen it and dig deeper.
First, attacking atheists is a newer strawman for Christians created by modern apologists to suggest the world is the problem, not them. This is wrong. We are called to save the enemy, and since we’ve made the atheist our enemy, we are called to save them.
Second, these atheist populations are merely poking what naturally comes out when weak faith is tested. It’s the same thing that comes out when our safety zone (the church culture) is tested. When something happens in the Church that breaks the community, it is easier to attack the person who was hurt rather than deepen faith through self reflection and change. So most take the easy way out. This means people who are attacked by the monster at the end of the Church, will often stay silent to keep from being attacked again. When you, yourself, have been attacked, you become a safe person to share woundedness with.
Did I mention Church culture is creepy?
The more disassociated from the general culture a Church culture is, the more on edge I am, and more creepy the culture appears.
I’m on edge, because we are called to go out into the world and make Disciples. When I wrote last week I wrote about the doormat phenomenon, where Churches cloister themselves in their building thinking they can evangelize from their doormat. The more disconnected they are from the general culture of the world around them, the more likely I see they are also secretly monsters that can bite out if their faith is tested.
Let me leave on this note:
The scripture that is most used to shield this phenomenon of cloistering Churches is this: We are called to be in the world, not of it. (John 15:19)
That specific scripture is about following Jesus, not the world. Well, if we were to follow Jesus we would be outside the Church just as he was outside the Temple. If we were to follow Jesus, we would be eating with sinners, and helping the wounded. In doing that, we wouldn't be hated by atheists, but by those who refuse to leave the building and do what Christ had called us to do. That's the problem. That's what makes the Church the scary kind of creepy.
-Pastor Melissa Fain-
From the moment I felt called to be a Christian, I was seeking God everywhere, and more often in the places where I was explicitly told God was not.
Having spent a decade as a minister outside her Church doors, here's the main points I've learned:
The Church is failing because... isolation.
This is one I've known for longer than a decade. The Church has an evangelism problem. Maybe it's the stigma attached to the negative evangelism that was all the rave 20-30 years ago. Maybe, just maybe. It doesn't really matter anymore why that word has frightened a people called to the very idea of evangelism. The point is when they try they get it all wrong.
Almost every action I see is one of two ideas. Either, it's staying in the Church, with an invite in for some program like Vacation Bible School, or Movie Night. Usually it's something fun. Never is it to discover the culture around them, and showing people how God is already present. It's all about keeping those shiny buildings. They have the objects, and they don't want to leave the building, because that would void the collection of stuff they use to worship. It would also require more work than shooting out an email or putting out a yard sign.
Either that, or we go into the Culture for a temporary mission. While there are those who soundly disagree with me, and have so for years on this topic, I completely believe there is a difference between mission and evangelism. This is probably more my definition, so understand, while you might see evangelism tucked tightly into mission, I'm seeing how the Church has used those words over the years, and how they are clearly two different actions.
My definition of evangelism is learning the culture of the people and showing them how God is already present. The Church's definition of evangelism is going out and making Disciples of all people. Yes, the Church's definition sounds more Biblical. The problem with the Church's definition is my step is before the Church's step. You are showing people God in order to make Disciples. Not your relationship to God. Not how you became a Disciple. This is their story. Their relationship. God is already working in their life. You must help them see what is already there. Therefore, you can't make Disciples until you start with understanding the culture.
Church often treats mission as helping a culture within their culture. That part they get right. What they get wrong is control. So many Church congregations are foaming at the mouth for new congregants, that once they try the evangelizing part of mission, it's not to make new Disciples, but to make new congregants.
Evangelism is not, "Come to our Church!" Mission is not, "We're here for a week to do something nice and then we're leaving!" Mission shouldn't be about sending our kids to a less fortunate place to teach them how lucky they have it.
It's easier to see from the outside.
Next week: Living in the Church has created a false culture. Living outside the Church has deepened my understanding of God.
-Pastor Melissa Fain-
When I was in kindergarten the only thing I remember about my teacher was how angry she was, and specifically at me. I couldn’t tie my shoes, and I couldn’t say my A-B-Cs without singing them. She threatened to hold me back if I didn’t “get it.” I almost didn’t. Still, my first education was that I wasn’t good enough.
When I was in third grade, I drew my “s” with the pointy top. It was my first exploration into creativity. Others began to do the same, as we played with typography in our writing. A third grade teacher was openly hostile to this, and retaught writing to the entire third grade class, actually mentioning my “s” as one of the reasons she was doing it. My first exploration in creativity was soundly introduced as superfluous.
When I was in eighth grade my math teacher thought I couldn’t take on Algebra 1 in high school. I was failing, and it was an act of love to suggest I retake pre-algebra. By this point, I knew what teachers knew about me. I was out of line, and unable to learn. I begged her to move me forward. I promised I would do better. She said she would think about it. I worked by butt off for the remainder of the school year, only to discover I was in Pre-Algebra the first semester of high school. I begged the teacher to put me in Algebra. He gave me a shot, and I passed all my math classes from then on out. That was my first realization that I didn’t have to listen to adults.
That didn’t mean those events were in some echo chamber, not affecting other events. I got it into my head that I wasn’t good enough. I completely believed I lacked the ability to think creatively and wouldn’t be able to do anything beyond maybe a bachelor’s degree. When a minister first suggested that I too could take on the Master’s level work, and be ordained myself, I didn’t believe her. Not because I didn’t feel called, which I did. It was because I didn’t feel capable. I just knew what I couldn’t do, and everyone else knew it too.
That is the power of hope and the power when that hope is never given. These teachers were the crafters of my hope. If any of the three actually could see where I could go, the perception of myself might have been a bit different by the time I was told I was called. Instead, this nagging false-reality of my ability and power tags with me everywhere I go. It’s enough that when people think I should go for something or do something, it leaves me slightly off balance, because I’ve already written myself off.
Here’s what I know based this little dive into my past:
The first step is to find leaders with a clear understanding of where they are going. Those leaders are not stuck in the sinking swamps of now, or attempting to resurrect the past with only zombie type achievement.
The second step is to make sure the destination is worth the trip. Is it an empty promise with no real strides to meet the goal? Do the steps being taken in the meantime, match the announced hope? The announcement of a true hope always leads to a journey.
So, while it might look like I’ve been in a waiting period as of late, because I am. I’m also spending my time planting hope in others. Sometimes it’s something tiny. “Wow, you really nailed that!” Sometimes it’s much bigger. “Where are we in 10 years? What will that look like?” That’s an exciting place to be where something healthy and good could flower from it. Way better than what was given to me.