Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

Why Is The Church Increasingly Irrelevant? Musings of a Restless Soul

0177paetechurchentranceIt’s good to be back here at this intersection between life and God for all fellow saints and sinners. I’ve missed you!

While I was away, I was again reminded of the church’s irrelevance. Three things happened to remind me.

First, I was sunbathing on the beach in Santa Monica, California, when a stranger approached me. There I was, lying on the beach thinking I looked about as unapproachable as I can make myself: I was wearing a new pair of sunglasses, the ones with those over-sized lenses that make you feel conveniently invisible when you want to be; and, I was fiddling with my phone, absorbed in my thoughts, oblivious to everything except the sound of the waves and the feel of warm sand through my toes; and then, all of a sudden, at the sound of his voice I looked up to see him having appeared from out of the blue standing only several yards away, and he was scolding me for being tied to my phone when I had this beautiful beach to appreciate.


He went on to string together a few more incendiary remarks that (I’m guessing) he thought would incite me to conversation; and, they did. We talked for a long while about all sorts of things, one of which was his strong conviction that organized religion is the source of all evil in the world. Experience had led him to this conviction: he had grown up under the shadow of religious extremism in Iran; had later been schooled at Oxford, where he was introduced to his favorite thinkers, Bertrand Russell and Bernard Shaw; and had then emigrated to the States where he had written several books and was now working on a play. (He told me I would now be a character in his play- I wasn’t sure whether to take this as a compliment.) But over the course of that hour or so, he parleyed with me about why I am writing a book about the grace of God. “Why grace of God?,” he asked. “Why not the goodness of people? Why do you have to believe in a gracious God?”


And, I told him why: I was writing about God’s grace, because at the age of 37, I now knew enough about my own self and others to have little faith in the saving goodness of human beings. I needed a good and gracious God to help me.

That was the first episode that reminded me of the church’s irrelevance. The second was this: an old classmate of mine remarked- after we had attended a Catholic wedding ceremony for a mutual friend, a service in which there even were “Prayers of the People”- that she now wondered whether she should teach her kids “The Lord’s Prayer.” I had inquired about this friend’s reasoning- were she and her family belonging to a church these days? (When I knew her from her younger days, she had been in an atheistic phase.) She said she thought her kids should at least know how to pray the Lord’s Prayer for the sake of attending weddings like this one. Hmm.


And then, the third encounter, this time with some dear friends who belong to the church but who, as a lesbian couple, shared some of my own frustrations about being in the church but not completely of it. They both agreed that the church could learn from someone like gay radio talk show host Dan Savage, whose raw honesty about human sexuality, while sometimes offensive and even crass, at least acknowledged more authentically what it means to be human. The church, we agreed, needed to do a better job of speaking honestly to the whole human condition, rather than prescribing from on high certain hard-and-fast prescriptions for morality, with little acknowledgement for the messiness of real human lives and the full range of human experience.


Three encounters, each of them different, each of them a reminder of the growing irrelevance of the church in today’s society. This issue, of the church’s increasing marginalization, is one that I’ve been thinking about lately; in fact, I’ve been asked to talk about the problem at an upcoming Presbyterian women’s dinner. Why, I’ve been asked, are so many people in my generation and younger leaving the church, and what can the church do about it?

And, it’s a question I put before you, too. Why do you think the church is becoming increasingly irrelevant, and in what ways can the church speak to those who have simply stopped darkening her doors? Leave your answers below, and I’ll share them with the hip Presbyterian Women of Clairmont Presbyterian Church.

Later this week, a Mother’s Day gift…




  • Kristina Robb-Dover

    Mike, Thanks for reading and for these insights. I appreciate them. I think you really hit it on the nail- and I applaud your vulnerability from the pulpit. As you suggest, maybe it takes more of us, pastors and laypeople alike, being willing to be truthful about our messy lives and how God shows up in the midst of them to be a church that has something truly helpful and grace-filled to say for the rest of the world. Best, Kristina

  • mike mcclenahan

    Kristina: I think you’ve described those situations well. I sat down at a reception where I had officiated and the man next to me asked if they all had to behave themselves and if the red wine in my glass used to be water… and then I work really hard to show him how “normal” my wife and I are. I think the church is irrelevant when “church speak” replaces normal language to describe our lives; when we talk about “the world” as “they” as if we are not a part of it; when we forget we are real people (as you have written) with real struggles, real families, real neighbors. I read an email in my message Sunday about a young mom in our church who almost didn’t make it to church a few weeks ago because of the argument she and her husband had before church. Heads began to nod in agreement–pretty universal, but no one talks about this common experience. It just so happened that Sunday I spoke honestly about my marriage that was in trouble a while back and some changes we made, which gave them both hope.

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