Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Musings and a Question on Changing Churches

We've been thinking about changing churches. For the past six months we've been attending an evangelical Lutheran (ELCA) church a few miles from our home. We were attracted to it by its lively worship, welcoming programs for high schoolers, and the many opportunities to serve others.

The people are welcoming and warm, but thankfully, they won't chase you to your car to recruit you or breathlessly ask if you've yet accepted Jesus.

It's a down-to-earth,comfortable bunch. On Sundays at the second service, the church is filled with people dressed in "business casual" as well as t-shirts and shorts. (It's rare at most churches these days to see men in suits and women dressed to the "nines," as was the case in my youth.)

The pews are filled with young and old, middle aged and middle schoolers. There are twentysomething couples with hair I personally don't understand, and a subtle tattoo or two I don't want to understand. There are thirtysomethings in trendy attire, freshly brewed Starbucks in hand. There are families with squirmy young children, and empty-nesters beaming in their childlessness. The pews are filled with the pretty and not-so-pretty.....attractiveness and style of dress are not a prerequisite for belonging. There's one rumpled, elderly man with a frizzy crown of white-gray hair who serves as usher. It gives him purpose, and everyone knows him.

The two middle-aged pastors are likewise warm and friendly, and seem to recognize all faces and names. They preach of service and helping others, of health and moderation in all things, of building a medical clinic in Africa and of a summer mission trip to Brazil, of faithfulness in worship and Bible study. They preach of peacemaking and social justice, and at all times, express their personal imperfections and frailties.

There is no bureaucratic kingdom teeming with assistants and associates, fancy program designers and singles/recreation/recovery/divorce/young married/seniors/small group ministry specialists. Just two experienced, hands-on pastors, a couple administrative employees and an empty high school pastor slot being filled by two local seminary students. And hundreds of "partners in ministry" (not the archaic "members") teaching Sunday School, leading Bible study, serving coffee and donuts, greeting at the Welcome Center and much more.

It's actually not a small church. Sunday attendance at the three services may reach 800 or more, and the membership roster lists 1,500 to 2,000 names.

Akin to dating, we're taking our time to get to know the church. Truthfully, we're pondering joining this congregation as a "partner in ministry," but we're not so sure about joining a big denomination again, and don't know much about committing to be a Lutheran.
You see, until four and a half years ago, I had been a Presbyterian for all my almost-50 years. In the past 15 years, I became an ordained elder and ordained deacon in the Presbyterian Church (PCUSA). What I learned about denominational politics wasn't pretty. In fact at times and over many subjects, it was ugly, mean-spirited and cruel. Anything but loving and kind. ( Love is patient and kind....") Rolls for this 110-year-old church rapidly dwindled, and the music and style of worship were straight out of the 1950s. (All of the music.)

So the Holy Spirit led us to seek a new church in which to joyfully worship in the 21st century. Our then-elementary age daughter enjoyed a local evangelical semi-mega church, so we jumped in and joined.

But times have changed over the past four-plus years. As that semi-mega church became more politically active in quite conservative realms, it also also morphed in other became uninvolved in and detached from local community affairs, and actually serves no local health or welfare (hunger, homeless, etc.) organizations in any meaningful, substantial or helpful way.

The millions in annual tithes go to three main areas: building maintenance, salaries for a growing multiplicity of staff, and overseas missions to evangelize, but not to provide assistance.

The church atmosphere is decidedly emotional, and church lay leaders emote during praise songs, and shout amen after salient sermon points. And to be deeply respected, you need to know the Bible very, very well. And vote Republican.

Here's the rub....campus facilities are lovely, the people are nice, and the music is divinely touching. And we have friends there. It's a community unto itself, and it takes care of its own. It's a very comfortable place...if you pass judgment. feels like delicious candy-coating around a center of air. There's no spiritual growth. There's no loving every neighbor as we love ourselves; it's about loving only neighbors who might become church members. There's little serving others outside the church "family." Pastors and church leaders will even state that their first goal is to build community within the church.

Our daughter is now a high school freshman, and in need of a creative, challenging church group. But the semi-mega church's high school group emphasizes parties, coolness, emotional logic, sports, fluff and lots of emotion. In the spirit of attracting numbers and "accepting" everyone, young women attendees dress and flirt provocatively, and young men attendees seem perpetually obsessed with horseplay and sports. Intellectual scholarship is shunned, and almost all attend local Christian colleges or junior college. High school leadership is generally limited to the children of staff.
So we made the difficult decision to look around elsewhere. Difficult to leave because we love some people there.....but difficult to stay because the spiritual meal is unsatisfying; difficult to stay because we often have to hide our views and perspectives, which don't always toe the church "family" line of acceptability.

We've remained active in a weekly small group, though, to keep in frequent touch with a handful of semi-mega churchers.

Last night, the small group met at our home. In preparation, we took days to clean and spruce up the house. (I was holiday cleaning, too.) I carefully prepared a lesson, and even distributed helpful read-aheads the week before. I made a yummy lemon dessert, and set a pretty table to serve all.

One family lost the read-aheads and never told us, and another hurriedly skimmed it in the car to our home. I discovered later that considerable tension exists between two couples, a state made palpably clear during the lesson. In consideration for all viewpoints, I attempted to serve as facilitator for discussion, but they just wanted to sit and be taught. Some members of the feuding families rushed out to their cars after the lesson, and never said thank you or good-bye. The evening was not a success, all things considered.

People behaving melodramatically, based on their's a pattern at this semi-mega church. Frankly, it's tiresome and self-absorbed, and it gets in the way of spirituality and worship.

So I feel sad today, and at a loss. Inevitably, I guess we will lose touch with most of our semi-mega church friends. Yes, the semi-mega church environment is myopic and emotionally dysfunctional. And no, we don't fit in with the preferred model of a member.

Our daughter, a bright girl who can go to college wherever she chooses, needs and wants to be in an intellectually supportive and emotionally stable church group environment.

We desire to be in a church where the theology reflects the loving, serving Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace. And deep down, we know that God's plan is not about us being comfortable, hearing delightful music, and hanging with our friends.....God also planted in us a hunger to study, grow and serve.

But we're afraid to jump in again and "join" another church. How do we know that all is as it seems? I think we'll keep dating for a while, but perhaps take a more serious look at our date, with an eye to possible commitment. We're just not yet ready for marriage....


Anonymous said...

What a BORING piece. It is a tenacious ramble that should be one paragraph. What does it really mean? Surely it is not just "My old church is dufunct with sinners that I dont like their looks."
Maybe you want your opinion embraced by the congregration more fully. Or is it the leaders of your church that "your opinion" is not being heard by.

Deborah White said...

Actually, I rarely expressed my opinions at church, and have no particular desire to be "heard." Its not the appropriate venue for any people to be airing their political views. We're all children of God...not just Republicans.

The first church just didn't have a style of worship, or atmosphere, that anyone in my family found joyful or uplifting. We did not find the Holy Spirit dwelling there. We have freedom of choice to worship God how and where we please.

This is boring to you, and may be to most readers. My desire was to express my thoughts, not necessarily to entertain you.

However, this is the experience of many Christians who no longer reguarly attend a particular church...and there are millions who fit into that category. Church attendance drops off annually in the US.

I recently read Brian McLaren's "A New Kind of Christian." I found that I am not alone in these thoughts....

(My apologies for boring you. It was not my intent. Thank you for dropping by and taking the time to write a comment. )

Yon said...

I didn't think it was boring at all. Being a German catholic, I'm not very familiar with those mega-churches, so it was quite interesting to read more about it. Don't let yourself be discouraged.

Deborah White said...

Thank you, Yon, for your encouraging word. And it's great to know that you found it interesting.

The megachurch environment is, more and more, becoming similar to a business environment marketing a message. Rick Warren is the most apt symbol of that, which is now being called the "Christian Materialism" movement. (Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia, has a description of this fairly new movement.)

Yon said...

Thank you for helping me along on this topic.
I linked to this article on my own blog now. It's worth being read.

Anonymous said...

As someone who works on a church staff, I am grieved that your experience in so many churches has been so poor. My prayer is that you will be able to find true community and a home which Christ is calling you to serve in rather than just attend. I also read the book "A New Kind of Christian" and greatly appreciated it. What was interesting to me was that the lead character, Dan Poole, feels called to stay at his church and help them change. Sometimes we need to escape the consumeristic church mindset and commit despite the aparent flaws in any congregation. Do you really believe Jesus would "date" a church?

Deborah White said...

Wow...great points here that I will mull over. Thank you!

I have thought about this some already.....I feel guilty about suddenly skipping from church to church. I hear you. In large part, that's exactly why this all bothers me. If church was mere entertainment, this would be no dilemma.

I believe, though, that we have a fundamental difference with the theology of our church of the past four years. It's turned into a business organization, rather than a spiritual organization, with emphasis on collecting monies, erecting more buildings, maintaining the campuses it has, and expanding the employee and "product" base.

They are decidedly not interested in change, and they are definitely not interested in the ideas of anyone who is.

Every church has the right to preach and live the gospel as it sees fit. I don't question that.

We feel so separated from the church's message, that it feels best to go where they proverbially speak our language. Serving, respect for all, peacemaking, spiritual growth.
There, it's almost like a return to pre-reformation Christianity. The pastors tell us what the Bible says. Our job is to submit to the pastors' authority, provide as much financial support as possible, and be in community with church members. Period. Individual thought from outside the staff is neither encouraged, nor respected.
I really do hear your points, however.

As far as the "dating" analogy, we jumped in and joined our church of the past four years too quickly. We committed before we had a clear picture of the character/style of pastoral leadership and culture of the congregation.

If "dating" is too superficial of a word choice, please accept my apologies.

Thank you for your thoughtful comments.

Anonymous said...

THANK YOU for this post. We are leaving a church we have been active in for 10 years - - We dared to question a capital campaign, with a promotional campaign that is complete with everything you would see from a bank advertising program!! (even free tshirts...)

They pastor decided to spend $10K on fundraising... And the money is for a building, when we do not fully utilize the building we have now. "We need a bigger building to do God's work." Bull - we "need a bigger building" so that we can have a bigger building than the church across town...

AND... We are also looking for a vibrant, serious BIBLE STUDY for our teens. Imagine that - teens who WANT to study the Bible, not flirt, play games... phooey on that...

Anyway, I feel your frustration!

Deborah White said...

And I feel your frustration, too....and fully understand it.

So many churches these days have turned into businesses with marketing campaigns, lots of bureaucratic staff and flashy campuses.....not places to worship God, study the Bible, help others in need and meet others in the neighborhood who want to do the same.

THANK YOU for your comment!

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your piece immensely. It is comforting to know that I'm not alone in my dissatisfaction with churches!
I don't currently attend a "megachurch", but I have in the past, and for that time, it met my needs. Later, I decided that I wanted to go past just being anonymous....I wanted the minister to know me by name. I wanted to know who was a visitor and who was a member. I wanted to be known.

I found another church where I felt strongly called to. After about 9 months of attending, I officially joined the church. I've been a member for almost two years.

Now I feel like I am reaching a new point. I realize that I'm not connecting with anyone there. They are friendly, warm, and genuine, but there is virtually no one there my age (I'm 23), and there is no one that I talk with outside of services. Twice in the past two months, I have heard sermons at this church on the importance of having Christian friends. Both times there was no solution to the dilemma of not having Christian friends beyond just praying and "asking" God to bring those people into your life. And both times that I have heard such messages, I have left the church in tears, realizing that I have very, very few Christian friends, or rather, friends in general.

What makes this more complicated is that I am in a leadership (unpaid, volunteer) role. I am beginning to resent giving and not getting. I understand that service is crucial, but you can't give to others if you're running on empty.

So thanks for sharing your thoughts with the world. God bless you.

Anonymous said...

I don't see any mentioning of prayer in your writing. Did you ever pray to God about which church you should go to? It takes more than one simple prayer. You don't choose to go to which church without asking God first! You don't just go with your needs or feelings. This is not shopping!!!

Anonymous said...

I appreciate your thoughts, which echo my own, as I leave a church I thought I would be committed to for many many years. I'm betting that you've been praying the whole time - and that God will show you your place. I like the dating analogy - because joining a church is a commitment, and needs to be taken seriously. So, dating first, and taking time to be sure, makes sense.
My own plan is to attend one church's services (church A) on a regular basis, because they meet on Saturday nights, while I go to Sunday morning services at other churches. I hope church A works out without the need for much looking around, but that remains to be seen.
Best wishes with your search.

Anonymous said...

we are in the painful process of letting people know we are going to leave the church we are attending. when you mentioned the candy coating around a center of, i totally get that! however our church is small about 200 it can happen in any environment! i hear where you are coming from, its great that you can be so open about it.

Anonymous said...

Wow, everything you said was hitting home with me. I am personally in that process rigt now. Unfortunately my husband isn't. It is one of those divided issues with us and I pray he comes around soon. I have expereinced a variety of church venues from conservative to very charismatic. I grew up Baptist, and can relate to the judgement issues. But right now I am just feeling this emptiness with where we currently are attending - I also agree that the mega churches are becoming more like businesses than churches. God wants so much more. I wonder how common of a problem this is that you have brought up? I believe that it is a time when the church is being redefined - but to whose standards? The world's or God's?

Anonymous said...

Thank you for being honest. I think God gave us the gifts of emotions and they help to guide us. Your honesty about your experiences is much appreciated.

Anonymous said...

A fascinating piece. I am 63, and found myself at Home in the Catholic church after much reading - and frankly after our son became Catholic! This was after a lifetime of being evangelical and going to every church type, for as many years as it took to make some dear friends but realize there was no growth... and our hearts were so hungry!