If it wasn’t for “church” I wouldn’t be here in Haiti today. Whether I have church to thank or to blame for that is still up for debate but I definitely can’t tell my story of being here without it. When I first came to Haiti in 2007 it was under the auspices of the United Methodist Church and with the financial support of multiple specific churches, some of which still support me to this day. During my early years in Haiti I was even involved in the establishment of a local church here which continues to serve the community. One of my favorite parts of the Christian tradition is indeed the fellowship that we share through the act of worshipping with a body of believers. Church is something that is important to me. As a human being I feel that we each require some sort of organized effort to encourage the pursuit of a spiritual journey alongside other sojourners and the institution of church, in spite of all of its faults, provides, in its own imperfect way, that outlet. I don’t believe that following your spirit through life and ultimately to life can be an individual pilgrimage because we were created to be in relationship to one another, and one way to do that is through church.
And yet, I don’t go to church. Not anymore. It could be argued that I’m subject to the general mass exodus that is happening in the church in general among millennials, which has been written about already to an exhaustive extent by many others giving all sorts of cockamamie reasons to why it’s happening. Ok, fine, some of them are actually legitimate, but for the most part they seem to me like a harried effort to make up ground that’s already been lost for good. They also try to bring succinct analysis to something that’s much more nuanced than that for each individual that is going through a transition in their relationship with church. There are lots of reasons that many of my generation don’t go to church anymore. It might be because there isn’t enough love and tolerance in the church; or it might be because there isn’t enough discipline and holiness; or it might be because the music is fuddy duddy. But because of my context in rural Haiti right now, my reasons are different and there’s not just one. If I was still in the US, I assume I would be able to find a place to attend that I could feel would help me draw closer to God within this world. But at my current place in Haiti I have given up on finding such a place. So here are 11 of many reasons why I don’t go to church anymore.
1. Emphasizing the How rather than the Why
I attended a church during college where the pastor would always say that God was more interested in the posture of your heart than the posture of your body. I’ve always appreciated a theology such as that which allows for differing physical iterations of spiritual experiences. But it’s hard to find a congregation here especially that provides the space to worship in your own way. Usually there’s a set list of rules of do this, do that, say this, say that. It’s the same idea that’s reflected in their education system here of memorization rather than critical thinking. I guess I have never believed that the institution of church existed to restrict the spirit, but rather to liberate it. The congregations that boldly set out to explore the mysteries of why we worship rather than bogging themselves down with regulations of how we worship are the ones where I find God the most alive.
2. Prescribing Answers Instead of Searching through Tough Questions
I don’t want someone to tell me who God is or who God thinks I should be. I want a group of people to guide me and walk alongside me as I discover those things for myself. In a society where many people are illiterate and the majority of the rest of the people can’t afford a Bible of their own to read, the distinction becomes even greater creating church leaders who assume to know all of the answers and think it’s their job to shower those answers down upon all of the ignorant underlings with a shameless disregard to their actual needs. What’s even worse is knowing that most of those leaders doing the showering don’t even have any sort of theological training or have very little that would even give them any reason to assume such superiority. Even if I have many questions, I don’t go to church expecting to find the answers, I go to church for guidance and support along the journey with others who have their own questions.
3. Pastors here are jerks.
Sorry for the broad generalization but I have found it largely to be true. From trying to illegitimately throw my roommates in jail, to blaming the congregation for the late start of a service to which they themselves didn’t show up for until hours after it was supposed to start, to shaming families at their loved ones’ funerals for their sins, to trying to guilt me into giving them money because I’m white, the vast majority of pastors here have proven to me that it’s simply a requirement that you’re a complete a-hole if you want to lead a church here.
4. Blaming and Shaming
As referenced in #3, this simply seems to be the way Haitians try to convince each other of something, through guilt and humiliation. And when that pervades every message that the church extends to its members and its community, it’s sickening. If someone doesn’t feel like they can go to church without being judged, they will dismiss the idea that God can offer them something more beautiful and pure than that. In Haiti, you don’t even have to go to church to get judged. I’ve had it happen just walking by a church here. “I’m just on my way to teach an art class, but thanks anyway for informing me that I will go to hell because I have Catholic roommates. Have a nice day.”
5. “Let’s Have the White Guy Stand Up and Say Something.”
Churches here have learned that whenever white people show up they usually have something that they want to say to the congregation. Thanks, mission teams. So it makes it incredibly awkward for someone like me who wants to attend on a regular basis just to worship and follow along. It’s incredibly offensive from the start that the idea that our nationality or our race automatically gives us the superiority to teach the poor black folks something about God assumes us a right to speak in any church we show up at. Of course I hate it even in the States when you’re singled out as a visitor in a church, even if it’s to get a cute welcome gift basket. It still says that you’re different than everyone else there. I like to show up at a church where I immediately feel like part of the family and can effortlessly melt into the spiritual body there.
6. Bad sound management.
I like hearing. So part of my decision to not attend church is in an attempt to preserve that important part of life for me. The idea that you have to have the speakers turned up as loud as they can go only suggests that you feel God is a very long ways away so you have to be as loud as possible for him to hear your praise. I like to believe God is close enough that we don’t have to blast our eardrums out for him to hear us. I like to think he can hear us in the silence and in the whispers just as well.
7. Politics, Politics, Politics
Gaining power within the church here is frequently seen as just one important step to gaining power within the politics of the society. I don’t go to church to be informed about who I (or my friends who are legally registered to vote) should vote for. Nor do I go to hear lectures about social issues that have no place in a spiritual house of fellowship. I want to go to a church where I can be embraced as a brother by those who don’t share my political views because we share an identity in the God that we believe in. I want to go to a church where political division doesn’t trump spiritual unity.
8. Money, Money, Money
It has happened more times than I can count, when I’m talking to friends of mine here about financial troubles, that someone will suggest, “Why don’t we build a church?” Because that’s what churches are seen as here, businesses, ways for the pastors and leaders to suck money out of the pockets of people that might choose to attend usually with a lot of guilt. Churches are understood to be money makers here. As long as you can make people believe that whatever BS you’re spewing about God is the Truth, they’ll fork over their last gourde. Doesn’t matter that the pastor is just going to use it to go woo his mistress or buy a car that his congregants will never be able to ride in or build a house 10 times the size of the homes of his congregants. I’m tired of hearing lies from the pulpit here about what money is for within the Church.
9. Exploiting Religion to Control Vulnerable People
To many people in this society who have already gotten the short end of the stick of life and are suffering from poverty, illness, abuse, disaster, and so much more, they look to religion as their only refuge. So if you take advantage of those people in their moments of suffering and use their current need and vulnerability as a way to make money or to leverage political power in the name of God, well then I sincerely hope that Hell is real and that you will burn in it for eternity because you are the lowest scum of the earth. And you should know, Mr. Pastor Know-It-All, that I seldom wish that Hell is real for anybody, but if it is, no one deserves it more than you. And unfortunately, there are far too many times that I found reasons to wish this upon pastors here for the things that I see them do to the ones that they claim to serve in the name of God.
10. Gender Inequality
In most churches here the only leadership role in a church that a woman might be allowed to have is leading the singing. There are a few exceptions, but any that I’ve found that encourage more leadership from women do so because of their international connections that pressure them to do so. The only single church in my region that has a lead female pastor was started by that woman after she spent almost 30 years abroad before returning here to build her church. There is no movement to show Haitians within their local context why it is a good idea to elevate the place of women in the church. It always comes instead with the disappointing rhetoric of “Look, they do it this way in more developed countries, so we should too.”
11. Interior Design
This is actually a discussion that I had with the leaders of my home church in Iowa a while back, but it applies to Haiti too. If I walk into your church and the interior design looks like it comes from the 70’s I am going to also assume that your theology is old-fashioned, afraid of change, and out of touch with what me and my generation are searching for spiritually. At the same time, if your interior design looks like it cost a fortune or includes too many lights and fancy technologies, but your church doesn’t seem to invest nearly as much into the community and the world in need then I’m going to assume that your theology is empty and shallow. In Haiti, however, it becomes difficult to allow oneself to melt into the divine inspiration of the presence of God when you’re surrounded by bare cinder bricks and the lack of airflow makes it difficult to breathe, let alone worship. In this culture, however, even in the buildings that are nicely designed and adequately finished, it still seems every time that you step into a church building that you’re entering a different dimension that’s out of touch with the reality of what life is like outside of its walls. I’m not such a Hippie Naturalist that I would say something as pretentious as “I find God more easily in the sunset,” but sometimes it does seem like a purer, stripped down, more organic environment outside of the concrete makes sense to commune with the Sacred.
So maybe I’m the one who has the wrong idea about what church is supposed to be. Maybe I’m spoiled into thinking that I’m entitled to a spiritual space that allows me to discover God for myself alongside a group of people that care about the same thing and wish to help each other get there. But until I’m either proven wrong or find a place where that’s possible, I’m going to keep calling the beach my church on Sundays.