The Anatomy of a Church Search

Dissection was never my favorite science lab. I appreciate the value of it in theory. Just don’t hand me the knife.

Still, sometimes a dissection is the best way to learn how things are structured—a frog, a pig, a human body—after that structure no longer serves its original purpose. So now that my family has found a new church home, I’ve been thinking about the structure and shape of our multi-year search. What worked? What didn’t? What did I learn, about God, myself, Christianity as practiced in my sliver of the cosmos?

It’s painful to remember.

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To begin: Watch our beloved church split. It was a bit like watching a person die, in that it was almost impossible to see the exact moment when our unity died. All I know is that one day, I woke up to find myself a stranger in my church. It was like someone had changed the boundary between the U.S. and Mexico, and overnight I was an alien in a foreign country even though I hadn’t moved.

Grapple with questions. Uncertainty. Anger. And always, under it all, depression, one that threatened to cover me. Quit work on my third novel, mid-first draft. Contemplate taking down my blog. What’s the use?

Remain silent about my depressive episode at church. There was no one left to tell.

Realize that we need a new church.

Take a deep breath, make a game plan, consider where to visit. Hear invitations from friends:

“Come visit, we’d love to have you!”

Week 1, visit Church #1. Traditional service, older congregation. Feel the novelty of a different style of service, the warmth of greetings, and a jolt of relief at what is absent: talk about church conflict. My children are baffled by the organ and unfamiliar hymns.

Week 2, visit Church #2. Contemporary service, congregation based on small groups, not Sunday school. Feel rejected. Miscalculate driving time, arrive too early, and sit in a coffee-bar styled narthex for a long time. No one speaks to us. My children complain that the music was too loud.

Week 3, visit Church #3. Blended service. The church meets in an elementary school cafeteria. It’s a church plant from our old church, so we know some people. Feel welcomed. I wonder if this is it? Is this home?

Week 4, visit Church #4. This, too, is a plant from the old church, who partnered with several other congregations to start a church in this area of town. I enjoy the service, but my children complain about the loud music.

Week 5, revisit Church #3. We stay there for two-to-three months. It’s a long drive, and despite the apparent friendliness of the congregation, I have a hard time connecting.

Truthfully, I’m having a hard time overall. My previous life had revolved around home and church. I lost all my friends when the church split, and I didn’t have anything to mitigate my loneliness. I hadn’t grieved the split, the loss of friends, the loss of a place where I had felt accepted.

Back to Church #1. Stay there long enough to realize that we weren’t making friendships.

Go to house church. No. The less said, the better.

Go to Megachurch. Try four Sunday school classes before one class is friendly to us. We settle for the next few months. After a while, certain teachings ruffle my feathers (or, more accurately, pluck them out altogether). But where can we go that we haven’t already gone?

Another school year begins. The school system goes wonky and my previously school-loving kids come home each day whining, “We hate school.” At Christmas, we transfer the kids to a private school far away from our home. The transfer is a success: both kids make friends, are adequately challenged in their academic studies, want to be involved in extracurricular activities. But the drive is a hassle. The house goes on the market. Sells in a month. We move out one day, close on two houses the next, and move in a third day.

And I start looking for a church alone.

At some point, I look in the church directory published in our weekly newspaper. A full third of the area churches are Southern Baptist; another third are Church of Christ; the final third is an assortment of conservative denominations and non-denominational startups run by people younger than me.

Church #6 is recommended by my psychiatrist. It’s small-group based. That means that if you’re not in a small group, everyone will ignore you, even if you tell the smiling greeter that it’s your first time in the building. This happens two Sundays. So even though the preaching is excellent, I don’t return for a third visit.

Church #7 is recommended a new neighbor. It’s decent. But no one but my neighbor talks to me, and the sermon feels a bit more inspired by Guideposts than Scripture.

Church #8 is an unfamiliar denomination, with a liturgical service (a new thing for me) in an extremely small church. Even though everyone is friendly, there are hardly any children, and none that are my daughters’ ages.

Week Number-I-Lost-Count: I melt down after my husband and kids leave for the megachurch. I thought I would return to the liturgical church, but I can’t bear to walk into a building by myself again.

That week, my mother took takes the girls to the pool and meets a member of Church #3, who invites us back to that church. They’re moving into a building—no more sharing space with school cafeteria equipment—and our new house is close.

Why not?

And that’s where we have been for the past year-and-a-half.

It’s been three years since we started looking for a church. The kids like it, especially the almost-teenage girl. My husband works in the nursery and has friends there. Me?

I like the music.

I like the preaching.

I dread Sunday mornings.

But what other options are there? I won’t throw away 9/10ths of what I believe to attend a church that allows for female ordination. I agree with much of what this church teaches, but not everything. My husband has urged me to continue speaking up in Sunday school class.

“These men need to understand other points of view because they only see things from a white male perspective of privilege. You’re showing them alternate perspectives.

True.

But it’s hard to keep talking when I’m interrupted.

It’s irritating to have my words misunderstood.

It’s frustrating to keep talking when I know that if my husband isn’t around, then no one will openly side with me.

It’s lonely to walk into a Sunday school class filled with men who ignore me because I’m female and God forbid they make small talk with someone of the opposite gender! (Friendship is out of the question.)

It’s humiliating to continue speaking up when I’m not treated as an equal; to be treated as an ignorant child instead of a knowledgeable adult; to be told that if I believe in egalitarian principles, then I don’t take the Bible seriously.

They may need my perspective, but why do I have to feel beaten down afterward?

Now I understand why people quit church. I haven’t; I’m not attending Sunday school anymore, that’s all. But now I know why other people might walk away from church entirely.

 

P.S.: Two things I should make clear.

  1. This church does have good things going for it.
  2. I don’t expect to find a church that believes EVERYTHING I do; but I do want respect for my differing opinions, which aren’t that strange.

 

 

 

 

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16 thoughts on “The Anatomy of a Church Search

  1. Once during a church search, we (the only visitors) were called up to the front of the alter and then the entire congregation came up and one-by-one shook our hands. I felt so self-conscious and out of place! I’ve had other uncomfortable experiences too, so I totally understand what you’re saying. I think it’s great that you haven’t given up!!!

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  2. I will be moving in a few months, so I will probably be looking for another church, one that is closer to where I will be. I am not looking forward to it. Sometimes, I question whether I will even want to go to church, but I know that, for me personally, not attending church itself is a bad option. Maybe there will be a Catholic church, and I can duck in and out of its services until I find something.

    I identified with what you said about small group. I was in a small group a while back, and people were complaining about Obama and prayer not being in school. There were times when I figured I should stay so that people could hear an alternative perspective. Eventually, I got tired fighting an just stopped going. I still attended the church services, and the church was small enough that I still felt welcome, though.

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    1. I hope you can find a welcoming church quickly, James. And I’ve had similar “discussions” about politics in small groups; the last one I attended, I finally used the we-don’t-have-a-babysitter excuse to stop coming, but it was really the issue of politics that drove me nuts!

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  3. Thanks for sharing, Laura. That sounds excruciating. As a fellow introvert, the “nobody speaking to you” part is a particular turnoff for me — not that I want to be mobbed by friendly outgoing people but if nobody talks to me AT ALL? Ouch. Maybe because I’ve experienced that, I go out of my way to greet strangers. If they leave thinking even “Well, that one woman was really nice,” I want to be that person.

    That must be so tough to have your ideas and opinions dismissed just because you’re a woman. To be honest, I haven’t experienced that. I’ve experienced it for other reasons, but not that one. It really isn’t that surprising why people give up on church, is it? There are so many reasons to.

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    1. To be honest, I don’t know if my thoughts/opinions/ideas are dismissed only because of my gender or because I think differently from the almost-entirely engineer males who attend this church. (My husband’s an engineer, and he’s explained that I think far, far differently than the typical engineer thinks. Neither thinking pattern is wrong, nor is one better than the other, but they are very different.) If my ideas are dismissed for the latter reason, then I’m pretty certain that my gender doesn’t help matters.

      I try hard to be friendly to strangers, too, both inside and outside the church. But it’s hard. Sometimes I feel like I come across as nosy or intrusive! It’s particularly hard when my mental health isn’t that great, and I’m just trying to hold my mind together so I don’t freak out my family.

      It’s nice to know that other people understand this. Thanks, Jeannie.

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  4. I fully understand. When I’m well enough, we drive half an hour to get to our church of choice. Nothing locally ‘fits’. My husband has even stopped coming along to that one, but that’s another story.
    May I ask which church building the picture is of (‘scuse my grammar)?

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    1. I have no clue! I got the photo from Idpinthat.com, where they have lots of free photos that bloggers can modify and use as they see fit. 🙂

      I’ve attended churches that are far from home, and for me, that didn’t really work. (In high school, I couldn’t attend youth group on Sunday evenings so I never felt a part of the “group”.) But I’m glad you have found a place that fits, for the most part. Thanks for reading, Sandy.

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      1. I love our church. It feels like home. They’re so welcoming and warm and just a lovely bunch who are wanting to work together to seek God’s Kingdom and you can’t ask for more than that in this life. I just want to persuade my husband to come back.

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  5. Religion kills…. What would Jesus do if you walked into a church and He was there???

    I’m constantly confused by the fact that all the religion in the world doesn’t mean a hill of beans if someone isn’t welcomed into a church like they are a new friend or a long lost friend…

    What if Jesus walked into an unfriendly church??? Would they ignore Him too, and say they had to get the coffee ready or something???? Jeez Louise!!!

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    1. Yeah, it’s confusing to me, too. All this time I’ve been visiting various churches and wondering how the people/services/etc. look to people who aren’t Christians…I end up wondering if a non-believer would even go back to an unfriendly church. I doubt it.

      As for Jesus walking in, well, I’m not sure we’d recognize him. Look at the religious leaders of his day. They didn’t recognize the long-awaited Messiah, and they didn’t exactly welcome him either. Sad. Though I’m not certain I would’ve done much better, if I’d have been one of the pharisees!

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  6. i’m thankful you shared about invisible in the pew. Thought I was alone in this struggle. We moved to a small town in Texas to be near our small grandchildren. My husband and i attended a church for almost 5 years. I led a Women’s Bible Study for a year, was involved in a Women’s Sunday School Class, was on a Committee for Caregiving, etc. In all those years we were invited out to lunch one time by a couple…they moved away. We were never once encouraged or invited to anyone’s home or out for a cup of coffee. The pastor had a small group for a short time, but he and his wife moved to another state…no more small group. I invited myself to walk with a couple of ladies that lasted until one of the ladies got cancer…and i reached out to her by taking dinners to her and her husband. My husband is now sick and so i’ve tried to attend another small church by myself…same scenerio..I’ve given up. Unless you’ve lived in this town for 20-50 years …you’re not included…and we live too far away from larger towns to seek another church. Prayers are so needed!!

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    1. Patricia, you are definitely NOT alone in this struggle. Since I first posted about my feeling of invisibility in church, I’ve heard from so many people, both in comments and in emails, about their struggles to be accepted, heard, and loved in their churches, even when they’ve reached out and tried to be involved. Small groups, Bible studies, ministries: all the ways that church leadership urge members to “build relationships” and still people fall through the cracks. I’m still struggling myself. Definitely praying. I’m sorry your husband is sick; that makes it harder, doesn’t it: needing substantial relationships and not having them! Praying, my friend.

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