Dear “Unchurched” Friends,
I don’t blame you. I don’t blame you at all for not wanting to go to church. In fact, there are times when I think that if the circumstances of my life had been different–if I didn’t have a calling to the ministry, if I hadn’t been raised in a strong church-going family, if I hadn’t developed a deep relationship with God early on that calls for me to be a part of God’s community–then maybe I wouldn’t go, either.
A couple of years ago I took a vacation to Lake Erie and had every intention of attending a local church. I even decided on a little United Methodist Church with a witty marquee sign (I don’t remember what it said anymore so it was witty, but not memorable). But when Sunday rolled around the introvert in me said, “But see how quiet and nice it is here!”. Then the single person in me (I was vacationing alone) said, “Do you really want to go to a strange church all alone and risk sitting there sticking out like a sore thumb?” (which has happened to me before.) And so I decided not to go.
I sat on the porch of my cabin and watched the birds and fish collecting their morning breakfast from the surface of the campground pond, and I thought of you. I thought about how I love nature and how I have always felt closest to God in nature. I thought about how nice it was to simply enjoy the silence and commune with God’s created world. And I wondered if this is how you feed your soul.
You see, I don’t really know how someone who believes in God, but who doesn’t attend church, feeds her soul. I was raised in church from my infancy. Every Sunday was the same thing–we got up early while many of my friends slept in late, we ate, we dressed, we fought over the bathroom, and then we sat on the couch and watched “Voyagers!” while Mom and Dad, having successfully made three children presentable for the Lord went to tend to themselves. When the theme song for Jimmy Swaggart (Go Tell It On The Mountain) began, it was time to leave.
For as long as I could remember, we worshiped on Sunday morning and I learned early on that that was where a body was to commune with God.
But as I sat there, enjoying the peace of an early morning, I thought of you–and I thought of conversations I’ve had with some of you and I thought, “I don’t blame them if they’d rather have this than church.”
After all, Christians can be ugly. I wish I could deny that fact and machine-gun rattle off a list of reasons why that is a myth, but it’s not. Christians can be ugly.
I’ve seen good, upstanding, honorable men and women destroy another human being and hide behind their “faith in Christ” while doing so. I’ve seen the Christian church be used as a bully pulpit for a preacher’s personal agendas, or as a campaign stop for political parties. I’ve seen generous folks turn stingy when their personal desires aren’t met. I’ve seen mean and hateful things be spat at each other with the faux-sophistication of King James-esque platitudes. And I’ve seen otherwise smart people regurgitate bumper sticker theology they’ve heard from big money preachers on television rather than think for themselves about what their faith means and what the Good News of Jesus Christ actually is.
There have been church conflicts and church splits with a “family” of believers turning on each other, blaming each other, tearing each other apart. There have been scandals that make a mockery of everything a church should stand for. There are people sitting in the pews who have done unspeakable things to each other and brag about their dedication to personal piety while doing it.
Yes, Christians can be ugly. In fact, they can be so ugly that the Devil doesn’t really have to do much at all because it seems that too often, Christians will just destroy each other if left to their own devices.
So I don’t blame you.
Who wants to deal with that?
Who wants to go and sit in a place where it seems everyone is so intent on identifying each other’s sins and raking them over the coals for them, where people who are supposed to know first-hand the power of forgiveness of sins can speak only of condemnation? Who wants to sit in a pew and be told that for whatever reason (which actually defies all reason) that her sins are somehow worse than the sins of all the other sinners sitting in that room?
No, I don’t blame you.
But as I thought about you, I began to wonder why I go to church myself.
Sure, the easy answer is that I’m the pastor. But even before I was the pastor, I was a regular in my church. As I grew older (and after a brief stint in my early twenties in which I did stop attending) I began to find worship more and more important. Suddenly, I was arranging my schedule so that I’d have the time to get to Wednesday prayer meeting and Bible study. I made sure that I didn’t have to work at all on Sunday so that I could literally go to church twice on Sundays.
There were times when I was numb, when life had beaten me up to the point I wasn’t sure I could actually feel anymore and I went to church just to go through the rituals. Those rituals, deeply imbedded in my soul, began to make a keen difference in my life. Maybe I was finding it difficult to commune with God, but through those traditions I was keeping the line of communication open. And that was often the difference between feeling hopeless and hopeful.
And even when the Christians were being ugly, I was often blown away by their unexpected beauty.
I remember one particularly hard time–I was recently divorced, trying to finish my college degree, taking an overload of classes, and living well below the poverty line… I needed a job. But more importantly, I needed a job that would be willing to work around my difficult-to-work-with college schedule. I didn’t even dare ask about having Wednesday nights and Sundays off. A man walked up to me one Sunday evening and said, “You know I work part-time down at the IGA, right? Well, they need a deli worker and you’re hired if you want the job. You just need to show up tomorrow evening.”
That job was a life saver in more ways than one.
There was another time, when I was deeply saddened by one of the “saints” of the church who had gone out of her way to try to turn me against the Walk to Emmaus ministry. I was preparing to go on a “walk” and was at a point in my life where I really needed the spiritual reinvigoration, I just didn’t know it. I was hungry for, constantly craving, Christian community, and this was one more way for me to feed that desire. But the “saint” didn’t want me going, not because she didn’t approve of the ministry, but because she didn’t like one of the people deeply involved in the ministry. This person she railed against, as it turned out, was a close friend who had really been a huge support to me during my tumultuous marriage and divorce. He had been an ideal Christian brother and had gone out of his way to tend to my wounded soul.
Just as I was about to burn a bridge and tell this so-called saint what I thought of her, a voice of reason piped up. And it came from someone whom I had always considered pretty shallow. In all the years I’d known her I’d never heard anything of any depth slip out of her mouth. She was obsessed over her weight, her appearance, her material possessions. I’d never heard her speak about faith or spirituality, and I had always assumed that she sort of just came to church by default because her family did. But her words were the sort of sage advice Jesus would have spoken. She reminded me that we can’t always see the wounds people carry that cause them to act poorly from time-to-time. She reminded me that my dear friend had chosen not to engage her in the attacks she had unleashed on him and his character, and if he was willing to forgive, who was I to hold the grudge on his behalf?
Then, when money was tight, the same “saint” who had hurt my friend so, swooped in and constantly arranged odd jobs for me–there was a constant inflow of “pocket-money” only because this woman, living off a fixed income, was willing to share her limited blessings with me so that I wouldn’t abandon my pursuit of God’s calling in my life. The woman, who had been so ugly to my dear friend, had also been incredibly beautiful to me… and there was no reason for her to be. We weren’t particularly close. We weren’t related. But she knew I was in need and saw an opportunity to help.
I really don’t blame you for choosing not to come to church–on any given Sunday if you were to look at any random person sitting in any pew you’d see a study of contrasts: a sinner and a saint; a righteous believer and a hypocrite; a speaker of profound truths and and liar. We all have within us the possibility to do terrible evil and amazing good in this world–few of us go to the extremes of a Mother Teresa or an Adolf Hitler… for most of us, the good and the bad sort of blend into a grey more often than not.
So I don’t blame you. In any church on any Sunday you are pretty much guaranteed to see a lot of ugliness. But there is also a lot of beauty there, too. If you let the ugly keep you away you may never have the chance to see the raw beauty, which has on more than one occasion for me, been a life saver.
As I sat there that day, thinking about how I didn’t blame you for seeking that sort of communion with God over communion with God’s imperfect children, I couldn’t help but notice that even in the beauty of creation there are no utopias. Ask the insects who were being attacked from below by fish and from above by birds if that morning was so perfect and they’d tell you it would be better without the birds and the fish… but the beauty of that moment would have been lost.
So, yeah–Christians are ugly, but they are also beautiful. I don’t blame you for not wanting to engage the ugliness, but man are you missing the beauty!