Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Church: part 1

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.


  1. I'm glad it turned into a positive experience. New churches have a tendency to be a little intimidating.

    As far as the terminology, I disagree with you. The bible uses those terms for a reason and we should use them too. Words like sanctification, propitiation and what not should be part of our vocabulary. I wouldn't take those to 'evangelize' with, but the understanding of them is incredibly important. We, as a church, need to be careful not to let culture transform the Word, but let the Word transform culture. Scripture says Jesus is going to be a stumbling block for many. It is a reality we need to live. The trick is to not soften the impact of Jesus, but to walk with those that have been impacted.

    I can write a few pages on worship in the church, but I will spare you.

    That kind of community is incredibly important and I want to continue to encourage you to move forth in that.



  2. Thank you for sharing your thoughts! I feel the same way about how church always felt like family growing up. My husband and I have yet to find the same family feeling in the churches we've attended. I also start out analyzing the service, speakers and music to death. I compare everything to my favorite memories and people in church from the past. But I like going to church, and wish the people I meet would be instant friends or even acquaintances, but I'll keep plugging along even if they never do. We're fortunate to have found a church with great Bible-based teaching that we do enjoy.
    Good luck (here I am even analyzing my usage of the term "luck", but oh well, you know what I mean) with your church quest and know that you are not alone! I guess we were pretty blessed to have the close friends that we did growing up! Oh, this is making me miss you and our old gang at GNF!

  3. Oh Em. So well put. I can relate to the struggles of analyzing the service to death. I love how you put the struggles into words, especially the part about singing the ridiculous statements and how what you sing will be used against you. I feel like that so often. I can't sing some phrases like, "I give my all to You" cause I know I won't follow through with it when I walk out the church door. I feel like, "I want to give my all to You" would be a better choice of words.
    I'm glad you're searching and have found something that kind of "fits." I can't wait to talk face to face about this...

  4. I love you. I love how you write. I love how you articulate so well. I like seeing what's inside your head and your heart. And I'm glad we keep going. Even when at the beginning the instinct is to check out. :)

  5. I think you missed the point Gabe. The Bible was written in Greek and Hebrew and with very few exceptions those are very different languages. Greek words often take a whole sentence to convey their meaning in English. Language changes and evolves; even words that were in common use 50 years ago are either dead words or have completely different meaning now. There is nothing wrong with changing the stale words of Christianity to be more relevant as long as the core ideas are the same. The Christianese causes an awkward separation that allows a type of aristocracy to form that artificially keeps people out. This type of aristocracy ruled the dark ages when the only people who could actually read Latin, which the Bible was written in at the time, were the clergy and wealthy. Granted that's not where we are at now but there is a pride issue here that can easily lead to Pharisee type thinking. Where I think you are confused is Jesus being THE Word. The Word is very different than words, one is the same at all points in time the other is constantly morphing and changing.