I’ve somewhat agonized over the question of church for quite a few years now. I grew up going to church every Sunday pretty much no matter what, because that’s what you’re supposed to do. But in my married life I’ve stayed away from church probably about half of the time. I think one of my biggest issues is: What is the purpose of church? There are lots of good answers, but somehow either the answer doesn’t play out in church or everyone else’s answer is so different from mine that I don’t know what to think. Maybe some of it is the modern/post-modern difference, maybe some of it is just me.
Some background (ok, a really LONG background)… I grew up in an 80’s white affluent church. At the time, they didn’t have a word like mega-church and even if they did, there were lots of churches like ours in the area I grew up. A couple thousand people, three services on Sunday, the service was broadcast on TV, professional looking singers, Sunday School for every age, Bible Studies during the week, church sports league, etc. You could pretty much spend all of your time in a church sponsored activity and never have to interact with anyone outside the church. My family was very involved and for us children (being homeschooled too) we pretty much didn’t have contact with non-Christians (except for extended family because well, you’re supposed to be a witness to them anyway). I wouldn’t say I had friends at church – through various circumstances I was always different than the other kids, but after so many years at the church you do generally feel a part of things. At that time, my parents belief was that right doctrine was most important in church. At some point (around nine years old) I stopped going to Sunday School and sat in the main service and it didn’t matter if it was boring or if I truly understood it; I was being inundated with right doctrine and that was the important thing.
Then it came out that the pastor was having an affair. The church split, got a new pastor and our family left that church soon after. For my parents, right doctrine was still most important but they didn’t truly trust that church anymore.
Then came the wandering years. We tried most of the churches in the area, never stayed for more than a year or so. My parents were still looking for right doctrine/good preaching, but came home complaining every week about something in each church. Even finding a good preacher, they could complain about the music, the people, the atmosphere or whatever else disturbed them that week. During this time, I didn’t really interact with the kids at church my own age (it was mostly discouraged by my parents and when you don’t stay anywhere for long you don’t really have a chance to be a part of a community). I’d watch my parents at church – my dad sitting stoically listening and my mom with her sunglasses on and eyes closed and wonder what the point was. I was gaining knowledge I guess, but was that really making me closer to God?
Around 15, I was in college and was around outside influences for the first time. I made a Christian friend at college and started going to the college Bible Study they went to. Wow! My first experience with a college band and people closer to my thoughts. I was going without my parents too – except when my mom insisted on going to check it out; make sure the teaching is right and everything (yeah, 15 with your mom at a college bible study makes you feel really different than everyone else). They even started an alternative worship service (candles and everything) and I loved it. It felt holy, sacred and real…and I didn’t have my parents tearing it apart after each meeting. Of course, being that my parents were so isolated, very fundamentalist and somewhat not right anyway it started being a struggle to keep going. I’d get yelled at for going, told I wasn’t being a good Christian or a good daughter (all those “bad Christians” at the college group influencing me) and even pushed to distance myself from any friends I tried to make there. Finally, everything fell apart – not only the church who didn’t think the alternative service was a good idea anymore but my friends and family situation was too bad to continue.
Eventually I found a pre-emergent, post-modern church that I was going to on my own and by that time my parents were so convinced I was a heathen or something that they were happy I was still going to church – life was difficult with them, but I didn’t have any friends at church anyway, so they didn’t complain too much about the church situation. Obviously without friends or anything, I can’t say I was a part of a community at church, but for that church I felt like a member of the team. That was the important part – we were all a team together. Church worked because everyone had a part. It was a pretty big church with probably an 80% “ministry” population because hey, even if you don’t have much time, just spend a few minutes after church helping to stack chairs so this thing called church can work. At the time, I loved it. They had great music, I felt spiritual there and like it was a sacred space – even if I sat by myself. They didn’t preach the “normal” verse-by-verse that my parents thought was right, but it didn’t matter so much to me and I was a part of something.
When I started bringing my boyfriend/fiance, it started to fall apart a little bit. Once again I had someone with me who would leave the service picking apart all of the things they didn’t like (the people, the message, the song, whatever). When it became too complicated to have one of the pastors marry us (full time college, part time work, regular church, plus 2 or more times a week of “marriage preparation classes”) I agreed to leave and go to the church where the pastor we picked to marry us preached. Once again I was in the right doctrine type of church. Didn’t mean there weren’t things to pick apart, but somehow it wasn’t as holy to me – it was just more knowledge. Once the picking apart got bad enough, we just started staying home and studying on our own. With a good commentary at your fingertips, what’s the point of sitting somewhere you don’t like when you’re not a part of the community anyway.
After a big move, we tried some churches again and settled on a Calvary Chapel. Same thing for me once again. Right doctrine was most important and even serving in the children’s department didn’t leave me as part of the community. After having a child and finding that I could stay in a little room with screaming kids or sit in the hallway trying to listen (but have people constantly walk by telling me I should go to the nursery), it became an exercise in going out not even being able to sit in the service and hear what the pastor had to say. I wasn’t a part of the community and there was no feeling of holiness/sacredness, so it didn’t make sense to keep going.
Now it’s been two and a half years. I’ve looked into Emergent and said “yes, that’s exactly it”. I’ve looked into house churches and said “sounds great”. But there’s nothing like that near where I live right now and besides that, there’s still the question, what is the purpose of church? I know my husband would still be along the lines of right doctrine/knowledge, but why do I feel empty when I leave that sort of church? If the purpose is community, why haven’t I found that in all my years of searching? I think there’s something broken with me in that regard. Maybe a house church would work with something like that, but since there isn’t one here I don’t have much of an option. What about holiness/sacredness? On the one hand, I love the idea of that. But on the other (like when I read Frank Viola), shouldn’t that be a part of all of life? Does the idea of “worship” at church leave us with the feeling that music/singing is the only thing that worships God and that you have to do it in church, on Sunday (even if the music leaders suck)?
For a while, I even stopped listening to Christian music because I wasn’t sure: what if I don’t believe the doctrine that they’re singing? Is it now wrong to sing the song (especially if right doctrine is most important)? What if the spiritual/holy feeling I get from listening to music is just an illusion that I need to purge from myself in order to have a holy/sacred life instead of a once a week “fill-up”?
A few weeks ago I started listening again. I even turned on one of my old CDs while I was at home for a while. And do you know what I found? Music reaches me. Music for me makes me feel more fully human, more fully expressive. I think when you get down to it, that’s a part of my makeup. I liked the church and the places with passionate, talented music – not because I’m a snob and you shouldn’t be playing if you’re not any good, but because that’s how God reaches you sometimes. I think there must be other people like me who aren’t reached just by sitting and listening to a “good sermon”. Maybe the community stuff will happen at some point, but for now maybe I can let God pull me out of myself and reach me through the music. Not necessarily the words expressed, but even just the feeling and sacredness behind the music. Now, finding a church that believes that – especially in the small area I live in – probably not going to happen anytime soon. But maybe I can still find a certain sacredness in the music apart from that and while most people may not understand it (where’s the good doctrine or the community?) maybe it’s still ok. Maybe that’s what makes me me instead of someone else and maybe that’s a part of being true to myself and the person God made me instead of caving to what everyone else says is right and true. Maybe God truly does reach each of us in different ways and maybe this way is ok too.