THE TOXIC CHURCH (PART 1)

Today begins a series of an interview that I conducted with a man named Reed about his reasons for no longer attending church. I have done several interviews on the same topic and the stories have broadened my awareness of a growing longing for change within the Christian Church. Check out my previous interviews, and I will continue to post more.

Today’s Prayer to Passage will be from the book ‘The Four Agreements’ by Don Miguel Ruiz.

I pray, “Dear God, Last night I had a dream. I was writing in a notebook. And the words penned at the bottom of the page — imbued with urgency — read, ‘The Church will end soon.’ What part do I play in sharing these interviews? Are they for a purpose? Align me with an awakening from a dream of discourse. Amen.”

Following my prayer, I held the book tightly in my hands. I was brought to the following passage:

“This is what he discovered: Everything in existence is a manifestation of the one living being we call God. Everything is God. And he came to the conclusion that human perception is merely light perceiving light. He also saw that matter is a mirror — everything is a mirror that reflects light and creates images of that light — and the world of illusion, the Dream, is just like smoke that doesn’t allow us to see what we really are. ‘The real us is pure love, pure light,’ he said.”
—DON MIGUEL RUIZ

“Drinking beer is easy. Trashing your hotel room is easy. But being a Christian, that’s a tough call. That’s rebellion.”
—ALICE COOPER

REED, 31, MUSICIAN:

“My dad is a Lutheran pastor. Growing up, I attended church every Sunday without question. I went to Sunday school, and I sang in the church choir. My family sat in the front pew every Sunday, because that’s what the pastor’s family did. We sat in front and led the hymns, and I learned the songs in the hymnal.

I attended a church camp with my family every summer. My dad was the assistant camp dean. He led the morning devotions and some of the Bible studies. Some of my best memories and closest friends have come from that camp. And I was an impressionable kid, running around, getting into everything, and loving it out there. It’s a great piece of land.

I couldn’t wait to attend as a camper beginning in the fourth grade. I went every year through the summer following my freshman year of high school. That year was called Honors Camp. It was the year to enjoy the camp experience. We got to do a neighborhood service project and hang out with friends that we had made over the years. We got to connect with a community of people that we had come to love and cherish.

It rained at camp every day that week. That wasn’t the weather I was hoping for, but it ended up being OK because we spent time together indoors and it didn’t really faze us. One day we were evacuated to the basement shelter. It was the kind of rain that comes down in sheets and almost sweeps you away. That was the week we were having.

Friday was the last full day. We were to leave in the afternoon on Saturday. On Friday morning we prayed for the rain to stop, even though thunderstorms were in the forecast. The sky was dark. It was cloudy, as it had been all week. After breakfast, the sun appeared and we were able to be outside. That’s when I looked up in the sky.

Clouds were surrounding the camp, and a circle of sunlight hung directly over us. I don’t know if anybody else noticed it, but I surely did. For as far as the eye could see there were dark clouds, but there was one little spot of daylight in the sky. I believed it was answered prayer. I didn’t see any other explanation. And that was the moment when I decided that prayers are answered. That was when it became real for me.

In the ensuing years, I remained connected to that camp. I visited and led music for morning worship and for evening devotions. I even became a counselor during my college years. I continued to play the guitar and to lead music. There was something about that place. It became mine. I was connected to that place and to those people. It was my community. It was a dedication of my life.

During my freshman year of college, I took an introduction to religion course at a Christian Liberal Arts school. The professor, Mr. Hirsch, was Jewish. Right away, I had a problem with that. I wondered why a Jewish guy was teaching at a Christian college. I was an uppity, Christian kid. I thought I had it all figured out because God put a circle over my camp when I was in high school.

Mr. Hirsch brought challenging perspectives, especially in regards to suffering and how God could allow the death of Jesus in such a way. He also questioned the resurrection – its meaning and whether or not it even happened. From what I remember, he switched back and forth between Christianity and Judaism in his own walk, trying to come to terms for himself. He questioned whether or not Jesus was the Savior.

He was always reading, always searching. And I viewed him as a remarkable individual for how seriously he searched. As a kid who had a pretty conservative upbringing and a pretty conservative outlook on how it all works, I was shocked. The design of his course was that we would wrestle with those questions. His purpose was for us to question and to come to our own conclusions.

It was a great course. I got a D+. The pastor’s kid got a D in Religion. I didn’t do the assignments the way Mr. Hirsch wanted them done. I had my mind set on the way I wanted to do it. It was not what I thought it would be. I thought it would be more experiential than academic. I did it wrong and got a very poor grade. That was the only religion class I took in college.

I remember one time during my freshman year I called my dad to ask him if God actually has a plan for all of us, because I couldn’t accept that we are predestined. I didn’t think that a loving God would rejoice in that. We talked about how the Bible does say something to the affect of “He has called us all by name.” There is that. But a lot of it has become contorted into the idea that God has a plan for each of us.

I believe we all have free will. That is one of the things that I keep coming back to in my own walk. Even if there is a plan, we have the ability to choose it or to reject it. So to say everything is a part of God’s plan is bologna. I simply don’t believe that. I think that’s somebody else’s interpretation. If God wanted us to be a certain way, to be a carbon copy of His plan, He would have said so.

There is no plan for each of us. We can carve our own ways, and that’s the beauty of life. It is a blessing in itself is that we get to create our own lives as we go. Therein lies the power of God in each person. My dad and I had conversations like that. We got down to the fundamentals of things sometimes, and it was good.

My dad is the only pastor I have ever had. I am still a member of his church. I haven’t transferred my membership. I haven’t found another home church yet. My dad is a great pastor. He doesn’t think he’s great because he doesn’t have his own radio show and he hasn’t written a book. As soon as you try to tell him he’s a great pastor he’s the first to deflect any kind of praise.

In his mind it’s not about glory, it’s about spreading the word and doing God’s work. That’s all it is to him. He has dedicated his life to being in the service of others, and he purely doesn’t see it any other way. In some ways, my dad is practical. He has found the thing that comes naturally for him and that he is beautiful at. He is a servant.

He is a servant at home. He is a servant to his grown children. He cares about people infinitely. He does God’s work. That’s it. That’s how he sees it. It is very simple.

My dad was a resource for me as I grew up and tried to figure out life. And he still is. We still have big conversations. My mom always said that he’s the same guy behind the pulpit that he is at the dinner table. He never put on a show. There was no fire and brimstone, and he was completely willing to accept that he could be wrong.

My dad was just cool like that. It would be a pain in the ass to listen to anybody else. It was annoying. I wasn’t drawn to pastors who had their pastor voice, who would get up there and become overly animated, or rhetorical, or very serious, and then when they got down, and I went to shake their hands, they seemed like different people. Why were they putting on a show?

That was when I started to notice how unauthentic church could be. I began to wonder why other pastors felt they had to be somebody else to do God’s work. That was one of the things that started turning me off to church.

One of the biggest reasons why I stopped being involved in the Christian community began in college. I loved my college. There were cool people there, and it was great place to foster my faith, but there was a group of people there that I just couldn’t be a part of. I tried, but I was not invited to do anything. There were Bible studies and music events I wanted to attend with them, but I felt as though I wasn’t good enough.

I began to question whether or not I was religious enough for them or well-read enough for them. I went to campus chapel during the week. I played music for Sunday services. I was on a worship team. I was in an outreach group that did youth programs at churches off campus. I was trying to fit in and show that I was a Christian.

I had come from being in a ministry leadership position in my high school. It was a Christian high school. And when I arrived at college, I was ready to continue in similar positions. But there was one student ministry group on campus that really frustrated me and turned me off. People knew I was a musician. I even sang in the college choir. We sang beautiful music, and for a purpose.

And I was in choir with all of those people. I don’t know why they didn’t ask me to do more. Maybe I took it too personally. Now I need to retrace it and look at it from a 30-year-old perspective, instead of from an 18-year-old perspective. Campus ministry groups that I did become involved with seemed too shallow. It was all fluff. I noticed the praise and worship music, and needed something more.

The way I came to terms with my involvement in groups that I didn’t enjoy was that it was better than nothing. There is nothing wrong with having a simple faith. Why over think it? Some of the best gospel music is simple. Who really cares how deep one’s faith is? But I started to crave more depth in college.

I felt like I didn’t fit into the community I wanted to be involved with. I felt unaccepted. I was also questioning my faith during that time of my life. I was questioning the precepts of the Christ figure. I was questioning the resurrection. All of that set up turmoil for me.

I transferred to a different college my junior year. I tried to play more of the guitar, and was in the choir there. But that choir was not nearly as grounded, and I missed that. I was still acting high and mighty. The main reason why I stopped going to church, beginning in college, was the community, it wasn’t there. I didn’t fit in, and that was confusing. To me, there was no alternative. I felt either I was to go to church or I wasn’t to go.

And at my second college, I didn’t feel that there was a strong Christian movement on campus. I introduced myself to people on campus and went to events, but I could not break in. Theirs was a different kind of expression; they were of another tradition. There was more praise and worship, and they were expressive with their hands in the air. I thought, ‘This kind of expression is not mine. I don’t share it; it simply isn’t how I express myself. This is more foreign to me. I won’t fit in here.’

So I joined a punk band instead. That’s where I fit in. Those were my boys. That was my community. That was my church.”

(TO BE CONTINUED…)

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