My first response was to throw myself into the conversation - to say I was very sorry, that the kinds of things they had experienced were antithetical to Jesus' teachings, and that there were in fact good churches and pastors out there so that folks could #FindANewPew. I even tweeted handles of pastor colleagues I know to be open/welcoming/affirming, encouraging the #EmptyThePews crowd to reach out if they felt so inclined.
I got a few snarky responses, as is the risk whenever you launch yourself into the Twitter-sphere. In hindsight I realize that my enthusiasm may have been interpreted as, once again, churchy-types offering church as the answer to everything - which certainly wasn't my intention. I begin wondering if I had made a mistake; that perhaps firing off a string of tweets may not have been the best way to go.
It was around that time that I received one response in particular - a string of them, actually, from the same person:
The next day, some guy caught the tail end of our exchange and started inquiring about the hashtag, but doing so with an air of condescension and more than a whiff of "if you just knew the real Jesus like I do, you'd be alright." T.S. was tremendously patient with him - to the point where I was the one thinking, "come on, dude!" In the end she brought closure to the conversation in a respectful manner I both admired and appreciated.
I've been following the hashtag ever since. Checking in on it here and there. I continue to sit with the anger, the frustration, the hurt of these people. And I'm learning to approach things differently, based on a few observations:
First, I now see that this is a sacred space of sorts, although I'm not sure they would necessarily call it that. There is real pain and hurt out there that has been caused by churches, and these people need a place to gather, vent and heal. Because of that, they don't need me to contribute much to the conversation, if at all. What they need me to do is just listen. And I am.
Second, it appears that most of these folks understand that not every Christian embraces harmful ideologies, and not all churches do the kinds of things that have caused them such deep pain. So they don't need me to keep differentiating myself. But here's the thing - even so, I can't let myself off the hook. I still have to ask the hard question: whether I or my church/denomination have ever hurt people, intentionally or otherwise. Chances are I/we have. And that needs to be reckoned with.
Third, as moved as I've been by the grace I've received from T.S. and some others in the #EmptyThePews community, I've also been appalled by those who see this space as a place to full-on evangelize or, worse, further the kind of spiritual abuse and bashing/shaming that created the need for the hashtag in the first place (made even more painful by the recent release of the "Nashville Statement" that not only doubles-down on LGBTQ condemnation but also condemns non-LGBTQ folks who support LGBTQ people). As a person of faith, this is embarrassing and disheartening. It has not gone unnoticed on me that the ones behaving more "Christ-like" in these exchanges are often the ones who never plan on being part of a church or religion again.
If I am totally honest, there's a part of me that continues to hope those who #EmptyThePews eventually #FindANewPew, because I still believe very much in the church and its ability to embody the love and justice of Jesus and do good in the world. And I know there are pastors out there, and their churches, who would love these people as they are and assist them in their healing, because we pastors talk often about this very thing. But I also realize it would be wrong of me to impose that on someone just because it's been my experience, just because it's my creed. As T.S. mentioned in the stream above, however these folks find their healing, it should be respected. And I agree.
Besides, there are other things the church should focus on beyond simply offering a seat on Sundays. We should first make sure that we align ourselves with the message of Jesus when it comes to how we treat ourselves and each other. We should root ourselves firmly in love and resist any co-opting of our faith communities by the powers-that-be. We should not be afraid to speak out when injustice occurs; when the voice and action of the church could really mean something. In short, we should make sure our own house is in relatively good order, or at least strive to live in greater authenticity/humility/awareness. Maybe if we were better at those things, people wouldn't be hurt and want to leave in the first place.
Thanks, #EmptyThePews, for helping me listen better. I'm all ears.