Sunday, April 27, 2014

in which i begin to talk about church.

"Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom." - II Corinthians 3:17


When I was a little girl, I would traipse up and down the outer aisles of our church building, making sure to step on each air conditioning vent, watching my dress as it would pouf out around me. In that moment, I was transformed from a little girl into a dinging bell or a dancing ballerina, whichever vision my imagination gifted me in the moment. 

That was church, and it was enough. 


One Sunday morning, when I was eight years old, a new girl visited my church. Her father was a prospective minister for our congregation, and I was in desperate need of a new friend. We were in the same Sunday school class, and when she got a marker cap stuck on her finger, I bravely volunteered to help her to the bathroom, where we used soap and water until the cap came clean. Her father became our new minister, and she became my best friend. 

That was church, and it was enough. 


"Youth group." Those two little words longed for from a childhood spent in church didn't hold magic for me like they did for my peers. The classes felt silly, and my friends, I discovered, were no longer at my church; they were at my school. And although the spiritual culture of my evangelical school was completely different from my own, I seemed to belong there more than anywhere else. I found myself leading prayers and devotionals in front of my class, participating in FCA, singing alongside praise teams, going forward at abstinence altar calls.

That was church, and at the time, it felt like enough. 


By my senior year, my fascination with evangelical culture was wearing thin. I wasn't sold on kissing dating goodbye, and I was tired of bowing my head and closing my eyes during invitation songs. I was weary of Kirk Cameron and Left Behind, of rapture bumper stickers and Christian radio. I was desperate for something more, for something familiar, and when I graduated, I chose a Christian college; not one rooted in evangelical traditions, but one grounded in the faith of my home church. Yet I fell in love with Jesus not in chapel services, but in classes honoring the classics, surrounded by professors deeply influenced by Catholic and Orthodox principles. We gathered multiple times a week around a table, breaking bread and communing together in ways that made my heart sing.

That became my new church, and it was lovely, and it was enough. 


After graduation, I moved back to my hometown, to my home congregation. My views were different than they were before, and the fault lines that had begun to show during my high school years became cracks in the surface of my faith. But a new minister had come to our church, and he talked about falling in love with Jesus, and he practiced what he preached, and Jordan moved to town, and together, we forged our own place at the church of my childhood. I fell in love with church all over again, and when the walls came tumbling down -- as they always seem to do -- it was a harder fall than it had been before. I had loved church, and loving the church made being hurt by her all the harder. But we had our friends and our family, and so that was still church, and it was still, somehow, enough. 


I am 28 years old, and all I really know for sure about church these days is that I love Jesus. That's it. Ask me what I want from a church, and I won't be able to tell you. Ask me what I want to do, what gifts I want to use, and I won't know. Ask me what I believe about doctrine and faith, and I'm not confident I'll have much of a response -- certainly not the kind you'd be looking for from someone born and raised in church. 

All of my church experiences -- all the joys and the hurts, the triumphs and the challenges, the highs and the lows -- I wouldn't trade them. And I won't deny my conservative upbringing, don't regret my evangelical high school or the traditional restorationist congregation where I grew up. I wouldn't trade any of that, because I'm confident all of those experiences helped shape who I am today. And despite my current confusion, I rather like who I have become and am becoming. 

But that lack of denial, that fondness for all the aspects of my spiritual upbringing, both happy and sad, makes it difficult to know how to move forward. I have found Jesus, the Father, and the Spirit in so many different places over my life, and that has somehow left me confused instead of free. I am not sure what that means.

Jordan and I are in the position, for the first time, of choosing a church in adulthood. And for the first time, I understand why so many of my peers leave church. Not just the church of their childhood, but church in general. This picking and choosing, this visiting one church and then the next? It's not for the faint of heart. Truly. The faint of heart couldn't handle it. (I am sure of this, because my own heart is growing thin.) 

I love Jesus. And I think for some people, that's enough. Church is secondary, community can be found elsewhere. I know this, and I wish often it were the case for me. 

But I love church. I love the singing and the praying; I love turning the well-worn pages of my Bible, love sitting alongside strangers and friends to worship a God we can't see, a God who supposedly up from the grave arose. I love it in all its strangeness, in all its absurdity. I love it, and for me, I don't see any other way. 

The question, then, for me and for Jordan, becomes where to go next. In the move to Thomasville, we more or less left the church we were attending in hopes of becoming part of a community of faith in our new town, not realizing, I suppose, what exactly that would mean. 

So far it has meant a few awkward lunches, several bizarre communion stories (one involving spit-up, the other involving an usher who refused to let us hold the plate of crackers ourselves), a lot of new songs, and more introductions than I can count. 

And because we now live in a small town, it has also meant adjusting to a smaller congregation size. It has meant being recognized and conversed with, sometimes awkwardly and at length, about everything, but really about nothing. (And that, for me, has maybe been the hardest of all.)

Our new town has also meant an exploration of other options, options that, when we were 18, we might not have thought possible. We have now worshipped in congregations where women still wear head coverings and long skirts; where congregants bow to the cross and and kneel during prayer. We have sipped wine from chalices and accepted crackers from the hands of priests. 

We have done all these things, visited all these places, and we still do not know where to go. 

I'm not sure what this means. As a person who has long loved Jesus and believed in the most impossible scenarios -- life over death, the miraculous over the practical -- I do not know where to go next. At 28, I am less sure than I was at 18, and yet... I find that makes the most sense. 

At 18, the questions hadn't started. The discoveries were just beginning, the black and white were very slowly melding into grey. As a believer, I have to grow comfortable, I think, with some grey areas. Scripture leaves so much to the imagination, and I am becoming more okay with that than when I was 18. I am, perhaps, growing into my faith, realizing that maybe -- just maybe -- this whole thing is bigger than I have made it.

So with every visit, my opinions become more varied. We are thinking of ourselves, of our marriage, of our future children. We are deciding what kind of people we want to grow into and become, and for us personally, church still plays a big part in those decisions. 

I am so grateful that somewhere in my faith story, I found a partner who will ask hard questions with me, who will seek the Lord in every place He may be found, who believes He may be found in all kinds of places, in all kinds of ways. 

We talk together a lot, these days, about church and Jesus. We both acknowledge our confusion, but we also acknowledge the conclusions we are reaching. We are discovering, with each conversation, who we want to be and who we want to become. 

A lot of people I know leave church. At the very least, they leave the church in which they were born and raised. 

For us, that leap has been a difficult one. Neither of us is even sure that's what's next. 

But our conversations and our struggles are bringing us closer together and oddly, I find myself drawing closer to the Savior. I am realizing, despite the improbability of it, that the God I serve can be found -- bizarrely, miraculously -- in the head coverings and in the chalices, in four-part harmony and in chants, in quiet moments bowed down in prayers, and in happy-clappy moments at the altar. He inserts Himself, somehow, inexplicably, in all of these places and beyond. 

Perhaps that is truly church. Maybe, just maybe, it is enough.

Photo by Hannah Queen


Ray Sherlock said...

I love the honesty of your words. I find it true that God is humongously bigger than we have imagined. Our mission is to love Him, love people and tell about His son and to do it with others. Praise Him all the day. I love you. UR

Brittany said...

Annie, every time you write about faith and church, I'm amazed by how familiar it all is. You write what I'm not brave enough to say yet. I'm seeking too. I'm growing more comfortable with the grey too. I'm learning how much a community of believers means to me too. I feel one thousand percent less sure than I did at 18, and I'm so much more tepid and cautious in my faith. I know for sure about God and Jesus's love. It's small, so small, but like you said, it's enough for now.

jenna said...
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jenna said...

As usual, your post has me nodding my head "yes" and desperately wishing I was in town so we could grab a cup of coffee...

Leslie said...

Yes, yes, and yes. I have so many questions and uncertainties about the church I was also brought up in. The more I research, the more questions I have. I got to visit my parents' Orthodox church while I was in California with them and it was simply amazing. Such a deeper and more reverent atmosphere than what I've found anywhere else. My prayers lately have included a lot of requests for clarity and understanding. And you're right...God and faith are BIG.

Paige said...

Annie, I loved this post. Your honesty hit close to my own home. My husband and I are having to make some very tough decisions in this area as well. It's harder when most around us are insisting that we need is in their church rather than simply talking with us and getting to know us. Over the years, my faith has just become so personal, and I am partly afraid I feel more like others are interfering rather than aiding me. As newlyweds we are both having to talk and discuss our options and our beliefs a lot now. Thank you for your honesty. I feel a lot less alone as another wife trying to sort out her own opinions.

michelle marie said...

This was beautifully written. We are so small, and God is so big...I think as long as we're searching for truth, we're on the right path.

RA said...

I'm way delayed on commenting, but I so appreciate your thoughts here. I think our generation is grappling with similar sentiments, and it's difficult to find clear answers or even direction. But the process of wrestling with it is worth it.

If you are interested in some research on the topic, I highly recommend these materials from the Barna Group, which appear in their Sacred Roots FRAMES book. I haven't read the book yet, but it's on my nightstand. :)

Millennials and a Renewed Vision for Church, especially the video in that article
Americans Divided on the Importance of Church