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Ben Yosua-Davis

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I think it’s safe to say that my last post generated a lot of feedback.  While most of the comments I received were either affirming (thank you, it’s good to know that there are others that feel as I do), or thoughtlessly denouncing (more on this below); I did receive a third set of comments which I feel deserve greater engagement.

I received a few (and, I’m sure that there are a few silent folks out there who felt similarly) thoughtful pieces of pushback, from people who were hurt by my words or took issue with the tone of my analysis. Since my last post appears to have set a bull loose in a theological china shop, I’d like to take a couple minutes to sweep up a few broken pieces and explain some of the choices I made in how I framed the last piece.

First, to answer a couple pieces of criticism with the seriousness that they deserve:

Am I a worker of Satan? Not so far as I know; but I suppose if you go back to the very original Hebrew definition of “ha Satan” which meant tester or accuser, those might in fact describe the tone of my piece very well; so…maybe?

Would I have stoned Paul if I had been in Damascus two thousand years ago? Answer is a definite no. First, I’m more or less a pacifist and secondly my aim is pretty horrible without my glasses, which most likely means that I’d be more of a danger to the crowd than to Paul in any case.

And now, to some of the more serious concerns:

Do I believe that every Christian who belongs to a church is an asshole?

This deserved a little more clarity in my original piece. I don’t believe this (and it would be very awkward if I did, since my wife is a pastor and I work as music director at a church filled with lovely people.) I might have better said, “It is the near-universal experience of people under the age of 35 that American Christendom has become a church of assholes.”

Lest you think that this is some form of intentionally provocative exaggeration, this is actually backed up by empirical evidence, including a study done about 10+ years ago (pre-Trump, nonetheless!) that states that three adjectives that young adults would most use to describe Christians are: anti-homosexual, judgmental, and hypocritical (which doesn’t sound like a bad definition of asshole if you ask me.)

This is not simply a problem of perception: we actually have no empirical evidence that being involved in American Christendom makes you more like Jesus on a behavioral level. If anything, the studies suggest that being an American Christian may have a negative effect on your Christ-likeness when the rubber hits the road (e.g. generosity, being accepting of others, not lying, not stealing, etc.)

Does this mean that I believe that your particular church or you individually are assholes? No. This is about people’s perception and about entire systems, not about specific contexts. But, before you let yourself off the hook and decide that this is a Problem for Other Churches Because Mine is Great, I’d invite you to do some serious thinking about whether your church operates in a more loving fashion or is more aligned with God’s purposes for the world at an enacted level than your local YMCA or *insert preferred non-profit or business organization here*.

Do you really think that the Church, Christ’s body, is dying?

No, I absolutely don’t, and this points to a place where I feel like we need to create a lot more daylight in our conversations about American Christianity between “church” and “Church”. If we conflate church (e.g. every faith community that has the word “church” in their name or worships with Jesus-language on Sunday or every denomination that organizes said faith communities and claims spiritual authority) with Church (Christ’s very body at work in the world through us), we end up in situations where Jesus ends up doing some very odd, oftentimes downright offensive sort of things (see previous question) and seems pretty much under the control of hierarchs and demographic forces.

Rather, I believe that the destruction of the American church is proof of the irresistible vitality of the Church. God does not need to wait on old, death-dealing forms of institutional religion to get their act together when God can make “the rocks cry out.” And so, God is burning down the institutional deadwood so that something new can grow in the sunlight. This is unbelievably painful for those of us who love those old, dead trees; but it’s also tremendously exciting. The Church is the power of the resurrection life made manifest, and that life is more powerful than death, even the death of our dead-but-walking religious institutions.

Your post sounds gleeful at times about the destruction of American Christendom. Where’s your grief?

If you haven’t engaged with a lot of my other work, I could see how you felt this way. I myself am a child of the American Christendom. I grew up in a beautiful, faith, traditionally structured church that gave me the hymnody I sing, my deepest convictions about the Christian life, and a living image of what Christian community is supposed to look like. It was that church which kept me together when I became horribly sick when I was nine and wasn’t able to return to school until I was thirteen. There are many ways that I owe my health and sanity to the group of people and that indeed deserves a lifetime of grief and gratitude.

There were many gifts, held by imperfect hands in the time of American Christendom; and some of those gifts will be lost or their memory forgotten. And for that, I grieve.

I grieve that the hymns that have formed my life will not shape the lives of my children.

I grieve that it’s unlikely that my children will experience a sanctuary full of people enthusiastically worshipping God, easily accessible opportunities to form spiritual community with people their own age, or know a connection to a wider church that is not completely consumed with anxiety.

I grieve that building a ministry is now so damn hard in this environment and every gain is so painfully fragile.

I grieve for the pastors, crushed under the weight of expectations, unprepared by their training, and utterly burnt out; many of whom would much better serve Christ out of the clergy than inside it; but who feel utterly trapped and unable to leave until retirement age.

I grieve for all those wonderful, well-intentioned people connected with old, dying congregations who feel inadequate, terrified, and helpless.

But, there is much more that I grieve for:

I grieve for all the people who will have nothing to do with church because they encountered a clergyperson who *everyone* knew had no business being a pastor, but whose destructiveness and sometimes outright abuse was enabled by a conspiracy of silence and bureaucratic inertia that often lasted for decades.

I grieve all the partnerships with non-profits and other organizations left dead before birthing, because of churches that worshipped their buildings and their money more.

I grieve all the children I know who were bright-eyed about God until they methodically and decisively shut out of the life of the congregation because they didn’t act like little 80-year old’s in worship or because people just didn’t care. (And I grieve even more for every time I wasn’t able to do anything about it.)

Grief and lament are absolutely an important part of the prophetic process, and it would be correct to notice that my piece didn’t contain grief. In part, this is because I’ve noticed that grief in church circles frequently becomes a denial of responsibility, a sort of myopic narcissism where we believe that our sadness means that we should saint what is passing. If we grieve for the passing of the American Church, then we should grieve even more for the victims of its many sins.

We need to hold both forms of grief together if we’re going to say goodbye to American Christianity with integrity.

Your writing seems pretty hopeless.

I could push back about that (after all, I think that the conviction that God is at work to liberate the oppressed and set the spiritual captives free is *very* hopeful news), but I understand what you’re getting at. It’s true that I didn’t nod at the new spiritual communities and new prophets that are springing up out of the Christian tradition and suggest God’s resurrection power already at work. (Check out my podcast if you want about one hundred instances of me engaging in this.)

I’ll be honest. I didn’t mention any of this quite on purpose.

In American Christendom, hope often appears to be a synonym for denial. I can’t count the number of times at a conference or judicatory meeting, that I’ve heard, at the end of a recitation of the statistics of our apparently irreversible institutional decline, the assurance “But Sunday’s coming!” or “But we believe in a God of resurrection!” or “God’s doing a new thing among us!” And while these things are all true, they serve to short-circuit the very necessary process that leads us to hope: the acknowledgment of our reality.

The reality is that American Christendom is done. We’re not at Easter Sunday, we’re headed into Good Friday, with a Holy Saturday laying in the tomb after that; and because we are unable to acknowledge the unavoidable reality that death comes before resurrection, what we think of as resurrection is merely life support. I have yet to hear a group of Christian leaders deal seriously with the fact that American Christendom is dead and cannot be revived. And until that fact is publicly acknowledged, lamented, and grieved; true hope will not be able to find a purchase among us.

After having interviewed about a hundred spiritual pioneers over the last five years; I have also become cautious about citing new faith communities or faith leaders as a reason why the American Church can have hope.  Frequently, when this connection is made, anxious organizations and leaders will place the responsibility for their institutional survival upon the backs of these small, frequently under-resourced ministries. I mean this literally. I remember one church planter who told me, “My Bishop said, ‘I’m letting you plant this church so you can grow and make sure that our conference doesn’t financially go under.’” That expectation, stated or implied, is an almost-universal experience of spiritual pioneers in mainline denominations. These communities (and their leaders) neither need or deserve to be our Messiahs; and when they fail to live up to these impossibly high expectations, they are often crucified and discarded.

I do have a great deal of hope. In fact, I believe that the judgment of the American Church is absolutely the best thing that could happen to it. But no, I don’t believe that I should encourage people to hope for a miracle resurrection when what they should do is acknowledge that the patient is dead.

This piece still seems really harsh.

That’s fair. And if it offended or hurt you, I’ll take responsibility for that. After all, intentions are different than impact; and that’s truer on the internet than perhaps in any other social space, especially in the scope of one blog post.

I hope you hear that genuine regret and that, if you’ve made your way to the end of these two-thousandish words, you’ll also better understand why I wrote it the way that I did. I’ve written this exact same post at least four times before over the last five years, and have either not hit publish, or nuanced it with precisely these critiques about grief and hope in mind until it no longer meant what it was supposed to mean. And sure enough, when I watch the responses to those carefully nuanced pieces, I hear people blaming demographic shifts, leadership development, or incorrect theology or political positions (e.g. Those damn evangelicals! Those godless liberals!) rather than taking responsibility for their own spiritual work.

Since my latter years as a church planter, I’ve struggled to find my voice; one that speaks from within that is not forever over-regulated by relational or professional calculus. Most of the time, my words are highly engineered, and almost always tempered to assuage my own anxiety.

As I’ve suffered during the collapse of my health and career, done my work with therapists and spiritual directors and in community; and begun to grow in my own sense of self, I’ve realized how damaging this calculus is to my spiritual health; and I’ve tried, as mindfully as possible, to start speaking out of my own inner integrity, and let the chips fall where they may.

What you had here was the purest example of my rage at the hurt that I and so many people have suffered at the hands of American Christendom and my seething frustration at American Christendom’s unwillingness to take responsibility for its sins (and no, I’m not just talking about evangelicals, in case I haven’t been clear.) It’s unlikely you’ll ever see me post something this angry ever again, and I hope you realize by now (if you didn’t before) that my anger is not the sum of my theology or my work.

That’s where I’ll leave it by now. If you’re one of those people who was hurt by my writing, I hope you feel a little more heard now; and I also hope you can also hear why I wrote what I did in the way that I did. [And I’m always happy to continue the conversation via email as well.)

Onwards into the mess together.

Ben Y-D

 

 

 

 

Join us for a recording of Ben’s conversation with Rev. Dr. Heber Brown III of The Black Church Food Security Network and Pastor Emily Scott of Dream and Visions to imagine a new church, as part of the BTS Center’s series, “Unlocking Possibility: Catalyzing Spiritual Imagination in Uncertain Times”.

Episode Highlights Include: 

  • Stories of possibilities unlocked for both Heber and Emily
  • How reimagining our tradition can unlock innovation
  • What it looks like to untangle capitalism and Christianity
  • What it means to take seriously that “all that we need is here”
  • The way that church is like improv dancing around a steady bass line

Thanks to our amazing supporters, including

Stay tuned next for: A conversation with Bill McKibben and Rev. Lennox Yearwood about imagining a new planet.

Join us for a recording of Ben’s conversation with Casper ter Kuile and Erica Williams Simon about Imagining a new Democracy, as part of the BTS Center’s series, “Unlocking Possibility: Catalyzing Spiritual Imagination in Uncertain Times”.

And, in case you didn’t hear the news in our previous episode, we’ll be wrapping up this podcast at the end of the year (three more episodes to go after this one!) Thank you all for your support and stay listening to hear what’s coming next!

Episode Highlights Include: 

  • The importance of story to our national identity
  • Why re-imagining democracy starts at the grassroots
  • Civic Rituals and liturgy
  • The role of covenant in revitalizing our civic life

Thanks to our amazing supporters, including

Stay tuned next for: A conversation, “Imagine a New Church” with Emily Scott and Heber Brown from 4:30-5:30PMEST on Wednesday, November 18th. (Click here to register and join us live!)

Regardless who wins this election, there is one thing I’m sure of:

The American Church is done.[1]

In a very public way, evangelical Christians have been the most powerful force for evil in our country over the last four years; and have energetically made themselves into flagrant hypocrites for enthusiastically supporting the most un-Jesuslike political leader this country has ever seen.

Mainline Christians have been utterly impotent when it comes to mounting a compelling spiritual response, consumed as they are by their fear of conflict, terror of institutional decline, and profound spiritual apathy that gives them no better response to the last four years than perhaps “Be a secular progressive and use some Jesus language!”

All this means that publicly, American Christianity now stands for:

  • Caging children
  • Destroying the Earth
  • Sexual Assault
  • Serial Hypocrisy
  • Inciting Violence
  • Undermining Democracy
  • White Supremacy[2]

In other words, any claims that American Christendom ever had to moral authority have now completely collapsed.

I realized this morning that If I had not grown up steeped in both scripture and Christian community in the best possible way, there is no way I’d ever be a Christian; precisely because all my deepest held values stand in direct conflict to those above. American Christianity has become the Church of Assholes, with Jesus as the chief one, proudly validating every worst expression of what it means to be human.[2.5]

And if that’s true for me, then why in God’s name would anyone, especially anyone under the age of about 35 ever consider Christianity as anything other than a vile, anachronistic expression of hatred that deserves to be relegated to the dustbin of history?

For those of you who are churchgoers, the bottom line is this: your particular Christian tribe is toast.

Your church will most likely not grow, as you’re now nested in a religion considered so profoundly toxic by the people around you that being Christian could be considered an active moral embarrassment.

Your judicatory bodies and your local church will almost undoubtedly collapse under the weight of financial pressures and turn to dust before your sleepy, tradition-worshipping members wake up to the fact that the time to change has more or less passed.

Your children, unless you approach their spiritual formation with an incredible amount of intention, will likely leave the religion of their youth as soon as they can; judging (with some truth) that mom and dad’s religion doesn’t seem to be helping anyone become a better, more joyful, more loving person.

And what will be left besides dust and ashes?

Probably just a few groups of people living life together with great fidelity, structured in a way that they can sustain themselves with very few financial resources, as this American Christianity fades into memory and they themselves re-learn what it means to follow Jesus when they’re not utterly co-opted by imperial, capitalistic, industrial modernity.

And lest you think that your church or denomination will escape what I’ve just described: remember that God is the cause all of this.

For God heard the cry of those oppressed by those who claimed God’s name,

God sent the prophets whose voices were silenced by false religious leaders,

God saw the shameless acts of infidelity, in action and inaction, by those who were so audacious as to claim to be God’s very body;

And God saw how their ears were deafened, their eyes shut, to God’s persistent calls to repentance,

And so, in God’s fury, God used Donald Trump to make a public mockery of the American Christian myth[3]; to expose its spiritual nakedness, to make its name a byword, and, in doing so, to guarantee the downfall of those who would blaspheme the love of God through their hateful words and actions.

You cannot stand against this God, because God is working for the liberation of God’s hurting people and to free those who have been spiritually trapped by that which has called itself of Christ but has been of Satan.

And so, if you’re not having conversations about selling or renting your building; about cutting your pastoral staff, about figuring out how to configure your ministry so it can run without giving for decades; and more importantly, if you’re not covering yourself today in sackcloth and ashes; if you’re not on your knees, begging for God’s mercy and forgiveness; if you’re not reaching out to every one of your traumatized neighbors to apologize for your church’s hypocrisy through action or silence, and then serving them with desperate, openhanded intention:

Then don’t expect to escape the wrath that is to come.

[Wow, this post generated a lot of feedback. My response to some of your questions can be found here.]

[1] Whenever anyone says “American Church”, just a reminder that you should mentally adjust to “White American Church”.

[2] You could probably add, for a certain demographic: Pews, Grandma’s Favorite Old-Time Hymns, and Those Easter Flowers as well.

[2.5] After getting your feedback, I’m now aware that I wasn’t clear enough here either. No, I don’t think all Christians are assholes or that Jesus is an asshole. Rather, this is about perception. It’d be clearer to say, ““It is the near-universal experience of people under the age of 35 that American Christendom has become a church of assholes.”

[3] To be clear, I’m not saying that God was the reason Donald Trump was elected. That was our own damn fault. Rather, that God worked through the election to expose the hypocrisy of the American church.

 

Join us for a recording of Ben’s conversation with Rob Hopkins and Dominique Christina about the art and practice of imagination in uncertain times in the BTS Center’s series, “Unlocking Possibility: Catalyzing Spiritual Imagination in Uncertain Times”.

Episode Highlights Include: 

  • Why imagination is so important and so hard to access in our current moment
  • Re-imagining self and re-imagining Community
  • How privilege, whiteness, and industrial modernity shape our imaginations
  • From “What Is” to “What If” and from “Yes, but” to “Yes, and”
  • An announcement about the future of Reports From the Spiritual Frontier

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Stay tuned next for: A conversation on Re-Imagining Democracy with Casper Ter Kuile and Erica Williams Simon. (Click here to register and join us live!)

Join us for a little more of our conversation with Ciona Rouse, as she shares about the gift of open Sunday mornings and supportive friends.

If you haven’t heard it yet, check out our full conversation with Ciona, “Resting On A Limb On the Tree of Knowledge”.

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Stay tuned next for:Our upcoming fall series, topic to be announced soon!

Join us for an updated conversation with poet Ciona Rouse, first about her experience of the pandemic and our national reckoning with racism, and then about her journey from cradle United Methodist and pastor’s kid out of Christianity.

Episode Highlights Include: 

    • Ciona’s upbringing as a pastor’s kid and her experience as a denominational employee
    • Her vocation as a writer and “God as author”
    • “It struck me that I had spent my whole life in church and this was the first time I had hung out with prostitutes”
    • How “Let’s take a break” became a permanent break from Christianity
    • Resting on a limb on the Tree of Knowledge

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  • Ciona on NPT Arts Break.
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Stay tuned next for: A bonus episode with a little bit more from Ciona.

Join us for a little more of our conversation with Ophelia Hu-Kinney, as she shares about why she’s United Methodist.

If you haven’t heard our full conversation with Ophelia, make sure to check it out: “Why Not Take A Leap of Faith For Once?”

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Stay tuned next for: Our updated conversation with Ciona Rouse!

Join us for an updated conversation conversation with Ophelia Hu-Kinney, of Queering the Kindom and the Reconciling Ministries Network, about what she’s learned over the course of thee pandemic, about her journey into Christianity in early adulthood and her continual process of re-conversion.

Episode Highlights Include: 

  • “I referred to myself as an atheist who wanted to be proven wrong.”
  • Her conversion experience in an evangelical Christian college fellowship
  • Her continual conversion when she met the woman who would become her wife
  • Why authenticity is more important than coolness
  • Why there is “no place that will feel like a perfect home.”

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If you liked this episode, check out:

Thanks to our amazing supporters, including

Stay tuned next for: An updated conversation with poet Ciona Rouse about her journey from cradle United Methodist and pastor’s kid out of Christianity.

 

Join us for a dialogue between Elaine Heath and Wayne Jacobsen, as they dialogue about the common ground and meaningful differences in their understandings of what it means to be part of authentic spiritual community.

Episode Highlights Include: 

  • What does it mean to be connected to the Church?
  • The role of structure and accountability
  • The roles of different expressions of spiritual community
  • How institutions can go bad
  • Gratitude and appreciation for one another

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If you liked this episode, check out:

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Stay tuned next for: An update to our conversation with Ophelia Hu-Kinney, “Why Not Take a Leap of Faith For Once?”

 

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