Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Church: To Go Or Not To Go?

"My name is Latebloomer, and it has been three years since I have been to church."

At first it was uncomfortable to quit doing something that was an ingrained lifelong habit; however, as some point, the weekly discomfort of attending church significantly surpassed the temporary discomfort of quitting.  I just don't belong at church right now.  I may never belong there again.

Church is not a place where I can learn.  In fact, I can't remember the last time I learned something new at church.  After all, I was raised in church; I've heard and read all the stories hundreds of times, from innumerable perspectives, with every possible church-approved application.  Really, only so much can be said when a pastor is limited to speaking devotionally out of one ancient book, especially when the pastor is also socially obligated to keep the Bible safe and dependable in order to protect the favorite beliefs of the church members.

The things that I now want to learn about the historical Bible, the context in which different parts were written, and the intended meaning of many controversial passages?   I will never learn about those things in church.  The ways that different verses have been interpreted, re-interpreted, or misinterpreted based on the culture of the people who were reading it?  I will never learn about those ideas in church.  The challenges of translating the Bible into different languages and trying to keep the intended meaning rather than the exact wording?  I will never learn about that in church.

Church is not a place where I can experience genuine emotion.  A church service is structured to be a series of communal emotions, triggered mostly through musical cues.  The repetition, the chord progressions, the rhythm, the synchronized clapping/movement, the key changes--they are all designed to bring up specific emotions or attitudes such as joy, humility, confidence, and resolve.  People say that they experienced God during the church service if they experienced a particularly strong emotion at the "appropriate" time.  What they don't realize is that a lot of work went into creating the right conditions for that emotion.  The number of hands raised in worship directly correlates to order of songs, the skill of the musicians, and the skill of the sound mixers in the back that day.  It seems strange that God needs so much help in emotionally connecting with people.

For me as an introvert, I actively resist feeling or displaying emotions on cue.  I used to try.  I sat in the dark corner in the back or church and closed my eyes to shut everyone else out.  Nothing.  I even tried the "fake it till you make it" approach.  Nothing.  Nothing except guilt over being emotionally out of sync and apparently less spiritually attuned than everyone else.

Church is not a place where I can experience genuine connection with others.  There's something about walking through the doors of a church that subconsciously triggers most people to play a role, the role of "Christian in church."  There are certain topics that are avoided, certain attitudes that are buried instead of acknowledged, certain spiritualized vocabulary that is preferred, certain styles of clothing that are preferred, and social pressure to act loving even while silently judging people.  There is even an art to sharing prayer requests, praying out loud, and praying silently, and there are socially unacceptable ways of doing all of these.  It's hard to see the game when you're still in the middle of it, but it exists and it certainly makes real human connection very difficult to achieve.

Churches are often aware of this problem, and desperately want people to feel connected, but their approach is often just to increase the appearance of connection.  A prime example of this is the tradition of interrupting the church service with 30 seconds of greeting as many people as possible.  In my experience, the "meet and greet" tradition is really more like "meet and greet, awkwardly forget all the names, and then never speak again."  I'm sure it works nicely to stop a visitor from saying later, "I went to that church, and no one even spoke to me," but it doesn't do much more than that because it misses the heart of the issue: the desire for inclusion, acceptance, and real relationships.

In my experience, church "connections" do not progress to friendship outside of church, and in my opinion, the main reason for this is the lack of authenticity in the church social scene.  Believe me, I have tried really hard to belong in the various churches I've attended regularly, and that effort has required a lot of vulnerability from me as an introvert while providing no benefit.  I have spent countless hours attending church services, participating in small group Bible studies, volunteering for church-based ministries, and going to occasional church retreats.  Is it just bad luck that in my life today, I do not have a single meaningful relationship that was formed in a church setting?

The worst example of my apparent social failure also happens to be my most recent experience with church.  Shortly after my husband and I got married, we started attending a weekly home Bible study of about 12 people.  For 18 months, we rarely missed a day, we participated in the discussion, we shared prayer requests (sometimes tearfully), and we made an effort to remember other people's requests and help them when possible.  Then, for just one month, we couldn't attend because we were in the middle of buying a home, packing, and moving 15 minutes away.   It was slightly disappointing when no one offered to help us move; however, we were both shocked and hurt when not even one person from the Bible study group bothered to rsvp for our open-house party two weeks later, and no one ever contacted us again.

Experiences like that can really damage a person, especially a socially-insecure and introverted person with a lot of church baggage, like me.  I would certainly believe that something was seriously wrong with me if it weren't for the meaningful friendships I was able to form with non-Christians at the same time that I was failing with the Christians.  And those non-Christian friends have been incredibly generous, patient, kind, supportive, and fun, and they are still an important part of my life today.

Eventually, I realized the insanity of doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.  Why was I wasting one of my precious weekend days every week?  I spent my Sunday mornings in church, learning nothing, feeling all the wrong feelings, meeting no one.  My head was groggy; my back ached; then I came home to spend my Sunday afternoons depressed and far away from God.

After almost a year without church, I got pregnant.  My husband and I briefly considered giving church yet another chance in our lives, for the sake of our future child.  After all, I thought, "Who will bring casseroles when I have a baby?  Isn't that a part of church culture that I want to keep in my life?  I've delivered the meals; now it's my turn to receive them."  We even tried a few churches, but we just couldn't force ourselves to play that game again.

When our little baby was born, our non-Christian friends celebrated with us and helped us with meals.

I used to feel sad at the thought of my child growing up without a good church community, the kind I always wanted to have.  Now, I have trouble with the thought of sending my sweet little boy into Sunday school to learn about truly horrible things that are not appropriate for children.  I don't want him to think about human sacrifice, torture, murder, genocide, and God's anger, not even in simplified kid terms.  Even the subtle church-culture messages worry me now: I don't want him to get used to the lack of economic, ethnic, and lifestyle diversity; I don't want him to grow up with the idea that Christianity is only done "right" by middle-class white heterosexual Republican families.

I would love to hear from others who have come out of fundamentalism and are raising children with or without God; how are you handling church and religion with your kids? 


  1. Your experience was basically identical to mine -- being introverted, feeling the falseness of emotional/social displays during worship, the watered-down sermons that never challenged or educated (almost all my learning of scripture was from a free-form bible study I did with three people at home).

    I'm in the same place as you really, in that church for me has no value either spiritually or socially. Sad, but I'd rather not just go through the motions for no reason but to satisfy those who'd judge me for 'forsaking the gathering of the saints'.

  2. I couldn't understand where you're coming from more! I hate the manufactured emotions, the lack of connection, etc. Not to mention that having come from a very academic fundamentalist background where theological books literally lined the walls, intellectually I can discuss the finer points of almost any doctrine and church history with anyone, meaning I don't "learn" anything when I go either. And reading your post I really realize just how lucky I am with the church that me and husband attend. We're not the most diligent of church goers as we're both in the healthcare world with bizarre and random schedules, but we try. The truly interesting aspect to me after reading your post is that a big reason we go and plan on staying there is for all their youth ministry stuff. The entire church's focus, and especially in their kid/youth programs, is ministry/love/service emphasis. Particularly coming from a judgmental fundamentalist background, I can only sit back most days that we go and wish with all my being that I'd learned to love and know what love was like that is clearly evident from the pastoral staff to the congregation, the teens in the youth groups to each other, and the general atmosphere of the place. Not to mention that diversity (ethnic and socio-economical) is something they actually actively pursue as well. We just had our first baby, and while I wouldn't step a toe into the vast majority of the churches in our area for all the reasons you mentioned (and more), even if I don't always get something out the sermon for myself, it's the sort of Christian environment I want my daughter to experience.

    On a personal note, I gave up expecting any sort of true friendship to arise from any manufactured church "connection", even where we currently go. I think most of the people who are friends in any group, are and were friends outside of that activity/group first and didn't forge their relationship within that setting. As cynical as it might sound, I found that if I go church and church functions purely for spiritual benefit and don't expect any social outcome, I don't come away feeling bitter. I learned my lesson the hard way on that one and although I've been able to set aside a lot of those expectations, I still carry around an intrinsic, cynical non-expectation towards others. Any church service, any small group I go to, I go to for me, as selfish as that sounds. If I somehow in the process can be a means to help someone else in a spiritual/emotional/non-tangible sense, great! But I don't necessarily expect anything back, and certainly none of those tangible things (like the casseroles or moving).

    I know I've rambled somewhat, but I think you kind of said it yourself - the good church community you always wanted to have. Because you know what, even if you went to one of the churches in your area, if it's not that experience you've wished for, and if they all fall into that conservative non-diverse judgmental mold, your little boy is far better off with you teaching him how to love and care and have compassion and how God loves him instead simply standing there waiting to punish sinners. I fully recognize just how extremely fortunate we are to have the church that we do, and I would so rather stay home on Sundays and teach our daughter what the compassion of Jesus is actually about and how to show it to the people in her life rather than her having exposed to and overcome the sadly typical "Christian" perspective you describe in your last paragraph.

    1. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts; it definitely sounds like you've found a great place to let your child learn about Christianity as he/she grows up!

      I really liked your explanation of your mental process, especially the phrase "intrinsic, cynical non-expectation towards others". For me, I start out feeling cynical like that, and then each week of failed connections builds on the previous ones, until I just can't deal with that group of people any more because it makes me way too depressed. But to be fair, I think that I'm more sensitive than average to feelings of rejection, probably due to my past social difficulties from being homeschooled (which I wrote about here: http://pasttensepresentprogressive.blogspot.com/2012/03/homeschooled-girls-and-trash-cans.html). Maybe one day I'll be better able to manage my feelings about the situation, and that might be a good time to try to find a church that is focused on non-judgmental love and serving, like yours.

      I really appreciate your comment...thanks for sharing!

  3. I had so many thoughts and feelings as I read this . . . for myself, I have journeyed to a place where I feel I can express my spirituality in a liberal liturgical church community that offers meaning to me and my family on many different levels. While there is no question what the church's official creed is, there is an openness and acceptance of other beliefs that is nurturing, not challenging. Sometimes the younger families will get "Baptist envy" and want our church to do the cool, hip, enticing activities that the dominant Bible belt churches offer to "bring souls to Christ" or whatever. Frank Schaefer had a blog with a similar theme. I'm usually the voice of dissent in that conversation. I no longer want church to be primarily social and fun. It is contemplative and spiritual, in my opinion. Children, I believe, have an innate openness to the spiritual and I want that to be fostered, not drowned out by fun and games and strong dogma. I love the models of belief where the searcher has to seek out the way--there will be mentors, but only for those who ask.

    I would probably be Unitarian but for me the symbolism of the Episcopal church I attend has powerful meaning and I don't see it as exclusive. When I make it to church, I'm almost always able to enter into a centering, contemplative experience, even if I'm just sitting in the church library browsing books while my daughter is in the sacred space they've created for children. I also feel the group experience offers something valuable, even though it has the potential to cause harm as well. (I should say that our church also has many outreach type endeavors in the community.)

    So for me, church is still meaningful and I view it as important for my children. On the other hand, I completely see your point of view. I just had the generic Bible-belt experience, but with plenty of exposure to other ideas. I know how much I've struggled with that alone, so I can only imagine what a more extreme childhood would have done to me.

  4. There are a lot of things that I could say, but really, for me, the issue is that I would go to a church that was based on what Jesus taught. All the churches I know of? Not so concerned with what Jesus taught. Jesus was all into inclusion and serving people on the fringes of society. He celebrated and appreciated differences in people and was not into gossip or rules made up for the sake of having rules. No one can show me where Jesus said being gay is bad and/or dangerous or that we should only really love people who believe the exact same thing we do. It seems to me that there is a lot of understanding about the whole Jesus set us free from the old testament rules things and Jesus was all about loving each other and kindness. I don't see much kindness in organized religion. This is a problem.

    Love your neighbor as yourself is pretty much the only sermon topic ever needed. Because a lot of people don't love themselves, and view loving themselves as selfish. And a lot of people don't love their neighbors. My theory is that we loved ourselves more, we behave more kindly toward other people because we aren't measuring our own worth by what we see (or don't see) in them.

  5. I know that this is exactly your complaint, but what the heck were they saying at your churches? If they aren't talking about the cultural context, meanings we've lost or translation issues, what does that leave to say about the Bible passages they're (presumably) reading?

    1. There are a lot of churches out there where the people and the pastors believe that all you need is God and a Bible, and no other "human" resources. I have experience in a lot of other churches too though, including churches that had more of a "scholarly" bent. Those churches would discuss cultural context and translation issues in a very minimal and "safe" way, but not enough information to be interesting to someone who grew up reading about such things. I'm sure many of the pastors know far more than they ever share in church, but there seems to be an unspoken rule that some topics are not ok in church because they will cause too much doubt. Things like translation difficulties, tampering with historical manuscripts, manuscript differences, lack of a clear application outside of the target culture, etc., are all potential sources of doubt, and a pastor's job seems to be to increase faith, not educate.

      As an ironic side note, in my experience, pastors who are the biggest topic/question avoiders are often the loudest proclaimers of their edginess and willingness to tell the "hard" truths of Christianity.

  6. "Church is not a place where I can experience genuine emotion."
    While I'm a hardcore atheist and materialist (7 on the scale of Dawkins) my female counterpart is a muslima and used to be board member of her mosque. So I join her at Id-ul-Fitr every year.
    One time I was deeply moved, when the minister told how Islam demanded from its followers to set a good example, to be tolerant and to be constructive when building a society that offers a meaningful place for everybody.