Traditional liturgical components do not appeal to the mass majority of young people in Western society. There is a multitude of reasons as to why this lack of interest occurs, but the themes that are consistently presented to me by non-Christians is that worship spaces, creeds, rituals, and the language of church is either irrelevant or incredibly traumatic to many young people outside the Christian faith.
Many people have been scarred by the church. Because of this, our ancient symbols, robed attire, candle-filled altars, and congregations fluent in their “church speak” are reminiscent of spiritual wounds. If by chance traditional aspects of worship do not remind non-Christians of a painful past, they almost certainly incite negative assumptions that are associated with evangelical belief.
I suggest that public discomfort likely was unavoidable if we consider the imperial entity that created these relics. Empire and religion should never mix, nor should we pay homage to the fruits of their marriage, so why does the Church continue to honor the legacy of their merger today?
Even if these artifacts and customs are located in liberal houses of spirituality, they still make many former victims of Christian fundamentalism uncomfortable. I am aware that many of us enjoy these traditions and symbols, but nostalgia isn’t a good enough reason for these relics to endure. I would like to offer another story that I believe captures my point.
My spouse and I met on a dating app in 2016. I entered the digital dating world cynical and jaded. Ali had little faith in the institution of marriage and, at the time, had no desire in seeking a lifelong commitment.
But one night while browsing the electronic pool of single adults within a ten-mile radius, I noticed this gorgeous brunette, and after days of chatting we knew quite a lot about one another. Choice foods, our favorite colors, travel experiences, our preferred taste in films, and our Hogwarts houses. But I refused to inform Ali about what I did for a living.
Why? Because when people find out that I am a minister they will either, A) Distance themselves because they paint me with the same brush as Joel Osteen, and assume that I am trying to convert, rob, and/or abuse them. Or B) Refrain from using foul language or watching R rated films in my presence in an attempt to make me comfortable, because they assume that all ministers are lame.
Neither one of these frequent occurrences appealed to me when I joined the online dating world. The cryptic answers I gave about my professional life certainly concerned Ali. I think Ali sincerely believed that I may have either been a drug dealer, or an assassin. Ali texted curiosities about my job frequently, and I would simply respond by saying that I could not disclose that information at that point in time. I was hoping that these messages would come across as “mysterious,” but Ali assured me that it came across like a plotline from a Breaking Bad episode.
After a few days of chatting nonstop online, we decided to meet in person. Unfortunately for us, the bar we initially met at was packed. Luckily, there was another restaurant a few blocks away with a similar menu, so I offered to escort Ali down for a bite. I opened the passenger door of my Prius, which Ali didn’t hesitate to mock, and walked around to the driver’s side.
I got into the driver’s seat, fastened my seatbelt, adjusted my rearview mirror, and just before I pressed the ignition button, I glanced over to see how beautiful Ali looked one more time. As I rotated my head, I noticed that Ali’s prior expression of excitement had now turned to horror. My date’s wandering eyes had located the crucifix necklace that decorated my rearview mirror. Ali was no longer curious with my occupation. It was clear that Ali now was only deeply concerned about my religion. “Oh no! You aren’t religious, are you?” Ali asked, deeply troubled.
This was the first time I had ever heard a gagging sound assimilated into the recitation of the word “religious.” “F#%k no!” I said emphatically. “But I am a pastor,” I laughed nervously.
I had hoped my humor would help ease the tension. It didn’t. Ali wasn’t amused. My partner had not realized how hilarious I was at this point in our relationship. After almost three years together, I still am waiting patiently for my spouse to arrive at this conclusion.
I began to unpack how much my belief system differed from what many people considered to be “Christian beliefs.” At first Ali wasn’t entirely convinced that my faith was genuinely different than what Ali had experienced in the past. My now-nervous date explained that there were many reasons they chose to remain firmly agnostic with zero desire to EVER convert.
Now I was curious, so I asked what those reasons were.
Ali had grown up attending a conservative Lutheran church in Michigan. Not only had worship bored Ali to tears, but Ali’s entire family had traumatic experiences in church when Ali was growing up. They were each told on multiple occasions that they were going to Hell, for a number of reasons. Circumstances like not attending church on a regular basis, or not sharing their musical talents with the congregation on Sunday mornings had secured Ali, and the entire family, a one-way ticket to an eternal fiery furnace.
My seemingly harmless rearview mirror relic made of wood and faux leather had shaken the dynamic of our entire evening. The cross had transported Ali back to an inner place of fear, and there was nothing I could have done with the cross that would have altered Ali’s negative perception about my belief system.
Can you imagine what it would have been like for Ali to physically walk into a sanctuary at this stage of our relationship? It took months before Ali would feel comfortable enough to attend a worship service with me and, to this very day, Ali is still slightly uncomfortable with religious symbolism.
There is a tremendous amount of agony associated with Christian symbolism, church speak, traditions, and aesthetics, and it is time for us to not only acknowledge this, but we must also do something to remedy it. No matter the intent of fellow believers and our ministers, many people never will be able to discover value in most Christian traditions and our traditional symbolism.
Praise for Reborn Again
“Every week, it seems, another study comes out detailing how young adults are leaving Evangelical churches. But some aren’t leaving the faith: they’re pioneering new ways of being Christian and new ways of being church. In Reborn Again, Christopher VanHall tells his story, full of pain, breakthrough, boldness, and insight. I think you’ll find it surprising and inspiring.”
—Brian D. McLaren, Author, The Great Spiritual Migration, We Make the Road by Walking, A New Kind of Christianity
“Christopher VanHall’s book, Reborn Again is another contribution to the important conversation about what the church of Jesus Christ will look like in the 21st Century. As he recounts his journey from conservative evangelicalism to progressive Christianity he tells a compelling story of his growing and changing expression of faith. Each chapter describes an in his ministry and how he was led to respond. Acting and speaking with boldness, sometimes well received, and sometimes not, he continues to raise his progressive voice and to do ministry in new and unusual ways, drawing people to the gospel of justice, activism, and hope.”
—Rev. Dr. LaTaunya M. Bynum, Regional Minister, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Northern California-Nevada
“Lately it seems like ‘Christianity’ and ‘social justice’ don’t even exist in the same worlds, much less the same person. Many of us who grew up in the evangelical church but now identify as progressives struggle to reconcile the beauty of the ‘good news’ with the behavior of our fellow Christians. Should we even call ourselves Christian, or should we hide under the label of ‘spiritual’ while we do our social justice work? In this book, Christopher shows us his journey from a theology of hate and fear to an embrace of Christ’s message of love and justice because social justice and Christianity can (and do!) belong in the same person.”
—Dr. Christy Byrd, North Carolina State University
“The journey from conservative evangelicalism into a more expansive, inclusive, progressive faith is a hard one for many of us. There is a lot of pain and letting go. In courageously telling his story—with pastoral insight along the way—Christopher VanHall is telling many of our stories and shining a light on the path for those who would make the journey next.”
—Rev. Steve Roach Knight, Co-founder/Board Member of Transform Network
About the Author
Christopher VanHall is the lead pastor of Greater Purpose Community Church, and the visionary behind the Greater Purpose Brewing Company in Santa Cruz, California. Greater Purpose is a progressive Christian church that sold its massive sanctuary to finance a charitable brewery that raises funds for socially progressive nonprofits. The story of Greater Purpose, and Christopher have been featured on NBC, NowThis media, and more.