Why I Stopped Going to Church, part 3

Read part one here, part two here and part two point five here.

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

6 thoughts on “Why I Stopped Going to Church, part 3”

  1. I enjoyed this one as well. I read it a few times, and I think I understand what you are trying to say. Feeling “not at home” yet not able to let go of the relationships you’ve made (or at least just not ready yet) is a hard place to be in.

    My journey had similar steps along the way. I hope some it has some common denominators to your current place and is of use to you.

    My wanderings through three ancient branches of the Church left me feeling homeless as well. I had come to a much better understanding of what Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy was like. Not all the stereotypes fit. But I’m sure, sadly, the shoe does fit in many other categories. I’ve heard terrible stories of what the Roman Catholics have done in Latin America and what the Eastern Orthodox have done in Eastern Europe. But for whatever reason I found American Catholicism and Orthodoxy far less hampered by things I had always heard it accused of. I’m not sure if it’s the influence of Evangelicals and Protestants, or if it’s the fact that neither of the churches in America has had the centuries of prominent influence and power and intertwining with the government as they have had in other lands at other times. But at the end of the day, I just couldn’t swallow certain pieces of either church. I had developed a much deeper appreciation and respect for them, but I couldn’t cross that line.

    So I was left with Anglicanism as the only real option that satisfied my deep longing for tradition, liturgy and a sense of connection to the early church. But all the time I was still attending most Sundays, a member of, and active participant in many other ministries at my Reformed Presbyterian church. The Anglican church I had visited and few times and had lunch with the rector was located, ironically, all the way up in Woodstock just a few miles from my parents Southern Baptist church. I knew trying to involve myself in a church purely on the sake of worship preference that was miles and miles away would be shallow and foolish. One of the contributing factors for me to leave my parents Baptist church was its distance from my current home in downtown Atlanta, and one of the contributing factors toward choosing my Presbyterian church was its proximity.

    Then I encountered what I believe you were hitting on, the pain of cutting all those cords. The leaving of my parent’s church was a very bloody experience for me emotionally. It embodied so many good memories, but so many painful ones as well. I had grown to adore it in my teenage years then came to despise it a few years after returning from Argentina. I left so many friends and everything that was familiar. I had started over and rebuilding a whole new network of friends and life in college at Georgia Tech and there after. The thought of cutting all that again was too much for me.

    I heard that there was a Vineyard church just a few miles from my apartment that wasn’t officially Anglican, but followed the Anglican liturgy and the Book of Common Prayer. I checked out a few things on their website and had heard from friends a lot of good things about the church. But again the pain of starting over, losing friends, rebuilding my life was too much. Even though the distance to church was ideal, I doubted my motives and was afraid I was projecting my idealism onto a congregation I never attended.

    And this is where it got very personal to me, so please don’t assume I’m trying to extrapolate this to you. I realized that I had been running and hiding from a lot of my wounds and fears at my Reformed Presbyterian church. I took the time to have some long heart to hearts with close friends, elders and even the associate pastor. I found that many of my wounds were built on misunderstandings, and that though I had different viewpoints of theology or asked questions they weren’t really considering, they didn’t brand me as a heretic or shew me out of the church. The unequivocally said that they recognized God’s giftings in my life and their desire for me to stay and be part of the church. All this was intertwined with confronting a rut of depression I had been for several years running, and the fear of intimacy that I had been running away from because of past wounds. After a lot of soul searching, I ended up getting back together with my ex-girlfriend at the time (who is now my beautiful, wonderful wife) and confronted a lot of buried issues.

    But through that process I realized that God had given me marriage and local church body for my salvation (in the sense of growth, healing and restoration). I had never experienced the gospel in such a meaningful way until I married. And despite still differing from my church’s viewpoints and certain issues of theology and different preferences on worship style, the church has slowly become home, mainly because I have allowed it and worked for it to be so.

    My wife asked me the other day that if we were to up and move to a different city, what type of churches would I start visiting. My reply was Anglican or Lutheran. But for now Reformed Presbyterianism with all its “frozen chosen” shortcomings is where I belong.

    I’m sorry. I just wrote an entire blog post in your comment section. But I hope somewhere in the middle of that, you found something that helped.

    Looking forward to part 4.

  2. Oooh, I could write such a long reply! (but am trying not too)
    It is so sad to read both your experiences and of so many who have commented. I too stopped attending church many years ago, but have been working on trying to go back because I have realised that God is too big for me to “get” on my own. For me, my personal walk and relationship with him is what will not let me be at peace until I re-insert myself into a local “body of Christ”. I have spent eight years trying to find peace outside, and I am just giving up (though not without a fight! 🙂
    Ultimately when one day I stand before God He is not going to ask me how many services I attended, or what “ministries” I was involved in. His only interest is in my relationship with Him. On that basis, I reluctantly conclude that as a human who needs a Saviour, I am better able to get to know Him better, allow Him to speak to me when I am in the company, with genuine, open, real interaction with other Christians.
    Is it working? Hmmm, not yet, but it is like my belief in Jesus Christ as my Saviour, I have no choice but not give up.
    In some senses this blog, with all the responses you are getting are also a form of “church” – there are Christians, being real, sharing experiences. It is not ideal, but if it helps draw us closer to Him, then for as long as it satisfied, it is okay.
    Hidden in Christ

  3. Good article. I have enjoyed the whole series. Really lays out the reason to stay away from churches well. I prefer to worship on my own. Listen to a lot of online sermons.

  4. I grew up in a church that was the right arm of the Sword of the Lord, so to read about someone who knows Christian Fundamentalism the way I do, has been a breath of fresh air. I thought “Oh, finally, someone else was there too and gets it!” I’ve tried to explain this mind-set that they have to people who have never been there and they just don’t get it.
    I see how growing up in that mindset has left me and other people with such misconstrued ideas about God, church and community, that after a certain point you basically come to the realization that if this is what Christianity is all about, I want no part in it. I was pretty much ready to step away from church and just commune with God myself. I wasn’t anti- God, but I was seriously anti-church, and I was definitely anti- christian.
    I ended up doing some serious church searching and it led me to the place I am now, where I no longer consider myself Baptist, but simply a Christ follower. Most people simply don’t know what to do with it and frankly, I didn’t either at first, but I was so blown away by being at a church where people genuinely seemed happy to be there and weren’t obsessed with labels. I dreaded and hated church my whole life, so this was totally foreign to me.

    I understand why you stopped going, and I don’t judge, because I’ve been there. I pray that in your searching and in your walk, you and God will converse like never before.
    Looking forward to more blog posts.

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