Church Going

I quit being a churchgoer sometime during the wintery months of early 2003.

When certain people asked I told them my decision was logistical. We’d just moved a considerable distance south of the big city and driving sixty miles round trip to attend the church we had been a part of for many years no longer made sense. Besides, this area is well known for an overabundance of churches. We’d find something closer that would meet our churchgoing needs.

And we did shop around. I never felt comfortable in our little community’s United Methodist church. The rotating pastoral staff that seems to be the norm for village parishes irritated me. And the people were just too acquiescent. It seemed that no one had any questions left to ask. I did make the attempt at integrating myself by joining a small group study of C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity. I spent the first meeting huddled in a very feng shui basement watching Shadowlands with three women who came for the coffee and little else. I found better things to do and never went back.

My last serious attempt at being a part of church came in late 2002 at a largish missionary church about fifteen miles north. The pastor wore loafers and pine green cardigan sweaters. Very down to earth and I liked him immediately. He seemed to take seriously the need to make the message applicable and used clips from contemporary movies and passages from both culturally relevant and obscure books to illustrate his sermons. I didn’t always agree with him, but he usually left me thinking. Unfortunately, as often happens in bigger congregations, I eventually found him to be aloof and unapproachable. He literally walked away from me one Sunday morning as I stood amidst the small throng of backslappers extending a hand his direction. Apparently he had other fish to fry. And, once again, I tried to find my place by joining a group of young adults for a study class that met prior to the worship service. Sunday school they used to call it. One couple in the class even invited me and mine over for dinner and conversation. We hit it off nicely and enjoyed their hospitality.

But it all began to feel like the same old game. Church had felt like a game to me for many years and I guess I eventually grew weary of playing along

Kathy over at The Carnival in My Head recently wrote about returning to her former church, her Egypt, for a memorial service. Throughout her blog she explains so much more passionately than I ever could about what life in the church can become when we choose to peek behind the Power Point screen and see it simply as an organization designed by a people in need of something far safer than faith. As I’ve written before, faith is risky business and who needs it when we can surround ourselves with traditions and programs that keep us hopping from one task to the next without challenging our minds. Far easier to consume is the three point sermon and monotonous worship chorus than the feast of a life lived on the edge of a quiet and contemplative uncertainty.

Perhaps I’ll write more about this in the days ahead. One’s belief system, our worldview if you will, and how it is attained is sometimes a hazardous subject to ponder. Trust me on this!  And to inscribe our worldview for others to consider and evaluate?  Lunacy!  There’s an air of creedalism and pride that can encroach in such missives and, as one who cannot claim to have any solid answers, I’m hesitant to spill the beans. We’ll see . . .

For now, I leave you with a poem I found in The Portable Atheist titled “Church Going” written by Philip Larkin . . .

Once I am sure there’s nothing going on
I step inside, letting the door thud shut.
Another church: matting, seats, and stone,
And little books; sprawlings of flowers, cut
For Sunday, brownish now; some brass and stuff
Up at the holy end; the small neat organ;
And a tense, musty, unignorable silence,
Brewed God knows how long. Hatless, I take off
My cycle-clips in awkward reverence,
Move forward, run my hand around the font.
From where I stand, the roof looks almost new-
Cleaned or restored? Someone would know: I don’t.
Mounting the lectern, I peruse a few
Hectoring large-scale verses, and pronounce
“Here endeth” much more loudly than I’d meant.
The echoes snigger briefly. Back at the door
I sign the book, donate an Irish sixpence,
Reflect the place was not worth stopping for.

Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,
And always end much at a loss like this,
Wondering what to look for; wondering, too,
When churches fall completely out of use
What we shall turn them into, if we shall keep
A few cathedrals chronically on show,
Their parchment, plate, and pyx in locked cases,
And let the rest rent-free to rain and sheep.
Shall we avoid them as unlucky places?

Or, after dark, will dubious women come
To make their children touch a particular stone;
Pick simples for a cancer; or on some
Advised night see walking a dead one?
Power of some sort or other will go on
In games, in riddles, seemingly at random;
But superstition, like belief, must die,
And what remains when disbelief has gone?
Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky,

A shape less recognizable each week,
A purpose more obscure. I wonder who
Will be the last, the very last, to seek
This place for what it was; one of the crew
That tap and jot and know what rood-lofts were?
Some ruin-bibber, randy for antique,
Or Christmas-addict, counting on a whiff
Of gown-and-bands and organ-pipes and myrrh?
Or will he be my representative,

Bored, uninformed, knowing the ghostly silt
Dispersed, yet tending to this cross of ground
Through suburb scrub because it held unspilt
So long and equably what since is found
Only in separation? marriage, and birth,
And death, and thoughts of these? for whom was built
This special shell? For, though I’ve no idea
What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,
It pleases me to stand in silence here;

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognised, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round

[photo credit]

19 thoughts on “Church Going

  1. I can’t face “church” anymore. I just don’t believe.
    I wish I did, in something, anything, but it’s just not there.

    Churches, physically, are lovely places though. The Cathedral in Antwerp is so huge and peaceful, I could sit there all day.

    If I could get the idea of the millions of bucks of artwork on the walls out of my mind that is.

  2. IMHO:
    Church and faith have nothing to do with one another.
    One is about community sharing rituals, another concerns each individual’s personal life-quest.

  3. Brian, this is a beautiful post, and I enjoyed reading the one over at Kathy’s place, too. And the poem is amazing. I can certainly relate to that separation of faith and church, because it’s been my state of mind for a long time. Recently going to a new church, I’ve found peace for now. I won’t say forever, because I’ve had too many experiences with forever coming to an abrupt halt. Everything is constantly changing, and undoubtedly I’ll change and so will my church.

    For now, it feeds me spiritually, and I am contributing, too. I need to be there right now. I’m happy for anyone who feels that they are where they need to be, whether it’s in church, or Egypt, or Mecca. We all have to find our own paths, yeah?

    Peace – D

  4. You’ve described perfectly what my husband and I have felt about church for the past year or so. He hasn’t been since…November I think. I went last week but it just felt…empty I guess.

  5. Sometimes I wonder if the concept of an organized church or faith is one of predetermined doom. For the church to persist, to grow and prosper, it must do things that at some point will almost certainly result in that church making decisions or evolving a culture whose first priority is it’s own perpetuation and not the good that the church was created to do.

  6. Church is not for me, personally, at this moment in my life, but I would never say it isn’t for others. Often I wish the churchgoers could afford me that same respect.

  7. I find it difficult to go to church (and I don’t except for funerals, weddings, and the like) because I question everything. If I can’t get a straight answer, I just don’t buy the whole package. So I find it easier not to go, although there are times that I wish I could find a middle ground and “belong” some place.

  8. In my late teens and 20s, I hated Churches. I hated the games. The expectations. The hypocrisy I seemed to see so easily. I was rebellious and angry. And the church served its place as my scapegoat.

    Somewhere along the way I lost my anger. Blame it on my kids. And without that anger, I no longer needed my scapegoat. I no longer hate or even dislike religion. And I find that what I learned as a child, the morals, the values are a valuable allies as I teach my kids right from wrong.

    Still, Church isn’t for me.

  9. hey brian, soooooo good.

    this is what i loved the most: ” faith is risky business and who needs it when we can surround ourselves with traditions and programs that keep us hopping from one task to the next without challenging our minds. Far easier to consume is the three point sermon and monotonous worship chorus than the feast of a life lived on the edge of a quiet and contemplative uncertainty.”

    yep, faith is so risky & i really truly do think that “church” protects us from having to wrestle with the painful questions & the deep realities of how difficult it is to love & be loved.

    thanks for sharing another piece of your journey (oh and the poem was amazing, too. whoa)

  10. Oh chile – you said a mouthful!

    I am not, nor ever have been, a christian, but that doesn’t mean I am without faith or spirituality, as it is often assumed by church goers. I actually wrote a post about this back in the winter – “The Making of an Existential Pagan, Parts I and II” – because I do have beliefs, I am searching, and I’ve never found what I was looking for, or truly been welcome in any church. In the second part of that post, I described a congregation who sat passively while their pastor preached genocide. It was the most uncomfortable place I’ve ever been.

  11. I tried going back when I was 35. Two reasons: I had a 6-mo-old daughter who I thought I’d better start thinking about, and second, I was on the down slope of being a non-practicing Catholic for more years than I was a practicing one. (I quit going to Mass at age 17.)

    I stuck with it for several months but then my political beliefs and general discontent with the Vatican got in the way.

    I’m OK with it now. I have faith and ritual, but not dogma.

  12. Brian, I hope you find what you are looking for. Many people look to church simply for the fellowship of others, and the comfort of not questioning. It can be hard for a minister/priest/whatever to accomodate those who simply want this comfort and those who want to look harder at the implications of faith.

    I have not been religious for about 35 years now, but one thing that I can understand is that desire for a group to relax and gain strength from. You may be one who is unable to blindly accept and for too many of faith, or without faith, blind acceptance is a primary goal.

  13. This post was very timely for me because we’ve been debating whether to join a church or not. My husband and I were very involved in the small church (about 150 members at it’s largest) we belonged to about four years ago. We loved that it was small and everyone knew each other, and that it wasn’t like any other church we’d ever attended. But we (all of us involved in the day to day of keeping a church going) got tired. The pastor got worn out, we all did. It finally disbanded, deep in debt, and we haven’t been members of a church since.

    I’m tired of the sameness and busyness in churches these days, what you talked about. It all seems like a preprogrammed thing and I just am not there.

    I do believe in God and don’t think that He needs me to be in a church. But I also miss the community part of it as well.

  14. I slunk out of church in much the same way, not telling anyone what the real reasons were.

    I think the most important thing is to never stop questioning. As long as you are continuing to have this conversation with yourself, being absent from church is just fine.

    At least that’s what I tell myself.

  15. I totally relate to this post, and you put it down better than I ever could. My problem is that my faith was grown and nurtured through the attendance of a physical church, and now I find that since I’m no longer involved in a community service, my faith seems to falter more than normal. I need like-minded individuals around me, supporting one another. For me, that’s the only reason for “church”. The fellowship and teachings are important, but unfortunately, we don’t get that in today’s churches. So we’re left to either attend empty gatherings or to feel like a lone ship on an endless ocean.

    We could always start an internet church? ;)

  16. I hate going to church because I know more than the pastor…sorry if that sounds arrogant, I don’t mean for it to sound that way.

    All I’m saying is that if I’m going to go sit through a 40 minute long lecture, I want to come out more informed than when I entered.

  17. I think churches are lovely buildings. I like the light, the smell, the heavy quiet; but, for me there is no such thing as gods and faith. I have never been able feel any of that, even as young as 4 or 5, when I was brought by dutiful grandparents and neighbors. For me it is like fairies, pretty but pretend.

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