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They didn’t leave the church, the church left them


This column is part of our ongoing opinion commentary on faith, called Living our faith. Find the complete series here.

According to a recent Pew Charitable Trust poll, 3 in 10 adults in the United States identify as having no religious affiliation. Long-term trends continue, perhaps accelerated by the global pandemic. Today, even the most complacent ordained and lay church leaders across regional and denominational lines worry about a future where commitment declines, and not just for selfish reasons. The Church’s ability to feed the hungry, visit the lonely and sick, and advocate for justice requires many hands, not just professional clergy.

As certain experiences in Europe show, a post-Christian society is perhaps not synonymous with utopia.

These discussions of the growing group of “non-religious” people often focus on those who have left the church, especially during the pandemic. But we should also ask about those who believe the church has left them.

Many newly deceased people ask, where was the voice of the church when young people marched for the rights of all to live free from harm in their own homes? What did my pastor say about white nationalism and leavening Christianity with a toxic mix of overt racism, outlandish conspiracy theories and hyper-patriotism? Did well-chosen silences reign in place of prophetic discourse? Has our desire to keep politics out of the church led us to ignore gross injustices in the world and within ourselves?

The stark reality is this: Despite representing a minority of American Christians, the Christian Right has braced itself for one final crack in the culture wars, and it intends to drag us all into it. Worse still, some leaders and supporters of the movement will resort to any tactic to serve this end. These tactics include gross distortion of the Bible and demonization of immigrants, people of color and sexual minorities.

The old Protestant hostility to Catholicism plays a role here, since a large proportion of immigrants to the United States now come from predominantly Catholic countries. Another factor may be unexamined notions of bodily conformity, usually rooted in early modernity rather than the grand tradition of the church.

All of this despite repeated instructions from the Bible to the people of God to regard the immigrant in the same way as widows and orphans, the fact that Jesus of Nazareth was a Jew from the Eastern Mediterranean, and that sexuality seems to figure a lot less prominently in the Old or New Testament (and in life) than a range of social and economic behaviors that the politico-religious right generally ignores. A book that never mentions abortion and criticizes greed, narcissism, and abuse of power on every page somehow reads as if it does the opposite.

Moreover, still despite the biblical teaching prohibiting false witness against the neighbor, the tactic can include the denigration of anyone who calls us to mercy and mutual understanding. Socialist, progressive, leftist, liberal – any label will do. The less precise, the better. So maybe some of the unborn didn’t leave the church so much as it left them – and Jesus with them.

Should those of us who think the church has left us become secular? For me, the answer is no. When I became a Christian, I began to follow Jesus Christ, not the policies or practices of his other followers. As Polycarp, a second-century martyr, said, “I served him 86 years, and he did me no harm. So how can I speak against my king, who saved me? I won’t be his age for several decades, but the feeling gives meaning to my experience. The commitment to follow Jesus in the way of God is too deep to be abandoned because of the failure of church leadership.

Nor does it mean giving up on building a community of fellow seekers who aim to serve and grow in their reverence for God and their love for other human beings. The life of worship and service goes well together as long as we understand that God is God, and that no religion, race, nation or social class can be. The human need for community should lead us to join with other honest seekers of truth and joy. These new communities should look less like institutions focused on self-preservation and more like cells of Jesus’ disciples who first heard from the apostles and prophets 2,000 years ago.

Perhaps the institutional, especially evangelical, church did us a favor by leaving us. Now, some of us should serve the world by becoming church again, but in a new way. Easter is approaching.

Mark W. Hamilton is a professor of biblical studies at Abilene Christian University and the author of “Jesus King of Strangers” and many other books. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.

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