“How baffling you are, oh Church, and yet how I love you! How you have made me suffer, and yet how much I owe you! I would like to see you destroyed, and yet I need your presence. You have given me so much scandal and yet you have made me understand what sanctity is. I have seen nothing in the world more devoted to obscurity, more compromised, more false, and yet I have touched nothing more pure, more generous, more beautiful. How often I have wanted to shut the doors of my soul in your face, and how often I have prayed to die in the safety of your arms. No, I cannot free myself from you, because I am you, though not completely. And besides, where would I go?” –Carlo Carretto, The God Who Comes
About 10 years ago, I fell out of love with church. Or rather, I fell out of love with “going to church.” As Sunday after Sunday rolled by, I found myself wondering, “Remind me why I should go to church, again? What is the point?’”
I think things started to head in this direction when I stepped down from my volunteer role as a regular teacher in the high school youth group at a large, evangelical community church in Lynchburg, VA. The whole of my church life was comprised of my ministry in this area, including not only my teaching but also my small group, which consisted of the other leaders in the high school ministry.
But when I stepped down, I lost my role, my small group, and therefore, my connection to the church. There was no alternate route for connection unless I wanted to start over again as if I was more or less brand new to the church, which was the route suggested to me at the time. I never did.
About a year later, I moved to Nashville, TN, where I got married. While there, for the first time ever, I spent some time away from evangelical auspices at Christ Church Cathedral, an Episcopal parish in downtown Nashville, before eventually landing at City Church East, a Presbyterian Church (PCA) in trendy East Nashville. The dichotomy represented in these two churches was analogous to my struggle at that time between more liberal and conservative Christianity.
Shortly after marrying, I moved back to Lynchburg, VA for what was supposed to be a year, but ended up being six. Moving back to Lynchburg had a profound impact on my thoughts about church. Although Christ Church Cathedral and City Church East were widely divergent in their political and theological views, both had what I considered to be somewhat radical, concrete ministries to the poor and marginalized, and both were firmly grounded in spirituo-intellectual dialogue within their ranks and without, including efforts at interfaith conversations. Yet what I found thereafter appeared to be business as usual – pretty churches with pretty music, and lots of talk either focused on doctrine or practical living. This isn’t bad, per se, but it felt like some mix of seminary and motivational seminars. And it fell short of the kind of “being the church” outreach I’d experienced in Nashville, and slowly but surely, I began to feel an even larger disconnect. My wife and I (and soon our children) church-hopped for several years before we were finally exhausted, and gave in to the idea of not going at all.
One of the most frustrating aspects of this time period was trying to explain this to friends and pastors, who gave me some well-meaning mix of pity and pathologizing. Many claimed we were “searching for the perfect church,” and that we were bound to be frustrated as no such thing existed. Others claimed that they could relate, but that they’d resolved themselves to continue going to church no matter how unsatisfying the experience was because it was “the right thing to do,” and some even cited Scripture on this point. Others claimed we were “wrong” for having asked the question at all. Still others just seemed confused by our misgivings, and simply couldn’t relate.
I’m not upset with any of these folks for their reactions. I get that they didn’t get it.
But since that point in our lives, we’ve never truly felt at home in church. Even here in St. Louis where there are many more options available to us, this is the case. I say that with sadness. Yet, in the depths of me, and perhaps because I have not lost sight of God in all of this, I cannot get the whole idea of church attendance out of my head.
Well I tried to make it Sunday, but I got so damn depressed
That I set my sights on Monday and I got myself undressed
I ain’t ready for the altar but I do agree there’s times
When a woman sure can be a friend of mine
Well, I keep on thinkin’ ’bout you, Sister Golden Hair surprise
And I just can’t live without you; can’t you see it in my eyes?
I been one poor correspondent, and I been too, too hard to find
But it doesn’t mean you ain’t been on my mind
For a while now I’ve been wanting to host a series of informed voices on the subject of church attendance, but haven’t known whether, how, or why this could/should be a point of discussion for people. I’ve asked myself, “Is this just something I’ve wrestled with, or do others find themselves wondering too? Is this a subject that can be engaged in a meaningful, edifying way, or is it just going to be a complaint-fest? Is this something that the voices in my milieu are capable of addressing with the subtlety and nuance required?” And more.
At varying points in my journey over the last several years, I may have answered these questions differently than I do now. But currently, I believe I can safely say that I’ve encountered many who struggle with the issue of church attendance, that the subject can be approached in a way that is both substantive and edifying, and that the constellation of colleagues which surround me both locally here in St. Louis and through my online friendships are capable of adding the necessary context and particulars that would make this a worthwhile effort.
So, I’m proud to introduce this hosted blog series starting in September 2014, On Going to Church. For the next 10 weeks, a variety of writers I’ve come to respect will be sharing their thoughts with you. I hope you’ll read and share their ideas with others, and engage us as we try to wrestle with our experiences.
Schedule of bloggers:
Week 6 – BREAK!
Week 8 – Kenneth J. Pruitt
Week 9 – Pierre Keys
Week 10 – Rev. Mike Angell
Week 10 – Rev. Morgan Guyton
Week 11/Series Wrap-Up – Yours truly
This post is part of an ongoing series entitled, On Going to Church.