I am more committed to Christian togetherness than might be assumed by a casual observer—in part, because I don’t actually talk about it much. To consider aligning with, regularly assembling with, and working alongside others is no light or inconsequential undertaking! It can be wearisome to explain the mental, spiritual, and physical toil involved in searching for a group of Christians to which to belong. This enterprise runs deep, requiring thoroughgoing thought and enduring energy. The very idea of passively allowing geography, denominational history, or the availability of “programs” to make a choice for me is not really an option. I shared prior thoughts in these two posts:
The crisis of ministry
Musings on ministry and membership
Reactions to those have been mixed, and I’ve wished at times that I had quashed the inner drive to speak “prophetically” and the desire to be understood in this sphere. I didn’t have to make this so publicly explicit by blogging about it, but it is not out of character, given my “earnestly speaking” modus operandi, to attempt to say something that I believe is (a) important and (b) on the right track. Words like these can be misread—or perfectly read and sincerely criticized. Critical attention is never any fun, although it can be helpful. Something in me craves new or renewed connections with various souls, so the effort is worth it to me. It might at times be that two will talk past one another or simply turn away, coming from vastly different vantage points. Perhaps simpatico and/or a potential for synergy might be revealed. In a rare case, could someone actually be taught or influenced for good through a blog?
Sarah, a friend of nearly ten years with whom our family has shared a great deal, wrote something I want to spotlight:
“Struggling with similar things lately too. I think there is so much to be said about attending the church in one’s neighborhood regardless of minor differences to be connected to those who are literally one’s neighbors and to be serving in one’s physical community, but I don’t know if that’s enough for me. I think I feel guilty about that. The churches in my physical neighborhood feel uncomfortable…preaching that is shallow at best, congregation lacking young families, significant theological differences, and worship style and preferences that leave me bored and/or cringing. We have been attending a church 45 minutes away that just instantly felt like home in every aspect, but it’s hard to be involved and active while living at a distance. Tough. Do I sacrifice the potential for far greater spiritual growth and vibrant fellowship for the sake of what I think I’m “supposed” to do (plug in to The Church as it exists in my neighborhood)? How will that choice affect my daughter as she grows?”
Probably no surprise to anyone who read the first posting, Sarah’s response reverberated in me at a forte dynamic level. Poignantly and succinctly, she has touched on concerns such as standards and traditions, geography and distance, guilt feelings, service/ministry, preferences/styles, and the intersection of church choice with parenting. Here, I’d like to echo her good thoughts (con forza e con espressione!) and say a little more before putting these topics to rest for a while.
Communities and neighborhoods. I know something about Sarah’s locale, but I don’t know her family’s neighborhood intimately. I can really only speak to my own area, also drawing from past experience in other regions. I perceive, sometimes to my shame, that my neighbors (in the most obvious sense) are not often the types of people to whom I readily, naturally gravitate. The lifestyles of some appear to be undesirable or overtly sinful, or their families are broken because of criminal drug use, or their properties are not cared for, or their children are unkempt. Of course they need friends and they need Jesus, but it’s not always the easiest proposition to deal with that need. Children that behave poorly require too much of the attention in school, and it’s not exactly easy to put one’s child (or oneself) in the middle of more bad-behavior examples in the neighborhood.
Further complicating these critical feelings in me, I sometimes detect a “boot straps” self-sufficiency and a leave-me-alone quality in many residents of my area. I don’t know whether it’s the Germanic heritage, the effects of windy or stormy weather, the legacy of a historically agricultural setting, or what, but I find many people unapproachable. Put another way: it’s at least as difficult as it is in East Coast Suburbia to get to know my neighbors. One more thing: where we are, the preponderance of Roman Catholic and Lutheran heritage appears to breed a steely unwillingness to consider anything else.
“Feeling uncomfortable.” Beyond the neighborhood, there can be a palpable sense of discomfort in a sanctuary or church hall—or, on the other hand, one can just as easily experience an inviting, energized vibe. I think that some personalities tend to minimize these factors. It is not insignificant for others of us. This is not really the type of discomfort that Sarah referenced, but If I feel like a fifth wheel or an alien within a given group, I feel a tremendous inertia when considering either serving/ministering or being ministered to. Such discomfort is just a part of the picture, and it’s partly mental, but it’s no less real, and sometimes, the chemistry just isn’t there. Sometimes one just gets a feeling upon walking into a place. We’ve had instantly positive ones (at least one each in Sheridan, Searcy, and Atchison areas) but also instantly negative ones, some of which led to hasty exits.
A lack of families. A family that moved away was one of three with a child roughly Jedd’s age. We haven’t been back since, and I feel that we could be viewed as shallow ourselves since we were ostensibly going there partly for that relationship. How childish of us. Or maybe not. Maybe it’s more about the “vibrancy” to which Sarah referred—and the deep desire for connection. It is not necessary to have organized youth groups or children’s Bible school programs or senior citizens’ programs, but it’s generally a sign of health if a congregation has a range of ages and a balanced demographic. Families with young children should be careful not to regale middle-aged or single folks with constant talk about their children, thinking it’s all about them, but it should be acknowledged that, for young families themselves, the likelihood of connection is increased if there are multiple young families in a group.
Shallow preaching. Shallowness has sometimes played a role in narrowing our choices. It would be unthinkable for us to align in any sense with a church that regularly featured shallow teaching; the churches that stand out positively in our minds do have fairly strong public teachers/preachers. I fully recognize that many churches are not blessed with gifted communicators, and I lament with Sarah the prospect of having to try to gain nutrients from the tripe or high fructose corn syrup offered from some pulpits.
It might seem a strange question to some, but I nonetheless feel the need to probe. . . . Because of preaching’s ubiquity and the proportion of time it typically receives, it typically garners a lot of attention when a family is trying to decide on a church. Notably, the church groups spawned after the Protestant Reformation are distinguished from Roman and Eastern churches by an emphasis on public teaching as opposed to liturgical ritual. Luther, Calvin, and others therefore played significant roles in the rise and eventual enshrinement of preaching and preachers. I judge that preaching as a method is greatly exaggerated and has itself become an institution within the institutional church. It is what it is, but the reality continues to warrant reconsideration.
Theological differences. Within some churches of my heritage (not necessarily those I’ve been a part of myself), “theological differences” might be reduced to “worship style” wars or other puddle-depth considerations such as whether to have a kitchen in the building or whether to support para-church agencies. But Sarah is one who knows well that there really are significant theological differences that tend to affect many things. For instance, I experience sea-depth differences with a person who is interested in starting Bible study opportunities at one of the five churches I wrote about, and I know that there would not be room enough for the two of us in such an enterprise. I could not even sit in a class with him. Everything this person says smacks of a bent I cannot accept, and vice versa. This fact does not damn either of us, but it makes it nearly impossible to work together in the same place.
Distance. In our case, a couple of churches, including one I didn’t mention, are 25 or more miles away. There are additional options at that distance—larger groups that would offer us more spiritual food and, in one case, more opportunity for corporate worship output. We have traveled 40 miles one-way for more than year, and 65 miles for the better part of four years in another location. Now, one church under current consideration is a 10-minute family walk away. What are we “supposed” to do with that?
Cringing. I was initially surprised when I read that Sarah sometimes cringes, because I know her enthusiastically positive demeanor. But I know she is a thinker and a devoted disciple who also has some opinions once in a while . . . so my “hmmm” reaction turns out not to be paradoxical after all. It’s rare in my experience that someone uses the term “cringe” to describe feelings and inner reactions to church, but I myself so immediately get this that I want to stand up and shout, “Amen! There are others of us out here who cringe inwardly and sometimes outwardly when your churches do weird, meaningless, or adulterated things in the name of God!”
Thus ends this series of membership and ministry. Perhaps in the future I’ll document some experiences from gatherings in Kenya and at camps, in rec rooms and at retreats—or perhaps I’ll point longingly to the open-fellowship chapel groups in Jefferson City, MO or Alfred, NY. Even more likely, I’ll continue to move in the direction of simple/organic church. Those who don’t really share the feelings and longings shared in this three-part series are in a large majority, and I don’t even mind if you pity me from afar! If you don’t “get” or can’t support our struggles, that’s okay. Perhaps you could consider it an illuminating experience in someone else’s sandals.