Please forgive the length of this post. It's much longer than I think a blog post ought to be, but it took this many words — and probably more — to express my heart on this issue. I hope you'll take the time to read it anyway.
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I was raised going to Sunday School. My parents didn’t attend church, but they would send us to Sunday School at the Baptist church nearest to wherever we lived, and usually they would come to the Sunday School Christmas program if we were taking part. I accepted Christ “officially” at a youth group meeting when I was a sophomore in high school, and after that I was active in church. Mike and I met in a Christian singing group when we were in high school –I was one of the singers, while he played bass. From the earliest days of our relationship we dreamed of serving God together through music. We left college to move across the country and help start a church in Michigan. Mike traveled the world in a Christian singer's band. Together we served the various churches we attended by being part of the worship team and volunteering in various other ways. Eventually he went on staff as worship pastor, a job he loved with a passion. I was part of the worship team, and from time to time taught adult Sunday School classes. Our five children were raised in church – almost literally. For years we were in the building every time it was open (and many times when it wasn't). Our life, and our family, were built around serving God through serving his Church.
With that background, I suppose it's a little odd that I've only been to church services maybe three times in the last five years or so. And each of those times I attended only to watch Mike play, except for the Christmas Eve service we decided to attend one Christmas at a church where we knew no one. After years – decades – of active participation in church life and leadership, one day I just stopped going. In response to a crisis of emotions and faith, I literally called my husband from the car one day and said, “I’m done. I won’t go back, ever again.” And that was it.
Have I backslidden? Maybe. It depends on your definition. I’m not a criminal. I don't drink much (just the occasional beer or glass of wine). I don't swear (well, maybe very, very rarely). I still believe in God. I’m not doing anything any worse than the things I did when I still was attending church regularly.
But I cannot bear to go to church. Every time I think of going – either out of guilt for not going or because Mike and I get a little lonely after all those years of having a built-in circle of friends – I find my heart starting to pound and my palms sweating. I feel mortally afraid of trying to re-engage in the struggle to understand the Bible’s teachings and craft them into a workable way of life.
For years before the crisis that put an abrupt end to my churchgoing, I had struggled with . . . what? My faith? Not so much my faith in God, but perhaps my faith in church and in church people. And certainly my faith in my ability to live a Christian life.
I have struggled for years to live up to what I believe the Bible teaches a Christian should be. I have studied the Bible. I have prayed (although not as regularly or as passionately as I thought a good Christian should want to). I’ve invested hundreds, maybe thousands, of dollars in books expounding on the Bible’s teachings about how to live life Christianly. I tried to understand what God expected of his disciples and I tried, really I did, to live up to those expectations. But I struggled continuously over the years with my inability to make my everyday life match up with even the things I said – and fully believed – when I was up on that Sunday morning platform, leading the faithful in worship. How could I love God so much and yet be so frustrated with his people? How could I love God if prayer put me to sleep? How could I love God and yet yell at my kids or argue with my husband? How could I love God and yet think such bad thoughts? I tried – Lord, you know I did – to let the Holy Spirit indwell me and make me into the person I should be, the person I truly, deeply wanted to be. But I knew, deep, deep in my soul, how badly I failed, time and again.
So finally, one day, I gave up. I just couldn’t bear another Sunday morning of feeling like a fraud when people thanked me for leading them “into God’s presence” during worship. I was worn out from the trying, discouraged beyond words by my repeated and continual failure to be the kind of person I believed God wanted me to be.
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Now, I know that we do not earn God’s favor by our works. I understand that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross paid 100% of the price for my sins. Believe me, I understand the doctrine. I’ve read those passages in the Bible over and over. But I also believe that a person who’s truly been indwelt by the Holy Spirit, sanctified by God’s presence, should change. The presence of God in a person should, over time, little by little, change that person and make her more like Christ. And I just never could figure out how to let that happen. I remained, after years of searching and seeking and serving and trying, the same unlovely, selfish, judgmental, sarcastic person I had always been. And it pained me to no end. I grew tired of feeling bad all the time. I could not, cannot, live with the disparity between who I should be and who I am.
So I quit trying. And I quit going to the place, and being around the people, that repeatedly stirred up those feelings of inadequacy, guilt, and sorrow in me.
I started this blog post two years ago, and never finished because I still was struggling with how to articulate my reasons for not going to church. After two more years of thinking about it, here’s my best effort at the answer to my question: I don’t go to church because of the teaching and because of the people.
The teaching in every pulpit I’ve ever experienced is based on the doctrine of the church it stood in. Every church I’ve attended has a set of pet beliefs that are sacred to it. The Baptist churches focus on water baptism as the proof of faith, and many of them condemn speaking in tongues as a relic of the past. The Assembly of God churches tout speaking in tongues as virtually the sole evidence of the Spirit’s indwelling. Other churches have other critical doctrines. Churches spend so much time and energy on those doctrines and constructs of man, and they can’t agree on many of them.
But even getting past those manmade doctrinal differences, the real issue is that the teaching from the pulpit of what a “good” Christian should be simply wears me out. I can’t be those things. I can’t do it in my own strength, and I don’t know how to let God do it in me. So every time I listened to a sermon, I would walk away feeling bad for my failure to meet the standards.
Even more than the official teaching, though, I stay away from church because of the people. That sounds terrible, but let me clarify. There are many wonderful people in church. I still have dear friends who remain actively involved in their churches. But I cannot tolerate the way church people talk. There are too many who say things that – unintentionally, I know – just make me feel WORSE. They talk about the intimacy they feel with God when they pray. And I just don’t. Never did. They talk about the joy of the Lord that they feel. And I just don’t. They talk of surrendering their will and how happy they are to just submit to God. And I just don’t.
Each of these people leads me to one inescapable conclusion: Either they really are experiencing all of these things that I’m incapable of experiencing, or they are lying. Either way, I just can’t take it.
When we first moved back to Texas, Mike was asked to help out at a local church by periodically playing keyboards with the worship band. During that time, we were invited to be part of a small group of the worship musicians who would meet periodically for “fellowship” (what does that mean, really? In church lingo it really just means food) and discussion of a certain book by a Christian author. With some reluctance, I agreed to go. (Reluctance that had nothing to do with the people involved; I liked them just fine.) At the first discussion session, we were talking about one of the study guide questions, which went something along the lines of “What would be your ideal life?” or something like that. One of the women said – I kid you not – “I wouldn’t want my life to be ideal, because then I might not feel like I had to rely on God.”
Seriously? Who says things like that? Nobody really believes that. Every one of us wants our ideal life, whatever “ideal” means to us. Every one of us – even those who have no desire to be wealthy – wants to have enough money to take care of our family’s needs and desires. We all want to be healthy and for our family to be healthy. We all work, all of the time, to create our own version of the ideal life. To say otherwise is to be dishonest – at least with ourselves if not with others.
But that’s the kind of thing that Christians say all the time, often without really thinking. We sing, with deep emotion, “Lord, you’re all I want.” But it’s not true. Most of us want lots of other things. We want food, money, other people’s approval, prestige, love, children, a new car, whatever. It’s different for each of us, but every one of us – well, nearly every one of us – wants something else besides God’s presence, and if our behavior (e.g., use of our time and resources) is any indication, we want that something else more than we want God’s presence. And I just have such a hard time living with that . . . lie that we tell ourselves and each other. We could, most of us, honestly say, “Lord, you’re all I want to want.” That would be true. For many of us, our heart’s cry is to want him more than anything else. But that’s not what we sing. It doesn’t make as lovely a thought in a song on Sunday morning.
I know a few people – a very few – whom I believe truly feel the way most Christians say they do. A few people whose lives bear witness to the relationship with God they say they’ve found. I admire and even envy those people. My friend Vicki is one of them. Our former pastor, Joe, is another. And the funny thing is, they would be the first to admit their own flaws, while the rest of us see God’s handprint in their character.
Most of us, though, are just bumbling along, living our day-to-day lives virtually unchanged by the faith we profess, reflecting holiness only for that hour or two that we spend in church. And that inability to take our Sunday morning holiness into our Monday morning world is inconsistent with what I understand the Bible to say should be the reality of the Christian life.
I’m sure I am wrong in my analysis, and any number of people would try to set me straight if they read this. They probably would be right. And that, in the end, is why I don’t go to church.
Your comments are invited and welcome. Honesty is appreciated, but so is kindness.