Mar 13, 2011

Posted by in Confessions & Personal, Reforming the Church | 14 Comments

Me, Going to Church? Since When?

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 wish churches looked like this. Photo by Jerzy Ostapczuk.

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.

Justin Mulwee

Justin is a penniless vagabond with a tiny internet soapbox.

  1. Woot.

  2. First, if I didn’t know better, I’d say that Church in your picture is an Orthodox Church. Even if it isn’t, I’m sure we’ve got more than a few that look like that, depending on the architecture of the culture. You might find something similar in SE Asia, China, Japan or even Russia where the churches on the boarder share some architectural qualities with their Chinese neighbors.

    Two, I think it’s sad that Christianity has devolved into something rather consumerist. The whole concept of picking a church (also called church shopping) is something completely foreign to Christianity before the Reformation, though it might be true that at the beginning of the Reformation, this was still a very foreign concept. However, the lack of doctrinal unity eventually leads in the direction of church shopping as the disunity continues to grow.

    Justin, I know you’re not Orthodox or Catholic, but I think that myself (and Daniel and Mark) can tell you how much of a relief it is to go to a Church of our respective traditions in any city and find our faith present. Even under the same Protestant banner or denomination there can still be a remarkable difference that is less evident in Roman Catholicism and even less so in Orthodoxy. I find it quite a relief that no matter which Orthodox Church I visit, the same Faith, Eucharist and worship is present. I don;t have to Church shop, I only need to know where the Divine Liturgy is being celebrated and at what time.

  3. I like John’s comment here. I agree, because I know that no matter which Catholic church I attend, I know what I am going into. Even though I am not Catholic, I like to attend a Catholic church when I feel that their service is best suited, and it certainly has it’s strong points.

    That said, I have felt and gone through much of the same experience as you, Justin. I have started attending churches on a more regular basis again, and recently found one that is extremely focused on outreach, and so it draws me to it. For example, they raised money to feed kids in Haiti, and 5000 people volunteered and packaged over 1 million meals. I swear, this church barely has more than that many attendees. They’ve impressed me, so I will continue to look into them while I live here in this city.

  4. not gonna lie, the random-word wheel spinning sounded a bit more fun =P, but i am glad you’re growing even more as a christian.
    BUUUTTT i must say, the part about you switching directions every week is understandable. but if you were Catholic you’d have the same yearly [[or tri.yearly i believe for the novus ordo]] routine with the missile, which is nice. ;) also, on that note “(though it should be noted that liturgical churches reject this by focusing on the Eucharist/communion)” this is what the missile is for.
    now…i’ve heard kyle lecture enough to think this is true enough to post. but if you remember how bad my memory is, then you’ll know not to believe this till you’ve talked to dan. haha

  5. Justin Mulwee says:

    I knew the post was only inviting the Catholics/Orthodox to chime in about how superior their churches are, but oh well. To an extent they’re right in that they solve many of the complaints about protestantism. But they also come with their own issues–as every tradition does. I’ve seen many close friends turn to Catholocism or Orthodoxy. I’m happy for them, but by now I should hope they have given up on persuading me to their epistemology.

    To explain a little further about the church I’m attending:

    It’s Vineyard Church of Kalamazoo. The service focuses on worship and communion (yes, every week) more than the sermons, which come at the beginning and are usually brief and conversational, much like homilies. They also borrow an occasional bit from the liturgical traditions, like encouraging unified prayer and optional fasting for Lent.

    At the same time, they’re slightly charismatic, easygoing hippies, somewhat mystical and very personal. Focused on outreach and art. Seeker-sensitive, but through community instead of gimmicks and entertainment. Only about 50 people and no money.

    I also supplement my devotional life with heavy use of the Common Book of Prayer, so I have some liturgy and structure on one hand, and relational hippies on the other. It’s a good fit for my personality.

  6. Daniel Rubio says:

    “I knew the post was only inviting the Catholics/Orthodox to chime in about how superior their churches are, but oh well.”

    To be fair, one was a Catholic-friendly non-Catholic. And I refrained. Until now :D .

  7. I apologize, Justin. I wasn’t trying to act “superior” to you.

  8. Justin Mulwee says:

    @John, I know. You were expressing what you like about your tradition, which I can respect. Usually it’s Dan who chimes in with the smug comments about Catholicism, which I already have to put up with on a daily basis, though as he said he (momentarily) refrained.

    It’s just that, as many of my friends are Catholic, I am constantly bombarded with their comments about how much better Catholicism is, as if they can convert me by sheer persistence. But I have my reasons for avoiding that tradition, despite its appeal in that Catholicism and Orthodoxy do address many of my complaints about Protestantism and evangelicals.

    As a clear answer to prayer, I’ve finally found a church I like that doesn’t have an epistemology I reject (Orthodoxy, Catholicism). I’m happy and I want my friends to be happy for me. And they probably are, but the immediate response is yet another string of comments about Orthodoxy and Catholicism. So forgive me if I came off as irritable; it’s just that it wears on me after a while.

    I will never become Catholic or Orthodox, period. The sooner everyone realizes that, the better.

  9. So, what are we supposed to do when you happen to talk about these issues within Protestantism? I think it’s fair to say that there are more readers here than comment. I’m sure there’s plenty of lurker running around here. Although you may not be having such difficulties within the Protestant tradition(s) that warrant leaving, who knows what everyone else’s issues are? I say what I say, not to continually poke at you, but to provide information in general where Orthodoxy is not often heard. It’s often suggested that there’s a dichotomy between Prots and RC’s and that is clearly a false dichotomy. I know you authored this post, so that’s why I said your name in particular. If someone else had written it, I’m certain I wouldn’t have referenced you in my comments. I suppose I could have just spoken in general but in large part, I was.

    So anything else I say on here, don’t take it personally. Don’t take it as me trying to shove it down your throat. You aren’t your only reader and I think the likes of Daniel, Mark (if he ever comes back) or any other Catholic or Orthodox (Techsam for example) on here is well aware of that. I am too. Have fun doing what your doing. But know that unless you delete my comments or bar me from posting, I’ll be sure to give my input for those who just come here to browse on occasion.

    John

  10. Justin Mulwee says:

    John, I’d never do anything like that. For the record, I’ve never deleted a blackbird comment that wasn’t spam, and the only discussion I closed was the one with that crazy guy on the 95 theses article. And for what it’s worth, I enjoy your presence here and I don’t think you’re trying to shove anything down anyone’s throat (at least, not most of the time). I find most of your comments about Orthodoxy to be fairly gracious. In my last comment, I was just explaining my initial annoyance: personal reasons. It was an unwarranted reaction born out of exhaustion. Feel free to promote and talk about your tradition all you please. I’ll shut up now.

    O God, you have bound us together in a common life. Help us, in the midst of our struggles for justice and truth, to confront one another without bitterness, and to work together with mutual forbearance and respect, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

  11. “at least, not most of the time”

    Ah, yes. My humblest apologies for those days when I should have kept my mouth shut. Hopefully they are few and far between. I can’t promise ‘never’, I’m just not that cool. Usually Techsam does a pretty good job of poking me at Church or on here when I’ve clearly said to much.

  12. Daniel Rubio says:

    “I am constantly bombarded with their comments about how much better Catholicism is, as if they can convert me by sheer persistence.”

    If I may have a moment of smugness (since it seems I can be convicted of it in absentia I may as well)…

    Most of the time when I comment about Roman Catholicism on here it is not because I am trying to convert someone. I have a very dim view of the ability of people to “convert” each other. If someone asks questions I am more than willing to answer; if someone puts forward a challenge I meet it in the way that seems best; if a topic comes up where Catholicism is pertinent and in my view the non-Catholics (usually in this context they are protestants) have something to learn from it, I say so. I make no apologies for my ecclesiology, and until someone persuades me that it false I will continue to break it up when it seems relevant.

    All that being said…

    I had no intention to mention Catholicism (or comment at all, really) before my name appeared. This article is not one of those times where it seemed relevant.

  13. Casey Mellinger says:

    Going back to the original topic,

    I’m slightly surprised that it took this long, yet can appreciate the process you have gone through… I’m glad someone was finally able to help you shed your consumerist view of church.

    Once when I was at a summer camp (not with wellspring actually) the speaker used this analogy to describe sermons. The bible(truth) is like an oreo, crisp, clean, delicious looking… when a pastor does his sermon prep he chews on the oreo, and when he gives his sermon he spits out the oreo and gladly offers it to those listening… it can sustain those that are young and weak, but you can’t grow strong on someone’s half eaten oreos….I know this is a weak analogy but I figured it was worth a post at 5 am…

  14. Hey Justin,

    I know I am a little behind, but I am really glad that you have jumped in and are getting your hands dirty with people who share Christ with one another.

    For what its worth, the few Vineyard churches that I have visited seem to be focused on reaching out to their communities and sharing Christ’s love with their neighbors. Again, I am glad you joined their fellowship and service. If there was one near me, that’s where Kari and I would be too.

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