The Church is your Crazy Uncle


I’m in the pacific northwest, the None Zone, and one of the sentiments that I run into from former Christians is “I just want to know more about Jesus and follow him but I don’t want to be part of a church anymore that excludes gays, evolutionists, and women.” It’s the regional embodiment of the Bible Belt “personal relationship with Jesus” mentality in that it values the individual relationship/study with Jesus more than the communal expression.

And some for good reason: those who are gay, women, or believe in evolution have some wounds from being cast out from mostly evangelical churches. So the study of Jesus without being involved in a faith community has some coping rationale and could serve to sustain a person for a time.

But I wonder if there are better ways to keep in relationship with a safer faith community rather than cutting one’s self off?

In his book PrototypeJonathan Martin responds to those who want to follow Jesus without being part of a Church and he recounts a statement by one of his mentors:

Can I just have a relationship with Jesus and not the church? Actually, no, you can’t.

I remember hearing Stanley Hauerwas’s response when he was asked why he stayed in the United Methodist Church for so long when he could be savagely critical of it at times. “I’ve just always believed that you stay with the people who marked you,” he responded. And that sums it up for me. Whatever failings the church may have, it is still my church.

Everyone has a crazy uncle that you want to hide somewhere when you bring your new girlfriend home from college to meet everyone. But you don’t uninvite him from Thanksgiving Dinner. He’s crazy, but he’s still your uncle. (audiobook, Chapter 8, 24:00)

This is a more polite version of Tony Campolo’s “The Church is a whore but she’s still your mother.”

While the Hauerwas quote may be slightly different originally, the sentiment is interesting: you stay with those who marked you. While such a statement could fall down a slippery slope into codependency with an abusive partner, framing the relationship as dealing with tough family member has its merits. It is one where you have a sense of care about how the other person is doing, and that you find moments of connection even if the rest of the time they drive you crazy.

As I deal with both northwesterners who want nothing to do with a church and with progressive/evangelical church members (and pastors!) who consider leaving the UMC, this quote came to mind and I thought I would share it.

Thoughts about this analogy, and other analogies that portray the familial relationship one might have with the church?

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  1. says

    I agree with this sentiment entirely, Jeremy. I think my problem comes in what is available (or even known) to people in terms of what that church looks like. Yes, we must be connected to the Church-capital-C if we’re going to call ourselves Christ-followers. The institutions we have created in the US, however, so little resemble a true reflection of the body of Christ, the UMC firmly included. Also, doesn’t this kind of support a binary “You’re in or you’re out” mentality of Church? I was vehemently opposed to churches for many years because I didn’t see it reflecting the intentions of true Church. Does that mean that I didn’t have a relationship with Jesus? Yes, the Church as we know it today is a whore. Yes, she is still my mother. But how long do we maintain a relationship with her before we realize that Christ called us to envision a new family with new relationships. Perhaps this family metaphor (I’m thinking of Matthew 10 here) of division with a sword could be applied to the way we see our current Church setup.

    Thanks for bringing this up!

  2. says

    Thanks for bringing this up, Jeremy. What part of the NW are you in? I visit Portland three times a year and I attend George Fox Evangelical Seminary. I love in St. Louis and I know Kenneth Pruitt. He’s my friend.

    To be clear, the Campolo quote you used is unofficially attributed to Augustine; a huge defender of the Church and a expositor of its relational holiness; which is rooted in monastic Catholicism. Thus, if we are going to use this quote, putting it in the framework of the rest of Augustine’s ecclesiology is important, because I think Campolo misappropriates it as a way of continuing the Liberal (the pattern of worshiping in terms of the individual’s salvation in and over communal salvation) pattern of Western evangelicalism (he’s a figure of the Emerging Church).

    Nevertheless, the UMC would do well to take what he (Augustine) wrote and take it more seriously in their polity, because the way the UMC is set up relationally as an extension of the Liberal project of electorate democracy and what Augustine stood for ecclesiologically are divergently different visions. In fact, Augustine’s vision would not have any patience for the sort of body politics the UMC employs, because its based upon theologically liberal precepts (Enlightenment thinking stuff IE Schliermacher). He is far more conservative theologically than what the UMC generally would like to assume and I think many Liberals and Emergents who are rediscovering his brilliance would be very surprise to find how conservative he is theologically ; but people who take this kind of thing seriously end up in a place like Bonhoeffer and Hauerwas do– so its really nothing those who identify as more “liberal” types should be afraid of– especially those in the midst of the major gripe against the UMC. hat they are looking for is more kin to Bonhoeffer’s vision.

    That being said, I am not particularly a fan of Campolo and I certainly wouldn’t ever infer a comparison of him to Hauerwas because I think Campolo comes down on a theologically liberal end I do not think you can lump Hauerwas into (who probably has the best understanding of Bonhoeffer’s life on a scholarly level).

    What Hauerwas has continued to suggest is a recovery of the more anarchist roots of early Christianity. Something I have heard him say is that the UMC (and their liturgical and sacramental understanding of worship) and the Mennonites (and their commitment to peace) have a lot to learn from each other.

  3. Jeni Markham Clewell says

    Augustine, Hauerwas, Campolo, Bonhoeffer, Smith… wise and thoughtful men. I’ve always believed that the breadth of the spectrum that is Methodism is our blessing and our curse. But to separate oneself not only from the people who marked you, but those who are the Body with you is self-destruction to the Body and ultimately leaves you alone. If you want to be alone, that’s a choice you get to make. But to be in relationship with other fallible people can be the wealth of your life and a source of strength and courage when you are short on strength and courage. To separate yourself from a source of wealth, strength and courage, however flawed, is lonely at best and suicide at worst. I have Methodist blood, and I also contemplate where the jumping-off place might be when the church goes too far into PhariseeLand. But the connection is real and can be life-giving if you trust that the Sacred lives in every living thing.

  4. Gary Bebop says

    Very interesting thread…and even more so, the respondents. I have just returned from the PNW Annual Conference…a great delirium of the “progressive” sect. Even though the numbers reveal the PNW can barely scrape together 20,000 on a Sunday morning out of a membership of slightly more than 46,000 (and declining), the PNW is animated by hysterical optimism regarding its future, but its prospects are now shackled to a naked, polarizing ideological agenda.

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