In the name of those who want to hold the warm hand of a same-sex lover. In the name of the women who feel called to preach the Bible to their communities. In the name of left wing voters who maintain their faith in Jesus but struggle with conservative culture. In the name of sexually active congregational members suffering the burden of shame from the teachings of purity culture. In the name of those struggling with a mental health condition that prevent regular attendance at church. In the name of those who have suffered spiritual abuse from religious family members and church leaders. In the name of the black sheep, shaved sheep, one-legged sheep and nomadic sheep who don’t fit into the pen that seems to be reserved for white sheep.
On behalf of those who are floating in the liminal space between religion and agnosticism and on behalf of those who are about to leave religion entirely: we call for a reformation in the structure of our conservative Christian churches.
What do I mean by church?
Firstly, it is important to establish what I mean by church and my understanding of its purpose. Most Christians would seek the wisdom of the Bible in matters such as these. The Bible refers to the church in three different ways. Firstly, as a mob (Acts 19:30-41), secondly as the children of Israel (Acts 7:38) and thirdly, as the body of Christ or group of believers (Ephesians 5:25, 32). I’m going to stick with the third reference for the foundation of this article.
For many seekers, Sunday church is the first point of contact with Jesus and the Christian community at large. But many who attend for the first time, report finding the structure, the jargon and the approach to preaching strange and antiquated. Thankfully, the Christianity Explored course that many churches in Sydney offer does a good job of explaining the core tenants of the faith prior to complete church immersion, but I don’t believe this is satisfactory.
I believe we need a more heuristic approach to church in order to foster genuine connections to the God Christians believe in.
What does the Anglican Church look like now?
On Sundays, the congregation experience pseudo-participation rather than active involvement. Coffee-loving young people, families with barefoot children and gold-cross-wearing elderly mill into the building, sit in the pews and listen to a man sharing his informed understanding of Biblical truths. This isn’t a dialogue, this is what is known as “banking education”, where listeners are seen as empty cups to be filled. There is little room to question, let alone think critically about the way that the Bible is analysed and considered. Sometimes there are question cards in the service booklets. I remember filling them out as a young person. Nobody ever got back to me.
Why do we run church like this? Why, when I walk into any Anglican Church in Sydney, will I expect to sing 3-5 songs (sometimes a contentious Hillsong one), hear two Bible readings (one from the Old Testament, one from the New), listen to a sermon by a man and recite a prayer or two?
Why does the Anglican Church determine this to be the most appropriate way to form a meaningful spiritual connection to the Divine? The Bible certainly isn’t explicit about structure (apart from mentioning song and supper) and yet this is how it is done, irrespective of the subtleties that make each community unique.
Many church attendees like the structure. They simply want to attend, get their daily bread, feel good about their continued commitment and then leave. No surprises. But just because people are comfortable with this, does it make it right? Does it create informed, well-read, contemplative people? Does it create a true, beautiful relationship with the God Christians believe in?
Do religious leaders want to build congregations of free thinking agents? Or is the comfort of a repetitive structure, recycled sermons and a greater emphasis on law rather than grace easier to maintain?
There are certainly alternatives outside the Anglican Church. However, churches have a habit of looking down on the practices of their Protestant brothers and sisters. The “hipster” churches. The “happy clappy” churches. The non-denominational churches that can’t possible have a sound theological structure. Don’t get me started on home churches, how do we know that they’re not riddled with false prophets?
It is important to mention Bible Study, because as a “gathering of believers”, it also constitutes as church. Bible Study, usually held on a work night, is where regular church attendees curl around a coffee table in someone’s lounge room with cups of tea and carrot cake and makes their way through a study book. This may be (and often is) a more effective way to facilitate co-intentional education, where all members adopt the role of the subject and teacher. However, these spaces are usually reserved for the converts, those who have already been to Sunday church long enough to commit a second night of the week to religious teaching. Therefore, the questions that arise in Bible Study are often limited to the beliefs of the majority: committed Christians who actively serve their church.
What is the alternative?
Never once in my 22 years of Anglican Church attendance did someone get up the front and say “hey, how do YOU want church to be run?”. So many people don’t get to experience the “joy of Jesus” because the first thing they see is structure, the first thing they hear is jargon, and their first experience of prayer is one which is projected onto a screen.
Ask a non-Christian why they have no interest in church. The word “boredom” will likely feature in their response. To be honest, a lot of the congregation themselves usually are, judging by the number of texters, scrollers and back seat nappers.
At the moment, there is little democracy in terms of Anglican structure. Is the Church scared the religion would crumble if the not-theologically-trained congregation have a say? Why can’t we see religious culture and doctrine separately? In Australia, voting in the election is compulsory. However, only a small number of the population have a solid understanding of policy and economics. For some reason, this doesn’t matter. This makes our vote less about logic and more about emotion. How do the public feel about a particular leader? How do the public feel about the left and the right?
Having faith is an emotionally-driven activity. Faith is not logical. And yet, we inject our churches with rigorous, black and white structures. Why don’t we leave room to play a little more, to inject a little more community-based perspective and thought?
Yes, churches need accountability. But accountability and structure are not inextricably linked. I mean, many of those holding churches to account need to be held account themselves.
Why bother, it’s not like you’re a Christian anymore?
I know, why bother wasting words begging for a reformation for something you don’t believe in? Why care, if at the core, you believe the teachings are false? Why put the energy into this article only to ask believing readers to transform their structures so that people like me don’t leave?
I ask for reformation in our Anglican churches not because I inherently seek more converts. Instead, I seek more converts in the dialogue of spirituality, and many people think of church when they think about places in which they can freely discuss the concept of God.
Maybe, with a less rigorous format and more democracy, it would be easier for seekers to transition into the church and experience the joy of faith and, at the same time, make it easier for those who want to transition out, to do so without the trauma. I am scared for those within the church, who in love and faith preach in a way that fails to provide human beings with the agency to make their own decisions about faith.
Readers, what would you like church to look like?
Also published on Medium.