***I’m linking this post up to a conversation centering around ‘REST ‘, over at Esther Emery’s blog space ‘Church in the Canyon’.***
I’ve been to church three times this year.
I kept telling myself that I’d get back into the swing of things soon, that I was merely in a period of upheaval, trying to sort out whether I not I was suffering from post-natal-depression, and that once I was feeling better I’d be able to cope with the Sunday Morning Chaos.
But there has been something underneath it all, some nagging, slow-boiling, not-quite-rightness, that if I’m to be completely honest with myself, I’m still not sure I know what it is. I don’t have one particular reason why church has suddenly become this difficult thing. I’m not sure that I’m right. I’m not sure that I’m wrong. All I know is that it has gradually become harder and harder to put on my Sunday Morning Mask. And I feel really hypocritical about that, because less than a year ago I was writing about how I felt I needed to stop worrying about how I was perceived by others, and just show up in my pyjamas.
So I’m in this in-between place. I’m feeling a lot of guilt, which is ridiculous – I’m just trying to look after my own mental and emotional health. But on the flip-side of that guilt is this freedom, which is kind of warm and refreshing and life-giving.
Sunday mornings, lately, have been a more relaxed affair. I get to hang out with my kids and my husband, pop the kettle on and have a lazy cup of tea while I read my favourite faith and theology blogs; I get to hang out (virtually) with some extraordinary people I have met through online faith communities over the last few months. There’s not that rush to get dressed in the right clothes, kids looking sweet and coordinated with tangle-free hair and Weet-Bix-free cheeks. There’s no pre-chuch angst, no mad-minute rush to get there on time to secure one of the few pram-friendly aisle seats. No wishing I was back home in my PJs.
I’m much more conscious of the connections I’m making with people, I’m more engaged in conversations, now that they’re not chaperoned by church, now that I’m not in a position I feel like I have to defend. The way I was doing church, in the end, was exhausting me.
I used to be on the inside, looking out, but the last few months I have felt the gaze shifting. I’m finding myself in the shoes I’d never thought I’d fill, that of the non-church-attending Christian. (I’m not going so far as to call myself “unchurched” just yet – I’m still feeling this whole thing out).
There’s the little bit of paranoia when catching up with church friends…
What if they ask me why I haven’t been, what am I going to say? I don’t have an answer. What if they offer to pray for me, like I’m some kind of backslider? (Backslider: incredibly derogatory term for someone perceived to have ‘fallen away from faith’ – if you use this term to describe people you love, please stop, you’re not helping, and it’s offensive and presumptuous).
What if they don’t say anything at all? What if they haven’t even noticed I’ve been absent, do I mean that little to them? What if they don’t want to be friends anymore because I’m not part of the club?
I’m now on the outside looking in.
But yet, there is some merit to the fears, because I’ve been on the other side of them.
I never thought I’d find myself in this position. I always thought I’d be one of the ‘faithful few’ who would stick it out though thick and thin. I realise now I was quite arrogant (because deep down I know I thought I was better than the people who had left the church). If you’re someone who is in church and you know you always will be – I was one of you, once. There might be more of us out here than you realise. We aren’t deserters or backsliders or unfaithful or ‘lukewarm’. I know that because I’m now one of them, and I’ve come to know many like me. Our faith might look different to yours, but it is still there, boiling inside of us.
So I wanted to offer some thoughts on what not attending church doesn’t mean. Grab your favourite tea cup, and join me….
Just because I don’t go to church, doesn’t mean I’m not growing in my faith.
But it might mean our ideas of spiritual growth differ. The past twelve months have been incredibly positive for me, in terms of feeling like I am owning my beliefs (or lack of, in some areas). My questions might seem dangerous or threatening to some, but for me, the freedom to ask has been a safe harbour. I have two choices: pretend the questions aren’t there, keep them simmering under the surface and continue trying to believe the things I was always taught; or ask the questions, and continue to be comfortable with not having immediate certainty. Please don’t assume that I’ve given up on faith, even though I may appear that I have given up on church for the moment. I’m still here, though the questions sometimes boil and steam, they are necessary.
Just because I don’t go to church, doesn’t mean I’m not in a community, learning with and being challenged by other believers.
But it might mean that our idea of ‘church’ needs to be redefined. The truth for me at the moment is that I have tried and tried – and ceased trying in an effort to relax and rest – to make traditional church ‘work’ for me, and no matter how hard I try, or how little I try, it is just not working. I don’t know what that’s about, but it’s exhausting. So I’m taking a break. It doesn’t mean I’m not faithful to the church, it doesn’t mean I have issues with commitment or loyalty or fidelity and just need to submit. It just means I’m a bit burnt out, boiled dry on performance. I spent over a decade – my late teens and most of my twenties – in service and loyalty to my church. I enjoyed it, I was challenged and I grew, and I learned and I was carried through some tough years by some amazing leaders. Right now I am discovering new life and true rest, and that my value in this world is completely separate from what I can do and give. I’m learning to sit, to steep, to let my dry leaves unfurl in the heat, swirl around in the cup, deepen the flavour.
Just because I don’t go to church, doesn’t mean that I’m having a faith crisis.
It doesn’t mean that I had some terrible experience, or a falling-out with a friend, or a disagreement of theology with the leadership. I love the people and the church I’ve been a part of for the last fourteen years. I may end up going back, but I may not, and that’s OK. Just because I’ve stopped going to church for now doesn’t mean I’ve lost my faith, or that it’s weak or under threat. It might mean that I can more easily search out truth away from the noise and movement and over-stimulation of a large church service on a Sunday. Some days I think it simply just means that I’m incredibly introverted, and the thought of making Sunday small-talk in the limited time frame before and after the service is another thing that is exhausting me. Some days it means I want to turn something over and over and over in my mind and spirit. I want to cradle it’s warmth, take slow sips. Stare out the window and let it’s goodness seep through me.
Just because I don’t go to church, doesn’t mean that I’m cynical and bitter and unhappy.
But it might mean I’m a bit more skeptical. It might mean I’d like to put a bit more thought, analysis and critical thinking into some aspects of my faith which I always took for granted. It might mean I question everything that is said from the platform – something else that becomes exhausting. But please understand that questioning doesn’t mean disagreeing. It means weighing up, looking at closely, discerning. I’m in a process of deconstructing, pulling those fine gossamer threads of from the dung-heap that was the ‘Christian’ teaching I received in my childhood years. I guess sometimes that can look like cynicism and bitterness to those who’ve not had to extract themselves from cultish beliefs and practices. It might just mean I’m discarding that soggy old teabag that I tried dunking one too many times, and I’m reaching for something with more substance and life.
Just because I don’t go to church, doesn’t mean I’m not interested in you.
It doesn’t mean I don’t want to hear about your journey, or what is happening for you at church, or outside of church, or in your small group, or in your own prayer time. It doesn’t mean I don’t want to hang out with you. Introverted as I am, I still crave real, true, honest, deep connection.
It doesn’t mean I disagree with you or think I’m better than you. I’m less certain about everything now than I have ever been before (but I’m okay with that, I don’t need to be reassured). It doesn’t make me unapproachable – I want you to ask me questions, I want you to ask me how I’m going (without the assumption that I must be doing poorly because I’m not in church). I want to talk about faith, I want to know why you believe, I want to know what worries you, what keeps you awake at night. I want to know what brings you joy.
Just because I don’t go to church, it doesn’t mean I’m missing out on ‘God’s best’ (and all the other classic Christian jargon phrases).
It doesn’t mean that I’ve somehow missed the truth, or the ‘anointing’ (in fact, it doesn’t mean I’m not anointed or gifted, it doesn’t mean I’m not following the leading of the Holy Spirit, it doesn’t mean I’m listening to ‘other voices’ or that I’m ‘deceived’ and it certainly does not mean that I can not still be ‘salt and light’). I grew up under the teaching that Christians who didn’t go to church weren’t ‘real’ Christians. That if we were to be truly ‘walking in the light’, we had to be – or we would be – in church on Sunday, and several other days. We might have our ticket to heaven but that’s all it was, if we weren’t in church. If we wanted to grow, if we wanted to see God move, or experience the Holy Spirit, or see miracles, or pursue our true calling – then regular church attendance was a must. To step outside of that was to step outside of God’s will. But none of this jives with my experience, now that I find myself standing on the other side.
So if this is all news to you… come have a cuppa and a conversation with me sometime, I’ll share my story with you, and you can share yours with me, and we’ll both laugh and cry and pray and sip and drink together.
We’ll be church, in that moment.
That’s part of the beauty and mess and struggle and glory of being a human being. We actually have to get to know people. We can assume all we like, but that’s no basis for a relationship. And a church without relationship is just a Sunday Club.
So, pull up a seat.
I’ll go put the kettle on.
In the process of putting this post together, I canvassed others for their thoughts. Here’s a few extras:
Just because I don’t go to church, it doesn’t mean…
“…that I’ve lost my faith, just that right now the church isn’t the place for me to find God’s love and spiritual fulfillment.”
“…that I don’t have a faith in something… that I don’t believe… maybe sit down and have a chat to me before you judge..”
“…that I’m burning bridges”
“…that I get to sleep in on Sundays”
“…that I’ve left my faith. I’m just exploring why I believe what I do (or even if I still do)”
“…that I think all churches are stupid places full of stupid people, or that I’m possessed, or that I’m fickle and left because the church ‘didn’t suit my taste.'”
“…that I’m miserable. Doesn’t mean that my reasons for doing so were simply ones of rebellion or ‘temptation’ (they weren’t). Doesn’t mean I am rejecting those who still do, nor that I no longer want to be friends with them.”
“… that you have the right to bring out scripture to force me to feel bad about not attending.”
“…that I don’t take my faith seriously.”
“… that I’m rebellious, lost or ignorant.”
“…that I’m unsafe to be around your family.”
“…that I think I’m better than you or have it all figured out.”
“…that I hate church.”
“…that I need fixing, it doesn’t make me dangerous, doesn’t mean I’m un-relatable. It doesn’t make me a lost cause, a ministry project, a bad seed. It doesn’t mean I’m sinning, it doesn’t mean I’m bored, it doesn’t make me less than (you).”
I’d love to hear your thoughts too, won’t you leave a comment at let me know you were here?
[All images via flickr. Click individual images for credit]