For the first time in my life, I’m turning in a membership application to an actual brick-and-mortar church. To some that’s pretty boring news, but it might be a surprise to those who know me well, and for readers who share a somewhat vague aversion to churches and all forms of so-called “organized religion” (On that note, it seems silly to despise something just because it isn’t disorganized).
I avoided church in college for two reasons. The first is I had a tight-knit group of Christian friends who functioned as my church. The second, more upsetting reason was this: I believe church exists to fill a few distinct purposes: worship, learning, community, and outreach–and I felt that, at least for my own tastes and needs, church really offered none of these things. I’m a music snob who can’t stand most “worship” songs. Most sermons are very low-level and teach me nothing. Then there was that awful two minutes of meet-and-greet time the church claimed was community. Outreach was either non-existent or seemed like a piddly afterthought.
You’ll find some of these criticisms in our very first online articles, Why You’re Bored in Church. After reading the first article, the wise and benevolent Rebecca Rhodes told me:
Couldn’t another option be to stay with your church and serve Christ as wholly as you can there? To set a model and example for others in the church and try to bring about change as a fellow laborer in Christ? To gently begin and invite conversations about the sincerity of Christian living? To maybe sit down and share your concerns with the pastor? It’s hard to fix a problem if no one addresses it, so just leaving the church doesn’t seem to be helping anybody (not even the leaver, since they have not learned or practiced healthy, Biblical confrontation).
I stand by my criticisms of church, but the biggest reason I was bored in church was that I was there to receive and not to give. As a result, I had nothing to do.
As I focused on how I felt churches were failing, I ignored my own part in that failure—my aloofness. I shunned just about every organization of Christians who cared to name themselves, partly because I was busy or had some disagreement with them, but mostly because I considered myself in one sense or another too good for them. I wasn’t sufficiently impressed when I encountered them.
And while I wouldn’t back down an inch from the discussion of church’s shortcomings, when deciding whether or not to be involved at all, many of those criticisms are rather beside the point.
As much as I’d love better sermons, there’s a somewhat unrealistic expectation in Protestant circles that we need to hear a profound and life-changing message every week (though it should be noted that liturgical churches reject this by focusing on the Eucharist/communion). It takes long enough–months or even years–for me to make one specific, significant, lasting change in my life. There’s no way I can change my life in a new direction every week, anyway. Most sermons will not be constructed to for the intellectual needs of someone like me, and I can live with that.
So, the fact that I’m joining a church does not mean the sermons and music blow my mind. I don’t even remember what last week’s sermon was about, and I prayed in my seat during the worship instead of singing. What I do remember is yesterday I was working alongside some folks in the church’s bustling ministry to local teen moms. I wasn’t even doing anything terribly vital: folding papers, carrying stuff up and down stairs, and watching the door to ward off any weirdos who might have wanted to bother the girls. Nothing but everyday, easy volunteer work that seems dumb to even mention–but for a pretentious, self-important writer who finds it all too easy to criticize from his precarious ivory tower without really helping, it contributes more to my spiritual growth more than a pithy sermon ever did.
All that said, I’m not telling anybody to join a random church. In fact, I visited no less than nine local churches before settling on this one. Like any commitment of time and money, the choice of a church should be made as shrewdly as possible. To that end I’ll write another article soon with some ideas on how to pick one. Until then I’ll just note that a little unselfishness works wonders for dissolving church-related angst.