I've been circling around an idea for a couple of weeks that I still have not found an effective way of framing for myself. The basic idea is this: If I no longer feel at home among "normal" mainline Christians, and I can't take self-identified evangelicals, where's the church for the freaks?
There are a number of ways that I could approach this question and the possible answers that I've seen proposed by friends and acqaintances since I originally posed it on Facebook recently. But I suppose the first question is: What does it mean to say that I am no longer at home among "normal" mainline Christians. Well, first of all, it doesn't mean that I do not feel at home with the members of my home church. I am very fortunate to be a member of Christ Church of Chicago, and although I haven't been attending regularly lately, I am certainly grateful for the community there and the support that they've given me over the years.
Rather, I am thinking more in terms of both the institutional and ritual structures that have become central to the mainline Christian denominations over the past decades and even centuries. Part of this is an objection to a particular kind of church bureaucracy, which is increasingly moribund and useless for the purpose of actually sustaining the church as a community of believers. This is the case across mainline denominations. It's not a specifically United Church of Christ problem, but exists among Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans and others. Despite the differences in their organizational structures and ecclesiologies, these denominations have all managed to create and sustain a set of institutional prejudgices and prerogatives that seem to me to be increasingly damaging to the church.
Another part of the puzzle is related to the aesthetics of worship. And here perhaps I'm just a disaffected Gen-Xer, but I find the traditional strucutre of prayer, music and sermons that are part and parcel of mainline Christian denominations to be spiritually aenemic. At the same time, I find the idea of "contemporary worship" as it's usually understood to be repulsive, and stultifying in its cultivation of an aura of fake-coolness. It's cool the way that your uncle listening to William Shatner cover Nirvana is cool, which is to say, not cool at all. But then again, I don't think what I'm after is something more "traditional" in the Catholic/Orthodox sense either.
The flip side of this is that nothing (least of all contemporary worship) that I've seen in the evangelical camp strikes me as any better. On the contrary, it manages to get every facet of the experience of church even more wrong than the mainliners do, and often lades onto the experience a kind of patriarchy, misogyny and homophobia that would destroy any viritues that might be cultivated there.
At the same time, many of the thinkers whose thinking about the church and Christianity that I've been most interested in lately come from the evangelical camp (or in some cases, have come out of it!): Rob Bell, Rachel Held Evans, Julie Goss Clawson, Tripp Hudgins, and others. Clearly they are on to something that I am also interested in, and to an extent we seem to be on intersecting trajectories. I would also add Diana Butler Bass and Tony Jones to that mix as well.
Of course, many of these folks get categorized, or categorize themselves, under the lable of "Emergent church." Which is a label that I find interesting but hesitate to slap on myself precisely because I am unsure of what it actually signifies. More than anything, it seems to suggest a common attitude toward Christianity and culture with which I am sympathetic. But beyond a general sense that the church should be other than it is and that most of its current incarnations don't give me much of a sense that I belong, I'm not sure how much "there" is there.
I increasingly go back to the idea that perhaps the whole notion of "church" is the problem. It carries too much baggage with it. Rather, if we are simply identified "the community of those who follow Jesus" we may find much more common cause with like minded people out there in the world seeking a place than we do now. But this leads to what will have to be a subject for another post: Namely the question of what kind of theology fits into this, or if theology even needs to enter the picture at all.
The central fact remains: As regards my relationship with the Christian institutions to which I putatively belong, I feel like a freak, and I want to know where the church for freaks is.