Monday, June 15, 2009

I Left Church and Found Community

This post has nothing to do with my opinions of pipe organs. Nonetheless, my mother-in-law may still find it loathsome.

After nearly three years visiting almost every place that serves Sunday breakfast in Nashville, I think I found the best one – the one that I could visit over and over again. Of course, I need to go there again (maybe this Sunday) to make sure that I didn't imagine it, get lucky, or that it doesn't catch on fire this week. Sunday brunch with my family is important to me, so you can imagine how excited I am to find a spot that offers enough diversity for my picky family without having the word "cheesecake" in the title.

I'm able to go to Sunday brunch each week because I stopped going to church. This is so not where I thought I'd be ten or even five years ago.

But, I couldn't be happier.

Community – having a place where I belong and can be my most 'me' – is important to me. It's important to humans, really. We're social animals. We crave attention, affection, acceptance and connection. It's good when you can call someone 'yours.' It's better when someone can call you that, too.

But it's so hard to find. Like hope, people need it so badly they'll pay top dollar. So, if you can help create, develop and sustain real community, congratulations. You'll be rich very soon.

For a long time, church was a place where I could find community. It was a place to meet people, talk about stuff that mattered and be encouraged to be my most me. But, something changed. Maybe it was entering the real world. Maybe it was working for a living and understanding that time spent off the clock was time that I wanted to spend only on things that were truly personally enjoyable. Shopping for churches is never enjoyable.

In the process of all that, I started my own faith community. A handful of us gather at my home on Sunday evenings to talk about our weeks, dream together about how to be better people and our most respective selves, and provide support, hope, and insight for each other. We're all (mostly) former church members, vagabonds who have found a stopping point where we'd like to stay for a while.

I don't know if I’ll ever go to church again. Speaking in one (which I do about six times a year) and visiting one with my in-laws on Christmas Eve is about all the church-related exposure I get now. Lots of Facebook friends of mine work in churches and I wonder what their lives are like. A lot of other Facebook friends go to church a lot and really like it. I wonder what their lives are like, too.

Hopefully (certainly, right?), they've found a community there. Hopefully it's the best community they could find or else they wouldn't be wasting their time in a place where they couldn't be their most selves.

My biggest community moments happen each week on Sunday. One is in the morning over breakfast food with my family and the other is in the evening with those who are part of The Story. There's not much prayer, preaching, Bible reading or singing at either one. Maybe churches could provide a better actualization of community if they stopped doing all that.

Comments (14)

Hey there. This is Sara (Litteken) Taylor from college. Your definition of community is slightly "me" centered, in my opinion. I think of community as being a place where, yes, we can be ourselves and be accepted without having to change ourselves first. But it has a lot to do with other people too, wouldn't you say - and serving and loving them? Would prayer not fit in to that a little? Thanks for posting...

Sara

This post REALLY spoke to me. I also used to be a church every Sunday young person, even leading the high school youth group at one point. As I became more involved in the eldership of the church, I began to learn more about church politics. Man, those Republicans and Democrats have NOTHING on the church ladies! I feel like churches have very much lost a grip on the concept of communities.

The biggest loss is looking INSIDE to foster the congregations' touchy-feely-needy-selfish wants and agendas rather than looking OUTSIDE at how we can be the hands and feet of God to others. As a person devoted not only to my faith but also to creating lasting and important change in the world and lives of people around me thru love and compassion, I felt more and more like the entire formula is lacking in modern religion. Faith and church and community are about the two greatest commandments - to love the Lord and to also love your neighbor. Somehow, our flocks got lost and the "love" turned into something that is "not-so-much."

I'm glad you found a community where your friendships and faith can grow and prosper...where ever two or more are gathered, right? :)

Anonymous

11:15 PM

Congratulations, sam. You’ve single-handedly discovered that 2 thousand years of Christianity got it all wrong. That the church body actually isn’t about bringing glory to God and representing the kingdom on Earth. It’s actually about community – and, more specifically, giving you community, making you happy.

This is one of the more selfish and immature things I’ve read in a while. I look forward to reading your post in a few years when you realize church isn’t about you. That community is important, but it is not why God created the church. That it’ll be awkward to tell God you avoided his earthly institution because you had more fun eating breakfast…

@Sara - Good observation. I can totally see how this post could have come across that way. I think that good community does have that give and take that you mention. Not only can you get something from being a part of it, but you can offer something as well. For some people, prayer is a great example of that. For others, not so much.

@Elisa - Thanks for being honest about your thoughts on faith. And, I agree that churches can often get bogged down in politics and infighting. I know a lot of people who left church for those reasons. For me, I left because I found better community elsewhere. That's not everyone's experience. And, it's great to hear about your commitment to social change - keep it up!

@Anonymous - Thanks for the congratulations. It means a lot. It wasn't easy to pick apart 22 thousand years of Christianity, but I did it! The church should crumble any day now. Also - do you know any good resources I can use for crafting that apology letter to God?

Sam,

First of all, I think that it's better to be honest about where you stand on church membership/attendance than to show up and pretend. Way too much of the latter going on.

About 2 or 3 years ago, I had a (pardon the pun) "come to Jesus moment" when I realized I was no longer convinced that the modern American church was what He had in mind as His body.

The short version of the story is that I had been serving in the preschool program for a year without attending worship even once... and no one had even noticed. I wasn't receiving pastoral care. I wasn't being discipled or discipling others. And everyone was okay with that, as long as I showed up to the Toddler Room every Sunday.

In the 3 years since, my family and I have moved on to a new faith community. We participate in a weekly group that is much like the group you currently describe. It also offers outlets for the kind of meaningful, real-world service projects that Sara and Eliza mention. I also receive pastoral care and discipling, not just from the "official" pastoral staff, but from the others in my community (and I try to also provide it, particularly to the younger women, as the need and opportunity arises).

I've reached a point where I recognize that it's never going to be ideal, but that there is still much that the "organized" church offers that is deeply needed to promote the Gospel and the Kingdom. But I got there honestly, with a lot of questioning, and without that being the foregone conclusion.

To Anonymous, I would say that the Spanish Inquisition lasted 400 years--and was sincerely wrong the entire time. (Of course, Monty Python would argue that no one expected it, so it had a big head start...)

Centuries of practice don't make something right. And sarcastically condemning someone for being honest is possibly not the best demonstration of Christian charity.

Kat:

Thanks for the input about church and it's 'organized' forms. I think you hit the nail on its head.

Organized church (or most organized religion, for that matter) does have a lot of things wrong with it. I like that your new faith outlet allows for pastoral care for/from all people, and not just a paid staff person. I really like that model.

And, well put about the Spanish Inquisition.

Sam. I had no idea you had weekly 'community' gatherings - is it mostly a family thing? Friends too? How did you go about organizing that? It's not a bad idea, in fact, it's brilliant! We all need somewhere that we can feel truly accepted - that we won't feel judged and can express our honest opinions and thoughts, fears, and accomplishments.

I used to be a devout church-goer (mostly because my parents required it of me). But somewhere around the age of 17 I decided it just wasn't for me - that I wasn't getting anything out of it. I would look around and it seemed like most of the people there were there just to be there, were in a hurry for it to be over so they could hit up Cracker Barrel or be home in time for the ESPN NFL pre-game show. I thought to myself, "What's the point".

Since then, my faith journey has become much more inward. It's about me forming a relationship with God, who is within me, within all of us. The journey toward enlightenment, in my mind, is ultimately one that takes place from within.

Cheers to your for being so honest and sharing a perspective that (I think) many people in our age group and demographic are going through.

Hi Sam, I came across your blog via someone I follow on Twitter. I think your post sheds light on a lot of issues on "the church" and what is and isn't going right.

The image often painted of regular church attenders is one that leaves me feeling icky and wanting to proclaim, "I believe in their God and in the miracles Jesus came to do, but I am not like them."

In America, many churches have become social (and sometimes political) organizations and a status symbol. "Look at how many people I know! Look at how involved I am. How much did you put in the offering plate? I'm so holy!" I'm pretty sure none of that was a part of God's vision of the church.

What you described about community is certainly true. Everyone craves a place to feel warm, loved, nurtured and cared for. The greatest commandment was "Love your neighbor" right?

What I think you failed to mention is that Christ is and should be the center of community. Meeting with others to talk about our life is wonderful, but it needs to come back to Christ, ultimately. God created humans for worship and to share the Good News. That certainly doesn't mean we need to go protest at abortion clinics, shelter ourselves from "the world," stay in our "christian bubbles" and disengage from life. We need communities to build each other up in Christ, to pray for each other, to share our struggles and to respond with God's love and grace. Act's 17:24-32 sums a lot of this up, but I particularly like this snippet:

'From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. 28'For in him we live and move and have our being.' (Acts 17:27-26)

You say: "There's not much prayer, preaching, Bible reading or singing at either one. Maybe churches could provide a better actualization of community if they stopped doing all that." I have to disagree- we need to hear the word of God, we need prayer. I agreed with your intent in this sentence- many churches aren't praying, preaching or singing with the right intent, but that doesn't mean WE shouldn't.

Honestly, it's been a while since I've been compelled to comment on any conversation regarding church. Growing up in religion, then markedly departing from it, was a long journey for me and my family--and one of its hardest steps was growing community outside of a church building. Our mentality was constantly changing and it was difficult to find folks walking the same path.

Sam, I hope you continue to find community where it makes the most difference in your life. When we champion religious traditions, routines, and expectations, we limit how we live, love, and enjoy life.
If the ultimate goal of community is sharing life, loving and enjoying each other, than your Sunday brunch has nothing to apologize for. And I don't think Jesus would see it any further from his teachings that you don't include religious ceremony. In fact, it might be much closer... :)

Thanks again for the comments. This is a very fun and enlightening discussion.

@Matthew - You're (of course) more than welcome to come be a part of the story anytime. We started it because there was a group of us in Nashville looking for something...authentic. We couldn't find it, so we started it.

@meghan - I agree with you completely about the downside of churches getting political, social and otherwise. I also agree in that the church can/should be about so much more. I'll admit - that last sentence was meant to be a bit controversial. And, it's certainly got people talking. :)

@Chelsie - Thanks for the kind words and encouragement. Best of luck to you and your family as you seek to find meaningful community.

J Knight

1:59 PM

Sam.....and friends
what an interesting discussion...I can see all of you are seeking..truth...how to relate to God...the book of James says that if anyone lacks wisdom, he should ask of God, who gives generously...to all...without finding fault..He wants you to know HIM...in fact all of history reflects His revelation of Himself to man...I urge you all to continue to seek Him and he will reveal Himself to you, in all of His glory....I guess I am disappointed in the organized church also, as are many of the mature (i.e. old..) men I hang around with...but we seem to agree that worship, in community, is an act of sacrifice, an offering, seeking God in community, sharing His Word, collectively praising Him, making ourselves accountable to Him through the common relationship...I know it is not about me...."I will not offer to God that which costs me nothing.."..if worship is easy, is it worthy???

God Speed you to your many days of enlightenment to come.. :)

Warmest Regards..JK

Sam,

Thanks for sharing where you are on your journey with the rest of us. About 15 years ago I was in the same place. Now I'm living in a parsonage married to a United Methodist Pastor (who was still a school teacher at the time), so things have a way of moving in different directions. :)

Some of what you're saying reminds me of Dan Kimball's book, "They Like Jesus, but Not the Church". I recommend checking it out or possibly looking at the 6 session DVD for your community group discussions.

Wow, that came across like a marketing promo. Sorry, it just resonated with me reading the comments.

You and Dan seem a little like kindred spirits to me. The site for his book is http://theylikejesus.com and he blogs at http://dankimball.com.

Peace,
Jim

Anonymous

11:59 PM

Come on now people. Let's all play some tennis and be happy and eat fajitas and sing Birthday Jams in Spanish.

I've definitely felt in the place you're describing, with the frustration of church searching and hopping. I am blessed to say I have found a church that has a great community, which is certainly the exception. One of the things we do at our church is part of what you describe, as well. A few of us meet every week at someones house to have dinner together, to fellowship, to pray, and to share. That, in fact, is how the early church began, so it's no surprise we seem to find such connectivity in the depth of fellowship there.

The only thing I would say is that part of knowing the Lord's heart is knowing his Word. And likewise, enacting the truth of Christ's Work in one's life is, biblically, done through prayer. I say all that not in any way to judge, as I certainly am not a perfect example of any of it. But having been in similar circumstance, and having grown my prayer life especially, I'd hate for others to actively miss it.