James Howell: Decoding the non-church church

How should church leaders respond to the criticism that their church is not a "safe place"?

The past two Sundays have bracketed a theological season I love each year: Reformation Sunday and then All Saints, a time when we aren’t entirely sure whether we stand inside or outside the church. I’ve fancied myself a Luther, standing outside, nailing truth to the door. But then comes All Saints and we are safely inside, reading names, grateful for the church that “is of God and will endure to the end of time.”

This year I’m in a mood to vent, maybe because I suffered another birthday and am getting old and crotchety and feeling the need to defend my life’s work. Maybe now the reform required isn’t from “out there” to “in here,” but from “in here” to “out there.” Near my house is a billboard that says “Your grandmother would scream, ‘This is church?’” Everywhere I turn I hear of little start-up “non-church-churches” touting themselves as “not-church,” adding language that, “This is a safe place.” I hear an ad on the radio seducing the listener with “Tired of church? Bored by church? Come to us.”

I have been sympathetic to those feeling disenfranchised by church, bored by church, even hurt by church; I’ve apologized for the irrelevance of the church and done all I can to stir the church to be its true self. But I want to nail some defensive placard on the door for those who shudder over the very idea of people going into a nice building to sing songs, read the Bible, and try to do a little good in the world. Is church really all that toxic? I have been the pastor of four churches, and I know their blemishes (and my own) better than the outside critics. Yet last year we built a clinic in Haiti and tutored hundreds of children. When you’re sick -- even if we don’t know you well, or at all, but you ask -- we visit diligently and haul casseroles to your home.

Is my church safe? It’s Gothic, extremely affluent, pretty darn white -- but does that make it perilous for outsiders? We have homeless who come every week, not for handouts but to worship with us; we have people with all kinds of mental and physical disabilities who seem to feel welcome. But I know a guy in town who swore to me he’d never come to our place because it wasn’t “safe,” it was rich and stuffy.

Really?

The church has hurt many people terribly, and we’ll never be done trying to make amends for abused kids and emotionally wounded Christians who are gay. But the people I hear saying, “Oh, this non-church church is safe,” most often seem to be sort of hip, cultured folk whose worst church-inflicted injury was boredom in Sunday school or overhearing a judgmental remark from somebody in the nave. Isn’t this “quit church, non-church church” movement not so much a fresh Jesus movement, but a mirror image of society’s anti-institutional bitterness and a lack of interest or energy in doing what the church has always known it has needed to do -- reform itself, become better, truer?

Dorothy Day stood outside the Catholic Church, skeptical about its prospects, but then she came inside to remind its leaders of the church’s social and political program. Luther, Wesley, and a countless host of those saints we recalled on Sunday joined hands, pushed, cajoled, and hollered to help the church be itself.

Maybe we’re in the thick of culture-shift, and the day will be won by the non-church churches, and actual churches will be no more. I hope the non-church folk will learn to visit hospitals and build clinics. I wonder if they will welcome me in my old age. Maybe I’m just in a bad mood.

I’ve given my life to the church, or rather to Jesus through his church, and despite much to apologize for, I am proud of the church, I love the church, and like a parent I don’t welcome somebody saying my child is ugly. Or perhaps I’m winding up like Gail Godwin’s Father Melancholy, who sadly explains to his daughter, “I came along too late, you see. The church I wanted to serve started crumbling a long time ago… It’s been my fate to preside over its final humiliations.”

Humiliations we have. I just wonder if it’s too late.

James Howell is senior pastor of Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina.