Why I Stay

I was an incredibly fortunate school-learner.  Traditional school structure, highly-formatted classroom learning — they worked well for me. I was the one those environments were built for — the reader, the achiever. I loved it and succeeded with ease. Every time I reached for the next rung on the ladder, it was immediately in my grasp.

Obviously, it is not this way for everyone.

stained-glass-window-church-reykjavikLikewise, I’m a fortunate churchgoer. The pews, hymns, stained glass and sacred tradition all work for me. I didn’t grow up being hauled to church with family every Sunday. I started attending church regularly at age 10, without my parents. The stories of scripture, the sacred words of communion, the intersection between mythology and faith and real life – it has always felt like home.

My undergraduate degrees, the home I own, the husband I share my life with, and my current job came to me through the church. Many of my friends, too, have come to me through the church-at-large through one turn of fate or the other.

I am the one most churches are built to serve. I am the Sunday school success story. If church can work for anyone, it is supposed to work for me.

And I still want to quit.  ALL…THE…TIME.

Some friends have marveled at my staying power – which to me feels like praising a fish for its water endurance. It’s far more impressive, to me, that the church’s hemorrhaging isn’t even faster given all the folks who stay without the aid of church-coded DNA.

Despite my love affair with stained glass and singing in harmony, church is hard.  It is easily the most taxing role in my life. My complaints with it are the same as others: the bureaucracy, the hypocrisy, the deeply-embedded scarcity mindset present in the hearts of many church communities, the seeming utter pointlessness of the act of going to church. On many occasions, I have said aloud that if the church were a person, it would be easy to characterize my relationship with it as an abusive one…and one that I would’ve cut off long ago.

Name your frustration – I confidently say I share it.

And yet.

And yet, I cannot quit, not really, no matter how much I want to. I long to join the leagues of St. Louis Sunday-morning brunchers. I’d love to spend my Sundays around people I can lovingly select and control the amount of time I am in their presence. But I can’t. Not really. Because in the back of my head, the voice of the church is always calling.

“We are here. We are here. We are here.”

Yes, I am alluding exactly to the Dr. Seuss classic Horton Hears a Who. Like Horton, I hear the voice of the church no matter where I am, no matter where I go.
The tiny lady who always brings butterscotch candies, ready to sweeten the day of any children who may visit. The ushers who stand side by side, one in his still-resplendent 40-year- old suit and the other in his ratty Rams starter jacket. The guest, new in town and still looking for work, who sits more nervously than the rest of us because his need is more obvious to us than ours is to him.

“We are here. We are here. We are here.”

The woman at the well, conducting her errands in off-hours to avoid the scorn of neighbors. The stories of Esther, Deborah, Ruth, Nehemiah, Job. “Woe to those who sell honorable people for silver and the poor for a pair of sandals.”

“We are here. We are here. We are here.”

Going to church makes invisible people visible in a way that just doesn’t exist in any other avenue in my life. Scripture pulls my eyes to atrocities and miracles, confessions and resurrections that just  are not there anywhere else and that I cannot reconstruct on my own. Without going to church, I don’t have another avenue to make friends in their 80’s…or friends who are 12.

Without church, I fear it is too easy for me to have the high holy experience that my bones resonate with and none of the incarnational realness that I try to keep at arms’ length. While relaxing over brunch may often do leagues more for my weary soul than stumbling through another Sunday, it can’t drown out the drumbeat.

So even though it doesn’t work for me, I still have to go. If only to open the doors, take my seat, and join the chorus of creation – the little ladies, the once-proud, the invisible, the arrogant, the stuck-in-their-ways,

The Creator, the Savior, the Holy Spirit,

And me. The tired, arrogant white girl with better things to do,

All gathered to say We are here. All together, to be acknowledged and made real by one another. 

And so, however reluctantly, you’ll still find me following my homing beacon most Sunday mornings. ‘Cause even when church doesn’t work…it does.

(Header image used under Creative Commons license.  Image credit to HighDefDiscNews.)

This post is part of an ongoing series entitled, On Going to Church.


HannahHannah Shanks shuffles to church at Centenary UMC, a 175 year old congregation in downtown St. Louis that is open and affirming of ALL people. She trains congregations and faith-based agencies on effective outreach and volunteer management in her day job. After work, you can find her at the local pub or at home, playing board games with noisy people.


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Author: Hannah Shanks

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