Going to vs. Being [Church edition]

You know how sometimes people linger when they’ve got something to say they’re not sure how to say? Well, she was lingering. Standing at the back door of my house, her hand on the silver handle, looking into the backyard where the kids were running around. We had finished up our brief neighborly conversation and her hand was on the handle, but she wasn’t turning it.

Without really looking at me, she started talking. I could hear the heaviness; the uneasiness in her voice, as she told me she just wasn’t sure about church anymore. I heard sadness, not judgment as she said, “What’s the point of going to church and hearing a good message, if the people listening week to week aren’t practicing what they hear and changing? I mean, there has to be something out there– some church– where you can hear a good word and be a part of a real community, right?”

I didn’t offer much more than this one sentiment. “It really begs the question: why do we go to church, really?”

My assumption is that had I asked the question in a less rhetorical way, my friend might’ve answered that we “go to church” to hear a good sermon and to connect with other people. Honestly, a year or so ago, that would’ve been my answer.

One Sunday morning I declared to myself that I was going to stay home and “be the church” rather than “going to church”. A neighbor had been involved in an embarrassing domestic dispute our family had been audience to, on account that we were doing yard work when it happened. I decided to stay home, bake cookies and go visit my neighbor and “be the church”. I found out I was badly out of practice. My neighbor wasn’t home that morning and it took me another three months to work up the nerve to initiate again. And it was much longer than that before I decided to “go back to church”.

That’s not to say, friends, that I had a crisis of faith (I didn’t) or that I was angry at God (I wasn’t) or that I chose to ignore the phase about meeting together (I hadn’t). In fact it was the opposite. The roots of my faith felt deep and aching in the deep and aching way only love can make you feel. Pure spiritual longing drove me. I found myself on a journey toward finding answers to a pair of troubling questions… namely:

1. What does it actually mean to “go to church”? Can we even do that? 

2. What does it mean to “be the church”? And can I do that?

I simultaneously winced and chuckled when I recently learned that my posting a photo of a book on social media streams unintentionally resulted in various persons coming to the conclusion that I was rebellious or backslidden or both. I chuckled because of how wrong the assumption was and winced because I can’t stand it when Christians act cultish about what they read or don’t read (a post for another day…and by another day, I mean for a day when I figure out how to write it without being completely offensive. Don’t hold your breath. I’ve been wanting to write it for about 5 years and haven’t yet.) Of course, no one actually asked me about the book I was reading. And no one bothered to pick up the book and read it for themselves. Instead they asked other people about the book I was reading and how I was doing. Besides being a very inefficient way to gain information, it is also hurtful and gossipy. Just a free FYI, friends.

So anyway what appeared to some (via a book cover) to be my leaving the Church has actually been my attempt to find it.

When I was in high school, I was blessed to have the most inspiring youth pastor. He was a reader, studier, soaker, thinker, and also a writer. He had begun work on a book and as he shared ideas with me, I started to think about a fiction-like book I wanted to write (but still haven’t). The basic premise was that a being coming to earth, looking for the Church with only the Bible as a road map to finding Her.I imagined myself, not unlike Lewis or Tolkien, using fiction to explore and expose inaccurate beliefs in culture. Even at 17 or so, I could see the glaringly obvious differences between what I saw playing out in the culture of “the church” and what I read about in the New Testament.

And as a 17 year old I had a lot of time to read, so I read my Bible cover to cover at least twice. But as life goes on, time ebbs away. Not just the time left of your life, but also the time left in your days. Adulthood and responsibilities and kids and family and tasks, while all good and needful, have a way of crowding your reading time. As I “grew” up and had less time to soak in the Word, I fell more into what I from here on out I will call “church culture”. During college, a few times situations left a check in my spirit, when yet again the Bible seem to steer a very different direction that what I saw playing out in front of me. But by and large I had softened into a if-the-machine-is-so-big-you-can’t-beat-it-than-join-it mode. And once you do that, it gets easier and easier to ignore the nagging feeling things have gone terribly off course.

It was partially the book, a lot that one Sunday morning failed attempt at being the church, and so much more what I had  personally experiencing that suddenly jolted me out of auto pilot. All of the sudden, those two menacing questions were too big and too important to ignore. And all of the sudden, I realized I couldn’t answer them. At least, not in a way that satisfied my longings or rang true in my heart.

My friend’s hand was on the door knob and my thoughts had drifted to every place I just took you as she sighed and repeated her same questions and thoughts in various ways. Then one of the kids undid the latch on our back gate and in a moment we went from a deep heart discussion to the panic parents feel when their children have dangerously darted toward a road.

Our conversation (hers and mine) had ended abruptly, but ours (yours and mine) I feel is just beginning.

7 Comments

  1. Kate,

    I used to be that person who felt righteous about judging the heart of Christians based upon their reading material and movie viewing, especially Harry Potter and other such questionable works. We all are quite familiar with the “okay” and “you can’t possibly be a Christian and still read that!” lists. I cringe now as I think back to the place on which my heart settled, all in the name of representing Jesus Christ.

    I, actually, was quite intrigued by your book choice (if I’m correct in assuming which book that is) and applaud you for seeking answers and not just settling for what we’re taught … in church. I think the Western Church body has become too westernized, too adept at soaking on Sundays and apathetic towards real Bible study, seeking and searching, and not just resting on the laurels of what Pastor teaches on the weekends. It’s easier to settle, less time consuming and a lot less potential for having other Christians call you out for actually seeking where they wouldn’t dare go … or researching-and possibly disagreeing with–basic tenants of Western Church theology today.

    It’s like we’re afraid to let people actually dig through the soil of the usual and familiar to tap into the deep waters where revelation, not just pulpit teaching, expands our understanding of the scriptures and the truth that Jesus was speaking. Instead of applauding people for digging, we criticize what we can’t understand … out of fear. And God certainly wouldn’t heap fear on us for digging for the truth, for seeking His heart and His ways.

    I hope you open up a really respectful but thought-provoking can of worms here … one built on real, open-hearted discussion and not biting, closed-minded criticism. It’s when we can discuss and not argue that Christians will stop being looked at as the most judgmental lot on the planet.

    With all respect for truth-seeking, and all coming from a heart that so longs to be able to discuss without fear of rejection or harsh criticism. May it be soon…

  2. Oh, Kate, this is such a great post. I’m on that journey of trying to discover and grab hold of my own authenticity as a christian and what that really means for myself and those around me. Thank you for posting this & I hope you continue to share your thoughts!

  3. Thank you for writing this. This is something that I needed to hear as I have sort of been struggling with my faith. I hope that you do actually write this in a series. I look forward to more of your thoughts!

  4. The phrase “go to church” obviously suggests a location-based ministry (our physical presence in a building). Being the church implies being part of a body of believers. One is a static, inanimate, lifeless pile of bricks and mortar and the other is a living, breathing, moving being.

    These are questions we have wrestled with for years. We met in a house church in our living room for the last six years until we felt like we had grown all we could as an insulated little group and needed a broader lifeline to the community around us. Our little group recently joined a bigger congregation of collective house churches. I sometimes feel stuck between both worlds, having both the benefits of being able to serve with a wider group of believers and the frustrations of being just another face in the crowd during the weekly worship gathering. We caught glimpses of what I think the New Testament church might have looked like in our house church, and at other times I was terribly frustrated with and discouraged by our lack of growth (spiritually, I am not referring to number of attendees here).

    I’m looking forward to hearing more of your thoughts on the subject, and will be working through some of my own. Were it not so late I might be a little more coherent. :-)

  5. Hey Kate. I appreciate your writing so much! I’ve been reading your blog for a few years now and I always find it refreshing and thought provoking, and I love that.

    This is a topic that I have been spending some time thinking about recently as well. It seems like sometimes ‘being the church’ is forgotten and ‘going to church’ becomes the goal. I haven’t come to a conclusion on this, but I know that its something that needs to be discussed much more often than it is.

    Thanks for being willing to talk about the hard things. I am excited to read more about ‘being’ versus ‘going.’ It makes such a difference.

  6. Great blog post! I think we in the Western Church tend to have such a commuter and consumer mindset about church. Commuter in that many churches have people attending from so many different suburbs within a town/city to meet together which makes it difficult to enjoy actual community with fellow believers; and consumer in that we subconsciously (or consciously) attend church with a ‘what can I get out of this?’ mentality – rather than thinking about how we can serve/encourage/challenge/fellowship with fellow believers and those in our workplaces/universities/local community.

    Anyways that’s just my two cents off the top of my head, but I look forward to reading more of your thoughts on this topic as this is something I’ve been thinking about the past few years as well :)

  7. By the way, I clicked on the link to your former youth pastor’s blog and LOVE his current post. I’m going to add his blog to my favourites list :)

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