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Take a Risk, or Risk Death: A Personal Story of Leaving Church

May 12, 2002

Brendan Boughen

Easter 7     John 17:1-11


Which is the greater risk? - To consider that God may not be an interventionist Being 'out there', thereby calling into question every aspect of your belief system, and setting out on an unfamiliar path of discovery - or to avoid thinking about it as much as possible and remain in a secure religious system, ignoring the nagging doubts that something is not all it could be?


Kia ora! My name is Brendan and I have joined the staff team here at St Matthew's as the Marketing / Communications Manager as of one week ago. Already it has been an exciting and challenging ride. I am enjoying putting my mind to work in the genuine, positive atmosphere of freedom and progressive-ness that surrounds this church in the city.


I imagine I feel this more palpably than some might. In beginning at St Matthew's, I have made a decisive break from the conservative faith tradition of my upbringing - and more recently, my employer. Until one month ago, I was a member of the Lutheran Church of New Zealand (LCNZ), facing the risky questions in the paragraph above.


Anglicans might not be aware of the existence of the Lutheran Church in this country. Though existing in New Zealand for well over a century, the LCNZ is today small (less than 1000 members) and has been slowly contracting for many years. It is a dying Church. Some try to deny this fact, but the statistics show that every year, fewer and fewer people are worshipping in Lutheran Churches in New Zealand.


Opinions about reasons for this decline are many and varied. I speak only for myself when I say that my consistent experience of the LCNZ was that it was unwilling to think about Christianity in a progressive way, and even oppressive to those who would explore such ideas publicly. I include myself among those people. I think this is why, among other things, the LCNZ has not stopped its decline.


I have many friends in the Lutheran Church, so in spite of the reasonably trouble-free process of leaving, it was still a difficult decision. I wondered whether I was just being a coward and "jumping ship" instead of staying on and working for change. I wrote about my experience in the LCNZ in my final editorial for their national magazine. Here are some excerpts from that piece. I called it "My Lutheran 'confession'."


"I remember when I left home at age 18 to begin a Bachelor of Arts course at university. It was exhilarating and terrifying at the same time. I recall leaving with a strong sense that I had received a wonderful upbringing by loving parents who had given me a solid grounding of faith that would see me through any difficulties and challenges I would face 'out there' in the big bad world. And it has.


"University opened up for me new ways of thinking and ideas about reality, life and God that energised my faith anew. I felt my faith becoming even more important to me as it was stretched and challenged. Yet, at the same time, I found the Lutheran Church I was attending to be seemingly unaware of the kinds of revolutions in thought that I was experiencing. It persisted in articulating a worldview that was to me outdated and disconnected from reality. I stopped going to church.


"Ironically, it was at the same time I made this decision that I found my faith growing again. Reading new expressions of Christian theology brought me back to seeing the church as being a potentially vital, energising community of faith. But yet again, the Church of my upbringing didn't seem to have grasped these possibilities, to my sadness and frustration.


"The late Chuck Meyer in his book Dying Church Living God (2000) articulates it best for me. He writes: "The Church is dying. Its structure and theology make no sense today and haven't for decades. Far from being innocuous, their outdated uselessness goes beyond a nostalgic irrelevance to purposeful insidiousness, not just taking up space, but monolithically standing in the way of the spirit. The Dying Church impedes God's various attempts at theological and liturgical progress, obviates meaningful spiritual communication and change, and squanders the precious time of people desperately seeking nurture, affirmation, and God."


"I am deciding to leave the LCNZ. I am glad for the journey I have taken. If it were not for the Lutheran Church, I would not have the faith I do today. I will always treasure it and the joy it gave me as I experienced the reality of God in Jesus Christ. Thank you and farewell. I hope we meet again on the journey some day."


Today, I am excited about being a part of the St Matthew-in-the-City community - one that is willing to take risks and explore the Christian faith in such depth, and take it out to a city that is wondering whether Christianity has anything left to offer. I look forward to serving you and the people of Auckland by making a significant contribution to this effort right now and in the years to come.

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