I went to church this weekend with the intention of “getting back to church.” And I left the service thinking, “Nope.”
Nope has been my involuntary reaction toward church since July of 2015. Of the 220ish Sundays that’ve passed since I was last a church employee, I’ve attended maybe a dozen services. Each of those Sundays, I’ve gotten out of my car; taken a big, cleansing, courage-gathering breath; and tried. I pushed my cynicism aside. I put a muzzle on my critic. I read the “Welcome to…” message in the bulletin, and I smiled and shook hands at the “meet and greet” time. I assumed the people on stage were offering a sincere response, not a performance. I gave the pastor the benefit of the doubt.
And then, afterwards, I climbed back into my car feeling like I just survived something. Listen, I know I can be melodramatic, but survived is the right word for me to use here.
If you’ve known me long at all, you’ve likely listened to me rant about American Christianity: our consumerism, our sexism, our racism, our homophobia, our not-looking-so-much-like-Jesus-ness. But my experience on Sunday wasn’t so much about those things (although I confess I did note a lack of racial diversity in the space). Instead, my angst was more about uncertainty.
Everything that happened in the worship experience and everything asked of us—sing this, pray this, do this, give this, feel this—felt like too much. There seemed to be no place for my doubt and questions. I felt welcomed, I guess… because what church doesn’t like another butt in the seats?
But I didn’t feel “safe.” I didn’t feel like my “I’m not so sure I can recite that prayer right now” would be well received.
To be fair, I was at church, and so it does seem reasonable for the experience to feel like church. I would expect there to be prayers and singing. I would expect that most people there would be on the same page in terms of what they believe. Or at least in the same library.
It’s just that while I don’t need “permission” to have doubt and questions and angst and baggage and yuck, I wish I felt the freedom to experience those things inside a church. From the people. I mean, I’m certain God is totally fine with all of my “Wait… really?” and “Is that even a thing?” and “But that doesn’t seem real.” Now, it’s pretty likely he rolls his eyes when he sees me coming, because I am exhausting. But I’m sure he’s not threatened or judgy about my not-so-sure-about-this moments (months). I just wish I knew the people sitting right next to me were OK with them, too.
I realize that’s not fair. They don’t even know I have that junk floating around my head. So, possibly the solution to my problem is to allow myself to be known and risk being rejected. Oh goody.
Since 2015, I’ve bumped into so many people with whom I used to attend church. Sooner than later they ask, “So where are you now?” It’s a reasonable question. When they last knew me, my whole world revolved around church things. When I reply, “Oh, I’m nowhere,” their face usually rearranges itself into pity mixed with judgment and, often, superiority. “Oh, you should try My Church. We’ve been really happy there.”
Here’s a fundamental truth about Kelley Hartnett. If you begin a sentence with “You should…” particularly if I didn’t ask for a solution or recommendation, I very likely shan’t. I’m not entirely sure why, but it’s true. It may be because I sense you’re trying to fix me, and I’d really rather people just try to get me.
Good grief, that’s a very Enneagram Four thing to say.
So, here’s where I am: I’m currently stuck in “nope” in regard to church. But (and this is a big change) it’s not because of the church. It’s because of me. I just don’t know what I believe, and sitting in a room full of people who seem so sure feels isolating. So if you happen to attend a church where more people than not are obviously and openly Not So Sure About It All, I’d love to hear about it.
Just please, please don’t start your invitation with “You should…”