Why you go to church, why you don't, why you used to but don't anymore...
Ah church .... such a long and complicated journey we've had.
I loved you as a kid, involved in CCD and the folk group. I walked away as a teen, knowing i was gay, and thought you were a boring waste of time. I used you for solace and safety as a homless drug addict on the streets of NY. I abused you as a place to meet 'clients' when I was selling drugs. I found you again in prison and found myself singing all the hymns of my youth acapella to other inmates.
I cursed you when i relapsed and was back on the streets but darkened your doors on occasion.
I returned to you at Hope House, the treatment center that saved my life. I worked for you as a cantor and musician during my early recovery. I was angry at you when my brother overdosed and then his daughter died of anorexia five years later. This time though,I stuck around. I was led to you in Madrid, Spain where I'm lucky enough to lend my voice to a colorful, inclusive congregation. I am hesitant to believe all I hear but I find truth in the gospel, comfort in Jesus and the kinetic energy of the Holy Spirit.
Ah church, thank you for always having your doors open. So glad I made it home. ✨
Thanks for your latest, Nadia. As both a person in the pew and now a second-career pastor with a small, aging and faithful (to "God", not me) congregation, I've always been amazed by our reluctance within the church to acknowledge that we might possibly be part of the reason "those parents drop their kids off but never come to worship". I'm saddened by how many people have been broken, rather than healed, by the "Church". I've considered myself a "deconstructionist" for longer than I've been aware there was such a thing and am happy to now have a "category" to fit into. Why are we so afraid to simply let God (Love) be God (Love) and set ourselves towards carrying that love both inside and outside of our buildings? Thanks, as always, for your insight, experience, vulnerability, and hopefulness. When we find ways to trust our Creator rather than relying on ourselves, we have reason to hope...
I didn’t respond to your go/don’t go church question because, honestly, I’m not sure how to answer. Do I go to a building once a week, join my fellow Christians in some form of rituals, listen to a message, perhaps engage in some sort of fellowship? No. And, although I was super-active in my church back in the civil-rights-anti-war-Kumbaya days and I actively considered going to seminary at the time, I haven’t been back to church (i.e. building) since I started consistently finding bricks-and-mortar campaigns were taking precedence over outreach and mission and inclusivity efforts and that just didn’t fit my needs or goals.
But I do “go to church” in a magnificent cathedral every morning and again every evening right on my front porch surrounded by trees. My cathedral soars to magnificent heights in an array of ever changing colors that surrounds me with God’s creation. The lighting, with an infinite variety of settings, not only sets a holy mood but, miraculously, is the same exact lighting that illuminated Jesus’ path. My fellow congregants, like most churches, vary with the seasons. The squirrels and chipmunks are reliable attendees. The deer make their appearance with a touch of “look at me” attitude. Raccoons and opossums don’t ever make morning services but are frequent evening worshipers. And the choir – the bird choir is magnificent particularly from fall through spring. The katydid summer choir is still a work in process.
Every service in my church begins with “Today is a day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.” In lieu of a crucifix there is one tree in the woods that grew straight for some period of time; made a serious bend; then regained its straight upward goal. It, coupled with a Bill Gaither gospel song lyric that plays in my memory (If you could see what I once was, if you could go with me, back to where I started from then I know you would see. A miracle of love that took me in its sweet embrace, and made me what I am today, just an old sinner saved by grace.) The tree and the song focus me on how God’s unfailing grace interrupted some bad decisions I was making and set me back on track.
I spend some time thinking about people I’ve encountered since my last “church” service. Did I reach out to them? They to me? Did we leave our encounter better or worse for the experience? I think about what I have read, and what conversations have I had (inspired by, among others, Nadia Bolz-Weber). What can I take away and use?
Once in a while I share my church, mainly with my grandsons and occasionally with a neighbor or friend if they show any interest. I don’t always make the “two or more” gathered in my name definition to constitute a church; I am not committed to committee meetings and fund raising events and potluck suppers. But my church is real and, along with my community of fellow thinkers, has taught me to try and leave things (and people) a little better than I the way I found them.
So, do I go to church? I don’t know. But somehow God and I do seem to find time to chat in a very holy setting and that, to me, is what’s important.
I would love to ask your subscribers, is there anywhere else they get the community they get/got from church- and the challenge, the growth, the love, the useful work, the delight? Many people here, like me, get it from 12 step fellowships. I also get it from spiritual seekers outside the church, many of whom are exploring psychologically, or considering trauma.
I am a Quaker, and in Britain our numbers have declined 25% in ten years. We are aging, and while our average age was 64 ten years ago it may be older now. It is not good when I am still one of the "young people", at 57. But I know that if Quakerism in Britain dies, people will still seek the inner light of God in them, and find it, and speak and act from it.
I responded to your survey, but I didn't leave a comment because I needed to think about all of this for a while. I came to my Christian faith rather late in life, at age 50, when I was about 20 years sober. I found an extremely progressive UCC congregation in Portland, Oregon, and I became a very active member for six years. I married my husband there. For me, the church was as the poet Lucille Clifton wrote, "as possible as yeast / as imminent as bread." It was my first church experience, and it was fabulous. And then it wasn't. I won't bore you with the details but suffice it to say that the church's "outsides didn't match its insides," and the pastor couldn't get honest about it. I left active Christian worship for a number of years, and I experienced Christ in some different and very meaningful ways. It was interesting, but I missed the Gospel. And I especially missed the sacrament of communion. I now attend a UCC in one of Portland's western suburbs (we never intended to be suburbanites, but we got old and tired!). I keep my expectations low. I sing in the choir. I like some of the folks there, but I don't get too close. But when I receive communion, I still feel that mystic connection to Christ, to the generations of Christians before me, and to the congregation in the room. And I love that experience enough to keep showing up.
I recommend reading Tricia Hersey’s book Rest Is Resistance. It offers commentary on Grind Culture which is germane to this discussion.
I wish that I could share, with the non-alcoholic, the intimacy I find with a God of my own understanding. A God who found me as the result of the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. Prior to recovery, I had been a regular at the Lutheran Church since birth. To get sober, I had to redefine who God was, starting with a blank sheet of paper. There emerged a wide delta between the God I came to love in recovery and the God of someone else’s understanding I’d been told to believe in, “or else.”
For most of the church's history, it could wield that “or else” as a weapon to coerce its parishioners into submission. As the saying goes, “Religion is for those afraid of going to hell. Spirituality is for those of us who have already been there.” I shared in an AA meeting just last night that in those moments when I am spiritually fit, and in the service of the alcoholic who still suffers, I am overwhelmed with a warm loving sense of knowing that I am exactly where God has placed me, for the purpose of serving his will for me. It is a high far greater than any I achieved with whiskey or any drug. At no point in my church life did I ever experience anything close to it. So, I seek God where I find him. That includes hospital rooms, jail cells, coffee shops, parking lots, my home, and the AA clubhouse.
I’ve made efforts to reconcile with the church, and the rest of my family remains active. My son was confirmed this past year. After all, they don’t have my source of spiritual nourishment. I go for special events and holidays. Other than enjoying the traditional hymns and other familiar reminders from childhood, I get little out of it.
Perhaps one day I will encounter a church that practices the same degree of tolerance and love as Jesus Christ himself. A church that practices sufficient humility to not claim a monopoly on God and embraces followers of Islam, Budha, Judaism, Hindu, Shinto, etc., as brothers and sisters. A church whose only prayer is for knowledge of God’s will and the power to carry it out.
I will say Nadia, that you give me hope. You’re a shining example of someone who has obviously found the reconciliation that has eluded me. We speak the same language. The struggle will continue.
I bet you’d appreciate the work that Jonathan Machnee has been doing, interviewing autistic people about why they left and/or returned to Christianity. I know he’s working on summarizing all his research (I was his 451st interview a few months ago) into a 3-part podcast series.
He wrote an initial summary of his findings on D.L. Mayfield’s newsletter which I’ll link to below. What I found most compelling (and inclusive of my own experience) is that approaching your faith from an intellectual viewpoint is consistently treated as “threatening.” And that the christian church has no structure for people who cognitively function differently from the norm.
As a retired ELCA Pastor, I no longer attend worship. Institutions eventually make their policies with the intent of protecting the institution. Synod policy does not allow me to attend the congregation I served. It happens to be the church family I love and desire to rejoin. The stated Moto of “everyone is welcome here, apparently not really true. In the face of Rachel Held Evans’ statement that the church does not need a committee to keep people out, the Synodical Synod of St Paul, MN. Has the opposite view.
I also left the church for years, but returned in my 50’s for the beauty of the service especially traditional music with choir and organ. I do not repeat the Nicene creed and do not find much in the Old Testament. I like the community and the Gospels.
I am wondering if many of those who choose to stop attending church do so because they can no longer see any connection between what Jesus taught, according to the gospels, and what their church, the institution, was doing, and what its members, clergy and laity, were doing; and it seemed as if those letters to the Corinthians and the Romans didn't seem to apply anymore and had become irrelevant. I think to many (it was to me) going to church seemed to have become no longer relevant to my life, or have any real meaning to me. But I came back when I became disenchanted by the shallowness, the vapidity, of what modern culture offers as alternatives. But I've come back kicking and screaming.
There are communication graduate students all over the country looking for topics for the regional and national conventions. Maybe one of your readers knows one! Then the student can review the over 2000 posts, run them through a quantitative analysis program, find the shared stories, and write a paper!
I do wish the people who follow you were a cross section of our society but unfortunately we are not.
I should have thought of this before but I think maybe we’re not hearing from young families here. My son has 4 children age 5, 7, 10, and 13. All have been baptized in the Lutheran (ELCA) Church- but they do not go to church. Because of sports. Youth sports were not played on Wednesday night or Sunday when I was growing up. When my son was growing up he often played on Wednesday night, but not Sunday. His 2 oldest play Club Soccer and Sunday is just another non school day. The younger two are still playing at a Saturday Morning only level. One plays T Ball only so far and the other plays basketball and soccer.
My struggle with the church began when I was six and we were told in Sunday School that you had to believe in Christ the Savior to go to heaven. It didn’t sit well with me that my beloved Jewish neighbor would go to hell. That’s one of the main reasons I left the church as soon as I left home. My parents never subscribed to that notion either but were, and still are, steadfast “questioning” Lutherans. These days, they struggle with the business of church. I think my parents would wholeheartedly agree with the need to declutter. Their church, with a million dollar budget and huge in-much-need-of-repair sanctuary that is mostly empty these days, seems to have lost its way. They like to say that they feed the neighborhood but the budget for the food pantry is 20,000. My dad thinks they should sell the property, move into something smaller and use the budget for more outreach. They give most of their donation money now to relief organizations rather than their church. The pastor is more of an executive with little sense of shepherding. During Covid, neither she nor the former lead pastor, checked on the elderly parishioners to see if they were okay. When my dad, who is in his 90s, mentioned this to a friend and the friend told the pastor, the response was that there were “too many” to check in individually and that my dad should have reached out instead. Dad’s response, “Bullshit!” My parents stay for the community and music more than anything. They are still both spiritually and theologically minded but that is not fulfilled by their church anymore. I think that’s pretty sad.
Over the last few years, every now and then, I read my way through Thomas Moore's 'A Religion of One's Own' (https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/313524/a-religion-of-ones-own-by-thomas-moore/). Whether or not one actually aspires to a religion of their own, I think the book provides an excellent approach to deciding what sort of religion might bring one happily into the arms of a particular congregation. Church-shopping (is there such a thing?) can't be easy -- I know I haven't tried -- but I'd love to find a dispassionate, non-spammy online resource to make it at least *possible* and less intimidating.