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.