Staying Home From Church: Intro
Staying home from church used to be a pretty clear-cut idea in America. Either you were going to church or your weren’t going to church, and there was generally a consensus in Christian communities about which one was better. As new expressions of Christian faith enter the conversation, the debate is increasingly nuanced.
This series of posts will consider several brief points made in an article posted on The Gospel Coalition website called “ 5 Reasons to Keep Going to Church with Baby Brain.” While it was posted back in 2019, it only recently came across my social media feeds and with mixed reviews.
This first post is mostly for background purposes. I’ll talk about my own struggles with attending/not attending church services, which will hopefully give a sense of why I felt impelled to write this series. Each following post will address one of the points from the article. If you want to jump ahead to one of the specific points, check out the links at the end of this post (they’ll be updated as each post goes live).
I know what it’s like to feel centered and grounded after a worship service. I know what it’s like to feel deeply ungrounded because of a worship service. I know what it’s like to have anxiety about going to worship, and I know what it’s like to feel anxiety about not going. I’m not one to over simplify the way worship impacts our lives and the way our lives inform our worship.
That’s why I wanted to consider the reasons from the article and give my thoughts about each one. I saw the mixed responses to it, and I think it’s an important conversation to be part of, especially for those who are deconstructing and going through the often distressing cycles of family life.
Taking a Break From Church
Taking a break from church can feel like a “slippery slope,” especially if you grew up in (or are currently part of) conservative, Christian communities. By “church,” here, I mean “Sunday worship services,” mostly. I don’t like to use it that way, but that’s how it’s used in the article, and that’s been the most common usage among Christians I’ve met.
I once heard a former preacher refer to the regular attendees of the Wednesday night Bible study as “the faithful few.” The implication was clear within the context: those who didn’t attend both Sunday morning worship and Wednesday night Bible study were somehow less faithful than those who did. It’s a common “jest” in Churches of Christ, but it cuts deep for those who are struggling to show up for just one service.
The implication can be stated from the other direction, too: those who attend more services are seen as more faithful/devoted/mature/etc. This was often implied in other congregations I’ve attended through deference; “the faithful few” often held more weight in conversations and congregational decision making. It’s possible they just happened to also be the older, more mature, and wiser members, but the older I get, the more unlikely that seems. Rather, it was an assumption made because of the “faithful few” implication.
The struggle came to a head, for me, when I was in undergrad. I was enrolled as a Biblical Text major and spending almost all day, every day with other Bible majors or Bible professors reading, listening to, or talking or writing about Biblical scholars or scripture, church history, or preaching and ministry, as well as attending chapel services, student-led worship services and Bible studies, etc. Let’s just say it wasn’t long before attending an unfamiliar congregation in an unfamiliar city with unfamiliar people on one of my possible days off felt more like a chore than a refreshment. It felt like something I was doing for someone else’s benefit rather than my own, and when you feel like you’re pouring yourself out day after day for others without having anything poured out for you, worship can start to feel unhealthy.
In fact, when we constantly empty ourselves without being filled, all of life can start to seem pointless. We can become completely drained, which can lead to depression and anxiety. Things that used to bring us joy start to become burdensome, and what used to be good can become toxic.
One day, I realized I didn’t understand why I was taking Communion, anymore. I had become so jaded about worship services, and everything became rote, and I discovered the act of Communion no longer made sense. Why was it so solemn? Why was it so quiet? Why was I sitting there doing this thing with hundreds of other people I didn’t know? Why was it making me feel even more alone?
Those questions made me feel even more distant from God. The table of the Lord felt distant even as I was being invited to it. The quiet, somber nature of the Lord’s Supper felt disjointed from the robust, often celebratory nature of the rest of the worship service, and I couldn’t figure out how to reconcile the two. Was I doing it wrong? Was I just faking it?
I later realized that the Communion issue was part of a larger issue: I was taught implicitly that Sunday services were the most important part of being a Christian. That was where God was supposed to be most present and most felt. Worshipping and studying on Sunday mornings were supposed to be the truest expression of my relationship with God, so when my life outside of Sunday worship started to be more meaningful than the Sunday services, my whole paradigm of “church” started to crumble. The Sunday services started to feel empty by contrast; they started to feel superficial, and I struggled to find meaning behind the things we did and the songs we sang. When services started to feel empty, attending started to feel pointless.
So, I stopped going. For about four years, I simply didn’t go to worship or Bible study — at least, not consistently or institutionally. I did house church, sometimes, with my friends. I occasionally attended student-led services on campus. (I was still required to attend school chapel services.) My Biblical Text classes and time with friends became my church, my worship; class assignments became my Bible study, and my time off became my rest.
Some weeks, I’d consider going to Sunday worship, but I still wasn’t sure what the point was. What was it doing for me? Why should I be there? And, what was the point of Communion?
Standard answers kept coming to me, some of which are given in the article that inspired this series.
- Worship isn’t just something you do for yourself.
- Showing up sets an example.
- Attending worship forms good habits.
- Being at worship surrounds you with Godly people.
- You have to worship to be pleasing to God.
- If you’re really faithful or you really love God, you’ll want to go to worship.
- Going to worship will help you love God.
- If you don’t go, you’ll fall away.
None of the answers were satisfactory. I was constantly surrounded by other Christians and studying/talking about scripture and God. We sang praise and worship songs five days a week in chapel. I was praying more than ever, both on my own and with others. Plus, I still didn’t understand what the heck Communion was all about! I had rote answers for that, too, but they didn’t reflect the mundane, lonely experience of the Lord’s Supper.
Driven by Necessity
Unfortunately, I ended up changing my major three years into undergrad. I switched to Exercise Science, and the things that were filling the space of spiritual practice and worship disappeared. I was still at a Christian university with Christian students, but instead of Bible classes and theological discussions, we were in PE classes and discussing anatomy. Instead of exegesis, we were studying EKG’s. Instead of praying, we were dissecting. I became spiritually ungrounded, but I had also been disillusioned from the “Sunday worship = church” idea. So, I didn’t go back.
It wasn’t until I met my wife, a single mother at the time, that I started to feel a need to try again to answer the question of “church.” I wanted to be good for her, grounded for her, and I felt that I couldn’t do that on my own. I thought that returning to regular worship services would help both of us to be more mindful of God and to lean more consistently into the Spirit. We needed that.
We started attending worship services on Sunday mornings, and although we weren’t married, we were able to attend one of their classes for newlyweds. It was then that I started to understand what I had been missing. It wasn’t just a matter of being present; it wasn’t enough to just be in a class or service even if I was actively participating. It’s about connections. It’s about actually being part of a community — friends, family, brothers and sisters in Christ — and just because we all call ourselves Christians doesn’t mean we’re living like brothers and sisters. That’s why I’d been feeling so lonely at “church;” That’s why I’d been feeling most lonely at worship.
Being there with my future wife changed that. Worship wasn’t something I was doing alone, anymore. It was something I was sharing with someone I loved, someone who also loved me back.
Communion was still challenging, for me, but I understood why. The Lord’s Table should have been the most incarnate part of those worship services. It’s the place where all the things we proclaim about what God is doing in the world get modeled for everyone to see. It’s a formative liturgy of all we claim to be. Grace, diversity, and hospitality are all rolled up together as we share in a story of God’s love made manifest in creation. In other words, Communion should be the most welcoming and inclusive practice, yet it was individualized and buffered, instead.
I had been driven by necessity to search again for answers. I had found some, but the journey was only beginning.
That was all before I had kids or was married. The story continues as my life and circumstances changed. Life happens to all of us, and as it does, I continue to struggle with connecting it to worship.
I officially began working in a ministry position in 2013, and things actually got harder after that. The dissonance of worship services as “church” became more pronounced. All of the thoughts and feelings I’d been able to bury and ignore were suddenly unearthed and unavoidable. I had to talk with people and make space for people who were actively working against the creation of hospitable spaces and safe spaces, because Churches of Christ are notorious for status quo Christianity. As life continued to happen, the disconnect between “church” and life became clearer, more pronounced.
This seems to be especially true for my wife. I failed time and again to create safe spaces of worship for her and others, but I also needed her by my side. I needed that sense of belonging and shared love to exist like when I first understood what worship was supposed to be, but that only placed even more burden of expectation on her. While I was walking around or standing at the front “ministering,” her presence strengthened me, but the work drew my attention and presence away from her. She followed me into a lion’s den only to be left alone among predators. The tension between life and worship services deepened.
I found myself resenting the fact that I’d have to leave early to make sure I was at the church building when people started showing up while my wife would sleep in a bit and arrive just before worship services started. It took me some time to understand that we were feeling the same thing: the worship space wasn’t safe for us. I was feeling bitter because I was feeling threatened and alone, but I also realized the hypocrisy of that bitterness. My wife didn’t choose to be a minister; it wasn’t her burden or obligation, and it was hypocritical of me to desire after safe spaces and resent my wife for avoiding unsafe spaces. The fact that I didn’t feel safe enough to show up a bit later wasn’t an excuse to expect others to go with me into those unsafe spaces.
Worship wasn’t connecting with the realities of our life, but I was still feeling the pressure to view worship as something completely separate and give it priority. Eventually, I stopped showing up early. Sometimes, I’d even show up a bit late. I started trying to be intentional about not rushing my family if we were running behind. Some of you might be cringing at this; I get it. I like to be on time. Actually, I like to be exceedingly early, but I was trying to put into practice the posture that worship is part of life rather than separate from it.
When “church” doesn’t connect with life beyond worship services — when a congregation isn’t also a community that engages in life outside of services — it fails to be a reflection of God’s love. It fails to participate in God’s mission. That means taking into account realities of life. Having children, struggling with depression, having ever-changing job expectations, having bills and emergencies and friends and families — these things aren’t secondary to worship services. These things are part of who we are as Christians and as human beings, and a loving God makes space for life to happen with grace and compassion.
I recently embarked on a ministry with my family called 1310 Ministries. It’s tough, because there are so few of us. There’s a lot of uncertainty from week to week. Will anyone show up? Will anyone tune in online? How will people feel about what we do and who we are and what we say? I have a lot of anxiety about a lot of things, and I still struggle, even as a I try to build a congregation, to understand precisely how “church” becomes part of a community.
I still feel the sting of failure as I see the ways our worship services aren’t safe. I still feel anger when I encounter Christians who contribute to the danger and dissonance of worship. I still feel the shame of not knowing how to nurture a life of worship that connects to worship services. I still struggle to disconnect myself from the toxic understandings of worship that I was taught. The pandemic certainly hasn’t helped with any of that.
This is the backdrop for the hesitation I felt when I approached that article about mothers attending church. I know the complexities of trying to be healthy while trying to attend “church.” I know the toxic messages that lie beneath many of the reasons why we show up. I know what it’s like to struggle with feelings of inadequacy or with the expectations of others or with shame. I know what it’s like to be stuck between the awful feeling of attending a service and the awful feeling of not attending. I’m even, often, part of the problem.
What’s the message we’re actually sending to congregants and fellow believers? What’s the message we’re sending to folks whose lives are changing? What role does worship actually play — does “church” actually play — in our day to day lives, and how does our posture toward Sunday worship actually affect our communities?
I’m going to walk through the points in that article from The Gospel Coalition. I want to be candid about what I see there and why, and if you’re struggling with the idea of going to “church,” I want you to know you’re not alone.
Staying Home From Church: Setting an Example
Staying Home From Church: More Than a Sermon
Staying Home From Church: Encouraging Others
Staying Home From Church: the Slippery Slope
Staying Home From Church: Something Over Nothing
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Originally published at http://breakingbreadtheology.com on April 13, 2022.