I grew up in the church. I don’t remember a time that I wasn’t in church. Even if my parents weren’t coming that day, they would drop us off for Sunday school. Every time we moved, one of the first orders of business was the search for a new church to attend. An essential part of my identity is as a follower of Jesus. I don’t want to use the term Christian at this time.
In Charleroi where I was born, we attended the First Christian Church of Charleroi. I enjoyed it but it caused me a minor problem. When people asked me what kind of church I went to, I would answer “Christian.” Which was always followed by the question, “Yeah, but what KIND” that came with a look of pity because I must not be very bright if I didn’t understand the question. Well, I kinda didn’t. That was the name of the church, and I had never heard the name of the denomination. It turns out it was the Disciples of Christ church…I think. My parents had been married in that church, I was baptized there, and it was just part of who I was.
When we moved to Baltimore, Maryland we visited many churches trying to find the right fit. We went to one where everyone was in tears the whole morning because they were saying good-bye to a beloved pastor. Uncomfortable to say the least. We eventually found Colonial Baptist Church. It became my second home. I loved Reverend Ledbetter. His daughter Wanda and son Richard became very close friends. At a business meeting one time they asked the family to step out because they were discussing the pastor’s salary and potential raise. They left and everything was silent. Finally the deacon in charge looked at me and said “You have to go too.” I tried reminding them that I wasn’t actually part of the family to no avail. I still remember the glint in Rev. Ledbetter’s eye and his laugh when I came out, shrugged, and said “who knew you adopted me?”
Each time the family moved and later as I moved, the first thing that was on our list of things to do was find a new church. Sometimes this was disastrous – like the time the minister was a dead ringer for Tim Conway. No, not just Tim Conway but Conway as he was in McHale’s Navy. My father, my siblings and I couldn’t keep from giggling, and Mom’s dirty looks did nothing to quell the giggles. When we got to the car, even she had to laugh.
Over the years I have attended Disciples of Christ, Southern Baptist (four in total located in different places), Lutheran, Methodist, and Evangelical Free churches. I’ve gone to youth group in Baptist and Catholic Churches and Bible studies at a Brethren In Christ, an Evangelical Free, and an Assembly of God church. I have worshipped in traditional and contemporary services. I have gone to Wednesday night prayer meetings, Sunday evening services, and various other programs throughout the week. I taught Vacation Bible School, worked the tech booth during services, worked as a volunteer secretary to a pastor, lead a singles ministry, manned the church library, and helped at various special activities. I started out active in Young Life, and as an adult I’ve attended Women of Faith, IF:Gathering, and other events. The church was just part of who I was. At one time it was a place where I felt loved, fed, encouraged — where I learned about Jesus, about how to behave in the world, how to love others and do the right thing.
And then something happened. I discovered the seamer side of those who professed to be Christians. I don’t know if I was blinded before or if they have changed dramatically in recent years.
(NOTE: If that paragraph set you on edge, the next one will heighten that. I recommend you read the book pastor Dr. Phil Thorne asked a whole congregation to read. The book is unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity…and Why It Matters. Based on research done by the Barna Group, it was written by David Kinnaman, Gabe Lyons, and George Barna.)
I saw factions rip apart a church and attempt to destroy a very good man. And I saw factions tear apart a new start-up church before it even got on its feet. They drove a fine young pastor and his wife away from the ministry completely.
I had a pastor in a Southern Baptist Church (#4 and why there was no #5) who preached hate from the pulpit. He hurt many people with his words including me. Along with a youth director, he drove my son from the Church — not the SBC but the CHURCH and God. I am partially at fault here because I should have removed us from this toxic environment before it had that kind of impact.
I joined a different denomination in the town where I live now only to find that their “extremely friendly church where everyone was family” actually was meant only for those who had gone to this church forever. They were the coldest congregation I’ve met. I tried to join things only to be completely ignored. In one instance there were two people carrying on a conversation from either side of me (we were rehearsing the bell choir) about their first cars which was hardly a private convo. When I interjected they both stared at me like I had dropped the F-bomb or something. And then they went back to their conversation as if I had said nothing and in fact wasn’t even right there between them.
You can’t say I haven’t tried. You can’t say I have no experience to speak about what being around the church and Christians is like. So here is my personal take today:
- There are times where there is no place better to be than inside a loving church experiencing the heart-felt and spirit-moved worship. When that happens, I am renewed. I am carried by that experience into all of my interactions that day, that week.
- There are times when there is no lonelier place to be on a Sunday morning. Walking through the doors but never being greeted by anyone, sitting alone (often with no one even sitting near), and leaving having never had a conversation is a terribly depressing experience that lasts as long or longer than those times of great worship. It makes getting up and going the next week a decision to be grappled with instead of something enticing.
- Over the years I found that something an old friend told me was true. She said that Noah took everything into the ark two-by-two and that the church had come that way ever since. Certainly there is no room for a single woman, much less a single mother, within the church. There is no room for the LGBTQ kid or adult, the one with blue hair, tattoos and piercings, the one from a different race, the one who is…different…other.
I can empathize with people who were “other” in the church even if I was not part of their reality. I experienced being the single parent who was seemingly looked on and actually spurned at times as competition by the married women there. The last thing in the world I wanted was someone else’s husband. I’d already had a man who took his wedding vows that lightly. I didn’t need another. There was no support or even compassion given to a single mother. I was told in one church that they had a program for single mothers. It was called “Mother’s Day Out” and happened on a weekday morning for two hours. Moms could drop their children off at church to be babysat while they did whatever they needed to do. They seemed genuinely shocked to find out that the program did nothing for single mothers who had to be at work supporting their family. That program was a respite for stay-at-home moms. In another church while I running the library’s book fair, I was told that we couldn’t have books about or by Sandi Patty or Amy Grant because they were divorced. Where then was the room for me in that church?
- The slights, the feelings of being “other,” the not fitting in keep people from fully committing to a church or becoming part of what is often termed “the church family.” But they seem like nothing compared to what I am seeing today from Christians everywhere. The Christian community — especially those who are very vocal in their faith, the evangelical Christians — have become a strident, judgmental group of people who present themselves as superior. It isn’t just my opinion. Again – read that book.
If you don’t belong to the right church, you really aren’t a Christian. I’ve had people tell my Catholic friend that she wasn’t a Christian or merely talk about Catholics being of a different religion as much as Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, etc. She was once told by a childhood friend that it was so sad that she was going to burn in hell because, as a Catholic, she wasn’t a Christian! Last I heard, the Catholic Church believes in Jesus Christ. As I sat in Bible study I have heard Christian women scorn those who belonged to Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and other denominations even to the point of referring to a time when they attended one of those churches “before becoming a Christian.” These are the kind of breaks and separations that cause hatred like the Sunni and the Shia factions of Islam. It makes me fearful that is where the Christian church in America is headed.
Likewise, if you don’t use the right language and jargon, you aren’t really a Christian. If you enjoy movies, novels, dancing, wearing the latest style clothing, a glass of wine, or any number of other things, you aren’t really a Christian. If you aren’t registered in the “right” political party and voting correctly, you aren’t really a Christian. If you believe in science, you aren’t really a Christian.
- The age-old criticism of hypocrisy continues and is amplified by social media. I have always countered that accusation by saying that the few members who were did not change the message of the Lord. The church wasn’t perfect and those people were not representative. But they have gotten too loud to just dismiss, and when the pastors and leaders are joining in, they cannot be ignored. People claiming to love the Lord are all over social media condemning anyone and everyone. They are so sure of their interpretation of scripture or agree so wholeheartedly with some preacher’s, writer’s, or politician’s interpretation that they attack those who disagree, who participate in an action they condemn. And it isn’t just that they see things differently and express that opinion. They attack people on a very personal level. They rail at others for being evil and will not associate with them or even be kind. That is the absolute opposite of what Jesus did.
Not long ago I went back to a Bible study. I hesitated in my decision to go back, but an old friend encouraged me to come. It had been a very long time since she had been able to attend and I was eager to see her. My hesitation had come because of the hate filled posts many of these women had put on social media condemning those who wore masks and practiced social distancing. They had attacked anyone believing in the dangers of the pandemic. They wanted any politician who advocated measures to stop the spread to be taken out of office. Some of these people had attacked me very personally. Some had sent private messages telling me to stay away from their homes because they weren’t wearing a mask for any reason. Others went straight to I wasn’t really a Christian if I “lived in fear” of a disease that “wasn’t even real.” But for this old friend and another very good friend, I went. I was the only person wearing a mask even though I knew that many of these people were not vaccinated — they had been vocal enough about the issue online that I was sure of their status. The woman who had attacked me in a private message, spoke several times during this session about how we need to show love to everyone, how we need to show kindness to everyone. By “everyone” it seems to me she meant others who are Christian by her definition.
I have not attended church in person since the beginning of the pandemic other than that one time at Bible study. Sadly, I cannot trust that it will be a safe place for me to be. I cannot see that the church and its members are following the command to “love your neighbor as yourself.” I am vaccinated, but my daughter-in-law has a compromised immune system and my granddaughter is too young to get a vaccine. If I carried the virus to them, I would be devastated.
In a recent interview, actor Leslie Jordan talked about growing up in a religious family and going to church where he was always “other.” He found music and humor as the ways to find his place. Eventually the lack of acceptance took its toll. He said, “But I never walked away from the church, I just quit going.” I understand that. The church has caused me to doubt and has often pushed me away, but in the end, while I agree with Jordan, I would term it differently. I haven’t walked away from God, but just quit going to church. I haven’t found one where there is a place for me since Colonial Baptist in the late 1960s. I have found other believers online who have become a sort of fellowship. It isn’t the same, but it’s better than the lonely feeling and condemnation inside those walls.