It’s April. Easter is over, Pentecost is on the horizon, and soon Jesus will begin to create his church.
Church. It can be a hard word. It can even stick in your throat a bit, if you’ve eve sucked back the bile of hurtful words and judgmental glances when you weren’t doing the church thing right, or you asked too many questions in Bible class, or your children did not behave like the pastor’s kids. (My unruly children were the pastor’s kids. Oh well.)
Or maybe you’ve seen too many TV preachers to trust anyone who stands in authority and tells you what the Bible says and doesn’t say and what that all means for your day-to-day. Does it mean anything, really, for my carpool duty or cubicle sitting or soccer sidelining?
Maybe you’ve seen too many Christians.
I’ve met enough of you to know that “church” evokes different reactions from different people. Some love it. Some hate it. Most falter somewhere in between, unsure, if they would admit it, they know why they get up very week (or two), dress the kids, and sing songs with a bunch of other pilgrims.
Some of us have been hurt. Some have done the hurting Some have no idea what the fuss is all about. But “church” is a loaded word, fraught with emotion. Let’s spend some time exploring the why of church. The meaning of church. The possibilities of church. I would love to hear your experiences. Here’s mine.
According to the Bible, the church is supposed to be a family. Sometimes, families are hard. Addiction to self-righteousness runs as strongly in some churches as addiction to alcohol runs in my genetic inheritance. Inability to remove masks and be honest with one another is as common in church as my mother’s inability to go without her salon appointment to be rolled, starched, and blonded once a week.
For most of my childhood, I had no idea my mother was not blonde. Until I saw a photo of her at fifteen, I was unaware she had beautiful brown, wavy locks. But that was not the look prized in the 60’s; hence, weekly beauty salon appointments.
Our real selves are often not the prized look in church. Hence, hiding behind perfect, plastic expressions that guard everything and mean nothing. And who can blame anyone for deciding that a weekly dose of that impeccable unreality is not necessary, or helpful?
Maybe you’re afraid church, and maybe that’s why.
You may be a weekly-attending dotted-line-signed member of an actual church, one with a venerable name like First Something-or-other of the Apostles, or a cool, hipster name like Journey Place. You may come every so often, whenever the mood strikes or the kids ask or it’s raining so there’s nothing to do outside. You may have walked away, hurt or confused or both.
I don’t know. Once, I left the megachurch my husband and I had ben attending for a few months to find a smaller church, one where we could feel known and needed. Once, I left my small church to attend a megachurch for a season, a place where I could be anonymous and unseen and unhurt by the things that had wounded me in our old congregation. You just never know.
I don’t make a habit of leaving. I’ve never not gone to church since giving my life to Jesus at sixteen. (Unless you count freshman year of college when I didn’t have a car, didn’t want to commit and hey, did want to sleep in. OK, I guess you have to count that.)
If anything, I am fiercely loyal to a fault. I won’t quit on anything until everyone else has gone home and all the lights are out. When I did walk away from the one bad church experience, it took someone else close to me to state the obvious—“Why are you still there? They are treating you terribly and you are miserable!” Even then, I didn’t leave. I just mentally checked out. The church had to actually close for me to leave.
I can be stubborn. Was it Churchill who said “never, never, never give up”? I am Churchill when it comes to quitting.
Leaving is a last resort. But sometimes, last resorts become the only things that keep us sane.
When Rachel Held Evans writes about driving away from her church, knowing she would not be back, she says that she wept, wondering who would bring her casseroles if one day she had a baby? She didn’t cry for casseroles. She cried for community.
We need community. We need family. We need a tribe. We need it locally, not on the internet, although those people are lovely and quite needed when our “in real life” gets rough and no one completely understands.
We need a church. But church gives us a nervous tic.
I could spend a long time on the whys of going to church. It’s been a constant for me, when much of my life was in upheaval. Church was always there, in its imperfection, calling me to one thing certain, one sure peace.
For now, I’ll just say I get it. I get why you are wherever you are. I want to talk about what it should look like. I want to explore how we get past the ticks and the scars. I want to learn how to find our tribe. For now, I’ll leave you with Sarah Bessey’s words, words that echo my feelings about why I, too, show up in a school gym once a week. (Besides the fact that I am the pastor, and not showing up would be a little unacceptable.)
“In a fractured and mobile and hypercustomized world, intentional community—plain old church—feels like a radical act of faith and sometimes like a spiritual discipline. We show up at a rented school and drink a cup of tea with the people of God. And we remember together who we are and why we live this life, and we figure out all over again how to be disciples of the Way.” (Sarah Bessey, Out of Sorts)