For a moment this summer, I considered homeschooling my oldest child. Some fears he had collided with some concerns for his safety and so night, after balmy New England night, I’d sit up late researching curriculum, pedagogy, and communities for our newbie homeschooling family.
In the homeschooling community, there is an alternative concept called, un-schooling. Un-schooling is much like homeschooling in that both happen at home, but while homeschooling thrives on curriculums and structure, un-schooling relies on real life teaching moments that follow a child’s interests, throwing out the metrics of benchmarks and expectations. Its primary interest is in creating a lifelong learner, a person who has the curiosity and confidence to engage the world’s hard questions.
Some alternative learning/homeschooling blogs suggest all families new to homeschooling should embrace at least a season of un-schooling –especially if children are transitioning from traditional school settings, to help students reframe their orientation to school from “have to” to “want to.”
I don’t think it was a coincidence that at the same time I was learning about un-schooling, God was reframing my beliefs about church and community.
In March of this year (2014), we sat with our church plant launch team and told them what was true — our initial concept of planting an urban church without any one on the team living in the neighborhood made authentic connections with the people nearly impossible. One of our church plant core values was family — supporting the families in the community and nurturing the bonds we form as members of the family of God. Without any stakes in the neighborhood of Roxbury, our efforts to connect were viewed as insincere. So we asked for prayer once again for our family to find a decent place in Roxbury that was both safe and affordable, then we blessed our team to go back to their own churches.
But we felt like we had no place to go. For three years New City was our church and in one night it dissipated before our very eyes. It was the hardest meeting I’ve ever attended.
I found myself in a new, strange and unprecedented space — churchless and in need of Christian community. This distressed me greatly — so much so that I cried nearly every single day that spring. I wondered what was wrong with us that we couldn’t find a home church. I worried about the spiritual formation of our children. I wondered, “Who do I call when I need prayer or encouragement or to hash out deep theological conundrums?” I wondered, “If the church is the embodiment of Christ’s love for the world, where do I fit in if I don’t have a local gathering of believers to lean into?”
This death felt final and the ache was persistent.
Then the summer came and I was forced out of my head for a bit. The kids needed their mother and summer days called with promises of ice cream and sunshine and too much sand between our toes.
One afternoon I was thinking about homeschooling and searching the local bookstore for resources, when I came across a young adult novel called, The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer, about a sixteen year old girl who experiences the death of her three closest friends in a car accident, while surviving herself. She wakes up in the hospital with no memory of her that night and is forced into a new reality — she’s now friendless and in need of a new sense of identity, family, and community.
Standing there that day, I felt a lot like Mara Dyer.
Everything I knew about faith, church, calling, community had been questioned the moment we admitted that our church plant wasn’t working the way we had hoped. I felt the death of that dream so keenly. I sat among the rubble looking at all the brokenness around me and wondered, “How do I put it back together again? How do we integrate into a new church without have to rehearse the story of our plant every Sunday during the fellowship hour? What does this ‘failure’ mean for my usefulness to God? How do people perceive me now that I’m no longer a church planter and just regular old Osheta?”
I considered that word from the title “unbecoming.” Like un-schooling, it seemed to be about the dismantling of an identity that didn’t work anymore. After much thought and simple prayer for help, I decided that this summer would be my summer of un-churching. Just like some students need a transition season between the traditional classroom to learning at home, like Mara Dyer needed her new season of unbecoming, I needed a transition season between my traditional understanding of “church” and whatever new community God may have in store for us. I do deeply believe God wants us in a local church, but He also wanted us there for the right reasons. That afternoon in the bookstore, my desire for church was based on “have to,” not “want to.”
So, for the summer I released any expectation of finding a church to settle down. I rejected the anxieties that come when your identity is tied up in your church membership and I pressed into Jesus to learn to love his Body and spend my time with it out of desire.
My Southern upbringing conflated my church attendance and membership with authentic Christ-following. So much so that when I was a child and asked people if they were Christians, they’d say, “Yes I am, and I attend…” Membership in a local church and discipleship were synonymous to me. During my summer of un-churching, I pressed into the idea of the Body of Christ. I reached out to friends from different churches and invited them to pray for me during this season. Doing so, my church community became bigger and smaller. Slowly I realized how much I loved the local church – even if we don’t see each other every Sunday and Wednesday evening.I learned that to God, my doing was different than my being. For so long, my identity as a follower of Christ was enmeshed in my laboring for the mission of Christ. During my season of un-churching, God said that he desires love more than labor, obedience over sacrifice, delight in him over delegation of church business.
I learned how to press into what I’ve heard described by Mennonite Pastor, Meghan Good, “the ambiguity of love.” Love is the staring place for every believer rather than church membership, and love is ambiguous. Love sometimes asks that we stay home and take communion as family because quiet intimacy is needed. Love sometimes asks that we go early to a church sponsored block party, not to help, but to meet people, offer a smile, listen to their story. Love sometimes looks like going to two different church services in one day to meet up with two different friends who just want to offer you a smile and listen to your story. Jesus always begins with love.
So, it’s tricky, this discerning the meaning of the terms “Christian” and “church-goer.” I learned during my season of un-churching that they’re not necessarily the same thing.
I needed that season to set me up for this new season of attending on local expression of the Body of Christ consistently. My husband and I have recently started helping out with a local church plant, not as the pastors, but as faithful friends and fellow Body members. I’m healthier than before my season of un-churching. Saying “no” is empowering and not shameful, because declining the wrong thing for me (even if it’s otherwise good), allows me to say “yes” to the right thing. Connecting with people at this new church feels like a family reunion and not an assessment of skills and theology, because un-churching taught me to love well and offer gracious expectation. Un-churching has set me up to be the very best, healthiest version of a church attending believer.
It’s important for us to gather and process and love and share life with each other (i.e., going to church), but it’s also important to step back and ask the “why” behind the “what.” I pray wherever you are with church attendance and the Church, know that she’s beautiful and wonderful and so needed in this broken world. When God looks at the Church he sees a partner with whom he can bring about his shalom. Finding a local church and pouring yourself there is a wonderful thing, but pulling back, getting alone with God and letting him help you find wholeness apart from your identity as a “church-goer” is important.
This post is part of an ongoing series entitled, On Going to Church.
Osheta Moore is an NeoAnabaptist, stay at home mom in Boston, MA. She’s passionate about racial reconciliation, peacemaking, and community development in the urban core, and she writes on her blog, Shalom in the City. At the top of her bucket list is “dance in a flash mob”– all the better if it’s to Michael Jackson’s, “Thriller” or Pharrell’s, “Happy.”