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.

 

 

 

 

Three things I’m tired of hearing & one that made my heart thankful

In the time since a white racist opened fire in Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, there has been many words spoken, many words written, and many varied reactions to this hate crime. I’ve followed the news coverage online. One of the benefits/drawbacks of reading a news story online is the comments on the story. Some of them are intelligent, some more emotional in nature, and some just plain boneheaded. Here’s a few things I’m really tired of reading, followed by one thing I was very thankful to hear.

photo by jdurham, morgueFile.com
photo by jdurham, morgueFile.com

“The Civil War wasn’t about slavery!”  Really? Then why did several of the seceding states say that slavery was a huge part of their decision to leave the Union? South Carolina, Mississippi, and Georgia identified themselves with the institution of slavery in their declarations of independence.

  • South Carolina’s laments that their Constitutional “right” to be a slave-owning state has been denied.
  • Mississippi’s second sentence declares, “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world.” It then continues in a nasty vein about the black race. “There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.”
  • From Georgia: “For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery. They have endeavored to weaken our security, to disturb our domestic peace and tranquility, and persistently refused to comply with their express constitutional obligations to us in reference to that property, and by the use of their power in the Federal Government have striven to deprive us of an equal enjoyment of the common Territories of the Republic.” Therefore, of course, Georgia had to secede from the Union.

State’s rights? Sure, that was the reason: the U.S. government was threatening the state’s right to keep people enslaved.

photo by brigwer, morgueFile.com
photo by brigwer, morgueFile.com

“There’s no such thing as white privilege.” I’ve heard this one in various forms over the years. (Strangely, it’s all white people speaking.) But if someone has a privilege, will they necessarily see that they have that privilege?

Think about this in a different context. Every time I’ve listened to people who have returned from a short-term mission in a different country, they comment on how they didn’t realize how rich they were until they saw Third World poverty.

  • They didn’t see their economic privilege of having running water until they saw people who walk miles to the nearest well.
  • They didn’t see the privilege of having a floor until they walked into a hut with a dirt floor.
  • They didn’t see the privilege of owning shoes until they saw people who didn’t.

If you’re immersed in a white bubble, can you even see how that bubble protects and benefits you?

photo by FrakLopez, morgueFile.com
photo by FrakLopez, morgueFile.com

Silence. This is the comment that is most disturbing because it’s not a comment at all. It’s just silence. No reaction to racial violence, no tears, no anger, no grief, nothing. There’s no acknowledgment that this act of hatred ended the lives of actual people. It’s the comment that means you might view the nine victims as numbers, abstractions, statistics.

Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Cynthia Hurd, Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Tywanza Sanders, Myra Thompson, Ethel Lee Lance, Susie Jackson, Rev. Daniel L. Simmons, Sr., and Depayne Middleton-Doctor.

They are more than names. They are people. Not statistics. Not abstract concepts. People. (Read more about them here.)   

As Kiara Imani Williams writes,

“The next time you think about these issues, don’t think about them in the abstract. Don’t think about them in a political framework. Make it personal.”

When I make it personal, I see:

  • my daughters’ close friends, two vibrant, funny girls;
  • the vice president of our ladies’ association, who also manages to be the soccer team mom and work and keep our fundraising activities running smoothly;
  • her daughter, the 6th grade SGA president and member of my daughter’s soccer team;
  • her teenage son, who always greets me with a friendly smile even though that probably isn’t ‘cool’ in junior high;
  • my neighbors, the ones who bought my younger daughter an Olaf-the-Snowman t-shirt for her birthday, the one she wants to wear every day;
  • the store greeter who smiles when I come into the store and brightens even a shopping trip at Wal-Mart.

When I see them, it’s impossible to stay silent.

That’s why I was thankful that my church talked openly about the tragedy. Considering that this is a small, almost entirely white church, I feared that it would be glossed over. But our minister spoke about it and about how our own denomination is finally facing its history of racism. The guest minister mentioned it several times in his sermon on (appropriately I think) the armor of God in Ephesians 6.

I’ve had a lot of issues with this church; I’ve written about them in the past. But if they’re serious about racial reconciliation and rooting out the sin of racism, then I’m thankful to be there.

Blog schedule, novel writing, and being invisible at church (again)

Two things.

Number one. I’ve written that I’m starting a new novel. It’s going well, in case you were wondering, but it’s also exhausting: pouring all my creative energies into a first draft doesn’t leave me with enough creative energy to blog several times a week.

So I’m cutting back on my blog until I finish the first draft of The Color of Bones. (That’s my tentative title. Please don’t tell me if some other novel is named that! Or please do, because then I can rename it.)  At the rate I’m going, I should hit my goal of 80,000 words by the end of June.

Until then, I’ll blog once a week. You can use all that time you’d normally spend reading my posts doing something meaningful. (Like watching cat videos on YouTube.)

Number two, on a more serious note. A year and a half ago, I wrote a post called “Me, the Invisible Woman in the Church Pew.” I received quite a few comments. I’m still receiving comments on the post and even the occasional private email, many of them telling heartbreaking stories of being rejected in church.

(PLEASE NOTE: For the past four years, this post and others on the topic have generated a great deal of email for me. Please know that, while I care about hearing your stories and sympathize with the pain of those of you who feel invisible in church, it’s become emotionally overwhelming to respond to individual comments and/or emails about this post. I am NOT qualified to give advice or counsel. You have my sympathy & prayers. You are not alone.) 

(I don’t fit in at church is one of the top searches that brings people to my blog. Variations include cliques at church, church cliques, and invisible at church.)

Today, using the information made available by the commenter, I made a chart of their demographics: gender, age, marital status, and whether the person was an introvert or extrovert. I was trying to see what, if any, common denominators they held. Geography didn’t seem to be a factor. Most people didn’t mention denomination or theology.

Out of twenty commenters, sixteen were female, four male. There were a variety of ages and marital statuses mentioned; some mentioned children, others did not.

I had to do a little guessing about the introversion versus extraversion trait. Not everyone mentioned it. But of those who did mention it, a significant percent said they were introverts. This included people who said they had actively tried to participate in church activities, even when they were uncomfortable in groups or were rejected.

These were not passive, sit-on-the-pews types of people who waited for others to come to them. They volunteered. They did Bible studies, led Bible studies, organized fellowships. They did things that many introverts would be exhausted by doing and may or may not have been gifted and called to do.

Yet they still identified with being invisible at church.

Something is wrong.

I know that many pastors and church leaders would recognize this as an issue in their church. But recognizing a problem and finding a solution are two different things. To a certain extent, this problem won’t be resolved in this life; some people are going to be cliquish and unfriendly and show superficial concern for others no matter what. But that doesn’t mean we can’t try.

So I’d like to hear from those in positions of power (and influence) at church. It doesn’t matter what position, whether you’re paid staff or a volunteer.

  1. How do you perceive this problem? Is it a problem in your congregation?
  2. What are you doing—or have thought about doing—to promote a genuinely friendly church atmosphere? Beyond friendliness, what do you do to promote genuine, deep relationships between the people in your congregation?
  3. Finally, what would you like to see the “invisible people” do? In other words, what do you expect from us, particularly those who have been in the church for years and still don’t feel accepted?

In my experience, it’s relatively easy to help first time visitors feel welcome. (Note “relatively.” I didn’t say it happened often.) They’re more easily identified, for one thing.

By comparison, it’s much harder to help those long time church attenders or members who feel excluded, even after years of attending the same church. They may be involved in volunteer work, etc., and still never feel a part of the church body.

I welcome your thoughts, whether you’re a church leader or not. If you have ideas, please share them.