Saturday, January 13, 2007

Unchurched

I went to church for the third time in a month today. I'm intending to go again.

I know. I have said lots of stuff about churches that might make that a bit surprising. I am a person who has been away from churches for a long time. Unfortunately, some quite terrible things have happened in a church context, both to me and to people that I love. For that reason, and other reasons too, I largely stopped going to church for the last 15 years. I do not think that I was wrong to make that decision.

But I think that I would like to try to make my way back. I would like to try to give them another chance. A guarded, wary kind of a chance, but a chance nonetheless. Because I am trying, in a sense, to give God more of a chance.

And I'm not sure that I can just do that in a solitary way, by myself. I think community is important, even if I'm not that keen on religious institutions. And I would like to give my little boy a chance to experience some of the good things I also experienced at church. I think that I would be wrong to deprive my little son of those things because of stuff that has nothing to do with him.

It's not easy for me to come back. And one of the barriers is that I am pretty sure plenty of church members would consider me to be somehow inadequate. A heretic and an unbeliever, among other things. Quite honestly, I think my theology is, if not exactly orthodox in a churchy kind of way, well within mainstream theological opinion. But a lot of Christians won't agree with me on that and I'm sure they won't hesitate to say so.

I also know that I am a lot of other things that those kind of people don't like. An unmarried, de facto mother of a sperm donor IVF baby, among other things. Once again, I don't think my relationships to my partner and baby are illegitimate, uncommitted or even all that unusual, but I appreciate that my choices aren't ones they'd advocate. Also, I'm opinionated. I can be very irritating that way.

So, to tell you the truth, I would like to go to church because I need certain things - encouragment, support, community, spirituality. But I am wary of going because I'm not sure that a church is actually a safe place for me to be, especially in my current state of mind.

I see a certain divide that is not easy to cross - not for them and not for me, either.

And there are certain words I do not want to hear: words like heretic, unbeliever, disobedient and not a proper Christian. I do not think that people who use those kinds of words truly understand their impact. They think they are defending the truth, and perhaps they are. But they are also excluding people like me who are trying to come back, possibly in a half-assed sort of way, because they are essentially saying "If you don't believe this particular thing right now" or "If you don't act in this particular way right now", "then you aren't one of us, we won't accept you, we won't listen to anything you have to say and we don't want you. Conform or leave".

They see no legitimate half way point. They don't seem able to see that a person met half way might eventually find a way to come back. They turn what they might ideally want that person to do into a sort of minimum requirement. And in that way, they make the journey back, already quite tricky, so discouraging that it becomes impossible.

Or they might get frustrated with me because I might not come all the way back. I might hang around in the margins, loving some things about church community and hating other things. Turning up sometimes and disappearing sometimes. But my presence there, on the margins, might be good for me and possibly good for the church, too.

I feel kind of fed up that it should be this difficult. Because I do not believe that the Jesus who ate with tax-collectors and prostitutes and felt very free to criticise the religious institutions of his day would really find it so difficult to accept someone like me. I think he and I would have a lot to say to each other.

But then, I accept that I would not come away from that experience unchanged.

I accept that if I am too defensive in my attempt to go back, then there's not much point.

So, as you can see, I am deeply ambivalent about this.

So I am sort of trying it out. As a friend of mine once said, in a very different context, you have to suck it and see.

But I have a kind of bottom line in my mind. I am open to being changed by God, and even by going to church, otherwise there is no point in going. But it has to be the real me. I get that I can't just fling angry accusations at churches and expect them to still accept me, but I can't just try to fit in or appear to agree when I don't. Because that would turn me into a fake.

Frankly, I have a tendency to fakery. Because I secretly want everyone to like and approve of me. I am a people-pleaser by nature.

But I need to not be a fake more than I need to go to church.

17 Comments:

Blogger Fusion said...

I am undergoing my own crisis of church, not faith. I have only been back to church once since my wife died. and it's not because i'm mad at God, or my church body. It just doesn't feel right for me, for now. I have never believed in alot of the docrine that I am "suppose" to support as a Christian. When I went to service, it was to feel closer to God, not to agree that we should force a women to have a child she doesn't want just because the church says so. Many churches will welcome you in, then try to fit you into their round or square pegs, and if you don't fit in or fall out, they cast you off. My Mom was osterized from her church of 15 years when she was divorced years ago and she never went back to a church ever. It's hard for my son to go because he is gay.
I believe in God, but I don't know if I'll be going back to any house of worship soon. Time will tell.
Emily, you may be finding your time is coming, and if so, I hope you can find a place that won't judge you. They are out there, practicing the compassion that Jesus taught. All my best on your search.

BTW, thanks for your nice comments on my blog. You can call me Fusion!

12:25 AM  
Blogger Rob said...

"And one of the barriers is that I am pretty sure plenty of church members would consider me to be somehow inadequate."

Now you see Em, here is where I think differently from you and the previous commenter (no, not the spammer dip-stick commenter, the other more mature one). I see church attendance as an opportunity for you to speak privately to your God, whomever he or she may be (and who is to say that God has a gender, as we know the term). I do not see my attending church as having to please or kow-tow to anyone else. It's there for what you personally get out of it, to give you moral spiritual inner strength, if possible. And sure, you may do all those activities in solitude, as you may have done in the past, but doing it along with others, and associating with others of like faith and humility certainly doesn't hurt, agree?

You are no more inadequate in God's eyes than anyone else around you, clergy included. Scripture plainly makes that message crystal clear. So don't worry about trying to fully please others (that just can never be 100% possible anyway), just be true and pleasing to your inner self first. Everything else is just "small stuff" anyway.

11:50 AM  
Blogger aphron said...

Firstly, read Paul. He always felt like he was inadequate. He was always feeling that he was doing nothing right. He is the one that fleshed out the Christian movement, yet he never felt perfect.

Secondly, churches have personalities. Although churches are supposed to be helping people come to the Kingdom of God, many fall very short of that. Religious people (of any faith) can become self-righteous. They can start looking down their nose at others.

Personally, the more I study, the more I feel it is impossible to be one with God. That is where His grace comes into play. A good church will aid you and give you strength. It will be there in your times of trouble. Good luck on your faith journey.

10:29 AM  
Blogger F2 said...

I do believe that you and Jesus have a lot to talk about! I hope you can find a place -- church or not -- to have that conversation. As you said, you will leave changed.

I don't know what else to say as I have some of the very same frustrations about the "chruch" as you do. Regrettably, some of those same frustrations with Myself, as well.

Just remember that the church does not speak for God, they are just people. Imperfect as we all are. Don't let their reaction (negative or positive) affect you on this journey.

Best wishes!

11:07 AM  
Blogger Cat said...

I don't see ambivalence at all you seem to be trying to find a place. Trying to work it all out. I hope you find the right church or find a way to be ok without church. I guess I am saying I hope you find the correct path for you.

3:26 PM  
Blogger trueself said...

Emily,
I could have easily written much of this post some years ago. What I found though is that although there are the type of Christians that you and I fear, there are also Christians out there that understand that we are all unique individuals with unique circumstances and are accepting of us no matter our situations and circumstances. I know I found a comfortable home in the United Church of Christ. I don't know if this denomination has congregations where you are, but if they do you might check them out.
{{{Hugs}}} from another imperfect Christian.

P.S.
I think God is a lot more loving, forgiving and caring than a lot of "Christians" out there.

6:00 AM  
Blogger Finished Last said...

Wow I could comment for hours but I won't. Is the church you are attending more liberal or evangelical in its theology? if it is the latter than you will probably face one of two scenarios. the first would be the most tragic and that is the people there will very quickly let you know that they do not approve of your lifestyle and you would probably fell more "comfortable" elsewhere . (A position which cannot be supported by Scripture in any way shape or form) The second is that you will be welcome and invited to come often. you will be seen as a mission field and an opportunity for them to express the love of Christ with a view of converting you. Now when I say convert I do not mean necessarily in the sense of making you agree with all of their points of view but rather to come to a place where you place you faith and trust in Jesus Christ for your salvation. The lifestyle issues will come after that because none of that really matters anyway if you don't "know the Lord". They won;t be doing this because they feel offended by you but because they honestly believe that convincing you if your need for Christ is the most loving thing they can do for you.

7:25 AM  
Blogger FTN said...

Emily, I was all ready to jump on you about how you seemed so stubburn and angry about your previous church experiences... until I saw this:

But then, I accept that I would not come away from that experience unchanged.

That's perfect. I apologize. You are going into it with the right attitude, I believe. This is who I am. If I'm going to be changed, it'll be by God, not by an old lady who doesn't like the clothes I'm wearing.

Your discussion of community is a double-edged sword. The church IS community. It's not just a building to go to "get in touch with a higher power." The church is the community of people, encouraging each other, supporting each other, laughing and eating together in one another's homes. But at the same time, there will always be a few people that don't exemplify Christ's love very well.

And if I may, I'll apologize for them in advance.

12:43 PM  
Blogger Unspoken Drama said...

I'm a new reader but your post struck me. I can sympathize with you as I've been there done that. If the "people" of the church can't accept you as you are, you need to keep looking for the right church. My pastor always says that we need to be right in our relationship with Jesus. It doesn't matter what the "Women's Group" thinks or anyone else thinks. It's all about the one on one relationship with Him. It's very easy to feel like you're not measuring up when there are implied rules. My old pastor's favorite saying was 'Our church is more like a hospital rather than a museum. You come here to find what you're missing in your life, not to show off how good you already are'. The right church will make you feel welcome no matter your lifestyle, beliefs, or anything. There is a song that I love by Todd Agnew called, "My Jesus". It really hits home. Here is a link to the words: http://klove.com/lyrics/lyrics.asp?2458

If you'd like to talk further, feel free to email me. I've struggled with the whole church thing and finally found a place I can call home. It wasn't an easy journey and has taken me about 15 years to get to that point. Good luck!
-Drama

2:21 PM  
Blogger Seeker said...

As a churchgoer myself, I find it very sad that Christian congregations often show so little love that potential members feel they are going to be judged and made to feel outsiders. I hope and pray that you will find a church where you feel comfortable and accepted as the good person you truly are.

Unspoken Drama, thanks so much for the link to the words of 'My Jesus'. If anybody wants to hear the song, I have discovered that you can do so at Todd Agnew's MySpace page.

Take care.

3:01 AM  
Blogger Christian Husband said...

Well, since it seemed to me that so very much of this was directed my direction I thought I'd comment.

There is a distinct difference between having a detailed, high-level, academic debate on theology with anonymous people online and interacting on a personal and emotional level with people in real life. The rules of engagement are different.

I can tell you that my church does not practice closed communion and doesn't in any way grill people when they come in. When someone new comes in they are welcomed. We get to know them. Someone will generally take them out to lunch or whatever. We encourage them to come back. Come back too many times and you might be asked to, say, teach one of the kids classes. Or help out putting sack lunches together for our homeless outreach. We'll pull you in, make you feel at home, and put you to work.

And I like it this way. I wouldn't have it any other way. I get horribly frustrated that I would actually love to visit some other churches in our area just to see what I can see, get to know the people, find common ground whatever and know that this is problematic because I would not be really welcomed until I get checked out and judged worthy.

Christ Himself NEVER compromised on the truth and never pulled any punches about it. He certainly wasn't afraid of offending people. His disciples followed His example and held up The Truth as something they must defend.

Yet, on a personal level, Christ showed grace and kindness. He told His disciples in the famous parable of the wheat and the weeds that His church will never be perfect and that there will always be weeds sown among the wheat, yet that they themselves were not to go weed them out because they were unable to tell the difference and would uproot the good plants along with the bad.

Paul held to the same dichotomy. On one hand the church is the "pillar and rampart of the Truth" and doctrine must be closely guarded. On the other, he told the Corinthians that they were unable to judge ANYONE's salvation, even their own. In that passage he said, "I do not even judge myself."

These two ideas are absolutely in tension. We, as people, want to resolve the tension by letting one dominate. One choice is to make truth everything and so church is only for the perfect elite (as demonstrated by one Puritan minister in colonial New England I remember reading about who, at one point, felt he was only able to have communion with his own wife and children because everyone else was too wrong). The other option is to make truth nothing and accept every opinion as equally fine.

Neither attitude is what we are called to. We are called to keep the tension. To live in the tension. To realize that God has a perfect standard and that this standard doesn't change for us, yet, in humility, to admit that none of us will ever reach that standard. That the differences between the greatest Christian alive and the worst unbeliever is a difference in degree not in kind. That we human beings are all cut from one cloth. That we are all imperfect, finite, fallen, and corrupt so nobody has any place for arrogance. That we all by nature need God's grace and we all need it in equal amounts.

Tension. Believe in the truth and defend it to the extent that you are able to understand and believe it. Yet understand that all human understanding is limited and imperfect and, in some fashion, incorrect. Defend God's perfect standards, yet understand that you too (me too) never come close to reaching it.

Therefore, there is no place for elitism. There is no place for denying people the support and community Christ's church gives simply on the basis of human weakness. If we did, none of us would be worthy of going.

Where removal from fellowship (which would include not being open and inclusive) is ever advocated, encouraged, or even allowed is in cases of open rebelliousness. Someone being imperfect is no justification for it. Someone being in error is no justification for it. Someone doing something wrong is no justification for it.

The only justification for it is when someone knows something is wrong and is doing it anyway not because they are weak but because they simply don't care. Because they by their actions still declare themselves their own sovereign, instead of giving that mastery to God. It is only cases of open defiance that it is ever to be used.

But getting anywhere near that takes a whole lot of getting to know someone. It takes a whole lot of seeing someone for who they are because you have a relationship with them. It also must come after things like patiently exhorting them and pleading with them. Which, again, is meaningless without a relationship.

Any church that doesn't welcome you (or anyone else) with open arms the minute you walk through the door has issues. Bigger issues, in my opinion, than you have, and we've been around the ring a few times with each other so I hope that says something. Any church that wouldn't want to get to know you, bring you into the community, and establish a real honest and heart-felt relationship with you before ever in any way trying to convince you to change isn't any church I'd recognize as valid, no matter how orthodox their statements of faith is.

It reminds me of a passage from Philemon where Paul says, "I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ."

There is a difference between knowing these things and knowing them. You can sit down and read a book about how to snow ski, but there is a difference in that sort of knowledge and the knowledge that comes from getting on the slopes and DOING it. You can't truly say to understand it until you live it. You can't truly say to BELIEVE it, until it impacts your actions.

You can "believe" all you want in man's fallen nature, the universiality of sin, the need for grace in Christ; but until you show this belief by how you treat others -- by showing that you understand that all this applies to you too as much as to anyone -- then you can't really say to believe it. Until you show it by your humility and by your graciousness and your forgiveness and your understanding of where people are coming from, then you don't believe it.

Churches (and people) can claim to believe a lot of things. None of that is meaningful until they show it by how they behave; and any church that doesn't show Christ's love and grace through their acceptance of real, honest-to-God sinners doesn't believe in any of it. Anyone that shows elitism, that says you can't be a part of it until you reach their level of "perfection" is an unbeliever. Plain and simple.

I sincerely and with all my heart apologize if I came across in this way. No, let me not pull any punches with myself, if I WAS this way. I, too, am a very imperfect sinner. I, too, am so very, very far from the example of my Christ and Lord. He could truly "speak the Truth in love" with all grace. I fall far from the mark.

To try and save what little face I deserve, I WILL say that dealing with me in person is a bit different. Dealing with me in a non-debate forum is a bit different. The realm of ideas is different from the realm of true interpersonal interaction and kind of needs to be by its very nature. But that still doesn't excuse a lack of grace on my part.

We've all got issues. We all have flaws. We all have those thorns-in-the-flesh that show us we are merely human. I hope you can forgive mine. Not that I worry about it -- showing grace and charity and patience definately doesn't seem to be YOUR issue, at least from what I can tell from your blog. In that respect -- one among many I would imagine -- you are the better person than I am. You are the better example of Christ than I am.

3:02 PM  
Blogger Fiona said...

Emily....are you OK? I miss you!!!

3:35 AM  
Blogger Fiona said...

OK....whoever took Emily....give her back to us right now!!!!

2:51 AM  
Blogger flutterby said...

Emily,

You alright, Boo? Just want to check in on you cause it's supposed to be me who's the slacker and doesn't blog for a week at a time. You? Not so much. And let's face it, my day just isn't the same without a bit of Aussie sunshine.

At least let us know that everything's alright, kay?

8:38 PM  
Blogger Fusion said...

What she said!

10:43 PM  
Blogger Emily said...

Hi there

Yes, I'm back and I'm fine. I was just very busy moving house and had no internet access.

I should have left a note before disappearing. Thanks for worrying about me!

E xox

10:19 PM  
Blogger Emily said...

ps XH - Thanks for your note.

I'm sure you realize that, while I was a little steamed about the unbeliever tag, that was all about my own past and my current ambivalence about trying church again, and really had very little to do with you. So, really, there is nothing to forgive.

Quite honestly, I consider you a worthy opponent and will cheerfully go a few more rounds with you at a time when I am feeling a little less ... defensive.

10:25 PM  

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