There is a line in the song Amazing Grace that goes
’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
As I’m thinking about my relationship with church this line presents itself to me. It was church that taught my heart to fear. I’ve had a love/hate relationship with church since the time I can remember. I see four reasons for going to church- obligation/worship, education, service, and community.
Obligation: As the grandson of a preacher and the son of Pentecostal parents, church was never optional for me. From the time I was born until the time I left to go to college, unless I was dying (and often when I felt like I was), church was where I was going to every Sunday morning. Like any good sales presentation, church first convinced me I had a problem. That’s sales 101, create a need. I was born evil. I was a sinner, rebellious from God by virtue of the fact I had landed on this planet. The good news was all I had to do was to be sorry for being this way, and God would spare me the eternal torment I deserved. When I was the age of 7, my grandfather died suddenly in church I wondered how much church and God really were going to protect me. And I had a fundamental problem with this god who hated me so much just for being who he made me to be. I went along with the program, as much as I could I got baptized at the age of 13 to appease him. I studied my Bible. I went along to get along. Church was a place I went out of fear, not because of love. I needed church because that was the only place I could be “saved”. Once I was saved, God needed me to worship him. The idea that God needs worship comes from the days of antiquity where earthly monarchs had to have their egos stroked by having their subjects bow and scrape before them. This need was transferred to the image of a god on the throne. Gratitude flows naturally once one begins to comprehend the true nature of the divine and the nature of our relationship with the divine. God doesn’t want our forced praise. And, we don’t have to be in a particular building to express our gratitude. We can quietly sit and reflect in any moment anywhere and anytime and let it come naturally.
As soon as I got out of my parents’ house, I was done with church. The obligation was over. I didn’t go much for years. When I got married, Tywana had an image of a family that goes to church together. So, I started going to church with her, for her. This was church out of a sense of obligation- to Tywana.
Education: Another reason to go to church is to learn. For centuries the priestly class has convinced us they have exclusive access to the saving knowledge we need. The only place to learn was at church, through them. Some churches went so far as to tell their congregants, “Don’t read the Bible, leave that to the professionals. You just sit there and we’ll tell you what to think. I’m grateful for the education I got in church. The Bible still has a huge influence on our society and, frankly, in my life as well. A working knowledge of the Bible is helpful. However, in the information age, we live in opportunities to learn abound. We can pick and subject and read analysis from many different voices about what the Bible says. We can learn church history, so we know not only what the church is teaching today but where these beliefs came from and how they’ve evolved over time. Many in the clergy fear an educated congregation because the more you know about the history of the church and the Bible, the less likely you are to believe the fundamentalist teachings they are giving from the pulpit. I probably listen to an average of four spiritual podcasts a week from various traditions, and from no tradition. I can choose to listen to a pastor in Springfield, MO from a small non-denominational church or I can listen to a pastor from Phoenix, AZ in a Unity church, all without leaving my home or, better yet, while I’m out walking in nature. Church is no longer the only place where I can go to learn about spiritual things.
Service: That first church that Tywana and I attended after we got married was way too fundamentalist for me. I went for her. Over time, Our Sunday school teacher chose me to be the substitute teacher when he was out. This is when I realized that maybe I shouldn’t go to church so much for what it did for me, but what I could do there for others. I enjoyed educating (and I could sneak in some of my subversive thoughts when I was up front). When we moved to Cincinnati, I found a church I could get into because of their heart for service. They called it servant evangelism. We would go out and give away things like a Coke or even a car wash, not for “donations,” but to demonstrate unconditional love.
Community: Church should be a place of community. Back in the day you were born in and probably died in the same church. The other members were extended family. You watched each others’ kids grow up. You got together for dinner with your friends in the church. In the days of the megachurch, much of that has been lost. The last megachurch we attended, and I mean that in both senses of the word it’s the last one I will go to, was so into the production value, they didn’t turn the lights on for the entire service. It was like being in a movie theater. You’d come in in the dark, sing a few songs, watch the recorded video sermon, sing another song, and file out in the dark. If you wanted actually to meet people, you had to do something outside of the Sunday morning service. This was true at our former megachurch as well. There, Tywana and I did a lot of volunteer work, serving on the premarital team together, me working on the video production team, and me teaching their introductory course to their theology in the evenings. As we moved away from that church to the next church and the next church and as I got involved with blogging more, with Facebook, etc. church as a place of community lessened and lessened in importance.
My history with church: For about nine years, that service-oriented church we found when we moved to Cincinnati was OK for me, as long as I turned a blind eye to their conservative teachings that lurked underneath the veneer of their “seeker sensitive” front. A couple of times a year something would come up that would rub me the wrong way. It was after they taught Kayla, at the age of around 8 years old that she was totally depraved (to use a Calvinistic term), I was done. I would not allow her to be brought up with the self-hatred I was taught in church. The joy I had from leading and teaching at that church was gone. I wouldn’t continue to go and I certainly wouldn’t take the risk they would teach the girls self-hatred. A little yeast leavens the whole loaf, as Jesus said. It was time to go.
Right around this time, I heard of the United Church of Christ. This was the church I had always sought. No dogma. No original sin. No penal substitutionary atonement theory. They respected and even studied other spiritual paths and traditions. The church was tiny. It started with no more than twenty people. The founding pastor left because of the financial struggles. The pastor we brought in to replace him did his best. I was on the board of the church. I was deeply involved. I was serving. But, the stress of trying to keep a progressive church alive in conservative Cincinnati proved to be more of a challenge than I was willing to keep going with. After five years, I left there. The stress was too great. I wasn’t even on paid staff, and I felt responsible for trying to keep the lights on in the place. Tywana guided us to several more churches, none of which fit. We ended up back at another mega church. A big, glitzy, seeker sensitive place with lots of shiny happy people, but that same fundamentalist mindset lurking underneath. I tolerated that place until after Shayna passed at which time both Tywana and I realized we needed to stop going through the motions and either find a place that spoke to our souls or give up church altogether. She wasn’t ready to give up. So, we started going to Unity.
Ahh… here we were at Unity. If possible, Unity was an even better fit than the United Church of Christ. The church we were attending was well established, a couple of decades old. So, I didn’t have to deal with the financial pressures, and I wasn’t forced into a leadership role. I could sit back and be a congregant. I volunteer some, but nothing like I was doing before. After attending the megachurches, I thought that in a smaller church we’d be more plugged in, more of a part of a community. If we didn’t attend for a while, someone would notice. This was the church I had always dreamed of; like-minded people, small enough to get to know everyone, big enough to be financially stable.
Fast forward three years. We haven’t been attending regularly for several months now. While the church is small enough to get to know people we haven’t connected. My friend who attended the church for years before I did doesn’t come anymore. In three years I’ve made one friend there. One person contacted me about our lack of attendance. Demographics probably play a role. The church is mostly people our age or older (much older). It’s just about all white. It’s got to be 60-70% (or more) female. To be fair, we haven’t made much of an effort to connect. Tywana has way more than enough social interaction between her work, friends, neighbors, wine club, book club, and more. I have Facebook and Helping Parents Heal. I connect with spiritually similar people regularly through the week. Going to hear an “expert” give their opinion for 25 minutes on a Sunday morning doesn’t appeal to me. It’s not something I need in my life.
Church, for me, isn’t able to check off any of the four boxes anymore. Fear and obligation don’t have any hold on me as I know God doesn’t need my worship and isn’t keeping an attendance record. Educationally, I have podcasts (I’m listening to one as I type this). I have books. I get to hear some of the best speakers in the world through Helping Parents Heal. I interact with literally thousands of people to bounce ideas off of. I can download a book in a few seconds. For community, I have amazing friends and neighbors. During the scotch tasting at my friend’s house a couple of nights ago we got into a deeper spiritual discussion than I typically can have in church. Tywana and I have a group of neighbors we get together with most Friday or Saturday nights, sometimes both.
Tywana and I have been going to Unity of Garden Park for three years. I volunteer at the church. However, for me, for now, church doesn’t really serve much of a purpose. I had coffee with the pastor a couple of weeks ago and laid this out for her. I continue to volunteer for them. My life is so full right now I don’t have time for the Sunday morning routine.
’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
The fear that church put into me served a purpose at one time. That fear was the driving force that pushed me to find the Truth. People will run away from pain or towards pleasure or both. I was running from the pain. The fear stirred me to figure out just who I am and why I’m here. I learned a lot about the Bible which is still a significant book in my life and in our society. It gave me a basis from which to study real spiritual truths. In a sense, the fear it taught me, it also relieved by forcing me to seek the Truth that would set me free.