Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Church...and my Addled Brain.

Several years ago, I could not have written this post.  I didn't think the way about church that I do now.  Frankly, I'm still not sure what to think about church.  I should warn those of you reading this that there's going to be a lot of mention of God and church stuff in this post.  I'm totally ok with you choosing to overlook this post if you're uncomfortable with this, and for those of you who want to continue (whether or not you are a person of faith), I would so love to hear from you via a comment or something.  I'm hanging a piece of my uncertainty out there today.  A piece of me.

This is not going to be a 'pretty' post.  I have stuff on my mind, it's pretty much all muddled up, and I really don't know how it's going to come out or whether it'll make a lot of sense.  It's likely also going to be long...'cause frankly you know me at least a bit by now and when have I ever not been long-winded.

So here goes...first with a little background.

Other than for a couple of rebellious years in my twenties, I have been a church-goer all of my life:  I grew up in a Mennonites Brethren culture and congregation; I found my soul largely through the Alliance denomination that I spent a decade of my life being a part of in my thirties; and Geoff and I found ourselves back within the Mennonite Brethren community when we moved back to this province.  I've never been a 'church hopper' - I tend to want to hang around long term in a church, despite difficult times and despite the fact that sometimes the grass looks a little greener somewhere else.  I've also been involved in quite a lot of church volunteer work for most of my life...until the past number of years, really.  I suppose it would be fair to say that church, in virtually every aspect, is part of who I am today...for better and for worse.

Despite having acknowledged the denominations of churches that have formed the bulk of my experience, I don't believe that church is a denomination any more than I believe that church is a building.  Not being a theologian in any sense of the word, I will simply say this: I believe that Jesus Christ is the head of the church; I believe that its members are gifted to serve one another and build each other up; and I believe that some kind of congregational attendance is a valuable part of Christian life, though not because of some dogma associated with a particular church but because it's good and helpful and even necessary to stay connected in a world that is increasingly non Christian.

So why, if I'm such an apparently committed church goer, am I writing this blog post?  This would be a fair question.  I'm asking it myself.  And I will try to answer it.  But I will do so with a caveat:  I reserve the right to come back to this post and modify it as I think about it further.  I am seeking insight into myself on the subject matter of church, and my thoughts are not all together on it.  Addled may be a better word to describe the state of my brain when it comes to processing my thoughts about church.

I guess as a starting point, I'd like to say that despite attending church most Sundays, and despite philosophically viewing church as an important aspect of life for a Christian, I am fairly disconnected from it these days...emotionally, spiritually.  I question the value of it, despite everything I've just said I believe.  My essential problem is that my questioning has little to do with the belief I have in the value of church, and it has almost everything to do with my experience of church in recent years.

But, and I warned you that this would be messy, let me back up again.

Some years ago, Geoff and I were going through a very hard time in our relationship.  A really, really hard time.  We both made some pretty significant mistakes and it took quite a bit of hard work to get through it, to survive and, ultimately, to get to a good place.  We did it.  We're good.  But with no thanks going to our church.

During that hardest point in our married life, Geoff and I were involved in a small church group that met most weeks to talk, pray, study some biblical topic or other, and confide in each other what was going on in our lives.  The group was comprised of four couples, one of which was us.  In the privacy of that group, Geoff and I shared some of the things that we were going through, and at pretty much the crux of our marital difficulties, one couple stated that they would walk through this time with us; specifically, that they were committed to "being the church" to us.  We felt very supported in that moment.

Sadly, that commitment never materialized.  In fact, within a very short period of time, the group shut down, my phonecalls and emails were not returned, and to this day, I have never heard again from the couple who uttered that commitment to us.  I should note that I have since been back in communication with the other members of that group and I have no issues with those relationships.

But that one couple hurt me.  Badly.  Right where I was most vulnerable.

There is no question whatsoever that I made some mistakes with my marriage during those times, and they knew it.  But not once, not ever, was I asked for my perspective on things, and not once did they contact me or ask what kind of support I needed as Geoff and I worked our way forwards.  This was the church?? That question played itself over and over in my my mind for almost two years.

To this very moment, and you may well be able to read it in my words and tone, I cannot think of that experience without feeling the pain of it all over again.  I could not stop thinking this:  if Christ came to save those of us who are sinners, and not for those who are righteous, did He not then come for people just like me??  And if that's true, and if the church is the bride of Christ, how could the people who were committed to "being the church" for me/us able to justify their action/non-action?  If that was "being the church," I was frankly repulsed by it.   I was so disillusioned by "church" after that experience that I almost stopped going.  Almost.  For pretty close to two years, I fought with myself every single Sunday morning before heading out the door to drive to church.  I felt sick to my stomach every time, and often on the Saturday night lead up into Sunday morning, too.

Frankly, there were really only two thoughts that kept me going:  First, Matthew.  Matt was engaged in a great kids' church experience and was making friends in a lovely, child-centred environment.  He loved going, and would often initiate conversations with me during the week about what had been discussed on the previous Sunday morning.

Second, and this one was the key...I had been involved in church most of my life, I had been deeply involved in a church leadership team in a church we'd been involved with in a different province, and I knew somewhere deep down, despite this experience, that "church" was a lot bigger than two people.

That experience took me back, emotionally and spiritually, to those two years during my twenties when I didn't attend church.  You see, the very issue that I grappled with during those years was hypocrisy.  I felt in those years that most of the people that I knew (my friends, family, myself) put on a good 'face' for  church, but didn't really live a lot of it out during the week.  Why did I want to be a part of that?  I asked myself in my twenties.  So I tried not being a Christian - by which I mean that I tried to live for a time as if I didn't have a relationship with Christ, and I tried to figure out what it was that I believed in.  I think, frankly, that this was an experience that many young adults have.  But whereas for many people this is a deal-breaker, in my case, things turned out differently.  I discovered that I couldn't, didn't want to, turn my back on the personal relationship that I'd developed with my Creator, my Saviour.  In the end, I remember kneeling beside my bed, looking out at a black and starry night, and telling God that I was back, that I wanted him in my life.  I told him that regardless of how hypocritically other people chose to live their lives, I wasn't responsible for a single other person's faith other than my own and that I wanted to choose to live authentically.

I have been reminded of this in recent years, after the experience with the couple from our small group.  I think I'm through it.  But I admit it:  I was bitter for a very long time.  And it took even longer to come to a point of forgiveness.

What I have thought about so many times in the years since is this:  what do those of us who are churchgoers and who call ourselves Christians do to people in the name of Christianity?  How often do people new to faith and/or new to a church community experience find in me or other Christians the same kind of response that I experienced at the hands of that couple?  How often do people simply stop coming to church, simply stop believing that there is a community out there to support them because, frankly, it is not a community of support for them?  What have we, what have I, in the name of righteousness, done to people who deserved my compassion and grace and support?  What have we churchgoers done to pastors who leave their positions and their churches all too often under the weight of condemnation of individuals who have turned their backs on their God-ordained pastor, either through deliberately unsupportive acts or, more often, through subversive and subtle acts that result in a hurt far deeper and long-lasting than what I experienced?  I have personally known well three pastoring families where the pastor left the congregation under less than pleasant terms, and they and their families went through terrible times of trying to recover; one of those wives, a good friend of mine in years past, slipped into a deep depression for many years.

I have come to see firsthand how much damage we do to people under the guise of being Christ followers.  I saw it in my mediation practice occasionally, too:  there were a few times when I was involved in mediating church leaders and/or congregants/board members, and I privately found appalling the lengths to which participants would go to justify their actions/beliefs towards/beliefs about another person based on what they believed God was speaking to them in their hearts.

I sound cynical, I think.  The truth is that, though I'm not as cynical as I come across here, I do believe there's more than a little truth in what I'm saying.

I have not yet been able to bring myself to be involved in any volunteer capacity in our church, and not only because I have my hands full of children these days.  What keeps me from diving in is my feelings of personal failure (because I was such a screw-up in tough days past) and my fear about re-engaging with people and the prospect of being hurt so badly again.  At times, I feel my old hankerings for involvement resurfacing - primarily because I like to be involved in things, and have had a lifetime of acting on this preference; I have believed for most of my adult life that if I don't like something, or if I see a need for change, I need to get involved to change it, or at least to give me a 'right' to voice what I don't like; I am not an arm chair critic.

I see in me those leanings towards becoming involved again to be a sign that I have recovered from the wounds of yesterday.  Maybe as my kids get a bit older/able to be a little more independent, I'll indulge my wont by volunteering for something little.  Who knows.

But I'm still left with the question of 'what is church?'  I think it should be a place of community and friendship; of mutual support; of edification and building each other up and challenging each other to further growth; of asking each other how we're doing and giving/receiving an honest answer.  Maybe I'm expecting too much, maybe too little, I don't know.  What I do know is that this kind of church definition is not my reality at this moment.  I say 'hi' to a number of people every week, and virtually all of them are strangers.  Often, the people I'm most comfortable saying 'hi' to are the ones who look a little 'down and out' but I essentially know no one...after almost six years in attendance.  I miss the one person I used to talk to for a few minutes every week.  I've written about Max before - the guy who didn't actually come in to the church, but who sat playing his guitar outside of it by the parking garage and who was hoping that someone might drop a few coins into his guitar case.  I really liked talking to Max, after overcoming my initial shyness.  Matthew liked him too.  But we haven't seen him in months, and I wonder what happened to him.

What has come out of this whole church identity crisis for me is a radically different view of people than I used to have.  I think, in hindsight, I used to be pretty judgmental towards other people.  I had ideas about how people should live their lives and I didn't think too highly people who did otherwise.  And then I hit my own forks in the road and chose badly, and had to figure out how to get back on the straight and narrow.  I'd have to say that this has given me much food for thought, a whole different  perspective.

In the past couple of years, I have met people in our church who have had affairs, who have been/are drug or alcohol abusers, who I strongly suspect sell their bodies for money, and even one who killed another human being and spent time in prison for it.  And of course, I've met other people who appear to be perfectly ordinary, average people.  But what I've observed over and over and over again is that all of these people have a single thing in common:  it. does. not. take. long. to. scratch. below. the. surface. to. see. that. someone. is. hurting.  And perhaps what's different for me is that I simply don't feel the kind of judgment towards any of these folks that I surely would have had years ago.

I remember saying hi to someone about eighteen months ago whose marriage had just broken up.  I'd met him once in years past, and so I approached him and said 'hi.'  Without much prompting on my part, he told me about how he'd messed things up with his wife and that everyone hated him now because of what he'd done.  My response? Very different than in years past, when I would have mumbled something, thought horrible things about him, and gone on my way with a smile on my face.  But this time my heart was all compassion.  I found myself putting my hand on his arm and telling him that I felt very badly for him and that I was sure there were lots of things he wished he could do over again and that there was always a context for how people act and that life sucks sometimes.  Tears welled up in his eyes, and he said that I was the first person to show him compassion given his story.

And I guess that's how I've changed.  I simply don't feel judgment towards someone who's been involved in messing up his/her life.  I've been there.  I've been rejected by the very people who were supposed to view me as a fallible child of God and who were supposed to support me.  I am not going to do that to someone least not knowingly.

Isn't that church?  I'm not trying, truly, to flatter myself here by thinking I've landed on what it really means to be church.  But what the heck are we bothering to go for if not to make connections, if not to offer each other some genuine compassion and understanding and encouragement.  The church I feel disconnected from is the church that would allow a leader to stomp on my heart, the church that lets people go unwelcomed as they are, the church that sees only the superficial and artificial front that we're all so good at using to mask the pain inside.  And if 'the church' is made up of people, then I correct the last sentence to read as follows:  The church I feel disconnected from is comprised of the people who  stomp on my heart, people who don't welcome me as I am, the people who see only the superficial and artificial front that I'm so good at using to mask the pain inside.

And if by people I include myself, and if I refuse to be an armchair critic and don't want to be a hypocrite myself, then what am I, as a member of the body we call 'the church,' willing to do to ensure that people's hearts don't get stomped on, to welcome people as they are, to see beyond the masks that we all wear to support the person behind it?

Really, isn't this the question that we as a church should be grappling with?  I know I am.


  1. I think you hit the nail right on the head Ruth. I too am struggling with many of the same issues that you are. 2 years ago I changed churches (with some reluctance as I was raised in a different faith and did not want to "church hop"). I thought that I had found a wonderful, welcoming faith community with the Mennonite Brethren that fit with my beliefs, challenged me to push past my comfort zone (because people wear their faith much more openly then I grew up with), made me reflect more and move beyond complacency to get involved in the church. Perhaps I was expecting too much from a church, but last fall was horrible, and I needed the church to be there for me. My father was very ill, and I sat crying and hurting through many a sermon. I felt so alone when people simply looked away, and not one person ever reached out to offer comfort. Ever. The same fall, I joined a small discussion group, and was (and to this day still am) horrified by some of the views that came out. When one woman asked the group to pray for her friend who was going through a divorce, the judgement, the name-calling, the black and white thinking really upset me. She asked for compassion, she got condemnation. There were people who used the bible to forward their small-minded hatred, and who really offended me by assuming to speak for Christ. To this day, I don't understand how people who love a God who is so excompassing and so loving can be so judgemental. For weeks now, I have being struggling with remaining at this church as I question whether it is too fundamental for me. I wonder if some members of the group represent themselves or the views of the church as a whole. I am open-minded. I want to be tolerant of others, for who am I to judge? I want to raise my children this way, and will not bring them to a place where I am afraid that they will learn intolerance. I want my church to be a place where we come together as a community to support each other and welcome everyone (because isn't that what Christ did?) I am still going each week, largely because my girls love it, and because my husband reminds me that I have so enjoyed the sermons over the last 2 years, and not to let a few hypocrites overshadow the real meaning of church. I do believe that going helps me have a stronger relationship with God, and I do not need to worry about other's relationships. But. I WANT to be there because this is a place that has really helped me grow in my faith...but. I grapple.

  2. First and foremost, you may be going to the wrong church. Yes, all churches have their challenges, but there are still some that embrace people, wrongful doings and all. I'm sorry that you were so badly hurt. I know that empathy and support would have made the journey easier, but I wonder if there was anything you gained by having to rely solely on yourself and your husband to weather the storm. Everything is easier with help, but sometimes you get the most out of those situations that you had to battle through alone. This does not absolve that couple of their deplorable actions. That'll catch up with them in good time.

    There are churches that you can pledge your attendance, time, and money to and walk away less connected years later than when you first got there. I value church, but when I got in the rut of just going to go, I scaled back. I'm now at a time in my life where church on Sunday morning is a luxury. I have my youngest sister, who while incredibly delightful, has Autism and is completely blind. While welcome in many churches (not all unfortunately), you'd think I was subjecting her to absolute torture. Quite frankly, we have to find our church outside of church. We listen to Sunday school music during bath time, we talk about being thankful (okay, I talk, she listens), and we talk about what we're going to do in the day that we've been blessed with. I remind her of the miracle that she is. She reminds me that she loves Cookie Monster. I miss some things about church, but I've never felt more at peace as a Christian as now. When we do venture to church, we share our attendance around. While I'm not hinting that you need to be only a visitor to church like us, I do think you'll benefit to know that you can be just as Christian beyond the ritual of going.

    If the man playing guitar was who you conversed with most, maybe your church isn't in the building. It could be that you find a loving supportive church for your family to attend, but that your connections the other six days are where your real Christian work is done. I miss certain facets of church, but on those Sundays that my little lady and I find ways to give back, I know that it's okay. Hearing the good word is important, but doing the good work is a whole lot more rewarding.

    Thanks for sharing such a personal post. I can't imagine that I've said anything particularly helpful, but I did want you to know that you were heard. I think you're very brave for questioning. I also found it endearing that you wrote yourself to your own solution. You know that church shouldn't be what has happened to you and you clearly don't want that for others. Speak up and seek change or try another church that would be blessed to receive your wonderful family.

  3. My son and I have been listening to this video and contemplating what it looks like to be a believer but not "religious" fits with some of the things you're talking about.

  4. I don't know if I can convey through writing my experiences with church but here goes. I was raised in a church going family from the day I was born. I too left church behind in my early twenties also because of the hypocrisy I saw within the congregation. But as I got older I really felt like something was missing in my life and reconnected with a church of the same faith. Recently, our congregation has gone through a very tumultuous time with the pastor forced to resign. Our family was quite close. It was difficult to swallow that essentially a handful of people could dictate such a narrow minded view. One criticism was that she wore sandals under her robes. Didn't Jesus wear sandals? She was great with children and the elderly, visited those who couldn't attend, brought monthly services with communion to the local seniors home. What more could a congregation ask for? But in the end she was forced out by the sheer determination of a small few. This really shook my beliefs in what church stood for but in the end my personal beliefs were stronger and more important to abandon my faith. I have remained with this congregation. Despite what happened I had to forgive and move on. So what exactly do church and congregation mean? I don't really know. But one comment about finding church or your own spirituallity outside organized church rings true.

  5. It won't surprise you that I have a hundred things I want to write in response to this. I hope you don't mind if I summarise a little:

    I think that the point you've made about Christ loving the unrighteous is both why church is so hard, and why we need it. It makes it hard because church is still full of the desperately unrighteous - the judgemental, the unkind, the malicious, the selfish.... in other words, sinners. Sometimes, people at church SUCK at being like Christ, because they are still sinners. I've certainly experienced that, and (like you say) I'm sure - I'm absolutely certain - that I've done it too. I think that it's easy to confuse what Jesus is like - and therefore, what a perfect church should be - with what we expect from each other, and be angry at God because the church is such a mess. (I'm not saying that you are doing this, just that it is easy to do). But... isnt' that kind of what being in a church is all about, to some extent? It's a collection of broken, sinful people all trying to worship God. And we should NOT be surprised that church is the place that the devil seeks to attack us most strongly - by attacking our relationships, especially. And oh boy he does a GOOD JOB on this one!

    I do think that not church-hopping is, generally a really good thing. I'm the same. Having said that - if you are in a church where it's only the 'visible sins' (like adultery etc) that are talked about, that people are frightened of, and there is no airtime given to the 'saintly sins' like judgementalism, unkindness, oh, and PRIDE, then maybe - maybe - it might be worth seeking a different one.

    But either way - health and so on permitting, I'm certain that God wants us to be in church. While he saves us individually, it's this incredible community of believers that he describes as his bride. I'm sure that a good part of the reason he put church into his plan is because it IS so hard, and, ultimately, so sanctifying. It's an incredible antidote to selfishness, trying to stay in community with other believers (who are always WRONG about stuff, heh, at least in my experience). It's such a humbling place to be, when it's done right (ish! it's never done perfectly, obviously) because church should ultimately turn our focus away from church itself and turn it to Christ. If you've got a church that is focussing on Christ, then it's a good place to be, even if it's not perfect. If it's focussing on outward behaviours more than the person of Jesus, then... well.

    But I do think that our brokenness is one of the big reasons why we NEED church. Left to ourselves, we wander. God gave us other Christians to keep us strong and faithful. It wasn't an accident. And I have had to tell myself this OFTEN over the last few years because there was a loooooong stretch when I just did NOT want to go to church, ever. My husband pretty much had to shove me out the door every sunday because it was such a painful and (I felt) unsympathetic place to be while we were in the adoption process. I've had to work through a lot of anger (both justified and un) about it, so I absolutely hear you on this issue. It's a tough wrestle. But God wants us to wrestle with him, doesn't he? I certainly hope so!

    I'm so glad you wrote about this, Ruth. It's so important. Sending you lots of love!

  6. I so identify with this post, Ruth. In fact, I have only read half and will have to come back to read the rest b/c it's so difficult for me to read.

    We've been the pastor's family you described above this past year. It stings.

    I'll come back later and write more.

  7. Ruth,

    One could almost write a post in response to your post!
    I think many of us Christians have had these struggles, when going through our hard times, feeling like we weren't supported how we should have been...then I have to ask myself, "did I support others when I knew they were struggling?" Many times I am ashamed at my answer.

    There was a very hard and painful time, when I struggled with "The Church, " and what it looked like, and whether or not I should keep going. But then I realized, that for me, it felt like if I gave up on the Church, I was giving up on the people who DO show up each Sunday wanting to deepen their relationship with their Lord and others. I felt like, by giving up on the Church, I would become MORE judgmental, not less, if that makes any sense. Because I would be judging the Church then, and everyone in it...that felt like a scary place to be.
    Not that I am saying you are thinking about quitting church! Just relaying my experience.
    These are really good thoughts!

  8. Hi Ruth, I have never had a long term church experience as you have partly because we moved frequently as a child, and sometimes we didn't go for periods of time, but this did enable me to see many different church communities and to see how much they can differ, dramatically sometimes. They are a collection of people, and the kind of dissapointment you describe, ranging to complete abandonment/betrayal can unfortunately happen in other types of groups and communities. It is not unique to church. But when this kind of thing happens in a family, you have to work it out and it takes time. When it happens in another setting, then I think you decide for yourself whether something is worth enduring or not. I don't excuse the behaviour of those people AT ALL. It was horrible to offer something they never followed through on, but it sounds like they might have gotten caught up in a moment and then only realized later that they couldn't follow through... I have no idea. I am a big proponent of having a multiple network with alternates, in case somebody needs an understudy on opening night. Oh, I had one other incident to share, about trying to find a church when I first moved here. I began going to one that was within walking distance from my house and went there for about 2 months. Other than the assigned greeter, who was tremendous, nobody, nobody talked to me, after the service in the coffee room or elsewhere... it was very lonely and one day, I left during a break and went to the car wash and struck up a conversation with the girl at the cash register and got way more out of that human interaction than I had in the two months I had been trying to break into that church community. All the best with your seeking.

  9. Thank you all so much for your thoughtful seems like there's been so much hurt. I have much to think about on this subject yet. In the meantime, I'm not giving up on attending church by any means, and we're not even thinking of switching churches, but there's just so much food for thought about what it means to be "the church."
    I really value your comments/thoughts, and welcome any additional ones.



  10. Not sure if you have read this, but for me I find it very true and one of the reasons I do not attend church. At church or christian gatherings I always felt the MOST judgement and shaming instead of acceptance.