A couple of months ago, I posted about the experience of taking a break from attending church. It somehow garnered a lot more attention than I expected, enough that it prompted a follow-up question:
Why go back?
It’s a question that is becoming more prominent even among the most dedicated church members. It seems that even those who are committed to the church are actually showing up less frequently than they once did. Some of these may even fall into a new category that sociologists are calling the “Dones”–Christians who just stop going.
Let me establish that I do not intend to be a “Done”. Sometimes I feel like it–usually around 8 am on a Sunday morning. There are four big reasons why I cannot go this route. While these specifics may not hold validity for you, perhaps they will prompt you to think about where you stand with a community of faith.
1. Mom and Dad will not let me do it: As a pastor and youth minister, I used to consistently get the question from parents, “Should I make my children go to church?” And my answer was always an unequivocal “Yes”.
Why? Well, after I tell you to get off my lawn, let me give you the grumpy old man answer: Because my mom and dad made me go to church and it never hurt me a bit. (NOW get off my lawn!).
This does not mean that you do not talk with them about where to go, what to do, how to participate or what they expect, particularly as they get older. But there is absolutely nothing wrong with establishing church as a spiritual standard for family.
The inevitable guilt trip (either real or perceived) that I get from Mom when she calls on Sundays to ask, “Well, did you GO to church TODAY?” will not bring me back. But the education my parents gave me in faith, dedication, and commitment to something more important than myself just might. And they are connected to hours of discussion and exploration about what it means to be Christian, both in and beyond the church.
My parents made faith a part of who I was and who we are as human beings, as family. Going to church is not the only way to do that, but it surely did not hurt. Those Sunday experiences–even the ones I did not like–will forever influence my personhood.
Am I ready to turn my back on what my parents taught me by declaring, “I’m done?”
2. Mrs. Nora and The Ballard Sisters: If you grew up at East Park Baptist Church in the last half of the 20th century, one thing is guaranteed. You had Mrs. Nora for 5-year old Sunday school, followed by the Ballard sisters through elementary and middle school. In Mrs. Nora’s class, you learned to run string across the room and make tents with bed sheets, so you would have an appropriate venue to talk about Aquila and Priscilla. And you would eat dates and wild honey like John the Baptist (thankfully she skipped the locusts and deferred to more appetizing Galilean fare).
In fact, we often tried to sneak back to her class every now and then, even when we were much too old for it.
The Ballard sisters were a little less dynamic, but these four ladies offered unparalleled lessons in faithfulness. They walked down their hillside street every Sunday morning to teach annoying, poorly behaved 10-year olds what a famine was and how Moses discovered a most disturbing piece of shrubbery. Amazingly, they managed us with grace and patience–although they had no children of their own! Maybe they could do that because they knew that they didn’t have to take any of us home.
When we had snow or ice, we called off church because we knew the Ballards would try to walk and were likely to break a hip on the way. And it was not just Sunday mornings. Oh, no…it was Sunday Night Bible Drill and Training Union. It was Vacation Bible School. It was Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting.
Ms. Sarah Ballard did not miss a day of Sunday School for 20 years! Actually, she missed one day, somewhere in year 20…and tried to turn down her 20-year attendance pin (a remnant of Baptists past) because of it.
Maybe these ladies are just that, a remnant of a long gone era of church that is destined never to return. It is hard to imagine them teaching with a power point and a YouTube video. But that does not lessen their impact. For all of us who have a story of stodgy, judgmental old Southern Baptist “church ladies”, we also have Mrs. Nora and the Ballard sisters.
Am I ready to insult their legacy by saying, “I’m done?”
Which brings me to my next point…
3. Past churches wrote on me with Sharpies: I mean this as a good thing.
Certainly, every church where I served made a positive impact, but the churches I served as pastor have left the most significant spiritual marks. That is not intended as a slight to the places where I served on staff. But serving as pastor simply creates a different level of relationship with the whole church, particularly in my venue of call, the small church.
I often reflect back on the positive impact those churches continue to have on me. More than once I have found myself drifting back to the fellowship of a Back-to-School Bash or a Fall Festival. I even miss church league basketball! (Sometimes).
But the indelible mark on my heart comes from the places where the fellowship and spirituality become one and the same. These are the encounters with real people–open, vulnerable, and willingly exposed to the work of the Spirit. These are the life-giving happenings, genuine and as real as they come. They evoke both joy and pain, laughter and tears. It is weddings and funerals. It is sharing celebration and the reality of heartache. It is the Thanksgiving Eve service at Sawyer’s Creek Baptist, where people opened their hearts to share their greatest joys and deepest spiritual hurts–as well as the faith that emerged from those hurts.
It is the baby dedications at Augusta Heights, where we learned to celebrate new life with tears of joy after years of hoping for such celebrations. It is Mrs. Wilma–the AHBC equivalent of the Ballard sisters and the last remaining charter member–offering gracious wisdom to me as the new pastor. It is the irreverent moments and informal discussions that, somehow, led us closer to this Jesus that we strive to know.
Can I possibly ignore the graciousness, honesty, and hospitality of these people, all of whom greatly impacted my life, by saying, “I’m done?”
4. It’s the community, stupid! I hate to go all James Carville here, but it just fits. You may not need a community to be a Christian, but I still believe that you need one to be an effective disciple.
Jesus beckons us to a life of community. And how quickly we forget just how imperfect that life was!
As we roll our eyes over the blatant and debilitating flaws of the church, we often long idealistically for a “New Testament Church”. But in our vision, we skip the jealous bickering, bitter disagreements and theological or practical disputes that characterized the original 12, right on into the formation of that New Testament church. Why do you think Paul wrote all those letters? It was not because everyone was just getting along.
Yet, those disciples managed to learn, grow, bond, and cooperate with one another in spite of their disagreements. The early church learned discipleship together, in and through the hardships they faced and the sharp distinctions of race, class, religious identity and theological point of view.
Sometimes they separated. Sometimes they decided to go in different directions. But there is no evidence that they gave up and quit. And they certainly came together, bound by spiritual ties of love that outweighed their disagreements.
Can I insult the saints, both early ones and those in my own lifetime, by saying, “I’m done”?
I sometimes remember the hardships and bitterness of ministry when considering my past in the church. Much more often, I long for the community, fellowship, sharing and caring that those churches brought into my life. I long for the everlasting friendships and eternal prayers that I know some believers offer. And I want to find that community again, in the here and now, rather than simply leaving it to memory.
Community is challenging and difficult–and more than worth it! It is the imprint of the community past that keeps me searching for the community of the present. Imperfect though it will surely be, it is also the life-giving face of love.
And it is the reason that I cannot say, “I’m done.”
Perhaps we need to recognize that the perseverance of the saints of the past is a fine example to follow in the present.