I knew Jackson where I used to be a minister.
He was like a lot of people there, as devout as could be. He showed up for all the meetings, did all the religious things, but his life wasn’t getting better. After three years of doing everything church told him to do — and then four, and then five — his life was in the same mess it had been when I met him. His sense of self was just as fragile, maybe worse. His marriage was rockier, his employment opportunities as limited, his anxiety just as severe.
Jackson represented a whole trend I was seeing. The best church I knew, wasn’t helping people become better human beings.
It was kind of disorienting.
In my own life, church had been transformative. So much so, I’d become a minister! But here was my religion — not working — for a lot of people. No clothes on our emperor.
Fast forward a few years, and that really good church invited me to be a minister somewhere else. (It happens when you poke at what’s not working.) So I came to Raleigh to start a church. Many years later, we have a spiritual community that is powerfully transforming our lives. We are becoming better people as time passes. We have a spiritual narrative that is both rooted in ancient wisdom, and workable in our world.
Which is really good.
But how does that happen?
What I Learned
I learned an iteration of the proverb: “When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.” In this case, it was:
“When you find yourself in a religion that doesn’t work, stop doing religion.”
Like any organized thing, organized religion, is organized. (You’ll want to write that gem down.) “Organized” means there are calendars, and duties, and meetings, and programs, all of which seem like good things, important things. But when something is bad-wrong, and we don’t know what it is, it’s a good idea to stop doing everything.
So we became the do-nothing church for a few years. We took care of our children and our (meager) finances. But other than that, we eliminated almost everything a good church does. On Sundays, we’d talk together, but sometimes the bathrooms hadn’t been cleaned. We had musicians, but they didn’t get much practice. No greeters. Sometimes our middle-schoolers sat in the lobby together (they actually loved that).
We didn’t do any of the things a good church does.
But remember, I had been at a good church.
Good church wasn’t working.
Instead, we got quiet. We rediscovered meditation. We learned the ways of silence and solitude. We stopped doing, started listening, and practiced the art of discerning. We asked deep, core questions:
What is religion?
What is church?
And we listened.
Who we are today, what we do today, we discerned in those early days of silence, and in the silence we still practice together.
What do you think about that?
What would that be like in your institution?