One of the more popular texts/emails I received after my last blog was from the Christian contigency of readers asking if I had found a church. If you’re not in Christian circles you might not be familiar with the very prevalent idea that once you find a church, you will also find a group of people to hang out with and thus never feel lonely.
I used to be better about accepting that ideology. Go to church, meet other believers, build your family around that church. When we first moved to the Quad Cities I was having a hard time finding friends with kids so my sister-in-law suggested I try a church she thought we would like. We did and I did. I ended up meeting some really amazing women there (you might remember it was at that church and with those women that the idea of Water for Christmas began.) I forgave a few things that bothered me about the church (namely that the pastor often said some rather sexist things in the form of terrible jokes) because I loved the women. But then the church waved proudly all the red flags I had been seeing over the years when, instead of helping some friends of mine after their world was shaken, they chose instead to kick them while they were down. It was an in your face way of showing how they really felt about sin-hide it, suppress it and don’t speak of it otherwise we will publicly shame you and push you out of the church.
I didn’t go back to church after that and I started questioning everything I had once believed. I decided that if I were to go back to church, and take my family with me, I would no longer stick around if the pastor was a teeny bit sexist or if I thought the message was a teeny bit derogatory towards poor people. I didn’t (and don’t) expect perfection from pastors or a church but I certainly expect to hear more love and a little less joking at the expense of an entire group of people.
A few years later we happened upon a church that was taking place in a bar.* Sunday mornings they gathered, soles of their shoes sticking to the floor from the previous night’s shenanigans. It was a group of 50 or so who worshipped with their eyes closed, hands raised and their feet moving side to side coming unglued from the alcohol laden floor with the rhythm of the music. On our second time trying out the church a parade of members including the pastor and his wife got up on stage. As the music played they turned over cardboard signs with the worst sins they had committed written on them. These weren’t your “I stole an eraser from my friend in 4th grade” (I did that by the way) these were the big ones. And I started the ugly cry immediately. To be in a place where the leadership of the church was so openly admitting to their humanness was exactly what I needed.
Of course we stuck around. The two pastors were both equally amazing, always on point with their message. They never went for the easy sermons either, meant to make you feel ok about heading home to your cushioned couch to watch the football game on your big screen without a second thought to what it means to be a Christian. They were always asking us to do more, love more, give more (not to the church-but to community organizations or to the Water Party), volunteer more. Once a month on Sundays instead of a service, the whole church would volunteer at area organizations. Sometimes they literally just went to the neighborhoods surrounding the church and did little projects for the elderly that lived there. They welcomed refugees and helped them navigate life in America. They never confused a relationship with Christ and a relationship to a political party. We naturally became friends with people from that church, and continue to be today.
And then we moved. We moved to a small town in Michigan that features many churches. We’ve tried the largest church in our town that many of our friends go to. It’s not for us. I hold no ill feelings towards that church, its pastor or its members but I just can’t do it anymore.
I am no longer impressed by fog machines, cafes and hundreds of people. I am impressed by vulnerability, openness and authenticity. Those will always, always win out for me.
I no longer feel like church has to be a part of our routine “for the kids”. I would rather them experience God in nature on our Sunday hikes or in a book on our Sunday reading sessions. I would rather them get to know God because of how He talks to them in the quiet stillness that accompanies our relaxed Sundays than hear a bullet pointed kids sermon while they are gripping a climbing wall.
I would rather them grow up knowing God is love than grow up learning from the church and its people about what God hates. And by that I don’t mean what God actually hates but what Christians often hate.
I refuse to go to a church that dives into politics unless to talk about our commands to help the poor, welcome the refugee and love one another.
Any mention of an “us” versus “them” philosophy is a non negotiable for me. Whether that be Christians versus non-Christians, Republicans versus Democrats, Americans versus non-Americans, etc. If you’re into polarizing rather than uniting-I’m out.
If you spend more money on your church renovations and your coffee than you do on local community support, I’m not interested. If your church would close its doors and the community wouldn’t feel the pang of loss (other than the members), you’re doing it wrong-I’m out.
I don’t have much interest in piousness (as evidenced by my affinity for cussing and my aversion to the modesty culture for women) but I can’t get enough of the tenets of forgiveness, peace, hope and love.
I love Jesus but sometimes I find it so incredibly hard to love Christians.
In Rachel Held Evans’s book, Searching for Sunday, she writes, “I often wonder if the role of the clergy in this age is not to dispense information or guard the prestige of their authority, but rather to go first, to volunteer the truth about their sins, their dreams, their failures, and their fears in order to free others to do the same. Such an approach may repel the masses looking for easy answers from flawless leaders, but I think it might make more disciples of Jesus, and I think it might make healthier, happier pastors. There is a difference, after all, between preaching success and preaching resurrection. Our path is the muddier one.”
I know many can grow in their faith and love in humanity through the hallowed walls of a church and, in some respects, I’m jealous of that. Because for me the times I’ve felt God’s presence the most have been when all 7 of us are snuggled on couches reading books, in the quiet moments right after my meditation when I’m breathing in the vastness of the world and in a tiny room in Ethiopia sharing tears and coffee with our special people.
In the end, though, I can’t quit the church entirely. Being surrounded by relatively likeminded people can be a salve at the end of a long week. A sense of belonging to something bigger than oneself is a powerful thing. Find me a church that’s not defined by who it leaves out but by who it lets in, and I’ll be there. Probably crying, definitely being vocal when I agree. Standing with my brothers and sisters who have done and seen the worst but still claim the worst powerless against love.
*Connection Church in the Quad Cities, go check it out or just listen to the podcast like I do!