The Crisis of the American Church: Being undone and Finding our True Self

I was talking to my congregation this past Sunday about crisis – you know, the sort of crisis that we all go through at one point or another in our lives. Many call this a “mid-life crisis” but I think it’s so much more.

I’ve been there. Or I should say: I’m there.

For me, many of the habits of survival that I have developed over the first half of my life are no longer needed or effective. When we were kids we sought to please those around us, to make them proud, and often chose to act in ways that did just that. As we grew into teens we assimilated into the systems around us in order to avoid pain and exclusion, and as young adults we might have had to grind down our edges (and in effect our individuality) in order to succeed or be seen as mature and trustworthy. In essence, we might have spent the better part of our life covering our truest identity in order to survive.

But at some point, we begin to feel that all of our efforts have left us hollow and, in essence, dying inside. We have suppressed our truest self for so long that we can easily become bitter, angry, or detached.

As Imi Lo says, “The consequence of over-investing in our false self is that we become physically and psychologically sick. When our outside self is succumbing to conformity, our inner being might become deviant. If we do not address the issue, this underlying rebellion will push back and, eventually, erupt. This is why we “act out” with behaviors that are self-sabotaging or destructive, bypassing our rational mind and against our will”[1]

I don’t know about you, but I can attest to the truth in this. The habits I acquired early on in life to meet the needs of everyone around me, to put myself second, to be strong at all costs, and assume all responsibility around me – all habits that greatly benefited me at the time and got me where I am today – are now a prison to my soul. And over the past few years my soul has been crying out – my true self has been desperately trying to be recognized – and I have found myself raging and wondering why. It is precisely this experience that causes people to abruptly change jobs, get divorces, buy stuff they can’t afford, move across the country – they are trying so desperately to find their true self and to be at peace that their brains may even sabotage what they have built of their lives in order to achieve even a semblance of freedom. 

My guess is, if you are over 35 you probably know what I’m talking about.

I think this is exactly what is happening with the church right now. The church’s true self is raging to be loosed from its self-imposed prison. It wants to be free and it is willing to set fire to all that was in order to obtain it. (The “church” here is the collection of individuals that make it up.)

The church in America has been one of the truly miraculous stories of success in the 20th century in our country: growth, growth and more growth. As the century progressed, countless church buildings began to dot the corners of every town, often the centers of their communities, with influential leaders sitting in their pews and dropping tithes into their offering plates. The church has come to enjoy free access to every public institution, enormous influence in government, and established cultural morality and social norms…all while not paying taxes! But we made a great exchange to garner this sort of social power. The church of the 19th & 20th century, for the most part, sustained the institution of slavery, justified genocide of Native Americans, propagated white supremacy, endorsed Jim Crow, raged against de-segregation, trained our children in patriarchy, twisted holiness into exclusion, and embraced the oppressive social hierarchies that re-enforced the damaging biases present in our culture at large. Well, shit.

Forming and being formed by these habits gained the church an incredible amount of power in society. Just like a child, we pleased the powers that be for our own survival. Just like a teen we adapted ourselves to our cultural environment and did all we could to be accepted, and just as young adults we went to great lengths to build socially-approved and trustworthy versions of ourselves to build our budgets and membership. At every move, we were feeding our false-selves. We were acting out with habits that were not who we truly were called to be.

And now the chicken is coming home to roost, so to speak. Those activities and alliances that once gave us such power have hardened into a steel prison, holding us captive to damaging patterns and keeping us from a future of freedom. We know that we can no longer live as people of faith while endorsing and benefiting from the evils of white supremacy. We know that we can no longer gain social credibility from the oppression of people of color or justify exclusion or injustice against the LGBTQ+ community. These are real things that the church has engaged in for many years, and we must acknowledge the truth of our past and stop attempting to erase our history – our legacy. We nod and say, yes that was bad, but to speak outwardly against something is not the same as ripping out the sin from the root. The former simply requires a change of language, the later requires repentance, a deconstruction of a deeply-rooted culture, and reconciliation.

I believe what we are seeing is the church’s true self is raging, and in a desperate effort for freedom has engaged in self-sabotage. What the church has built over the past few centuries can no longer stand. The false self must burn, and that process feels exactly like that: a destructive fire. Yes, it’s uncomfortable to watch and even more difficult to be in. A lot of people are leaving, and I don’t blame them. Do you remember in the Chronicles of Narnia when Eustace turned himself into a dragon because of his greed? He tried to scratch off his dragon skin, but he couldn’t do it. Aslan finally came, and said “You will have to let me undress you.” Eustace agreed, but it took all night long, the dragon skin only came off in thin layers, and Eustace was in excruciating pain as his false self was not only removed but slowly and thoroughly destroyed. It required the surrender of the greed of the past, the surrender of the comfort of the present, and the surrender of the assurance of future success.

It would be easier to just come to church to be comforted, get a good word, be lifted up, and then leave to go back to our busy lives. But we are called to more than that.

Although we’ve been living in our false-self for a long time, there’s hope. I believe we can be part of the solution if we embrace this time in the wilderness of undoing. Our true self does not seek the appropriation of power or the accumulation of resources – it seeks liberation. Liberation of those held in the tyranny of injustice and exclusion and hate and inequality. As Paul Friere said,“… I can’t live my peace without commitment to [others], and my commitment to [others] can’t exist without their liberation, and their liberation can’t exist without final transformation of the structures that are dehumanizing them. There is only one way for me to find peace: to work for it, shoulder to shoulder with my fellow.”

For me, this is the church’s true-self: embracing the Kingdom of God’s liberation in the name of Jesus. Complete personal and social renewal that rejects any power that is built upon fear or unjust power structures. I believe we can find ourselves, the root of who we are and who we can be, together. Yes, I want to leave the church sometimes too as it often feels like an unquenchable dumpster fire. I want to throw up my hands and say, “this is too hard, everyone fighting everyone, I’m done, I’m out.” But the only way out of this is to go through it. To allow the Spirit to drive us out into the wilderness of liminality, to embrace a season of not being here and not quite being there. To take an honest look at ourselves and replace the damaging habits of our past with new habits of friendship, solidarity, Jubilee, and justice. This is our true-self: seeking liberation for all our neighbors in the name of God’s love and through the practices of = sharing Christ’s body with one another at the table of Jubilee.

For me, I bought a motorcycle, planted a garden, and am trying to figure out what it means to not be responsible for ALL THE THINGS. I know I’m just starting the process of finding my true self, but I feel like I’m on the right path. I wanted to leave myself, but myself is all I’ve got. Maybe it’ll take the rest of my life, but I’m ready to take the dragon skin off. The same for the church. Maybe the church is not dying after all…maybe it’s just having a crisis of faith, a crisis of self. Maybe we are waking up to the reality that we’ve been wearing false skin for a long time and it’s time for an undoing.

May we be undone, so that we can find ourselves and be made whole.

May we come home to who we truly are.

May we pour out ourselves for the sake of the world,

and embrace the true power of self-sacrificial love.

[1] Imi Lo, “Existential Crisis: Coming Home to Ourselves”

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