Changing churches isn’t uncommon for us in New Zealand. Perhaps it is an Auckland thing, or perhaps a kiwi thing. When I first began working with people from overseas they were a bit shocked at how often and how easily New Zealanders change churches. In my work with missionaries often a candidate would not have been attending a church long enough for them to take on the role of sending church. Or people would start an application to be a missionary and be in the process of looking for a new church, others would return from a term of service and find that all the people that they knew and associated with at the church had left and it didn’t feel like a relational home anymore. All this took some explaining to non New Zealand team leaders who found it all very odd, and were maybe a bit judgemental about our tendency to change churches.
New Zealanders do tend to be very geographically mobile. We move city or move across the city and that involves moving churches. That is certainly occurring a lot in Auckland at the moment as house prices change the affordability of certain suburbs. Relocation of church members does have an impact on those who remain. It creates a shift in relationships that can loosen the bonds that tie us to a church.
Things hardly ever happen for one simple reason, and of course part of the reasons that we leave churches is that they are full of humans – inadequate and imperfect humans – which creates all sorts of challenges in belonging. One of the factors that feeds into that is New Zealanders discomfort with confrontation and conflict.
We are not taught how to sit well with disagreement and help people feel heard and acknowledged without agreeing with them.
So where does that leave us when we are in the position of deciding whether to stay or leave our current church. It is a bit of a cliche but so often it feels that churches leave us first and then when that gap gets to a certain size we move on.
Part of the problem that I have experienced is that when we first come to choose a church it is really hard to know all that you need to know about a church. Any relationship is about increasing vulnerability. Slowly each side reveals a little more of themselves as the relationship grows. Each party learns more about the other as time goes on. The longer you stay in a church the more you know about what happens in the background that perhaps just attending on Sunday doesn’t reveal. Attending just one service also leaves things hidden that can contain surprises that feed into a decision to leave. One church my husband and I decided to leave was quietly putting away 10% of all our giving into a fund to replace the electronic organ (it was not a pipe organ and had no historic value). For my guitarphiliac husband this was the last straw but more than that it represented a complete inability to picture a future for the church that was in anyway different from how the church looked 50 years ago. The larger reason for our leaving was that the church was dying, numbers and ages dwindling away and they would not acknowledge that and change to become more fruitful.
Perhaps I should have learnt more from that experience. As again I have immersed myself in one congregation of a church and become completely surprised at what I have recently discovered about attitudes and actions that are considered normal for the church. It is a bit of a cliche but in some ways with the turnover of people that is common in Auckland churches it does feel like the church has left me rather than I have left the church. The attitudes and beliefs that I have recently uncovered are of such strength that I am experiencing increasing discomfort at staying. Yet on many levels leaving is not the easy option. It has been hard work to build relationships within the church, and we are just getting to the stage where we are seeing people outside of the Sunday service and feel like we have friends at church. Leaving churches often means leaving a group, and keeping in touch with those individuals we are closest to. This contributes to our collection of dispersed and scattered relationships across the city that challenge our time and sense of belonging.
I know that there are people both within our church and outside of it that would encourage me to stay that my disagreement doesn’t mean that I have to leave. That is true to some extent I know that I have to learn how to stay well with people I disagree with.
Sitting well with disagreement is hard in these times, and I have work to do on that one in myself.
But one of the issues, one of the reasons that I would leave is the lack of willingness of the part of people at church to allow any dialogue on the issues. They are also making sure that all spaces for changing their mind in the future are shut down, so there will never be any movement on this issue.
I am currently pondering whether I am uncomfortable with this because I only want to stay if I can “change their minds”. I know that staying with people who disagree with isn’t about staying to change their mind or educate them on my point of view. Staying with people is allowing space for differing opinions and attitudes and forming relationships where that difference is accepted and affirmed. I need to admit that of course my human tendency to want everyone to agree with me is strong but I think the prevailing feeling that is being expressed is that there isn’t room for disagreement in the church. There is one strong opinion and an assumption that everyone agrees with that position, people are speaking on behalf of the church in a way that expresses an assumption that they speak for everyone. There will never be any space for the alternative view points to be put or discussed. So although leaders may say that there is room for disagreement the underlying actions don’t support that, others aren’t allowing any space for disagreement or alternative points of view. It is that which makes me most uncomfortable.
None of those thoughts bring me any closer to making a decision about staying or leaving. I do know that if the church is to live up to its call to be a nurturer of relationships, it needs to understand how to hold difference. Part of that involves being able to reflect on its own power bases and consider how un-acknowledged power may be playing into its current spoken and unspoken positions. Nurturing relationships is so much more than just finding people like me, it is more about finding ways to hold and support difference, both in leadership and in the church members.
As always I love hearing from you!