Everyone, who thinks about the larger mainstream church in America today, ponders the question of why our numbers keep dropping. Though statistics vary, in one big poll from 2000 to 2018, the number of Americans who claim membership in church dropped from 69% to 52%. Whatever the precise number, it is a big drop. Not surprisingly, most people have an opinion about why this is happening. I just finished an interesting book by Brian McLaren, an evangelical writer and pastor, whom I have not previously read—largely because he is an evangelical writer and pastor. That is not an attractive admission about me, but there it is: most of us read what supports our positions. Some January 1 soon, I intend to make a resolution about that.
McClaren’s book is provocatively entitled, Do I Stay Christian: A Guide for the Doubters, the Disappointed and the Disillusioned. I am glad I read it—sort of in the same way I am happy to have had a root canal when I really needed one. The opening part is a brutal look at not only the dark side of our history but also the current practice of many Christian extremists. The author devotes ten chapters to admissions about Christianity’s role in the origin of anti-Semitism, resistance (occasionally violent) to dissent, ignorance of and efforts to replace indigenous faith experience, support of white male dominance, anti-intellectualism, love of and near worship of money, and several others. Though it is a tough slog, his honest opinions, rooted in solid research and observation, do help explain why many among us have lost faith. It is worth reading if you are interested. If it doesn’t sound like summer reading to you or if you fear that it will push you over the cliff, give it a pass. All shall be well. Regardless.
In the second ten chapters, McClaren explores reasons for remaining Christian, which—spoiler alert—is the position with which he remains. Though each reason to stay resonates with me, the most compelling, not surprisingly, is the chapter he titles, “Because of our Founder.” Both the historical Jesus, what we know of him from scripture, despite (or perhaps because of) its layers and layers of nuance, complexity, and occasional dissonance with its own arc and the Christ of our faith, whom I understand to be the One around and in whom our consciousness of God in the world, in each other, and within us continues to evolve—both of these win the day for me.
All of that, then, is to say that I, too, am in—still in after all these years. I am not in because I deny any of McClaren’s reasons for getting out or because I believe Christianity to be the absolute only way for anyone to be truly in or even the only way I could be in. If I worked hard, with some intensives here and there, I think I could be a good Jew. My roots make Judaism comfortable for me. Maybe I could become Buddhist, admiring as I do what I know about the practice, but probably not. Mindfulness often stops me. I am pretty sure being an atheist would never work, hopefully for more reasons than religion’s purported opioid effect. I am a theist at heart, and the theism that works the best for me is Christianity. No matter how doubtful, disappointed, or disillusioned I on occasion become about my own spiritual reality or that of my brothers and sisters, this is home for me. I am unequivocally ashamed of Christian extremism, and sometimes I am ashamed of myself as well. What keeps me hanging in is not the anticipation of learning that we are right but that we are right enough—that this journey, the one we are on, is our evolution to union with God, a union that mysteriously lives beyond any world religion, denomination, or institutional understanding at all.
I don’t know if that understanding will reverse the trends and fill the pews. For it to do so, it most likely will have to be said better than I’ve said it and, at the least, from the lips of someone younger, cuter, and hipper. But this is my best offering, dear friends. Even in the midst of a ridiculously hot summer, it may make sense to stop to consider the questions: do we go, do we stay, and why. My guess (which is also my fervent hope) is that the next time it is my joy and privilege to be among you, I’ll see you right where you always are, hanging in with me, some of you without a smidgen of doubt, others just barely in at all, and all of us sustained by the love and union of God.
**Calvary is excited to welcome Brian McLaren back to our pulpit as part of our 100th Lenten Preaching Series in March 2023. If you are interested in further exploring McLaren’s book, Do I Stay Christian: A Guide for the Doubters, the Disappointed and the Disillusioned, in a small group setting in the coming months, contact the Rev. Katherine Bush.**