Church Refugees

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Hiking group (not refugees) at a recent church retreat.

I took a short hiatus from writing this blog post, partly because I was busy other things such as helping to create a community garden at our church and supporting a community coalition advocating for affordable housing in the City of Fairfax. The garden is looking great! We were also able to achieve at least some of our affordable housing objectives. The developer, who will demolish 110 affordable housing units in the city, agreed to give $1,000 resettlement stipends to current residents and contribute $550,000 toward a newly established affordable housing fund in the city. It won’t replace the affordable housing that has been lost but it will at least enable us to begin developing an affordable housing initiative in our city.

This other reason I took a hiatus is because I have been wrestling with my claim that the Anabaptist tradition, with its emphasis on the gathered community of faith, is ideally positioned to meet the spiritual and social concerns of those who are disillusioned with the church in our time. My claim is substantiated by the sociological research of Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope based on their interviews of people who have giving up on the church.

In their book Church Refugees, they note that the most common regret among those who have left the church is the loss of community. This is because “they understand Christianity through interactions with others and a commitment to share life fully and honestly with a group of people. Community was fundamental to their understanding of God” (38). A primary reason for leaving was because the dogmatism, bureaucracy, and hierarchy in their congregations clashed with that commitment. This supports moving toward a more Anabaptist model of the church where the engaged community of faith is an expression of God at work in our world.

Even so, another reason this group is done with church makes me question my claim. They perceive the church to be primarily inward focused rather than engaged in its neighborhood. Practically all staff time and financial resources are focused on Sunday morning worship to the exclusion of projects that address needs in the larger community. The structure of the church actually prevented them from serving God through community action. For some, leaving the church became a matter of their own spiritual wellbeing. (55).

Most churches rooted in the Anabaptist tradition are especially inwardly focused, partially as a result of our history as a persecuted religious minority. At the same time, we’ve become part of the larger American religious ethos that gives primacy to Sunday morning worship and self-perpetuating church structures. We become confined in an insular religious world.

I’ll speak from my Mennonite heritage. It’s difficult for those from outside our religious-cultural world to find a place among us. Seeking to become involved in one of our congregations can feel like interrupting a close-knit family. We’re polite but people get the unspoken message that they don’t quite fit and probably never will. This is often just as true of more liberal churches as traditional ones. Even worse, leadership positions in our small denomination are filled by people from certain familial networks.

The challenge for our congregation is to draw on our rich Anabaptist heritage rooted in community, while freeing ourselves from its more inward focused cultural expressions. We may be uniquely positioned to do that because there are not many people with ethnic Mennonite roots in our Fairfax community. This can actually be an opportunity.

It doesn’t mean devaluing or abandoning our culture. My doctoral studies in religion and culture remind me that culture carries religion. What it does mean is practicing hospitality and opening ourselves to people from other cultures in our diverse Metro DC area. To do that, we will want to be engaged with our neighbors in things beyond our congregation such as our community garden and working for affordable housing.   

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2 thoughts on “Church Refugees

  1. Evelyn Turner

    I began attending a Mennonite church as an adult. That was almost 40 years ago. I attended at first because of the peace stance. I stayed because of the emphasis on community and simple living. Thank goodness, it’s been at least 30 years since someone asked me if I was a “real” Mennonite. I am a real Mennonite. I chose it.

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