Why Doesn’t Church Work Anymore?

A ViewPoint by Esther Emery

Old Historic ChurchIt seems like everywhere I go people are talking about it.

“The church leadership doesn’t reflect the wider congregation.”

“Everything seems to operate at such a surface level.”

“The givers are exhausted and burnt out and not being fed.”

“Numbers are down.”

Honestly, it’s everybody. On the conservative side we’re bemoaning the passing of a better age. (But then again, aren’t we always?) On the progressive side we’re frustrated out of our minds with the slow pace of change. Or we’re just bored.

It sounds like this on our social networking pages on Saturday nights:

“Are you going to church tomorrow?”
“Oh…I don’t know. I don’t know if I can do it.”
“I have to. I promised I would. But I really don’t want to.”
“I’m taking a break. I just can’t do it anymore.

Why is this happening? Why doesn’t church work anymore?

I can only answer that with another question.

Why don’t our expectations of church work anymore?

I became a Christian during a year without the Internet. True story. I went for a year without the Internet and the only thing I could think of, to meet all those needs that used to be met by my life on the Internet, was church. I went to a church where I hardly agreed with anybody about anything, but I went anyway, and I dug in. For most of a year that church was the core and center of my social life.

Within months of going back on the Internet I was church shopping. True story.

I wonder, sometimes, if our disenchantment with flesh-and-blood church is simply a matter of having access to a profoundly effective and spiritually satisfying alternative.

I wonder if the Internet hasn’t seriously upped the ante.

At real church I spend the sermon hour worrying about how my wild kids are disrupting the life of the congregation. I look up and wonder what the sermon was about. I wonder if the sermon was what I came to church for.

On the web if I want content I just read it. My kids don’t bother anybody or anything.

At real church I look at the backs of people’s heads and wonder what anybody in the room is actually thinking. I daydream about the major life issues and burdens that people aren’t sharing with me, and the major life issues and burdens of my own that nobody is asking me about.

On the web it takes one click to visit Sarah Bessey or Natalie Trust and I drop into deep connection instantly. We are deep-sharing like it’s going out of style.

At real church there’s always a hierarchy of some kind. (Different kinds at different churches, right. But the information flows one way on a one-way street.) Meanwhile, some of us are texting on our laps.

On the web I receive content and react immediately. I tweet about things I don’t like. And things I do like. I comment in places where I want to express my opinion. I ask questions when I don’t understand what somebody means. I am active and fully engaged in my own spiritual search.

Can real church ever compete with this?

Well, honestly, I hope so. I think it should.

I don’t intend to give up the Internet. I have been on my journey to break the addiction to busy and the addiction to dopamine squirts, and I rejoice in the fruits of that personal journey. But I do not reject the digital church. In digital church I see healing happening. I see a flattening of hierarchies that were made up in the first place and have been profoundly destructive. I see people telling the truth. And I see other people listening. I see the opposite, too, but I can carry my traffic wherever I like. And there is church, for me, on the Internet, that works.

I am not ashamed of taking my spiritual search where my heart leads, even if it is to the Internet. And I am not afraid that I will never see human beings again. I am not afraid that this feeling of frustration and chaos in our physical churches is the end of real life community.

I think it’s just the middle of a change.

It may be that here in our online lives, we are creating the models and raising the hopes that will make church work for us again.

© 2014 by Esther Emery and EEWC-Christian Feminism Today

8 COMMENTS

  1. Esther, I’ve been thinking about this article a lot, and about your response. I want to say first that I did not in any way intend to be dismissive of your experience or perspective. I apologize for that.

    In full transparency, I’m 9 days in to my tenure as pastor of a small, independent church in Indianapolis, IN that, if I had to qualify it as such, is most similar in theology to Unitarian Universalism. We believe there are many paths to one God and that all people are holy. Now, I’m also 9 days into being a pastor period. So, I’m not writing from the perspective of a pastor who wants the above to be the experience for others quite yet. I’m writing from the perspective of someone who has attended the same church for 17 of my 38 years. Sometimes it felt like some of the frustrations you’ve described above. Had it been online, I think that I would have, as you said, carried my traffic to wherever I liked. Being involved with this group of people that I saw at least weekly, though, there was always some investment that I had in them that kept me part of the organization. That is what I meant above.

    I’m sorry that you’re in a physical situation that doesn’t find people in a church that you can easily connect with or find that sense of belonging that we all want. I’m glad you are getting it in other places. And, as a pastor, I’m glad to find through your comment that you aren’t convinced that all churches aren’t working. I am quite invested in the opposite being true as I move into this work full-time.

    Be sure that your article has impacted me in tremendous ways. I really appreciate your having written it. It has called me to question again if what we do as a church is relevant. And, if it is, why? It’s a good thing to ask at this point in my history. Thank you.

  2. (This is the author of the article, responding to comments above.) Also relevant to this conversation is that I participate in online communities. These are groups that are tighter than the broad net of social networking, where I do feel accountability and intense community. And, also, I live in a place where a flesh and blood community of even generally like minded individuals isn’t possible. I do go to church. And I’m committed. But the difference between my physical church and my online church is just as I have characterized it above. My online church is full of real people and full commitment. (I’m part of a writing community called Story Sessions.) And my real life church doesn’t usually feel like a shared journey. I’m very much the odd one out, my interests and questions are not reflected, my input feels pretty irrelevant. And, although I totally respect that not everybody is feeling this way, I also know that I am not the only one who is.

  3. Hello, Darren–

    Thank you for this thoughtful post. I would like to quote part of it–the first sentence of the third paragraph and the last paragraph in a report I will be writing for the annual meeting of my church (St. Giles Episcopal in Northbrook, IL–I am senior warden of the vestry [the church board] ). Would you be willing to give your permission for that? I will give credit to you and to EEWC-CFT. (Marg–is this request OK?) Thanks very much for considering this.

  4. I am at the point of quiting all social networking. The interbnet community is too easy to lose. My church may not be ideal, but there is a level of committment to each other that goes beyond what I have found on line.

  5. I’m not sure about the church of the internet. I do get a lot of information from the web, and I would say I also get a goodly bit of heart there as well. I think about the number of TED Talks that have given me both. Even as an introvert, though, I tend to avoid the comments that come after.

    While you’ve written about this idea of forum giving a two-way dialogue, I’m not always so sure it does. Tweeting about what I like or don’t like in reaction is different than a conversation. It’s not dialogue with, it is dialogue about. That is only different from what happens in the seats at a church in the sense of when, not what. And, it is only different in the when if I’m not tweeting during the service.

    Part of what flesh and bones church offers me is the ability to give, in a meaningful and connected way, to the community with other people with whom I have been actively engaging in spiritual and personal growth. What I find online is a tendency for people to type what they never would have said in person, for better or for worse. Sometimes it is okay to listen for an hour without making a comment. Perhaps it is a lesson in really being attentive instead of following our own thoughts down the rabbit hole. I don’t know. Perhaps it is just personality difference.

    I have never found myself feeling deep community with folks I only know online. There is no responsibility to each other. There is no expectation that I should give back. Perhaps that is also simply how I have engaged the internet. I can’t say. I will say, though, that I hope there are more folks interested in coming to church so that the outreach, the deep relationships, the genuine caring that extends beyond a text, tweet, or like brings can flourish. I don’t want to absorb my spiritual nourishment from someone asynchronously all the time. Sometimes I just some eye contact and a hug to go with the work.

    For me, it is about being more than just a consumer of spiritual materials. It’s about being an active participant in the connections I’ve made as a stakeholder in the lives of others. For me, church isn’t really about the answers. It is about learning to be with other people while we ask the questions together.

  6. I love this post. Like you Esther, I find an interesting faith community among progressive Christians and Christian feminists on the web. I think one thing that’s really lacking is that there’s no good way to do any kind of rituals on the web. There are nice group participatory activities from time to time, like Sarah Bessey’s Jesus Feminist photo event on Facebook, and the NALT Christian’s video project, but so far nobody has figured out a way to share the intimate and intensely personal connection we create in a good ritual.

    But at the same time, I do know where Melanie is coming from. Sometimes it seems like there is just no way to stop ourselves from recreating the same hierarchical and celebrity based structures on the web as we do in “real life.” Everyone still turns their heads to listen to the important people. In a way, I think our communication tools still have this paradigm built into them. But I see a lessening of this each time a new technology comes into use. I think we are trending toward being able to really hear a chorus, away from only hearing the solo singers. Only in this chorus, we can hear the both the unifying consonance AND the sound of individual voices by a slight shift of our listening focus.

  7. Interesting post, Esther. I don’t think I’m at the same place as you, esp. as I’ve felt increasingly cynical and grouchy about faith communities on the web, perhaps because I feel like an outsider to those communities. I remain hopeful about my real life church, perhaps more hopeful than I’ve felt in years. I’ll need to be thinking about why that is, and appreciate your post’s prompting this thinking!

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