Aug 31, 2010

Back to Church

I’ve heard my share of “leaving church” stories; and not from immature, fair-weather Christians but from long-term, mature believers – many who had been in leadership. They grew disillusioned by schisms and scandals, they got tired of what felt like a formulaic service, they didn’t feel fed, they didn’t feel needed. So they left – not God, but church. And they’re not alone. Anne Rice is just the latest statistic. As George Barna said in his book, Revolution, people are “leaving church in droves.”

I could have been one of them. If it weren’t for a dinner party.

I doubt I’d feel happy leaving church for good. I spent stretches of time not going, but never with the intention of staying out. I just hadn’t found the right church, I told myself. By the time I met my husband I’d found one; but we moved too far away, so we had to find a place near home where we’d both feel comfortable. We visited just about every place that friends attended and recommended.

And we left most of them angry.

Why? Well, for one, we’d each grown uncomfortable with modernist liturgy: the 45-minute rock concert, followed by a 45-minute sermon – often containing 15 minutes of content padded out with alliterative bullet points and anecdotes. (I began to feel sorry for pastors: they had to produce a new 45-minute act every week!) Church had begun to feel like “the Sunday Show,” as a friend described; the show that Northpoint Church poked fun of in their video, “Sunday’s Coming.” (They have the right to poke fun, because it’s the same format they follow).

However, many people we loved and respected went to those churches. And I could see they were getting a lot out of being there. So, perhaps nobody was wrong; it was just that everyone was different. So Larry and I kept looking and visiting. And leaving angry.

At the end of our ecclesiastical rope, I discovered that an Episcopal priest, whom I fondly remembered during a church-hopping stint 15 years prior, was now the senior rector of a teensy church just a couple miles from us. I remembered when she celebrated the Eucharist, the Holy Spirit was all over her. So we went.

And we didn’t leave angry. That was the high water mark.

We went back the following weeks. I don't remember being bowled over or pissed off; comfortable or uncomfortable. We just went. I finally reintroduced myself to her. Reverend Anne made sure we filled out a card, and two weeks later she invited us to a newcomer’s dinner. At dinner, Anne got excited when she found out that Larry and I read C.S. Lewis, N.T. Wright and Donald Miller. She’d been trying to launch small groups for some time and asked us to join in a training group. We said yes. What else were we going to say?

There were eight of us in training, including a woman who’d come to Christianity after studying eastern religions; a guy who’d left a large parish because it was more concerned with politics than religion; a couple whose wife had attended church for years but the husband only recently decided he needed to ‘get right with God,’ as he put it. He was a scientist. He questioned everything. He needed data. He refused to pray out loud. Toward the end of the program he finally agreed to pray, but only after his wife gave him tips on what to say.

Three small groups launched the following spring, reading a Lenten devotional with essays by everyone from CS Lewis to Khalil Gibran (hey, what the …? ) When Lent was over, the Scientist and his wife joined our group. He didn’t want to read essays; he wanted to read the Bible. “I don’t know what’s in there.”

We bought NT Wright’s study guide, Luke For Everyone, and began to read. And we began to change. The Bible came alive, not just to the Scientist for whom the story was new, but to Larry and me who thought we knew everything. Wright filled in the historical and cultural context; he debunked the religious folklore that had crept into my thinking. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus became real and vivid to us. It was like we were there.

We moved on to Acts. Other people joined the group: longstanding church goers, outcasts who’d been away from church for years: a lesbian who got expelled from Bible school, a Buddhist who visited our church one Sunday and couldn’t stop crying; a great-grandmother who’s gone to our church for 50 years, a single mom and her teenage daughter. We’re all reading the Bible and discovering new things.

We are also growing together. We’ve begun to share our stories. When my beloved kitty died last month, they prayed and cried with me. I’ve grown closer to Larry too. Every week I see how much people look up to him; I observe what a scholar he is. I respect and love him more every week. Yes, we belong to a church. But the core of my church experience is my small group.

It’s not always amazing. Sometimes the Sunday service is boring. They can pick some musty old hymns that make me long Chris Tomlin. But we’ve launched a contemporary, contemplative service. That’s where the Scientist says he really gets emotional. The Scientist is having emotional experiences with God.

The small group has had its awkward moments, too. Once a woman told us that Jesus had visited Britain; it was proven, she’d seen it on the History Channel. I asked her if she’d been watching Para-history Channel. Another time a man visited. He said he didn’t care if the resurrection happened. “Everyone gets into heaven, even Hitler.” He hasn’t returned, but I heard he read Velvet Elvis and is devouring Rob Bell’s Nooma videos. It just reminds me that God is working on each of us in his timing, in a way that each of us can stomach.

I didn’t leave church. I came back, and I’m learning the lesson that my more mature friends – the ones who love churches I walk out of angry – have already learned: just pick a church and go. Every place will have assets and liabilities. You’ll meet true friends and people you can’t stand. You may find yourself the radical leftist in a group of right-wingers, or the conservative prig in a group of radical leftists. Just go. Plug in. When your pastor invites you to a newcomers’ dinner, say yes. If you’re asked to lead, say yes. If you don’t think you’re prepared, ask God to prepare you.

Not long ago, the former Buddhist confessed she wasn’t feeling so sure about her faith. She missed that glow she first felt. The Scientist nodded, “Don’t worry. It comes and goes. Just keep showing up.”

Here is a video from Bel Air Presbyterian’s drama group, aka the Bel Air Drama Department, aka B.A.D.D. They've made a host of FUNNY videos, and here is one about small groups, done in the vein of “The Office.”


Matt Lowery said...


You will never, ever, ever know how badly I needed to read this. Thanks.


Anonymous said...

wow. I can really connect with this whole post. My husband and I have been struggling with a feeling of disconnect and realizing that we feel more disconnected from the church then from Jesus. We have "relocated" churches, but we haven't left. I think because of a fear that if we left we wouldn't find our way back and a hope that there are celebrants of the Truth out there, we just need to be open to finding them.

Megan said...

love it.
get plugged in.
remember that "Every place will have assets and liabilities."
yes, something i always fail to remember. thanks for the post.

Josh said...

A great posting. Thanks for that. If you don't mind, I'd like to point my blog over to this posting? I think those that read mine would like to read this.

Susan Isaacs said...

Josh: thank you and yes, feel free to send your readers over here, I'd be honored! Susan

Anonymous said...

God is working on each of us in his timing, in a way that each of us can stomach.

I love this! So true.

Taking Heart said...

Susan, I have heard and read so many points of view on this topic over the years that I often just feel "numb." I crave the church, yet I am extremely disenchanted, disillusioned... discombubulated.... when it comes to finding my place in one. At the end of the day, my home is with Jesus... and I whole heartedly agree with your comment, "every place will have assets and liabilities." If you don't mind I am going to link to this post on my blog... because I feel so strongly that it is one worth sharing!

Hope you are well... still think of you when I see a cute kittie. Take care, Erin

Eugenie said...

So, so beautiful...and you have me crying with gratitude for my funky, teensy Episcopal church. Schisms and divisions have had me frustrated with the sign on the footpath that says "The Episcopal Church Welcomes You." Your post reminds me be that welcome to all comers.

Maureen said...

Ditto on Matts comment...I SO needed this. Thanks Susan!

ps. I'll be sharing it as well:)

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Susan. I shared this post via Facebook.
PS: Just finished reading "Angry Conversations..." Thank you for writing it. Helped more than you will know.

Susan Isaacs said...

Amy: thank you so much for posting this blog via facebook, that is so cool! And glad to know the book has helped you. I really appreciate the encouragement! Susan

Yvonne said...

I also just finished reading your book (finally! I've been pecking through it for months). I met you this past February at the Jubilee conference in Pittsburgh, for the writing workshop. Sheepishly I must admit that I haven't written anything! I just don't know if I have enough interesting, "personal experience" material to write at 26.

I'm glad I decided to check out your blog. Small group is really where I've found church too. Our small groups went on break over the summer and I can't wait for them to start again. Your account of Honey really touched me, too, since I've wondered similar things.

Susan Isaacs said...

Yvonne: don't feel pressure to write your life story. It's just beginning! But don't diminish your road this far. If you do want to write something, think of the key people and experiences and events that have shaped you so far. Just write them down, even make a list. I wish I had kept track of them. Memory only goes so far. Thanks for reading the book and following my blog! Susan

Cheryl Ensom said...

Enjoyed this, Susan. Love your honesty. I need to read your book!

Julie McElroy said...

Susan: What a great post! I love reading these kind of posts - the ones that are real! The church can be a struggle for many, so it is good to share this. I think we all have some struggles with "the Sunday Show" LOL Thanks for your honest words! I will Tweet this.. :)

Jill said...

Thanks for this post.

Melissa said...

Like so many people, my husband and I can relate to this. And I agree with what you say "just pick a church and go. Every place will have assets and liabilities. You’ll meet true friends and people you can’t stand. You may find yourself the radical leftist in a group of right-wingers, or the conservative prig in a group of radical leftists. Just go."

We have friends who are in our small group (and will continue to a part of it) who have decided to church shop. The husband voices a lot of his disenchantment but his wife tells him that we can't get away from the people problem, there will be people problems at every church.

Simone Says... said...

love this post. i feel less guilty for showing up to service 30 minutes late - i just can't do the 7/11 songs (as you say in your book). can't i worship god in silence? does it have to be accompanied with a terrible arrangement of lame notes and sappy lyrics?

Susan Isaacs said...

Simone: I think I know that church you're talking about but I won't make guesses. Our church's organ can put us to sleep at times, but at least the "pop song of 1794 has been weeded out of the hymnal.

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