About three years ago, I decided I wasn’t going to go to Church anymore. Like many of you, I grew up going to church…. But like many of you, there came a time when it just didn’t work for me anymore. There were parts I still loved–the music, the fellowship, the friends–but I was just so sick of being disappointed every week. Things were getting more and more political (in the worst way), and it began to sound like folks believed that God rewarded “the faithful” by making them rich. There was a disturbing sense of certainty that is not uncommon in conservative Churches…. but it was more than just conservative vs. liberal, or any of those clumsy labels. Really, at the heart of it was a difference in our understanding of who God is, and it became harder and harder to reconcile a picture of a God that seemed so starkly different than “the Image of God” I understood Jesus to be. I was okay feeling like a missionary to conservative Christians at first, but after a while it just made me feel exhausted. And I gave up…. Not on God, but I sure gave up on Church.
Just about everyone has been hurt by a church at one point or another–Many of us more than once. Maybe it wasn’t the actual Church leadership that hurt you. Maybe it was just a person who was trying to rationalize their hatred with some random Bible verse. Maybe it was a denomination that views change and reform as something to be feared and demonized, instead of something that has been part of our history all along. Maybe it was a tradition that reads the Bible like an accounting ledger instead of a book of poetry. Maybe you were like me, and you stayed in a faith community long past the point you knew it wasn’t where you belonged (but you lingered because of relationships or inertia or whatever), and it took something awful (like an Easter service where no mention of the resurrection is made, but 45 minutes is spent talking about stories of financial success that came about by faithful tithing) that leaves your eyes filled with tears and your mouth filled with promises never to return. We’ve all been hurt…. But that’s to be expected, because the Church isn’t a building–It’s people. And where there are people, people are going to end up getting hurt. It’s what we do.
Some Churches feel the need to draw firm lines of orthodoxy so that everyone knows who’s in and who’s out. And for some people, those Churches that preach certainty are exactly what they are looking for. If that’s what works for you right now, great! I know that God is capable of doing really amazing things in the lives of the people at all kinds of places of worship. And one cool thing is if you are looking for a church that is all about how wrong the other churches out there are getting it, I’ve got some good news for you: There are a whole lot of churches out there for you. But if you’re anything like me, and these fear-based places just don’t cut it anymore, I’ve also got some good news for you: There are Churches out there for you as well. I know–I have finally found one, and it is like a breath of fresh air. In finding a Church which I can not only put up with, but one I actually look forward to, I have learned a few helpful tips in the process that might help you in your search as well. I’d like to share them with you:
TALK TO PEOPLE–This may seem simple, but talk to people about your frustrations with Church. Don’t be ashamed, you are not alone. If the person you’re talking to tries to correct your errant ideas with “the clear teachings of scripture,” keep looking. If the person you’re talking to actually listens to you, it’s a step in the right direction. If you find that the person you are talking to had a lot of the same frustrations as you, and he or she found their Church to be a really welcoming place, there’s a chance you might find it to be a safe place as well.
CHECK OUT THE WEBSITE–It’s hard to get an idea of what a Church is like from a website, but you can get some clues. Many sites have videos…. Watch them. Look at the pictures…. Is there any diversity in color or age? Read the bios of the pastors. My wife decided she was willing to give our Church a try partially because the worship pastor listed “Justin Timberlake and Macklemore” under the question “What music are you listening to right now?” Look for clues. Again, labels can be very clumsy, but if you are a person who generally likes what I write, a “progressive” Church might be a better fit. If you find me infuriating and blasphemous, a progressive Church might not work. (As an aside, if you see the phrase “Bible-Believing,” be aware: This is Church code for “We’re right, and everyone else is going to Hell.”)
VISIT THE CHURCH–Duh, right? But you’ve got to go. Sometimes, you can tell right away that it’s not a good fit. Like if you drive up and see an American flag the size of a tennis court flying next to the Church, you should probably just skip and go straight to Chipotle for lunch (the lines get long on Sundays). Look for bumper stickers…. Do the ones that you see generally piss you off? That’s not a good sign. For me, there are some things that I just can’t deal with…. Like, if you even get a hint–A HINT!–that they are selling the story that God is going to somehow make you rich because of the money that you give to the church, RUN, do not walk, toward the exits, hustle to your car, let your car door swing open so wildly that it accidentally puts a ding in the Escalade parked next to you, and try another church next week. Treating the tithe like a hot stock tip is just a deal breaker.
MEET PEOPLE–Shake some hands, make eye contact…. Did people say hello? Were people friendly without being creepy? Was everyone wearing the same color Converse high tops? Did things feel inclusive or exclusive? Did conversations feel comfortable or pushy? Were the people in charge of taking care of your kids competent and kind? Did your kids enjoy their class? This one may take a few visits to get a handle on and navigate, but basically–Did you feel welcome and were people nice, or did you feel like an outsider?
LISTEN TO THE MUSIC–For many (myself included), music is a very important part of the service. Listen to what is being sung…. Does it sound true to you? Some people are like, “I could never go to a Church with drums and a guitar.” Others roll their eyes at the sight of an organ or choir robes. Here is my advice: Do not make a rash decision about the church based on how “contemporary” the worship is. Give it time…. Some Churches with old, conservative-sounding worship are as liberal as they come with their theology. And vice versa. Just listen and give it a chance. It is the heart of worship that matters.
LISTEN TO THE SERMON–Did it speak to you? Did the pastor portray God as someone Jesus saves us FROM, or reconciles us TO? Do they tackle the hard questions? And probably more importantly: Do they do it with a sense of humility? When they get to the parts that are hard to make sense of (and believe me, there are a lot of them), do they acknowledge and even welcome that tension? Or do they handle that tension with a big fat “Because God says so when He wrote it in the Bible.” There are plenty of “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” sort-of-churches out there, but many of us are finding that model just doesn’t work anymore. The name “Israel” means “to wrestle with God.” We come from a very long tradition of things not being perfectly clear.
TALK TO PEOPLE IN LEADERSHIP–Talk to the pastor…. Is he or she accessible? Ask about other Churches in town…. Are they honoring of other faith traditions? Ask the pastor what he or she thinks of an author or a prominent church voice that you are familiar with or even agree with…. Do they even know who that person is? Sometimes ignorance can be just as telling as a difference of opinion. And if you’re really feeling brave, ask them how they feel about the LGBT community. I know that for most people, this one issue is not the most important consideration when finding a Church (unless you happen to be gay and looking for a Church, in which case it is VERY important), but it IS a sort of litmus test. If a Church is accepting and affirming gay folks, chances are pretty good that it is going to be the sort of community that welcomes questions. And even doubts…. Two things you might have plenty of if you are anything like me.
So if you are one of those people–people like me–who gave up on Church, but didn’t give up on God, I want to encourage you: You don’t HAVE to give up on Church! There are places for you out there, they’re just a little bit harder to find. We need Church. This journey toward God, this recognition of God’s journey toward us, this letting go of the lies we’ve believed, this learning to love and forgive–We were not meant to do this alone. The one thing that God looked at in the creation story and said, “This isn’t good” about is the man trying to do it on his own. We were meant for community. And as much as we need that Church community, the world need us to be a different picture of the love of God–A God that says, “Do not be afraid! I’ve got some good news of great joy that will be for ALL PEOPLE.” The voices telling of an exclusionary God are loud enough…. The world needs to hear our voices as well, proclaiming a gospel of inclusion that actually sounds like good news. And we’re way louder when we proclaim it together.
***As a Post Script, if you are in the Nashville/Franklin area and you’re looking for a really cool Church community, GracePointe Church is fantastic. In addition, if you are a reader from other areas, and this description sounds like your Church, feel free to leave the name & area of that Church, just in case other people in your area are looking for a safe place to land.