When I was 25 years old I became the Minister of Music at a United Methodist Church. Up until that point in my life I identified as a “Catholic”. And I was a good Catholic. In fact, between the devout Catholic home I grew up in, the Catholic schools I attended and the Catholic churches where I worshipped, I have to say that faith was birthed, nourished, and brought to some intentional and meaningful fruition under the banner of Rome. Leaving the Catholic Church to play the organ at a United Methodist Church, and then later to be ordained as a clergyman in the UMC, what label would you put on me? Am I a “fallen-away” Catholic? A “Disenfranchised” Catholic? Am I lapsed, a backslider, apostate, or – as some might see it – a saved Catholic for having left that denomination?
I think the line between self-evaluation and self-aggrandizement is a fine one. How many numbers, statistics and labels does it take before one crosses the line from “information gathering” to total self-absorption?
I am going to spend less time reading articles, posts and books about people leaving churches, “Nones”, “Dones”, “Nominals”, the spiritual idiosyncrasies of the various generations. I’ve lost interest in the lists of reasons (5, 7, 10) why people are leaving this or that church, and what (3, 7, 9 things) we have to do to get people back to church or keep them in church. I am going to stop concerning myself with which denomination is losing the most members or how many churches are closing each year. I don’t think I’ll participate in any more “Church Growth Webinars”. I have “label fatigue” when it comes to what people are calling themselves or where any particular person lies on the spectrum between “Conservative Evangelical” and “Progressive Charismatic”.
I am fine with other people tending to all of this; but I do wonder if there isn’t some inherent liability in an organization and those associated with it becoming so taken with its own statistics – kind of like looking in the mirror every chance you get or in the shop window as you pass by in order to catch an admiring glimpse of your own reflection – it feels unhealthy after a while.
There is a verse from the gospels that gives us permission to be less attentive and evaluative when it comes to who we are and what we are doing. The text is specific to alms-giving; but I think it has traction in the larger framework. Jesus tells his followers: Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret. (Matthew 6:3-4.)
In truth, the core beliefs that motivate my outward activities lie deep within me. How I came by those beliefs may be relevant to people interested in psychology or those responsible for Sunday School or Christian Education curricula; but as useful as that information can be, the truth of it is that the formation of my spiritual core might be so intensely personal as not to lend itself to full understanding by way of intense scrutiny. Perhaps who I am and who I am becoming spiritually can’t be reduced to marketable goods or transferable methodologies.
Loved, not “lapsed” – that’s how I prefer to think of my spiritual condition. Let’s allow ourselves to be challenged by both the message and the person of the Christ. And the next time you walk by a clear, still puddle or pool of water, gaze in and let it offer not a reflection, but an invitation – baptism’s waters inviting us into a deeper relationship with Jesus, a more joyful life of service to others, and on this Feast of Ascension, fewer “selfies” and a bit more looking up in wonder.