I have been visiting a church down the street for the last few weeks. I’ve attended three Sunday services and an organized mingle-session for youngish adults. I’ll save the young adult gathering for another post (plenty to say about peers, silence, and small talk) and concentrate here on the morning services. I’ve had lots of conflicting thoughts about this experience and figure writing is as good a place as any to muddle through them.
I’m only recently able to sit still in church for an hour and a half without either a) leaving the room because the discomfort is unbearable or b) playing along and faking a smile, while anger smolders. My relationship with Church is complicated. I chose this particular church to visit based on proximity. Plus I knew from visiting years and years ago that it was neither fundamentalist nor Pentecostal. During each of the services I’ve attended, the hour and a half is spent in a gradual mental progression.
I start out very critical, irritated by choppy transitions and church-speak. Some phrases have no place outside the context of steeples and hymnals and well-dressed do-gooders. Phrases like reveal yourself, heavenly father, glorification, sanctified and rain on us, sound especially foreign after a long absence from church culture. Language that only makes sense in a specific setting automatically separates my experiences there from real life. For example, when I’m among educators discussing pedagogy, the phrases cross-curricular, higher order thinking, and scaffolding are meaningful in that context only. While these terms illuminate issues important and commonly understood by teachers, they don’t mean much to non-educators. Inevitably, specialized language is exclusive to those who have had similar training and experience. The same principal applies to Christians. For a spiritual organization to pride themselves on inclusion and acceptance and sensitivity, using a dialect that is meaningful only to initiated insiders doesn’t make any sense.
The next thing that strikes me is the disparity between intense intellectual content and a passive congregation. The songs we sing in unison have some wild lyrics. We announce, with questionable conviction, that we are addressing the King of Earth and Heaven. “All we have belongs to you,” we promise. But other than verbalizing these outrageous statements, there’s no other indication we believe what we are singing. That doesn’t sit well with me. Either Someone is actually taking note of my musical announcements, or these songs are excessive. I can’t help but wonder if there is a less risky way to participate in the singing. Anything I say, or sing, can be used against me.
But what happens next surprises me. I soften. The irony and the divergence, while distracting, don’t ruin the experience. In the three times I’ve visited, a realization puts me at ease and I no longer feel the need to attack or argue or complain. The first Sunday, I realized that part of my squirmy feeling was because I was a stranger and felt like an outsider. Since I grew up as a pastor’s kid, I’m used to church feeling like family. It’s strange but understandable that being a visitor, observing as a newcomer, feels uncomfortable. The second Sunday, I realized the people on the stage were exercising some strengths along with some weaknesses. Not all the songs we sang fit the lead singer’s vocal style. The speaker wasn’t a professional. The technician didn’t synchronize all the visual graphics. Basically, the service was imperfect. I can live with that. The third Sunday, I was reminded that every person there had a story. The point of spending 90 minutes together was to validate each person’s experience and point to something greater, something eternal, and to make some sense of all this mortal fumbling.
Last in my mental progression was a settled feeling, like someone took a sheaf of piled-up papers, picked them up in two hands and tapped the long side on a table and straightened things out. Or maybe I can describe it this way: I caught the scent of something I’ve missed. It was as if I had grown up with an ocean view and the beach as a playground. After spending several years far away on a land-locked prairie, I suddenly caught a whiff of salty air. That’s what if felt like to be surrounded by quiet, kind people. To sit, to listen and to sing. To watch sunlight fill the West-facing window and set my mind on things above.