“I would walk with my people if I could find ’em.”
Third Eye Blind
In my early 20’s I ditched a small Presbyterian church who’s pastor and leaders had been nothing but gracious and hospitable to me for a growing church startup full of young adults, including my best friend. After a time, I ditched that young church for seminary. Both moves filled me with excitement and guilt–excitement at the prospect of a new community to which I might belong, and guilt at leaving one that had embraced me.
In her new book Christianity After Religion: The End of The Church And The Beginning of A New Spiritual Awakening, Diana Butler-Bass lifts up Belonging (along with Believing and Behaving) as an element of an emerging spirituality in America that owes less and less to Religion. Given my lingering guilt over how I’ve sought belonging in church communities, I’m interested in where she comes out.
She writes, “The question ‘Who am I?’ and its emerging answer, ‘I am my journey,’ appear to be new contours shaping our sense of selfhood. In the twenty-first century, it may be better to ask ‘Where am I?’ as a path toward understanding who I am.”
Butler-Bass is very helpfully lifting up movement as a force that has animated spirituality from the ancient Hebrews to 21st century Emergents. The Bible, in fact, is mostly a story of people moving, of following or fleeing God in this move or that. Abram and Sarai, Moses, Ruth and Naomi, Jesus, Paul: all of them experienced transformative journeys that defined who they were.
My friend Danielle pastors a church in Dallas that has taken this insight about movement so far as to call itself “Journey.” The church describes itself like this: “We seek to follow the way of God revealed to us in Jesus Christ, study the grand narrative of the Bible, and learn from the fullness of Christian tradition.”
Fleshing this insight out involves injecting lots of prepositions into our heavily propositional theological discourse. “Prepositions,” writes Butler-Bass, “invite us to consider identity by exploring how we move, to whom we are related, and where we are located.”
“Who am I in God? With God? Before God? Behind God? Beside God? Who is God in me? With me? Before me? Behind me? Beside me?”
So the flaky modern habit of eschewing membership in a church for a looser kind of affiliation might be less about people relating the church as a consumer commodity and more about a church being part of individuals’ winding journeys in God. “Church,” in Buter-Bass’s estimation, “is no longer membership in an institution, but a journey toward the possibility of a relationship with people, a community, a tradition, a sacred space, and, of course, God.”
The churches I ditched a decade ago were part of my journey. Yet I want to resist the tendency to make myself and my journey the center of how I understand what happened between us. Journeys can’t just be about the people who go; there are always people left behind. I’ve been that person too.
Who are you in God? With God? Before God?
How would you use prepositions to describe the American church’s relationship to, in, with, before, through, and beside God at this time an in this place?
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