As a kid growing up, I never saw any reason why someone would not want to go to church. Church was full of people who loved you. It was a safe place where you could run around freely while your parents were in choir practice. It was a fun place where you got to eat homemade ice cream on Sunday nights and play sand volleyball. Even in the services, you got to sing pretty songs and write down important things the preacher said in your best handwriting.
I thought that people who didn’t go to church did so because they were bad people who needed to repent from their sin.
I remember talking to the dad of a girl on my 12-and-under softball team and asking why he didn’t go to church. Jokingly, he said, “I don’t want the preacher to make me stand up in front of everybody because I’m a guest.” I walked away wishing that he didn’t brush it off so easily, but also pretty proud of myself for inviting an adult to church.
In high school, I still loved church. I looked forward to Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights because I got to hang out with all my friends outside of school. I liked learning new things about the Bible and feeling like I was growing closer to God. As a perfectionist, I liked improving myself.
Life went on. I went through some things, like a cheating boyfriend, losing and gaining friends, moving away to go to college, meeting Logan. I matured a lot. I studied the Bible, theology and church history and began asking questions. I continued to go to church in my new town, but this time I found a lot more to criticize. It only intensified as I went through college. The professors I was closest to had warned me: As a theology major, you’re going to have a hard time sitting through a sermon without being critical of something. Just don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.
I know that churches mean well and are full of big-hearted people. My problem was with some of the assumptions and presuppositions that take place.
I’ll be the first one to tell you that I don’t have all the answers. I’m absolutely sure that all my personal opinions are not the “correct” ones. But I will also tell you that I think our beliefs, whatever they are, should be wrestled with and not just blindly assumed to be fact just because they’ve been around a long time. Once I had begun to think a little differently, it frustrated me that every church I went to seemed to define itself by a specific set of doctrines, and if you didn’t agree 100%, then you didn’t fit in. Church slowly became exhausting to me, because I thought that if I disagreed with something doctrinally or theologically, I could never talk about it. Not even a light, friendly debate—those things weren’t up for discussion. You don’t just come into a church and question their basic understanding of God/church/theology. Right?
I began to understand why some people felt hurt by churches, or why they thought that the church valued its own moral purity over its people. I felt like an outcast.
So, I remained in the theological closet and kept going to church when I didn’t feel like it. Every time I went, I tried to have an open mind and open heart to give church the benefit of the doubt. I hid my cynicism and plastered on a smile because I thought it was the right thing, but as soon as we got in the car afterwards I would vent my frustrations. “DID YOU HEAR WHAT HE SAID? I just don’t think that’s what Christianity is about at all. I’m so tired of this!” Why were there more people going to a seminar on Hell than there were volunteering for community service and outreach projects? When did “love your neighbor” become “make them feel like an outcast so they’ll feel guilty?” When did God’s love start being exclusive? When did people stop being human beings and start being projects to put more jewels in your crown? It was enough to make me feel pretty bitter and pessimistic.
However, when we were in Scotland, sick with anxiety, the Church was what brought us comfort. We had no family or friends there, but we knew these people would love us. It was one of the first times I have felt so strongly the bonds between my Christian sisters and brothers who I did not know. Now, that is not to say that I always agreed with the theology. The pastors were rather Calvinistic, which I am not, so there were times during the sermons that I found myself not agreeing. But I deeply valued the community I found there.
On the first Sunday we visited, there were a lot of new college students because the semester was about to begin. One of the pastors asked that anyone who was struggling with homesickness/fear/anxiety/etc. and would like to be prayed for would stand up, so we did along with five or six other people. I felt incredibly vulnerable—like everyone could see my pain—but I couldn’t help but get teary-eyed because this is how it’s supposed to be. A young woman with long, dark hair and a big pregnant belly was sitting behind us, and she whispered in her Scottish accent, “Is it okay if I put my hand on you?” to which I nodded yes. It wasn’t anything weird or awkward, it was just the touch of another human being—a Christian sister whom I did not know and yet was bonded to—while the congregation said a short prayer for us and the others who were struggling with this new place.
Later, as we were about to leave, she stopped us. “I didn’t get to meet you! What are your names? Brilliant! My husband and I would love to have you over sometime. Maybe after church next Sunday?”
Claire helped me to see church with fresh eyes. When I was “hungry,” she fed me. When I was “sick,” she brought me in and took care of me. We only knew each other briefly since we didn’t stay in Aberdeen, but even during that short time, she showed me God’s love when I needed it most.
Now, back in the States, I hope my relationship with church is in a new place (or moving to one). I still get frustrated sometimes when I go there, and I want to pull my hair out every once in a while. There are churches that are full of nice people that I won’t ever become a member of because of the theology. But I also know why finding a church community is important, and it’s not because the theology matches up perfectly with yours. I would like to find a place with similar theology or at least the encouragement to have discussions and conversations about it, but there will always be differences (we are different people, after all). Above all, I need to be a part of a church community because I’m part of the Church community.
The “April” section of Common Prayer Pocket Edition: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals says this:
“…Our discontentment is not a reason to disengage from the church but a reason to engage with it. As Gandhi said, ‘Be the change you want to see in the world.’ Our invitation is to ‘be the change’ we want to see in the church. There are things worth protesting, but we also have to be people who ‘pro-testify,’ proclaiming the kingdom that we’re for, not just the evils we’re against….Church history is filled with reformations and renewals….The call the repair the church is a call we continue to hear from God, and a movement we are invited to participate in. We shouldn’t be too surprised that the church is a mess. After all, it’s made up of people. Augustine said, ‘The church is a whore, but she’s our mother.’ The early Christians said that if we do not accept the church as our mother, we cannot call God our Father. We are not to leave her, but we are to work for her healing, as we would for a dysfunctional parent’s healing. Our work is not ‘para-church’ but ‘pro-church.’ The church needs our discontent, and we need the rest of the body of Christ” (49-50).
I can’t just nitpick about the things I don’t like…I have to wade through those things and not let them hide the fact that church community is important. I have to “proclaim the kingdom” that I’m for through my own words and actions. I can’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.
Has anyone else had these issues and/or tried to work through them? Why do you value the church and stick with her when you get bitter and frustrated?