Leaving a Church

When a person is dissatisfied with life in church, what is he or she to do? If, for instance, the people on the right and left in the pews are just too complacent about the surrounding community, or disinterested in growth by study, one asks, do I accomplish by continuing here? Do I work against the faith by hanging on so? Should I keep my misgivings aside, or do I need to depart?

The Prodigal Son

A congregation has powerful means of shaming one who contemplates leaving. The prodigal son comes up. One of the brothers fails to respect and appreciate the father’s love, pulls out his stake and leaves. When he comes back, the one stayed loyal, who hears the rejoicing over his brother, has only the rewards of a stalwart. The father has to entreat him to come in to the festivities.

In a parish one hears smug remarks about a revolving door; disaffected prodigals going out the back while new folks come in the front. It satisfies the consistent ones to see themselves as the wiser—every group has its problems—when someone skulks resentfully away. Leaving is an act of betrayal, a sin against filial obligations. Good riddance; his own fault for being so close-minded. Once I departed my parish for a few years, and something like this was probably said of me.

Such talk fits with the metaphor sibling rivalries in parish as family, but it is a misreading of the prodigal’s story. At the turning point of the story, neither son is going out; both are invited in. The father, not the prodigal, orders the celebration.

Parish family

The model of a parish as a family has its problems, but it is not wholly wrong. If a family is successful, one grows up, learns independence and leaves. There is the stage of adolescence.  It might be a bitter, protracted fight, or not. It is usually neither won nor lost. It just becomes obsolete. One knows he or she has reached adulthood when there is no further need to fight. One simply moves out, knowing the time has come. The parents can choose their reaction. A loving parent will probably inwardly rejoice at the child’s autonomy. Another might react with rigidity, increasing demands for visible signs of submission. Among people who understand themselves as Christians there is an unfortunate tendency to discount or resent challengers.

Happily, a parish is not a family. Even less is the whole church. It is a worshiping body, and not ours but Christ’s. More apposite than the prodigal son is the story of Cain and Abel. Each of us has both brothers at heart. We alternate between the satisfaction of seeing our offering rise to heaven and the dread of rejection when we see it go awry. In church life there are plenty of occasions when perhaps one ought to doubt the authenticity of one’s offering. At the very moment of making our offering, how terrible is the fear of God’s rejection. Not ravenous greed, nor any ordinary lust, but this fear is the primal human motive for homicide. As Jesus teaches, when we are at odds, ready to call each other fools, homicide is in the air.

Cain and Abel

Better than many Christians appear to do, Cain knows his complete dependency on God, and the danger of annihilation. He needs acknowledgment. When the need for acknowledgment is frustrated it will practically always devolve to anger. But to whom can Cain’s anger to be addressed? God himself is the cause of it; only He can accept or reject Cain’s worship. Cain does not know how to be angry at God. It violates sense. Yet God made Cain as He did, with his pains. The anger will not evaporate. It burns toward any outlet.

Cain needs desperately to assert himself. A man whose faith is unraveling, he wants to see an incontrovertible effect, to make clear he exists. A corpse is certainly such evidence—altogether too obvious. It is hard to see how the killing will solve Cain’s problem, but his act is very understandable once the sequence is set in motion: fear, humiliation, shame, pain, frustration, jealousy, anger, and at last the catastrophe.

Another thing Cain knows better than we sometimes appear to do, is God’s love for his brother. We think God’s love for others should be our motive for loving them too. But even this truth has a dark side. If God loves others, then I can grieve God by hurting them. I can take out my sneaking anger against God without seeming to strike at him directly. So again, Cain is easily understandable.

Oddly enough, God retains an amazing sympathy for Cain. Even as He exiles him, He puts his mark of protection on him, “If anyone slays Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold” (Genesis 4:17). Interesting speech, it brings us back to our true main business, the implacable mercy of God, in and out of church.

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