We’ve been listening to a new CD in the car, a collection of old Baptist hymns sung by children. Some I know by heart, like “Blessed Assurance,” and others are new to me, like “Bringing in the Sheaves.” My five year old asked, soon after we got the CD, how I knew all the words, and why we didn’t sing these songs at our church. I explained that her Dad and I sang many of the songs at the churches we attended as children, but that our Episcopal church sings different old hymns. She tucked that bit of information away, and a few weeks later came back with a new question.
Mom, why do you go to a different kind of church now than you did when you were a little girl?
I paused. Said, there are a lot of reasons, I guess.
Mom, I think it’s because you can learn different things at different kinds of churches, right?
How does she already understand that?
I want to tell you about all of the churches I’ve loved.
The non-denominational church in San Antonio, the first one that felt like home. Dad played guitar up front, and every week we sang kids’ songs, like “Deep and Wide,” as well as praise choruses and hymns. In Sunday School, Miss Janie made up her own curriculum, and it took us through nearly every story in the book, including the awesome stories from Judges: Jael , the wily woman who killed her enemy with a the tent peg; King Eglon, who was so fat that the sword Ehud stabbed him with was swallowed up by his stomach. Here I learned to love the stories, and I learned hospitality. “You’re comfortable here,” mom said. “So when you see new kids in Sunday School, you need to welcome them.” That’s how I made my best friends.
The evangelical megachurch in Little Rock. The youth group that helped me make my faith my own. The people who sent me on short term missions trip. The small group of girls I met with every week. The lock-ins, the retreats, the late nights singing worship songs at “catacombs”. My first chances for leadership - leading junior high groups as a highschool student, speaking to the whole youth group about materialism as a Senior, speaking to the whole church about the power of community at our graduation service. My faith was forged in this passionate youth group and its many endeavors to be relevant. (We had hip names like Club X, XLR8, WInter Chill, and Summer Spree. We had t-shirts. We once had a contest to see who could bring in the best roadkill. That was taking it a bit too far.)
The teeny-tiny Anglican church in Phnom Penh. Twenty-five of us, on a good Sunday, and our quiet Malaysian rector. Fragrant flowers curled around the gate outside the building. I’d arrive sweaty after just a short motorbike taxi ride from my apartment, and in the cool church, in the dark night of my soul, we’d pray the liturgy together. I had no words left for God, who seemed to have no words for me, so in that silence I gladly adopted the words my brothers and sisters had used for centuries.
The Presbyterian (PCA) churches in LA and Seattle, where I got used to long sermons with smart pop culture references and beautiful music. Where strangers welcomed me and my boyfriend (later husband) into their homes. In these gatherings I learned to give up (or, ok, temper) my cynicism in favor of sincerity. The musicians put new melodies to old words and stirred my heart. My toddling daughter made her first friends here, and they all had names from the Old Testament. I became convinced that babies should be baptized.
Of course, the Episcopal church I’m a member of now. At this church, in the lonely midwest, I’ve found my best friends and closest community. Here, my children feel at home just as I once did in San Antonio. This is the church where they were baptized, and now after the service Rosie and Owen run all over the basement with their friends, playing Secret Spies and making treasure maps. We adults treat ourselves to coffee and donuts upstairs. Once again, the liturgy shapes my soul, but what has become equally important to me is the weekly eucharist, which nourishes me in ways I can’t begin to define.
I don’t much want to tell you about the ways churches have hurt me, or the things these people and places have done wrong, because you’ve heard those stories. They’re easy to find.
But I need to tell you about one church I attended and how it hardened my heart. It happened in slow, subtle ways, over the four years I spent there. Incrementally, the church let me know that I wasn’t quite good enough. You see, there was a ladder. The first rung: attendance. The second: participation in a small group Bible study. The third: leadership of such a study. From there, you could go on to be mentored by a staff person. And eventually, you could be on staff.
I opted out, early on. Church wasn’t a game, or a ladder, to me. But among my church friends I still heard things like this:
- Why would you join a sorority or play lacrosse when you could be using that time for a church Bible study?
- Avoid reading that theologian -- he’s a five point Calvinist. That could mess you up.
- You’re not Dispensational? Oh….
The implication was always that you could be a Christian without adhering to their specific form of doctrinal orthodoxy, but you’d always be suspect. You could be a Christian, but not a really good one. Theology was weaponized.
Church became about in-groups and out-groups. It became less about growth and more about conformity. It became less about relationships and more about image.
When the church prioritized image and in-group, I chose the out-group.
Witnessing theology wielded for power, my love of doctrine shriveled.
I grew very, very quiet.