Rarely do I get to offer thoughts about church to a broader audience. So here I, a young pastor, have compiled the things I wish I could tell more people about the church. A lot of this is based on conversations I’ve had repeatedly with people who struggle with the idea of going to church. I hope they’re conversations I get to keep having.
Churches will always fail at being perfect
I would venture to say that everyone has experienced or heard tales of dysfunction in the church. I don’t want to minimize the very real hurt that people have experienced in churches, so here I’m talking more about the petty stuff. Part of the reason churches fail so hard is that we’re looking to Jesus as our model. Churches are just groups of people trying to act like Jesus. And it’s hard and sucky to try to be like Jesus sometimes. So when we inevitably fail, we might ignore it out of shame instead of confessing, being forgiven, and trying again. But it’s good that we have a model of something better than ourselves, because at least we can try again to get it right next time. And we’ll probably fail then too. So any criticism is well deserved, because we do fail and we need accountability in order to try harder next time.
Theology is hard
I know a lot of people who feel like they can’t have any religious practice because there’s some theological sticking point for them. Those conversations are great because I get to tell them it’s okay. They don’t have to believe everything exactly like their pastor said or understand the Trinity (P.S., no one understands the Trinity.)
The thing is, theology is hard. There are a lot of people who have been thinking about it for a very long time, and they often disagree with each other. Chances are, whatever belief you’re struggling with has libraries written about it already. And your pastor or even your denomination is probably just presenting their understanding. There’s almost definitely another view. I recently talked to a guy who told me that he was pretty good with most Christian doctrine, but he just couldn’t get past that Jesus had to suffer a really brutal and painful death as a sacrifice for a vengeful God. I agreed with him and we talked more about who he believes God to be and then about different theories of atonement. No one had ever told him that there was another way to understand the crucifixion.
If there’s some doctrine you struggle with, just ask around. Or google it. I know a lot of pastors would be really eager to talk through it with you and help you find resources about differences in thought. Because truthfully, we’re all sort of figuring this out our ourselves too. God is so big that we can’t understand God, we can just reflect on our experiences and look for other sources to confirm them. Which leads me to my next point…
I can’t prove that God exists
But I believe that s/he does. And the reason I believe that is because of experiences that confirm it for me. All I can do is tell you about those experiences I’ve had and some of the experiences that other people have had. And I really, really hope that you’re open to those experiences too because they’re scary and awesome and life-changing.
Um, and by the way, none of those “confirming”experiences have happened in a church worship service. One of them happened in youth group listening to a missionary talk, but mostly they’ve been in other places. And while we’re talking about the standard “going to church”activity, let me say this:
Worship services are sort of weird
If you’re at a place in your life right now where you’re making a decision to be part of a church or not, don’t base that on the worship service. Worship services are just one part of the life of a church, and in my view they’re several steps beyond the entry point. They’re full of insider language and references to things it takes a lifetime to learn. Even at a fundamental level, we should think about them as a response to knowing God rather than the primary way we get to know God. I wrote a little more about that here.
Worship services are weird and they might not be the place for someone who is really undecided about church to go to figure it out. They have traditionally been structured around cultural references of coming before a king. So for people who had a king, that structure and those rituals made sense. They reinforced the idea of God as the ultimate king (which was theological and political.) But here in 2014 America we have no idea what it’s like to adore a king. So those traditions are sort of meaningless except in being self-referential. But that only makes sense if you are already part of a church tradition, not if you’re brand new.
So is “contemporary worship”a better answer? Maybe? A lot of contemporary worship services rely on emotional response. If you have no idea what’s going on or why people are singing about a deer or a hurricane or whatever, is it really any better than the old-style? And in my biased opinion, many contemporary worship services end up feeling like a motivational speaker in the middle of a rock concert. They are invoking something familiar, but also something that doesn’t have much theology behind it. At least when we’re using the king model, we’re saying through those actions that God is a king. Are we also saying God is a motivational speaker? And how does the familiarness point us to the extraordinariness of God? People who know more than me about contemporary worship might argue about my generalizations, but the point I want to make is this: worship is a weird insider thing churches do, often without explicit explanation of why.
So what is the best way to enter a church? I’d encourage anyone thinking about going to church to get involved in a missional action of the church– serve in their food pantry, help build a house, tutor kids in disadvantaged areas. For one thing, you see the church in action in the world, which is (to me) more important than what they do for one hour a week. It’s also easier to get to know people when you’re working next to them. You’ll build a community together, and that’s another really important part of church. I’d also encourage anyone to find a small group to join. In a small group you can get to know people by actually talking to them and you can ask questions about why certain things are the way they are. Through our conversations, actions, study we learn more about who God is than we do in a worship service. So sleep in on Sunday morning if you want, but show up Saturday afternoon or Wednesday night.
Church lets you stick it to the man
The last thing I want to say is that there is no logical reason to go to church within our present society. In fact, going to church is counter-cultural. Consider this: we are constantly told to be productive, to earn more money, to buy more stuff. Advertisements inundate us with this message. Our cultural values revolve around how much we can produce. Work weeks have steadily crept up from 40 hours to 60 or more. We laud those who work hard and sacrifice to achieve in their jobs, even when it means their personal life suffers. We judge the poor, even when they work incredibly hard at multiple jobs, because they haven’t earned enough.
Going to church is fundamentally non-productive. Whenever you go, you’re taking a step outside the system that judges you by your monetary value to do something that feeds you in a way the economy doesn’t care about. By being present with God and God’s people, you’re briefly rejecting the pressure to earn/consume. You’re recognizing your inherent value as a being rather than as a worker. God recognizes that inherent value, too. When we give our time and our money to the work of the church, we’re also making a statement that there is something more important than earning money to buy stuff.
So if you’re like me and you want to break away from the idea that we are worth what we earn, then look at church attendance as a way to do that. I believe that the regular practice of being present is restorative in itself. We all need rest from the grind, and carving out time weekly for church is a way to practice that rest. And you definitely need it.
This post is part of an ongoing series entitled, On Going to Church.Click Here to Get New Posts Via Email
Laura Patterson is in her 5th year of professional ministry in the St. Louis area. She’s finishing up a seminary degree this May at Eden Theological Seminary. She also holds degrees in music from the University of Georgia and Washington University in St. Louis. Laura has a really friendly cat named Sam and loves to cook, read, and take walks. If it’s a Saturday in the fall she’s watching the Dawgs play. Laura blogs over at UMC Lead too.She has a couple of posts up at NCMA Bloggers.