“Dr. Japinga, you apologized a lot for the church today.”
Every semester in my Christian Feminism class, we have a conversation about the church. A year ago, I asked what they thought happened to cause the decline in church attendance and the rise of the Nones. I also asked what the church might do differently. They told stories of pain and exclusion and rigid rules. And I said I was sorry for the pain the church had caused them. My student was right. I apologized a lot.
My students range from devout Christian to Nones to atheists, from Evangelical to Mainline Protestant to lapsed Catholic. Their responses do not apply equally to all congregations, but they are illuminating.
The students are not looking for a pure church. Their lives are complicated and messy, and they would like a worship experience that acknowledges hard questions and personal struggles.
They are not likely to attend church because they feel guilty or obligated.
They do not want the faith to be taught as catechism, where there are defined questions and answers. They are not necessarily opposed to learning about tradition, but they would like the freedom to ask their own questions and discover that there might be multiple answers. This comment comes more often from the Catholic students who have learned the catechism.
They dislike the reality that so many homophobic people also claim to be Christians and church members. They know that when a church says it “loves the sinner but hates the sin” it is not fully welcoming. The students love people who are lgbtq+ and they want the church to love them too.
Many have been wounded by the church, usually by being shamed for their sexual orientation or identity.
One student was raised in a more conservative church environment and is not as dubious about religion as some of my other students. She and her boyfriend recently visited a church looking for a community and connection. The pastor preached about the evils of lgbtq people. The student said they would never go back.
After a semester of studying the experience of women in the Bible and the history of Christianity, the students see that the Bible and Christian teachings have often been misused to justify the oppression of women and many other people. They wonder if the church will ever demonstrate humility or offer an apology or try to correct those misinterpretations.
They have also seen that the church has at times been a leader in the fight for equality, civil rights, and social justice. They wish that the church would do that more often.
The students would like to learn more about women in the Bible.
They notice the absence of women in leadership. Many have never heard a woman preach. They notice when the elders/vestry/deacons/council are all men. They know that when women serve as ministers to women and children that they usually do not have the same status as the senior or lead pastors.
Students notice the mistreatment of the clergy and the foolish arguments in congregations. They and their families often leave when a pastor is forced out and they generally do not return or find another church home.
One student suggestion as to what the church could do in the future? Be kind. That seems so simple. But the student did not just mean that church people should be kind to one another, though they have certainly seen plenty of unkindness within congregations. Churches often have a reputation for judgment, for exclusion, for a lack of welcome. What would it mean to be kind?
I realize that many of these statements are quite broad and could be much more nuanced. It is not even possible to speak of “The Church” because churches are so diverse.
I also realize that there are many students at Hope who would be less critical of the church.
I know that church members could theologize and critique and defend ourselves against all of these observations. Perhaps it would be good for us to listen and discuss and perhaps repent and apologize.
Every semester I conclude the discussion of the church with the same advice:
Many of you have had a tough experience with a congregation. I’m sorry about that. I know those experiences cause a lot of pain and anger. But I also hope that you will not give up on the church completely. There are a wide variety of congregations out there, and many of them are much more open to women and lgbtq+ people. These churches will encourage thinking and discussion. They recognize complexity. You will find community and connection. You will make inter-generational friendships. You will be loved. You will belong.
I hope that my students and many other people will find churches like that.