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Exile: The Psychology and Statistics of Choosing a Church

4 September 2011

qb doesn’t have time to read a lot of blogs – really, only two – but his favorite is Richard Beck’s Experimental Theology blog.  Beck is Professor and Chair of the Psychology Department at Abilene Christian University.  He is a Christian by faith, Universalist by soteriological conviction, liberal-leaning independent by politics, and research psychologist by trade (in addition to his teaching appiontment).  He is also an uber-blogger and – now – published author of Unclean, an exploration of the psychological dynamics of purity and their implications for the church.  He is a gifted writer, a statistics geek, an unapologetic technophile, and an Apple aficionado.  He is also kind, thoughtful, compassionate, clever, creative, funny, and self-effacing without being overly self-conscious.  If you have ever wondered, for example, what sort of latent theology underlies Bill Watterson’s “Calvin and Hobbes,” you owe it to yourself to check out Dr. Beck’s blog series on it.  It is serious, seriously funny stuff, and delightful to read.

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No, qb does not agree with everything Dr. Beck posts on his blog.  Let’s get that out of the way.  But that’s not what this post is about.

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But one of the great services Dr. Beck has done to and for qb is to raise the profile of psychological aspects of Christian belief, Christian praxis, and Bible study.  For 40+ years, qb has just taken it as an article of faith that psychology has little to no bearing on Christian faith, that our faith in Christ ought to make psychology pretty much irrelevant:  “the Bible says it, we believe it (or not), and that settles it.”

Dr. Beck has thoroughly disabused qb of any such naive notions, even as it pertains to even the authorship – and, hence, our understanding of “inspiration” – of our Scriptures.

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If the image above is any indication, our family hadn’t a prayer of finding a church here in Amarillo that suits us all.  The ideal situation would have been that one of the rows would sum to five, but we were not even close.  We had a 12, a 14, two 17s, and a 15.  And the 12 was the church we were attending at the time I took the poll, which just means that it was the most immediately familiar church and therefore the least objectionable to the boys.  One of the churches was the one we left in 2007; two of the boys would have been happy to go back, but Jenn and I were adamantly opposed, as you can see.  Sometimes ignorance really is bliss.

A couple of months ago, since I took this poll, our eldest son got invited to participate in a Wednesday evening teen program at a church that hadn’t even been on our list.  It’s the Presbyterian church downtown in an old, historical-registry type building that is simply beautiful.  But it’s an establishment, Protestant, main-line church, so I was skeptical that our son would find much to commend it.  After all, he’s the one that wanted to go back to the independent Christian Church we had left, primarily because so many of his high-school friends go there on Wednesday night.

One of the first things he said about the Presbyterian youth group event that first Wednesday – unsolicited by me in any way – was, “y’know, Dad, they don’t talk about how many great things they’re doing or how they’re so much of a better youth program than anyone else in the city.”  What in the world did he mean? I asked.  “Well, during the Wednesday program at [the church we left in ’07], that’s all they seem to talk about, giving away iPads, always saying how much bigger and better their programs are.”  Wow.  Out of the mouths of babes…

It turned out that our eldest son really took to the group, and they welcomed him with open arms.  The youth directors have really worked with him, so much so that he wanted to join them on their ski trip to Jackson Hole.  (No, that was not their winter service project!)  So on our way home from our family ski trip at Steamboat, we dropped him off in Winter Park to get picked up by the chartered church bus headed north to Wyoming.  He had a great time.  He’s now involved in teaching the middle schoolers before the high school kids get there.

We soon came to find out that some of our middle son’s friends from school were also attending this Wednesday program, so both he and our youngest decided to give it a try.  They were likewise sold on it and now go eagerly every Wednesday night they don’t have an athletic event or something.

Of course, Jenn and I could see that the train was leaving the station.  There was no way we were going to walk away from a church that had already done so much for all three boys.  So we started going on Sunday mornings, and what do you know?  The music is great; the band is led by acoustic guitar and so is not overwhelming to the senses like at our old church.  The preacher looks and sounds a lot like the one we left, and he has a similar business background and a similar CEO mentality, so that’s unfortunate; but we’ve learned – believe me, we’ve learned! – not to get involved in church leadership, so we shouldn’t have to deal with him much.  They pray a lot, and they use a lot of lay leaders, and they have integrated women pretty fully into all of the public aspects of the assembly.  There’s a lot of community outreach going on, and they put a high priority on getting kids involved in mission trips.  All in all, a pretty great place…and it came out of nowhere.  In fact, it had been there in downtown all along, but I had never even thought of it as an option.

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Because I’m not a Presbyterian, that’s why!  And I’ll never be a Presbyterian.  I’ll never be into Reformed theology, and I’ll never be a neo-Calvinist.

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In 1982-83, I was a freshman at Texas Tech, where I had gone to play on the tennis team and to be near my friends, nearly all of whom had gone to LCC.  When the Aggies came to town to play basketball, I sat in the Red Raiders student section, but I was rooting for A&M.  I’ve just got maroon blood coursing through my veins.

It has been sorta the same thing at First Presbyterian.  Imagine walking into a Reformed church with a copy of Sanders’ The God Who Risks under your arm!  It’s knee-slappingly hilarious to be an open theist at a neo-Calvinist church.  Some ironies are so rich, you just can’t quit grinning inside.

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The struggles continue.  We were pretty spoiled at our old Sunday School class, the demise of which catalyzed our departure from that church.  It’s just plain hard to find a new Sunday School class when you’ve seen how good they can be as a community within a community.  But at least the boys like to go to their Sunday School classes, and they like the assembly as well.  So we’re staying, Reformed theology or no.  Reverence, liturgy, sexual parity in public roles in the assembly, reasonable volume, and friendly folks…it’ll work for now.  Maybe we’ll find a place to plug in, too.  We’ll see.

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The thing is, though, that after five years in exile, I get it.  I get why people leave church and never come back.  I get why they’re frustrated.  I get why they’re disillusioned.  And I get why a lot of nonbelievers look at the church and say, mercy, what a sham.

I get why some people seem to say, I love Jesus, but I hate the church.  For the first time in my life, I get that.

In many ways, Jenn and I are still exiles.  Anytime you know you’re not at home and you know you can’t go home, you’re in exile.  We’re not Presbyterians, and when the boys get asked if they want to “join the Presbyterian church,” we’ll politely ignore the invitation or, if pressed, gently tell their youth leaders “no, thanks.”  (More on that some other time.)  When the boys are 18, they can make those decisions on their own.

But it’s more than that.  We still don’t have a home, or at least it doesn’t feel like home.  We’re independent Christians, looking wistfully back toward an Independent Christian Church we had experienced as Zion.  We knew it wasn’t perfect, but it was home, we loved the people, and it was a congenial place to grow and contribute and serve and love.  Until November 2005, anyway.

Now these are the words of the letter that Jeremiah the prophet sent from Jerusalem to the remainder of the elders who were carried away captive—to the priests, the prophets, and all the people whom Nebuchadnezzar had carried away captive from Jerusalem to Babylon.   (This happened after Jeconiah the king, the queen mother, the eunuchs, the princes of Judah and Jerusalem, the craftsmen, and the smiths had departed from Jerusalem.)  The letter was sent by the hand of Elasah the son of Shaphan, and Gemariah the son of Hilkiah, whom Zedekiah king of Judah sent to Babylon, to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, saying, “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all who were carried away captive, whom I have caused to be carried away from Jerusalem to Babylon:  Build houses and dwell in them; plant gardens and eat their fruit.  Take wives and beget sons and daughters; and take wives for your sons and give your daughters to husbands, so that they may bear sons and daughters—that you may be increased there, and not diminished.  And seek the peace of the city where I have caused you to be carried away captive, and pray to the Lord for it; for in its peace you will have peace.

Jeremiah 29:1-7 (NKJV)

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Doug McGown permalink
    27 February 2012 5:02 pm

    Outstanding!

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