Dear Church…

Recently, I have heard older people questioning whether or not the younger generations would be fit to lead the church once the older generation passes the baton. What these older leaders don’t understand, I’m afraid, is that many young people aren’t sure they want the baton in its current state. Call it “baggage,” “red tape,” whatever-you-want, but many young people have serious questions about &emdash; or simply do not want &emdash; the church of their parents (let alone their grandparents).

Sarah Cunningham is one of the young people &emdash; a twentysomething, specifically &emdash; who has some serious questions for the church. She recently wrote a book &emdash; Dear Church: Letters from a Dissilusioned Generation &emdash; which reveals that Cunningham is certainly not alone. I’ll let her tell you about this new book, which is available for purchase at your local Barnes & Noble, Borders, or any online retailer. (I interviewed Sarah via e-mail a few days ago in an exclusive HarvestBoston feature)

For someone on the fence about purchasing “Dear Church,” summarize or tease the book in a few sentences.

Dear Church connects with Christians who are burned out or frustrated with their local church experience, but it doesn’t leave readers wallowing in disillusionment. The second half of the book offers tips and personal anecdotes for readers who seek to sift through disappointment and maintain allegiance to Christ. Dear Church also includes a firsthand introduction
to Generation Y and their approach toward faith, 50 tips on forgiveness, a sweeping apology from the church at large, and a love letter to the church you won’t want to miss.

Talk about the process that led you to write this book.

I had an ideal introduction to the faith as a child. My brothers and I were immersed in church from day one because my dad, Harold Raymond, is a pastor and church planter. Our dad found a wise balance between exposing us to his own take on God and encouraging us to develop and own our own faith. Along the way, I naturally adopted a sense of ownership in the local church. Later, in college, I went a few steps further by getting involved with and eventually becoming a full time staffer at an energetic, innovative church. This experience allowed me a lot of creativity and freedom to lead and, by doing so, pushed me toward deeper involvement in the global church. But simulataneously, adult life revealed some flaws and credibility gaps in church systems that I had not always seen as a child. It was disappointing to me to see areas where the church lost credibility and it was even more disappointing to see my peers distancing themselves from the church at large. This book responds to the disillusionment I saw in myself and those around me.

You put in some considerable research for this book. Talk about the directions the research process took you.

I took a couple different approaches. I did read just about everything I could find about my own generation and about disillusionment in general. And I also conducted some informal surveys of twentysomethings and disillusioned people in real life and online. But most importantly, I really wanted this book to have a personal feel, one that genuinely connected with people who were frustrated. To try to accomplish this, I spent a significant amount of time just talking conversationally with every person I could find about their experiences with and impressions of the church. I talked to people in the post-office, I talked to people at the park, I had what seems like a million conversations in coffee houses. That made for some incredible, eye-opening dialogue. And the more I talked to people, the more they inspired me, saying “You have to finish this project. Someone needs to write this book.”

What was the most surprising thing that you discovered?

I discovered that my own disillusionment was more of a universal problem than I had realized. It seemed like almost everyone who had been invested in church at some level had a concern or frustration related to their church experiences. I don’t remember running into anyone who didn’t have a very personal and often painful story to tell.But what I discovered, at the same time, is that–despite my lifelong exposure to church–I was not personally equipped to sort through disillusionment. I had a tremendously hard time trying to reconcile the issues I saw with the message of Christ. For me, it was a long journey to push past my cynicism and critiques and to find renewed commitment to Christ and his mission. I wanted to capture this difficulty along with some of the solutions, with hopes it would inspire others who were challenged to overcome their frustrations.

What nugget do you think will shock your readers the most?

Maybe the balance? It sounds funny to say people would be shocked by something like “balance,” but I think some people will be. There have been so many books that offer critiques of the church. People sometimes expect this one to be almost a “celebration” of disillusionment–flaunting how savvy it is to be cynical toward the church. But after reading the book all the way through, people are often surprised that the book really is a journey THROUGH disillusionment. In the end, it retains an air of responsibility and wisdom without sacrificing authenticity. And it comes out strongly on the side of the church.

In your view as a twentysomething yourself [this is correct, right?]…

Yes I am 28 now, which is a nice age to be because it puts me past some of that initial idealistic-to-a-fault save-the-world mentality. Whew. That stage of life was exhausting. But I still believe the world can be infused with hope in massive ways. I’m still a thousand percent idealist. I just am a lot more content and a little less dramatic about how I invest toward that end.

…what role does “the church” play in society in the 21st century?

The church may undergo a makeover of sorts. Not necessarily a change of doctrine or even a change of spiritual practices like corporate worship and teaching, but a change of face. Barna, for example, reports that the local church is the primary form of faith experience for about two-thirds of U.S. adults currently. However, he projects that by 2025 the local
church will lose roughly half of its attenders and that alternative forms of faith experience and expression will pick up the slack.Some will say this sort of movement toward alternative church communities, like house churches, is superior because it allows for more personal connections, more life-on-life relationships. But I genuinely do think there are a variety of models or non-models even that can be equally effective, as long as the majority of their efforts are spent on generating internal transformation and not just religious ritual. The reason house churches may be superior to my peers, in my opinion, is more about context and life stage. If right now, that is the form of community that feels real and personal to us, if it inspires us to love Jesus more
and to become more like him, to align more of our lives to His ideals, then we should embrace it without institutionalizing it. A feat which is very tricky.

What changes must it make? What must stay the same?

Personally, I would most like to see the church move further toward being intentionally inclusive. I want to think past simply stating “all people are welcome” in words and put some significant energy into building and maintaining relationships in diverse parts of our communities. This is what paints a true-life invitation that shows Christ’s care and desire to transform all people.When I say that, I am not just throwing the “race card.” Focusing on race alone would be a very narrow understanding of what it means to “go into all the world.” There are plenty of groups defined by other characteristics‚&emdash;their education level, their family arrangement, their income, their disabilities and so on‚&emdash;who are on the margins of the church. To get at these, we may have to shift a little bit of focus away from in-house programs into more natural, more organic opportunities. For example, I would like to see churches inspire their small group leaders to go beyond book discussion with twelve fellow church attenders once a week and to mentor twelve people from their routine social circles. But my own ideas for how the church “should” change won’t necessarily match up with everyone elses. I think the beauty of personal tensions‚&emdash;individual observations about how the church could improve‚&emdash;is that each of us can work out the tensions we see in our own lives. We can use our dissatisfaction to bolster the church’s weaknesses. And hopefully, if I put my life energy into building a more inclusive church and you put your energy into a completely different source of concern, in the end, by our collective efforts, Christ wins.The things that needs to stay the same is the focus on Jesus and his message. God designed Jesus to embody all the truth and enlightenment that our world could ever need. Where Jesus is lifted up, regardless of model or generation, He draws all men to himself.

Many of the readers of this blog (including myself and my wife) are experimenting with less traditional “forms” of church than we grew up with (ie house/simple, emergent, cell churches, among others). For many of us, this change came from seeing how far the church seems to have strayed from the biblical precedent and the example of pre-Constantinian Christianity. What are your thoughts on this phenomenon, which George Barna has found is more prevalent than anyone thought? Is this consistent with your findings for “Dear Church”?

One of the most important things to note when talking about how church is changing is that the need for change and the move toward change is not new. Throughout church history, there have been cycles of change and renewal that have given rise to many faith movements. The Reformation. The Great Awakening. The SECOND Great Awakening. And so on.We don’t have to fear change or even be absolutely focused on anticipating it or responding to it exactly right. Change is a natural life process and as it applies to the church, we know it is one that will not drain the church dry. From the first time Christ mentioned the word “church” in the gospels, in Matthew 16:18, he told us all we needed to know from the beginning. The gates of hell, or some translations say the forces of evil, will not prevail against the church. The church may change, but it will never die. It will live on until the climax‚&emdash;its wedding day with Christ.

As I write a book about disillusionment, its funny how many times I find myself calming the panic that once gave me concern. These days, I am not worried if people are going to go to home churches or if they are going to church in a coffeehouse on Friday night or anything similar. If they are furthering their understanding of God’s principles defined in the Bible, if they are worshipping, if they are reflecting and praying toward living out God’s aims, if they are opening themselves to feedback from other followers of Christ, then I bless them. I bless them and I say “Live out what God is doing in your life as fiercely as you can. Work your faith over in your mind and your heart until it is seeping out of your daily life. It is only then that we ARE church and we LIVE church in a way that makes our concerns about whether or not a specific steepled building with pews is full to the brim become unnecessary. When we are all aligning ourselves with God and internalizing and living his ideals with intensity, no one will be afraid the church is dying. It will be more obvious than it has ever been that the church is alive and thriving.In closing, the fact that the church will always be evolving is a sign of health–a sign that an organism isn’t dying. At one level, it is a enormous positive to see younger generations struggling through their own reservations and reconciling their own doubts because this illustrates their wish to truly own and live out the mission of Christ within their own generation. I hope older generations will encourage them to seek the answers they need and come along side them to shed some light on their path to truth.

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