Memory says 1980 was the last time Connie and I went “church shopping.” We were a young married couple in our mid-twenties, new in town and working in a para-church camping ministry (my dream come true).
We’d grown up in (conservative) Baptist churches. Mine was small, blue-collar, something of a country church in a suburban setting full of salt of the earth type people. Our pastors were either at the end of their career or fresh from seminary. Hers was near the downtown core, white-collar, large and staffed with multiple pastors who were movers and shakers in the association (Baptists associated, they didn’t denominate). Perhaps “conservative” is an understatement. Our congregations and lives were guided by strict theology and a seeming unending assortment of lifestyle expectations.
After moving to Bellingham, Washington, we tried a number of churches hoping to find something that “fit.” We’d stay a few weeks here or there, but somehow didn’t settle anywhere our first year. Eventually we followed the suggestions of some of our newer friends and checked out a local Presbyterian congregation. I had a not-too-subtle, negative prejudice toward anything mainline. I was convinced they were unwitting people with no real connection to God, and they certainly didn’t know Jesus.
We began by meeting with the pastor. The big hurdle for us was women in leadership. How could a church claim to be Biblical and ignore such clear, specific scriptures? He did his best to assure us that the church was focused on Jesus and faithful to scripture. Somehow we gave it a chance and soon found a new home.
In 1985 we left the camp ministry and I joined the church staff. By then I had realized my faith was in process. And that was okay. I was a member of a Presbyterian church and beyond that, a staff member. Fast forward to 1997 and I transitioned to a new role in another Presbyterian church. Once again we had blurred the lines between church and work. We stayed for fourteen years, moving on this past summer. (You can read about my transition in an essay
I wrote for catapult earlier this fall.) Now, after twenty-five plus years of having our church determined by my job, we are without a church home.
Much has changed since 1980. My perception of numerous “absolutes” has shifted. Surprisingly, the church has survived. I’ve observed or participated in diverse elements shifting Christian culture including the Jesus People, the church growth movement, mega-churches and emergent efforts. From where I stand today I can’t imagine being a part of a church that excludes women from leadership. Creation and evolution, divorce and remarriage, faith and politics and understanding of Scripture are a few of the areas in which my beliefs have shifted. In areas where I formerly had clear, specific beliefs, I now find I often have ideas, questions, hopes and doubts.
All of this makes the process of finding a new church more than a matter of doctrine or denomination. Since the last time we chose a church we have raised kids and become grandparents; my wife has survived cancer, we’ve lost friends and family members and so much more. I get that we are in something of a post-modern, post-Christian, post-church cultural moment. We are different, the world is different and the church landscape is different.
To be honest I’ve never been the best at sitting through a service. I don’t like ceremony and generally find church services more about enduring than enjoying. I no longer crave programs, activities, sermons or classes. At best, I am seeking soul space, conversations, presence, a glimpse of the holy and connections. I’m drawn to being a part of a community. Yet I don’t want my belonging to be measured by the name on the building I sit in on Sunday mornings (or some creative new service time, you know like Saturday or Sunday evening).
Then there is the issue of this cultural moment. It seems that the primary identity of many churches, spoken or unspoken, is the claim to have the correct, Biblical, God-directed, view about matters related to gender/sexuality/orientation and membership/ordination and all that spills forward from there. Since when has division, contentiousness and hubris become the mark of the church, the people of God, followers of Jesus? I detest the idea of associating with a church based upon a hot-button label. I am equally offended that I may be negatively labeled by my choice of a church home.
This leaves me uncertain how to find a church. Do I go with theology? Form of government? My (current) view of said hot-button issue? Commitment to social justice? Appearance of being loving? The form of worship/services? Do I want traditional (you know, music from the forties, fifties and sixties) or contemporary (that’s right, with my choice of stuff from the seventies, eighties or nineties)? How it feels? Where my friends go? Will my kids and grandkids like it? Who goes there? Who doesn’t go there? Let’s be honest, maybe I’m wondering where I might have the best shot at a new job, or at least connections? Something with established traditions and organizational structure or some organic start-up? How about the one I can walk to down the street? The most edgy or the one that cares less about cultural pressures? Do I look more at the pastor, the congregation, the denomination or lack there of?
As I consider the possibilities I don’t find a rush of energy to make a decision.
Connie and I have a great circle of friends that has long functioned as something like a “church” for us. Our roots of connection go back to the seventies, with some who have joined over the years and a few who are somewhat new to the family. We care for each other, encourage each other and challenge each other. Our commitments have held as we have lived through the stress of rough life stages. Interestingly, in my leaving occupational ministry I have been able to reconnect more fully with peers and specifically this group of friends. We’ve shared holidays, vacations, family transitions, big events and lazy days. Births, baptisms, graduations, weddings and memorials have marked our years. Most of our connections date to the seventies and eighties at camp and church. Though we are now scattered from a singular church setting, we are still together.
Connie and I have a short list of churches we plan to “check out.” Others appear to have their own lists for us. I have to admit, it’s easy to put it off. In the interim we have enjoyed a variety of Sunday morning alternatives; weekends away, overnights with grandkids, brunch with family and friends, biking in the islands or watching football in real time.
It would be easy to let guilt, habit or the expectations of others drive our decisions and actions. From where I sit at this moment, it is difficult to predict how this will turn out.
May God have mercy on us all.