When I moved to New York, looking for a church felt like being dropped in the middle of Hunger Games. Left to fend for yourself in a new place with tons of distractions competing for your time, you hoped the odds would be in your favor. It was an arduous game to play and one more than half of adults have participated in at some point in their lives. Moving to a new city the most common reason for doing so. (1) New York City boasts having thousands of churches. Yet, many new transplants talk about the difficulty of finding a good church.
Being I had been in church most of my life, not going wasn’t really an option for me. I loved church. I felt comforted by church and thought it would be a good way to connect to others in a new city. So, it made sense that after settling down I was on the hunt. I was ready. Katniss Evergreen had her bow. I had common sense, my Bible and a prison shank. The first contender was a church that had a west coast counterpart my roommate and I were familiar with. They shall remain unnamed…
The experience started out as any other. We walked in and were kindly greeted. The usher seated us. No one was wearing stockings. Awesome. Church began and I felt happy to be there. I’m singing and connecting with God when after two songs the first lady gets up to do announcements. They didn’t even bother to drag the songs out thirty minutes like black church is known to do. Talk about anti-climactic. I felt like my spirit was running free and ran into a brick wall. I was pissed. Strike one.
Communion ensues and the pastor starts to quote scripture. Naturally, I open my Bible to read along, but find the scriptures don’t exist. Anywhere. Maybe I’m crazy and have a different version of the Bible, but my roommate looks confused as well. He does this several more times and I begin to think maybe he has some special edition of the Bible that hasn’t hit streets yet. I’m looking around thinking someone else is catching this, but they’re eating it up. He then starts telling people if they’re not saved and took communion they would die prematurely. Strike two.
Throughout the service, things kept happening that vexed me to my core:
“Bow your head. Close your eyes. Nobody move or speak while the man of God is praying.” Dang. If I sneeze would I go to hell?
“You should follow Apostle (blank), do what he does and be like him. I watch everything he does and try to be like him, but I don’t follow any man.” He told us we should follow this Apostle at least five times. I was wondering if he was going to advise us to follow him in the woods and drink Kool-Aid as well. Strike three.
“As you push me up you go up! Why don’t you want to push your pastor up? Don’t ask why he drives this type of car, lives in this type of house and wears these types of clothes. When you stop me you’re stopping yourself.” Sir, speaking in the third person doesn’t make what you said any better. This is why pastors go around asking their congregations to fund ridiculous stuff like their seat on the rocket taking people to a new inhabitable planet in space. It’s also why people don’t like to tithe and why those who work in the church are often struggling to pay their own bills. Strike four.
Obviously, we left mid-service. Now, I’m in no way saying there’s something wrong with this pastor. I’m lying. That’s EXACTLY what I’m saying. As a pastor, I know how human we can be and none of us are above saying something off kilter from time to time. But the robotic way in which the congregants ate up his words was proof this was a regular occurrence. Depressing right? Not really. It made me that much more tenacious to find a church that did work for me.
Most Americans looking for a new place of worship list the quality of preaching as the key factor in staying. (2)
Finding a church you can gel with theologically can be as difficult as Prince No Name trying to find the owner of that glass shoe.
I wonder how he felt kneeling down and putting that beautiful shoe on every stinky, blistery, corn skittle shaped foot until he found Cinderella. Tired. I’m sure. Irritated. Probably. But he kept going. I’m at a church I worked really hard to find. While I do not proclaim its perfection, it’s been beneficial to me and I didn’t find it by giving up.
The Barna Group put out a study about church habits among different generations. The study was used by various entities to explain why millennials attend church less frequently than their predecessors. These articles shallowly painted the picture that millennials are so individualistic they have become disinterested in church as a source of community.
Although the information may have been factual, those articles negated the underlying reasons why millennials attend less. Millennials cited valid reasons for their decreased participation such as: the church not allowing them to question or doubt portions of their faith, hypocrisy and the moral failures of its leaders, to name a few. A similar Pew Research Center study also showed millennials believe in God at almost the same levels as past generations, pray equally and have the same affiliation they did as children. What’s the point? People, especially millennials, not attending church isn’t necessarily out of a lack of desire to be affiliated. It’s just difficult, at times, to find a place that’s a good fit.
In many ways, we place unrealistic expectations on what church should be.
We want it to be practically perfect in every way, but the church isn’t Mary Poppins. It’s a place people come with their mess hoping they will leave feeling a little less messy.
So, if you no longer attend church, because you didn’t find the right fit or are on the hunt, here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Start looking again. You can’t find what you don’t search for. It took months and visiting a LOT of places that didn’t fit before I found a church suitable for me.
- A good church should help you feel lighter and freer not backed up and constipated. Which doesn’t mean you will always feel “good.” Medicine is designed to make you feel better, but can taste like the inside of your mouth after experiencing acid reflux. If the icky taste is leading you to being a better you then great. If not, run as fast as Cinderella did when that clock struck midnight. Note: I am not talking about the icky that makes you feel like you’re in a constant state of condemnation you can’t claw your way out of. If every time you turn around the preacher is damning you to hell, it’s probably not the best fit.
- Churches are not like Burger King. You can’t always have it your way. Each church is different and has its own mission, feel and focus. Don’t like it? Great news. There are a billion other churches in the world. Find one.
- The reality is there are a lot of bad churches and pastors in the world. They exist. We encounter them. Deal with it and don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. It doesn’t make ALL churches and pastors bad. Nobody likes to be categorized based on a faulty premise, a bad experience, pre-judgement or misconception. When it happens we call it racism, sexism, ageism, etceteraism (not a word). Don’t commit church-ism by being a church-ist. See what I did there?
Ever lost your keys? You search frantically for them, because you know you have a destination to get to. Same thing applies to other areas in our lives, including finding a church. Search with fervor. Don’t be deterred by all the bad you may encounter. Strap on comfortable shoes, grab your prison shank and fight like hell. Your life may depend on it. May the odds be ever in your favor.