Genre: Non-Fiction, Spirituality
My rating: 3.5 stars
Philip Gulley is a long-time Quaker minister who has written several books on Christian faith, including If Grace Were True and If God Is Love. In other words, this book is written by someone who has been involved with church life for many years and has a personal stake in how churches serve their communities.
The book explores why so many people are disillusioned with Christian churches. Despite claims of record growth, increasing numbers of Americans (me included) have questioned whether the church that claims to worship and emulate Jesus is really doing what Jesus would have wanted and done himself. (Note: In the book, Gulley uses “church” to represent any denomination of Christian church.) Turned off by elaborate programming, professional worship teams and political crusades, increasing numbers of people are finding that the church doesn’t meet their spiritual needs and, in fact, seems to be operating at odds with what Jesus himself would have wanted.
The titles of the 10 chapters of the book provide a clear outline of what Gulley believes are the primary problems of the church. Each chapter is designed to finish the following thought:
If the Church Were Christian…
- Jesus would be a model for living rather than an object of worship
- Affirming our potential would be more important than condemning our brokenness
- Reconciliation would be valued over judgment
- Gracious behavior would be more important than right belief
- Inviting questions would be valued more than supplying answers
- Encouraging personal exploration would be more important than communal uniformity
- Meeting needs would be more important than maintaining institutions
- Peace would be more important than power
- It would care more about love and less about sex
- This life would be more important than the afterlife.
Just by reading this list of chapter titles, I think you get a pretty clear idea of where Gulley is coming from. In each chapter, Gulley cites various examples of how the church has strayed from the core values of Jesus and offers ideas about what a church truly based on Jesus’s teachings might look like. He uses many personal examples to illustrate his points and cites various scripture passages to illustrate some of the contradictions that arise within the church’s behavior. Gulley is careful to point out that not all churches are flawed. In fact, Gulley repeatedly provides examples of churches that are effectively “walking the walk” instead of just “talking the talk.”
I suspect that people who are very entrenched in the church will not care for much of what Gulley has to say. He mentions quite a few times how sharing his beliefs have led people to call for his removal from his post as a minister. But for those who feel dissatisfied or disillusioned with the church, I think Gulley’s book will come as a breath of fresh air. Although Gulley offers ideas and examples for what the church should look like, he writes in the afterword that he doesn’t really think the church will be able to fundamentally shift its focus and style. But, at the same time, his examples of churches that are making a difference offer hope that there are people working within the church to change how things are done.
It is impossible to read a book like this without bringing your own personal experiences to it. For me, this book described so many of my own problems with the church. (For me, church means the Roman Catholic church, which is the religion I was raised in.) I’m hoping by telling you a bit about my own experiences with the church, it will shed a light on why I found this book to mirror my own questions and doubts about the church and why it might do the same for you.
I was raised in a Catholic family and attended Catholic schools up until 9th grade. My parents were very involved in the church, but even from an early age, I saw that the pastor of a church made all the difference in your church experience. When I was very young, my parents switched the church we attended due to philosophical differences with the priest, who was a fire and brimstone type of preacher. For years, we attended a more liberal church that fit better with my parent’s beliefs. Everything was fine until my parents, who were leading Pre-Cana (marriage preparation) classes within the church, ran afoul of the bishop due to their refusal to condemn all forms of birth control. Seeing my parents go through this led me to adopt a bit of a questioning stance about the church from a very young age. I saw that when my parents did not agree with some of the tenets of the church, and they were punished for it.
Our family then moved across the country and found another parish. We were very good friends with the priest, and he was everything I look for in a priest: open, supportive, a bit irreverent, free-thinking and connected to the modern world. I became very involved in the church—teaching classes for younger children, participating in the church youth group, and being a reader and Eucharistic minister. Our parish was vibrant, alive and active. This continued until the priest left the parish to become a canon lawyer. The new pastor was a very sick individual, and he drove many families from the church, including my own. The parish became bogged down in power struggles and money issues, much along the lines of those described in the chapter on “peace would be more important than power.” If you’ve never experienced the nastiness of church committee infighting firsthand, I think you would find it shocking.
During college, I tried to maintain a relationship with the church by attending and participating in the college-affiliated church. Some friends who were raised in Protestant churches asked to come to Mass out of curiosity. At the end, I asked them what they thought. After some hesitation, they told me it seemed almost cult-like. It had never struck me like this before, but the next few weeks I began to see what they were saying. I’d been participating in the rituals of mass for so long that I was doing them on auto-pilot. I really began to listen to the prayers I mumbled along with each week and wondered if I really believed what I was saying or even understood it. Then one week, my friend and I heard the priest mocking me after mass for a reading I had done. (We were taught to enunciate and speak slowly because of the acoustics of the church but apparently I had spoken too slowly … as evidenced by the mocking tones of the priest as he imitated me on the church steps after mass.)
Unwilling to return to that church where I felt extremely uncomfortable, I went to another parish for confession. I confessed that I was having a crisis of faith, that I wasn’t sure I really believed the things I’d been taught to believe. I confessed that I felt uneasy at my current parish. I confessed that the church was losing its meaning for me. The priest told me to say some Our Fathers and Hail Marys. His response left me cold, and at that point, I walked out of the church and haven’t formally returned since, except to undergo various “rites of passages” such as weddings, funerals and baptisms.
After leaving the church, I took a few courses in World Religions to learn about what else was out there. The more I learned, the more uncomfortable I felt with aligning myself with “one all-knowing and all-powerful church” that was “the only way to heaven.” My parents, concerned with my break from the church, asked me to justify it to them. So I did, and they accepted my thought process and encouraged me to look for some spiritual path that would help me in life.
In reading this book, I realized that I do have a problem with churches/parishes that focus on dogma, rigid belief systems and expect people to not question things. Gulley talks about how we don’t shun scientific and technological advances in science and medicine, but we do shun and reject changes to ancient beliefs that often served purposes that are not applicable in our modern world. I’ve always had a problem living in a black and white world, and the church often asks us to take a black and white view of things. I think most of us (myself included) live in a gray world, and I need a church that helps me to navigate these gray areas in a way that feels compassionate and true.
Looking back at what I’ve written, I see that the church Gulley describes as healthy and Christ-like is the kind of church that I would like to be a part of. In retrospect, I realize that I may have been too quick to leave the church when it might have been just a matter of finding a parish or a church community that is more in line with what I believe in my soul. As Gulley points out, there are loving and flexible church communities out there. I recently asked some gay friends who attend a Catholic Church and are quite active in the community: “How can you attend a church that condemns your very lifestyle and who you choose to love?” Their answer: “Well, our priest isn’t like that. He knows us and he is fine with it and so we feel comfortable there.” And I realized that was the issue with my parents as well. They were always looking for a church community that fit their beliefs, and, when they found it, it was a good and healthy place to be.
As you can see, reading this book gave me a lot of food for thought. I could probably continue writing about my issues with the church and how I’ve struggled to define what I believe to be true about God. The bottom line is that although I don’t adhere to any organized religion, I do consider myself a spiritual person. Ever since I left the church, I’ve been looking for a way to be more formal about this spirituality but in a way that feels true to what I believe. Perhaps it is time to go seeking a church community again that feels like one that Christ himself would truly believe in and support.
My Final Recommendation
This is a thought-provoking book that will speak to people who have questioned or are questioning the Christian church. Gulley asks a lot of uncomfortable questions and challenges the church to consider a new way of relating to its members. I thought that Gulley did a good job of articulating some of my own issues with the church while also highlighting the characteristics of church leaders who are rediscovering the values of Jesus. Although the book doesn’t offer any clear-cut answers, I think it would be helpful for those who are seeking to understand why they may be feeling uninspired or unsupported by their church. If this topic is of interest to you, I think this book would be a worthwhile read. I suspect the book would also inspire a lively discussion among book clubs or church groups. A list of discussion questions for each chapter is included at the end of the book.
The Whys and Wheres: I received my review copy of this book from HarperOne as part of a TLC Book Tour. Thank you to Trish from TLC Book Tours for this opportunity. Click here if you would like to visit some of the other stops on the book tour for If The Church Were Christian. No giveaway on this one as I promised my review copy to a friend who is undergoing her own spiritual crisis of faith and expressed interest in reading it.
To find out what other bloggers other than those on the book tour are saying about the book discussed in this post, visit the Book Blogs Search Engine.