Is there a time when it’s right to walk out of church? While I think that’s a matter of individual conscience and discernment, I’m intrigued by the differences in where and when people choose to leave church.
In some cases it’s a church building people choose to leave. For example, I recently came across a post on Erik Knutsen’s blog about his church’s experience of Peter Rollins’ Insurrection Tour. Knutsen says,
Last night, Britta and I watched Peter Rollins’ insurrection tour. Our church showed it this past Sunday, at our small group we heard that some people had been offended or confused, and one person had walked out during the Sunday service. Britta and I hadn’t been there on Sunday, but we really wanted to know what this video was all about.
In Knutsen’s description of what happened at his church, I was reminded of a comment I received from the audience when speaking about the emerging church at the evangelical New Horizon conference in Coleraine last month.
The speaker implied that New Horizon was no place for considering Rollins’ ideas, and that his book shouldn’t even have been on the reading list for the seminar. The rationale was that Rollins’ ideas were too unorthodox, too heretical, and that it would be damaging or dangerous for people’s faith were they to contemplate them.
Knutsen goes on to write clearly and carefully about his own reaction to Rollins, and how it has challenged him to think in new ways.
I would generally agree with Knutsen: it is better to listen to Rollins’ and the emerging churches’ critiques of Christianity, than to walk away if you do not agree with them in certain areas.
People involved in the emerging church may be making points that are uncomfortable and difficult to take on board, but hearing the emerging churches’ critiques in an open spirit might actually help ‘traditional’ or ‘institutionalised’ churches to change for the better.
In other cases, people are walking out on the church, as an institution, altogether. This past week has seen Marie Collins, an Irish campaigner for victims of clerical abuse, confess on William Crawley’s Sunday Sequence that she is leaving the Catholic Church, and novelist Anne Rice announcing that she too is quitting institutionalised Christianity.
Collins and Rice are fed up with the churches for similar reasons. Collins emphasised her despair at the way the hierarchy of the Catholic Church has let its people down, while Rice has condemned all forms of organised religion.
Collins and Rice are critics of bigger, more powerful, ‘institutionalised’ churches which they believe haven’t take their criticisms, and the criticisms of many others like them, on board.
Rather than walking out because they don’t want to hear what a critic has to say, they are leaving because their experience has been that people in powerful positions in churches just don’t want to have serious and respectful dialogue.
Also on yesterday’s Sunday Sequence, Crawley quizzed Rollins and Fr Brian D’Arcy about the Anne Rice case (segment starts 35 min into the programme). Rollins did not defend the institutionalised expression of Christianity that Rice is exiting, nor would he (or D’Arcy for that matter!) have been expected to.
But Rollins did say he was concerned that Rice was advocating a privatised form of Christianity that, divorced from a ‘community’ in which people hold each other accountable, would become too individualistic and not engage compassionately in the messy, real world in which we all live.
I wonder if, eventually, people involved in the emerging church will come to the same conclusions that Collins and Rice have very understandably come to in their personal religious journeys:
That it is no longer productive to try to engage in conversation about what it means to be a Christian today with larger, more powerful ‘institutionalised’ churches?
(Image sourced on flickr, by Dean Terry)