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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
- This church does have good things going for it.
- 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.