***VERY IMPORTANT ADDENDUM***
I have received some feedback regarding this post from people we love and respect, and apparently I have caused some serious hurt with the words that I have written. I want to apologize profusely for that, as it wasn’t my intention whatsoever. In fact, I am crying with embarrassment as I write this, so ashamed that I could cause such pain with my writing. It’s a tough, humbling lesson to learn.
I want to be very clear: This post does not refer to any specific church or group of people. We have been a part of two wonderful, God-honoring congregations over the last 10 years, and I have nothing but praise, love, and respect for each of them, as Ryan and I have both grown and matured under their teaching and fellowship.
The only two reasons we feel led to leave our current church is because of 1) the distance from our home and the inability to get as involved as we would like with our busy work schedules, and 2) our concern for our daughter’s spiritual needs as she enters middle school years. We really appreciate the youth leaders’ recent attempts to include her in activities. She just found herself the only female in her grade level and felt much younger than everyone else.
I think what may have been misconstrued the most were my comments about church culture. These comments were the culmination of years of observation when we have visited churches around the country or heard family/friends talk about their individual churches. And then these feelings/thoughts became clearer as we started our own church search in the last couple of weeks. We looked at web sites, and I felt myself judging them based on their online pictures. We flipped through the channels looking at church services on TV, and I judged them based on what I saw. That was wrong of me, and I apologize.
I do not know anybody at the three churches that I named. I was just trying to make a point about the humor in church names these days. I did not mean for any of what I said to be a direct shot to them, either.
As far as “destination churches,” I didn’t mean for that to be a negative term. There is a reason people drive across the city to go to those churches. The Spirit of God is moving there, and ultimately, that’s where we want to be. I meant to say that because I have spent almost my entire life attending “destination churches,” I had developed a prideful approach to my Christian walk, believing that I was better than other Christians…that my walk with God was closer. I was completely disregarding any move of God in my close community, and that was completely wrong. That is something God is currently working on in my heart, and it is mind-blowing for me.
The whole point of the post was about the spiritual pride in my life, and in my musings on the subject, I unintentionally committed that sin once again. In my pride, I have hurt other people.
I find the way church culture has evolved in this country to be endlessly fascinating, and that was what I was trying to explore.
In essence, I ask for your forgiveness. I had no idea this would spin out of control the way it has, and I am sorry for any hurt I have caused. I am just a sinner, an imperfect Christian, and I don’t like the way this has gone. Please forgive me.
We sit together on the sofa, Ryan flipping through the channels, and me with the laptop perched on my thighs. A crime show catches his attention briefly, but after a minute, we both snicker at a badly written line, and the channel surfing resumes. All the shows seem the same. The scripts are predictable, and the acting is substandard. Movie promos seem trite. Ryan’s finger presses the button on the remote, and he searches the menu, title after title scrolling by, and finally he just sighs and turns the TV off altogether.
“There’s nothing new under the sun,” Solomon writes.
We’re not even technically in our upper 30s yet, but sometimes we feel bored. We’re not as easily impressed as we used to be. I remember when we were newly married, I took the time to draw out a TV schedule of what shows played and when, because we were so afraid of missing something good. We were so excited at the thought that, as recent college graduates, we finally had time for television. Of course, this was before DVRs existed, and so, if we were going to be gone for an evening, we had to choose what channel was most important, then stick a six-hour VHS tape in the VCR and press record. At the end of the night we would have to shuttle back through a couple hours of recording to find the show we wanted. But that was life in 2001. That was how we watched the first season of Survivor, multiple seasons of The West Wing, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, and Friends. We wore out several VHS tapes, recording over and over them until the quality was so bad that we had to spring for a new six-pack of RCA tapes, an empty landscape for our TV enjoyment sprawled out before us.
But things have changed. Now, when I hear that The Sound of Music is playing in a local theater, I just shrug and say we don’t need to spend the money, even though it’s my favorite musical of all time. I can imagine how it would play out; I don’t need to see it for myself.
Ryan goes and sees Guardians of the Galaxy with Ryley. In all of her fresh exuberance for life, she declares it her new favorite movie. But Ryan? “Eh. I liked it, but it’s about what I thought it would be.”
What is wrong with us? Since when did we become so jaded? If we feel this way at 36, what do my parents think in their 60s? Or my grandma in her 80s? Are we just going through a phase?
“Behold I will do a new thing,” the Bible says in Isaiah.
I read mommy blogs, and everybody thinks they have a “new take” on parenting, on girl power, on theology. I read it, and some of it hits home, and some of it doesn’t. But in general, it’s all been done or said before -- oh, maybe not the same exact words, but the basic idea has been hashed and rehashed to death.
Even at church (gasp!) I find myself tired of the gimmicks…disenchanted with pastors’ attempts to liven up sermon series with exciting names and cool graphics and peppy videos that are more about the trendy camera work than they are the message. Churches themselves are named “Elevation” and “The Pearl” and “Missio Dei,” as if youth pastors of our generation grew into head pastor roles and decided to keep their cool youth group names alive. I challenge you to sit in traffic and look at the names of the car models around you. Three out of four would make an arguably excellent youth group name and, eventually, a church name…Odyssey, Fusion, Genesis, Edge, Pilot. Services feature giveaways and flashing lights and free food and hipsters mingling outside the sanctuary with their cups of coffee, big non-prescription glasses, and fashion suspenders hanging to their knees.
You’d think that with my yearning for something “new” I’d be all about the way “church” has evolved…how it’s become “relevant.” Yet something about it is bothersome. Ryan and I are the farthest thing from being “cool” that there is. So not only do the new trends ostracize people like us, it leaves me wondering why we feel like we need to dress up the Gospel at all.
Of all things, since the Word of God is living, it doesn’t need to be made any cooler than it already is. The Gospel meets us right where we’re at every single time. Each time we read the Bible, we find that it applies directly to what we’re dealing with. Jesus, all by Himself, is enough…He is glorious. So why are we working so hard to drape Him in our cultural trends?
We feel ourselves yearning for the basics.
Our daughter is in middle school now. She asks theological questions way earlier than Ryan or I ever did. We encouraged her to read the Bible on her own this summer, and she was only two chapters into Genesis before she pointed out some inconsistencies she came across. But sometimes she’s afraid to ask us her questions (even though we encourage it) because she knows the scripture about not “testing God.” She wrestles with whether or not God is real…whether or not we are in the right religion. But our answers aren’t enough for her. She needs more than what we can give. These heavy questions also aren’t going to be answered with lightweight hipster fluff and flashy promos, either. It’s got to get deeper.
After a lot of prayer, we decided it was time to search for a new church that is more equipped to speak to the middle school age group. Changing churches is a hard decision to come to. In our situation, there are no hard feelings involved. We just believe our family needs something different right now, and God is leading us on.
So we made a list of churches in the area, and we tried Church #1 this past weekend. We promised ourselves that we would stay open-minded in our expectations. But I wasn’t prepared for some of the things God showed me about myself.
All my life I have attended “destination churches” (yes, I just coined that term; isn’t it fantastic?). Ever since I was little, my family has been involved in church leadership. My parents helped start a home church when I was little, then later, my mom was in charge of a different church’s early childhood education. In both Atlanta and Denver, my dad was on staff in media at prominent churches in the city. We drove 20 or more miles to church and to our Christian school, and all of my friends always lived across the city from me. We were friendly with our non-Christian neighbors, but I didn’t have any friends my age in the community, much less Christian friends, and somewhere along the way I began to think of myself and my family as “the elite.” We attended that faraway “great church” – the best church -- and as far as I knew, we were the only Christians in our neighborhood. My parents certainly didn’t have that viewpoint, but somehow that was the attitude I developed. Much like Elijah in the Bible: “I am the only one of Your people left!” he said. I love that story.
Both in college and when Ryan and I moved back to Denver, we continued attending destination churches, driving – regularly – 20 miles away from our home. Ryan’s extended family pastors two churches in the greater metro area, and two other prominent churches are pastored by close personal friends. With our various connections, it was hard to think of going to a church where there weren’t at least some ties. And yet, maybe that’s what we needed.
So this is the thing: as I sat in Church #1 this last Saturday night, I was floored that there was an entire community of believers who love Jesus just like I do, just a couple miles from our house. It was crazy to think that these people might even live in our neighborhood, or we could run into them at the grocery store.
I think that maybe, in a weird form of subconscious pride, I thought I “owned” Jesus. And yet here was a church where we don’t know a soul and -- for once -- we know nothing about the leadership, and neither my family nor Ryan’s family nor anybody we know had anything to do with the church’s inception or development. These random people read the same Bible I do, believe in the same Jesus I do, and they live in a random sampling of houses in the neighborhoods surrounding ours. Just because I don’t know anybody in the congregation doesn’t make their belief in Jesus any less. I am not the elite. Like Elijah discovered, I am not the only one left. It’s humbling, but I am seeing that God’s work is so much more than me…so much bigger than me and anything I’m aware of. The Body of Christ is diverse and present and surrounding me. And while I think I “knew” that on the surface? I am now awed by it. I don’t own Jesus. Our families don’t own Jesus. And we don’t have to drive across the city to hear from God and to worship Him.
I liked Church #1. It focused on the basics. It has practical ministry, and I didn’t see a lot of flashiness. It has a specific middle school pastor and youth group. It was a worshipful service, and I felt refreshed. And we had communion, which we loved. We hadn’t had communion in at least a year.
Ryley’s take? “Oh, this is one of those churches that has the Bibles in the backs of the seats! I also like that it actually has its own building!” Not that that stuff really matters, but yes. :-)
And so our prayerful church search continues. This is not a decision we take lightly; after all, many of the most important people in my life who have shaped who I’ve become (including my husband) are people I met in church. More than anything, we want to be where God wants us – where all three of us can be fed the living Word of God, can grow, and be used to serve and reach others.
“I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly,” Jesus says.
Enough with the triteness, the boredom, the jaded frustration and attitude. Enough with the gimmicks, trendy presentation, and gaudily dressed up Gospel.
Give us the raw, life-changing Word of God. Give us that new thing that was promised in the Book of Isaiah. And then give us His abundant life.