This essay cross-posted from Jesus Needs New PR
“The greatest lie believed today,” my friend, and my pastor at the time, Tom, told those gathered that morning, quoting Larry Crabb, “is that one can know God without being known by someone else.” This statement, even if one chalks it up to hyperbole, is one way of getting at a truth we all instinctively know: we can’t do life alone. Whether one is speaking of life in general or of what we sometimes call the religious parts of life, as if there were a clear dividing line, we were not meant to be solitary creatures. In an attempt to explore reasons for spending time with fellow believers in a deliberate, structured context, Dr. Harold Best, in Unceasing Worship, writes:
Christ in us demands that each of us seek out who the rest of us are. It means realizing that we actually have each other, that we are already at one with each other, greeting each other, blessing each other, settling on acceptable ways to express ourselves to God’s glory. Then we craft these into a liturgy, knowing that it is at best a passing reference to the one who abides from the eternities and lights our path wherever we walk. If we were to concentrate more on the sheer joy of getting together on a Sunday – people made holy, people yet to be made holy and people not sure of the difference, all banded together around the Lord – we would then more fully understand the depth and width of “the communion of the saints” in the Apostles’ Creed.
It should be evident, then, that I think an in-depth discussion of church and the reasons we go or don’t go needs to include some consideration of the larger question of the reasons for church gatherings and what is gained or lost through making a priority of larger gatherings of a body of believers, and including a discussion of the church visible vs. the church invisible, but, for various reasons, I’ll leave more of that discussion for another time.
One question that has been asked of me by friends and family over the last six months or so is this: if the way certain words are used at the church I was involved with bother me to such a degree that I find regular attendance impossible, why do I not find another church to attend? The answer is community.
I occasionally visit another church near my house, an Anglican church where a friend of mine is a priest, and there is much in the liturgical nature of their services that I find restorative and life-giving. There is a lot of truth in the statement that we see the shortcomings of the traditions we were raised in better than those that are new to us, which is one way of explaining why people change denominations. Like many before me, who, after being raised in a strict, fundamentalist tradition, found a home in a tradition they had been told was dead and lifeless – the stated purpose of my great grandfather’s newspaper was to oppose “Modernism, Worldliness and Formalism” – I suspect that one day I’ll end up in a church community grounded in history, with worship services built around an ancient liturgy. But because certain factors mean that I am unable, or unwilling, to make that transition today, partly because I love, and am deeply grateful for, in ways that I find hard to express, the community I live life with each day, a community brought together by the church I was attending (and including members of the staff there), and partly because I don’t have the energy or desire to invest in a whole new set of relationships, I am left without a place to call home.
I’ve written before on Matthew’s blog about the degree to which our past experiences shape what we hear and how certain ideas and phrases affect us in ways foreign to our neighbor, quoting Peter Rollins on how he gave friends, who were attending the same church, different council about their involvement there – telling one to leave and one to stay – because they way they interacted with the teachings of that community depended so heavily on what they brought to it.
Rollins’ story is helpful for explaining why one reason I have encouraged friends to stay in the church that I left – a church that has many reasons to recommend it, not least the community it fosters and the content of much of the teaching (previously quoted examples excluded) – and also why I don’t attend there any more. To put it another way: when I hear that a new foreign film is coming to my local indie theatre and I suspect that I will be alone out of my friends in liking it, I will see it by myself, knowing that the way my friends respond, be it with boredom, indifference, or even actively disliking it, will affect my enjoyment of it. In the same way, when I stand next to my friends on Sunday morning, and my body language, sometimes intentional, sometimes not, betrays my frustration with the language and messages coming from the front of the room, it affects how they experience the service. With the likelihood being that the things that bother me are not even on their radar, and maybe shouldn’t be.
While acknowledging the importance of doubting and asking questions in community, as David Dark explores so eloquently in his book The Sacredness of Questioning Everything, there is another aspect that Marilynne Robinson gets at in her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Gilead, where the elderly Reverend Ames, writing to his son about not trying to find proofs for faith, says: “I’m not saying never doubt or question. The Lord gave you a mind so that you would make honest use of it. I’m saying you must be sure that the doubts and questions are your own, not, so to speak, the mustache and walking stick that happen to be the fashion of any particular moment.” When I start to think that everyone needs to have the same “mustache and walking stick,” questions influenced by my own personal experience rather than being the fashion of a moment, when everything else is drowned out in their noise, it reaches a point where it is not helpful to those around me. That is when I stepped away.
Part four coming next week