Welcome to Part 1 of “On (Not) Finding a Church.” In this series I explore the ways that culture, location/context, changes in theology, church-related trauma, childhood trauma, and more are impacting my desire and ability to find a church. I hope you enjoy this first installment and will follow along in the ensuing weeks.
I was a church lady for twenty-nine years.
But not like SNL’s Enid Strict. That is, unless you count all the times I said, “Could it be… SATAN?” for comedic effect. And it was quite a lot.
No, I was a church lady more in the sense that for nearly three decades, church was as vital a part of my existence as my job, my friends, the food I ate, the places I lived, and the clothes I wore. Yet here I am, two years churchless. It doesn’t have the same ring as “two years sober,” but it’s not supposed to.
This state of affairs isn’t due to any one thing but is the cumulative effect of many different factors. For example, there are the lingering repercussions of the pandemic. The massive shut-down and subsequent reordering of society brought into stark relief which relationships, activities, and endeavors were true and essential. Like many others, I was surprised by what made the cut and what didn’t. There are also the numerous jarringly bad experiences we’ve had with churches and their people. They were bad enough on their own, but those experiences ended up getting nested within a growing sense that the religious systems we had long been a part of seemed to fail consistently in the face of suffering, injustice, and even inconvenience. As we assess a decade-and-a-half of experience, it seems to us that such religious systems produce a lot of piety and surface-level niceness that pass for godliness, as well as cliquishness that passes for “Christian fellowship,” but they don’t necessarily form very Christlike people or communities.
Add to that stew the way that urban sprawl in large metropolitan areas like the ones we’ve lived in for the past 16 years promotes disintegration of local communities. For poor families and individuals, aggressive development leads first to local disenfranchisement and isolation, followed ultimately by displacement when their historic neighborhoods become both unrecognizable and unaffordable. For middle- and upper-middle-class families, the seemingly endless creation of choices for work, sport, school, church, and recreation all across the metroplex normalizes a commuter-everything lifestyle. That, in turn, cultivates an activity-based versus a geography-based socialization.
When we moved to Dallas, we purposefully chose to get involved with a church we could walk to, but this choice didn’t result in a more “local church” experience as we had hoped. The congregation was made up of people from all over the city, and even a number of the ministerial staff lived fifteen miles away. When we finally joined a geographically based community group within the church, we found that people were very nice but generally overcommitted and exhausted. They were happy to show up to the scheduled meetings, but they didn’t have much energy for deepening relationships outside of those meetings. For instance, it took multiple attempts over six months (scheduling, canceling, rescheduling, canceling, rescheduling) before I successfully met for lunch with one of the women. SIX MONTHS. And multiple attempts to invite families over to our house were met with responses like, “Raincheck. We’re too tired from X and have decided to rest today” or “We have this other activity that day.” After a while, the unreciprocated effort felt pointless and draining. In hindsight, it totally makes sense that no one in the group wanted to help muck out the flooded house of people they didn’t know, at the request of someone they were friendly with but barely knew, even though they lived nearby.
These factors and more contributed to a single moment two years ago when we walked away from a particular church. But it was never our intention to leave the church. It still isn’t. It’s just that sometimes you go paragliding in Seoul, Korea and get blown off course by a tornado that causes you to land on the North Korean side of the DMZ (See Crash Landing On You on Netflix).
Kidding aside, it’s not a bad metaphor. A part of me has felt like I crash landed in foreign territory. The familiar landmarks are gone, I’m totally disoriented, and I have no idea how to make my way back home. Only it’s worse than that because the very place I once considered home is what seems foreign now.
My “crash landing” happened when slowly and then all at once, a great swath of the 501c3 organizations that I once considered Christ-centered churches started to seem rather anti-Christ, despite all their activities around proclaiming Christ. Maybe this perception will soften at some point—I honestly hope it does—but it has persisted for two years now. It makes me feel like dropping to my knees on a beach and screaming bloody murder at people who will never hear me (it’s more tragic this way)—the way George Taylor did at the end of the original Planet of the Apes movie.
I wondered for a while if I was just delirious from my wounds, but then I came across these words that pastor Eugene Peterson wrote to his son, Eric:
…when I look around me and see the societal image of the church, it seems to me to be actually demonic—a parody of the gospel, and a venue for vanity, and an enormous amount of silliness. An anti-Christ church… Somehow, my feeling is that the public church is mostly illusion, sleight-of-hand work at the behest of the devil and his angels, a huge distraction to the unconnected, bored, consumerist population (Peterson, 2020, p. 146).
I felt validated.
But to do Peterson and this whole discussion justice, I should point out that in the very same letter, he also expressed confidence about there being enough people doing the work of the gospel in hidden places, day in and day out, “that the church is in no danger of falling apart” (Peterson, 2020, p. 147). He cautioned against holding elitist ideas of the church, insisting that “the normative Christian gathering into a community of the Holy Spirit” was defined not by spiritual rigor, keen motivation, or radical sacrifice but a “wheat and tares” reality created through baptism into one faith. He understood the Christian congregation to be a mixture of the radical, sacrificial, contemplative, wounded, disabled, untransformed, and low-achieving (Peterson, 2020, p. 92-93).
When I stop and consider that part, my disoriented, kneeling-on-the-beach-yelling-at-people-who-will-never-hear-me self hears an invitation. It’s barely discernible over the noise of the surf and the sound my own voice, but it’s there. I can show you how to hold all these things in tension.
Putting my very big, very deep emotions about church in their proper place
I’ve been re-reading Peterson’s book, Answering God: The Psalms As Tools for Prayer.It reminds me—and I need to be reminded frequently because I tend to drift back into old habits—that without the Psalms, I could easily pray myself into either a pity party of epic proportions or “a conniving, calculating egotism” (Peterson, 1989, p18). But with and through them, God draws me into a vast reality based in Himself and the cosmic community He has gathered. That enables me to express my emotions honestly without falling into the egomaniacal trap of unbroken self-gaze.
We lose nothing of our emotions except their tyranny. The gamut of emotions experienced in our human condition is given full expression in the Psalms. We pray through each psalm and hit every note, sound every tone of feeling that we are capable of and learn to be at home with all of them before God. But the feelings do not have the first and controlling word. God does. The feelings are incorporated in the prayers, not the prayers in the feelings. (Peterson, 1989, p.87)…
We would prefer to stand tall and alone in our prayers. But our stature and individuality are never the most important thing in prayers: God is; our neighbors are there. We live before God, in community. Liturgical prayer, by means of tunes and instruments, trains us in this mature awareness and participation, and at the same time protects us from the subjective and the sentimental. (Peterson, 1989, p. 89)…
How can I enter into and develop the singular love that God has for us all?… As I continue to pray the Psalms seriatim, i.e., in a series, which is the oldest practice of the praying community, I will pray all the experiences of the community both local and worldwide—the African community, the Russian community, the Guatemalan community. I am steadily and surely integrated into the community of the oppressed and blessed. I am pulled out of prayer that is self-oriented and self-indulgent. I am given adequate means for intercession and celebration, neither of which is a private act. (Peterson, 1989, p.90)
The last part of the above excerpt makes me think of Colossians 1:17-20, “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And He is the head of the body, the church… in him all the fullness God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.”
There was a time I thought rather abstractly about this passage; but now it strikes me as incredibly earthy and tangible. The Lord Jesus somehow holds together and reconciles the myriad stories of humanity—stories of neglect, loneliness, and disappointment alongside stories of exceptional care, fellowship, and restoration; stories of the powerful and stories of the powerless; stories of people who are enemies to one another but all of whom Christ has reconciled to himself. In Christ, these stories do not diminish or invalidate one another but somehow come together. There is profound mystery here. This milieu of clashing stories held together by one who “upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Hebrews 1:3) seems like the right place to park my very big, very deep emotions about church and the enemies I’ve either made or found within churches.
In Part 2, I’ll be talking about the fight I had with Dietrich Bonhoeffer and why visiting churches is like going on a series of bad blind dates.
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In the interest of full disclosure, Peter and I have attended seven worship services at five different churches during this time. But you know, that provides about as much affiliation as going through a Starbucks drive-through line.
Peterson E.E., Peterson E.H. (2020). Letters to a Young Pastor: Timothy Conversations Between Father and Son. Colorado Springs: NavPress.
Peterson E.H. (1991). Answering God: The Psalms As Tools For Prayer. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco. (Original work published in 1989).
I so very much feel this. I have only attended 2 churches as an adult (I turn 50 next week). I am a spiritual director. I used to work for a local denominational office. I am ordained. Much of my family are pastors. And I haven't been in Sunday morning church service in 3 years. I don't want to leave church, but I am having a hard time finding a place where I can actually be. I am committed to try because of my kids. But I am also reluctant to get into the wrong place because of my kids.
I don't feel particularly far from God. I think my spiritual life is relatively healthy. But I feel far from church community because I just don't really trust that the church communities around me. I have friends that are pastors that I love and trust. But I want to be in a community that isn't 40 minutes away.
Me too. Me too.