“This is part 3 of a series of posts titled “Behind The Mask.” This series grew out of the pains of numerous and very real interactions with other people and their experiences, as well as my own existential struggles. Often Christian writings (articles, books, etc.) are filled with so much unrealistic/oversimplified statements and rules that those of us who struggle with Christianity are lost in a raging torrent of self-righteousness and arrogant “truths.” We are urged to wear a mask, hiding our struggles with a perfect smile and an “amen!” I don’t want to do that. Frankly, I just want to be real and honest and deal with very real feelings and experiences. I want to explore the very depths or Christian crisis. If you have never struggled to be a Christian, this isn’t for you, for the rest of us, let’s talk. If your heart is crusty, dry, empty, or completely faithless, this series is for you and me.”
“I can’t go to church, I’m sick” the eight year old me softly murmured.
With disheveled hair, chapped lips, and puffy eyes to boot I was wrapped in my blanket like an enchilada. I let out a slow groan, for greater effect, just in case the cough didn’t work. For all intents and purposes I appeared ten minutes away from a lengthy hospitalization for pneumonia. My parents eyed me suspiciously, but finally agreed that I was too sick to get out of bed.
A few minutes later I heard the door being locked downstairs. I waited about thirty seconds in silence, just to be sure. With miraculous vigor I jumped out of the bed and flew down the stairs, probably as fast as Usain Bolt. I checked a window to make sure the familiar minivan was out of the driveway.
It was gone.
Adrenaline pumping I ran to the TV, completely forgetting the very minor cold that was affecting me. I reached around to turn on the antenna (I think we were too poor for cable), and was shocked to find it missing. Looks like my parents suspicions weren’t fully alleviated; not a problem. I fished out an old paper clip and begin to jerry rig my own antenna, it wasn’t perfect but it would have to do. Within minutes I settled down on the couch, staring in awe at the cheesy 80’s adventure film playing on the TV.
I had escaped another boring and tedious day at church.
Fast forward a few years.
I am in my teens. My parents are avid churchgoers. Every Monday is “Bible School,” every Tuesday is a prayer meeting, Wednesday is youth service, Thursday is choir practice, Friday is another prayer meeting, and of course on Sunday there is not one but two long church services. Only Saturday (barely) waves a flag of freedom. And even that is often punctuated by some church event or meeting or breakfast.
I am repeatedly invited to every single one of these church meetings. I weasel out of (almost) every single one. Strangely enough, I have an insurmountable amount of homework to occupy the thirty minutes while everyone is getting ready for church. Also strangely enough I am miraculously able to finish all of my homework in the exact second that I hear the door being locked.
Yet no amount of homework could save me on Sunday mornings. In fact nothing could, especially as I hit my teens. The sick excuse stopped working right around then. In my estimation I could have cut off my foot, and my parents would have simply told me to use the other one to hop into the car. Sunday morning was untouchable.
So I went, finding hundreds of ways to be in church physically, while the rest of me was far from it. At first it meant finding a spot near the back, lowering your head as only a world class gymnast can, and playing “snake” on your mobile phone. Of course there was a risk that one of the burly ushers (more like church bouncer’s) would find you and start growling at you. Other times I would find a jolly group of friends that could keep me entertained for the duration of the service. From thumb wars, to sex talks, to long philosophical discussions about the ramifications of modern technology, whatever helped the time pass. If there were guests visiting the church, and food would be served, we would often clamor around the kitchen, hoping one of the cooks would send us on an errand, giving us an “official” and “holy” reason to leave the church. And finally, when the option was available, which wasn’t too much, we would physically sneak out. Either to the movies or to Starbucks, and hold our “church” there.
Ultimately, I, like most other teens, had a hate and love relationship with the church. I loved to go there and see “my people,” but I hated to be there for the “church part” itself. I loved to go and stare at my romantic interest, and fantasized that I would finally talk to her, but I hated sitting through the boring sermons and singing. I loved to see my friends and exchange Gameboy games, but I hated having to be silent because the older man from behind twisted my ear and told me to be quiet.
I liked the social interactions, I didn’t like the church part.
A lot happened since then.
One day I quit running from it and started running it. I traded in my rebellion to become leader of the grand eat parade that we call church. I remember that transition as a big blur, none of the details are clear. I recall finally getting the courage to come to a youth service with my guitar and introducing the song I was to sing. I did this a few more times, spending more time on the introduction than the song. A few weeks later I did this routing without the guitar, essentially “preaching.” Within a couple months I was now an assistant youth leader/pastor.
But I still didn’t like going to church.
The length was an hour too long. The songs felt too monotonous and boring. The sermons seemed to swing between completely unexciting or else far too exciting for my blood pressure. The goals and purposes were ambiguous. Yet I tried to fulfill what I though was “my mission” as a leader. I strained past the point of breaking, until finally I broke. I remember sitting and drawing up the outline for an evening service as the youth choir rehearsed. I kept looking at the clock, dreaming it was two hours later. I began to ask myself why I was doing this and realized I couldn’t even find one good reason. The very kids I was “trying to save” were just as unexcited about this as I was. Was making them dress up nice and sing in a choir the ultimate goal of life for me and them? As I got up to announce songs, sermons, and poems, I found myself praying that God would liberate me from my role in this epic play.
I gave up.
A few months later I transitioned to a church that had a shorter service, great music, and exciting sermons. But that didn’t do it. The modern rock songs began to be monotonous and boring. The great and biblical sermons became too repetitive. The perfect presentation every aspect created a derealizating effect; everything begin to appear too plastic and staged. The key words and phrases began to lose their tantalizing reality. Soon this perfect religious machine that was fine-tuned to distribute the ideal spiritual high began to become monotonous as well. I was lost.
I still didn’t like going to church.
I started making excuses.
Some people fit comfortably within the context of religious services. They simply like to “go to church.” It’s part of their cultural and psychological DNA. It’s their hobby to which they eagerly commit thousands of hours per year. Such zealous church-going was often seen as “holy” and “righteous” in my fundamentalist background. If you went to every single service, you were viewed as a committed follower of Christ. If you began to go only once a week, or God forbid, once every other week, you were surely backsliding.
However, all around the world, other people, from other religions (Islam, Hinduism, Judaism) are equally, if not more, zealous about going to their own religious services. There are violent Muslim extremists who are more committed Muslims than I am a Christian. They commit thousands of hours to their mosque as well as to terrorism training. Are they closer to the truth than I am? Obviously religious zeal, specifically church attendance, is not as great a determining factor in ones standing before God.
That made me feel better.
And yet, I think I know why I often don’t like going to church. It’s because that’s not what it’s about. Jesus didn’t teach us to “hold formal events called ‘church services’ every Sunday morning and then avoid seeing each other for another week.” All those verses about the church meant something different than what I’ve always constructed. There was something bigger and greater about this whole church thing.
Fundamentalists really excel at memorizing Scripture. During my childhood I had many opportunities to see this in action. I think Hebrews 10:25 was quoted to me more than any other verse. (The only exception was probably Philippians 2:12). The simple transliteration of the particular section of Hebrews 10:25 that was so familiar to me was “Do not stop going to church.” No one even bothered to quote the whole verse, apparently it was assumed that particular portion had all the pertinent information.
“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Heb 10:24-25)
The focus of the greatest “go to church” verse was not about going to a boring and tedious event we call church. Rather it was about the action of gathering together as the household of God. That very thing I used to love, gathering to be with friends during church services to figure out what life was all about, was closer to “church” than hiding my head between my knees and playing “snake” during sermons. Of course church is not simply a naïve “where two or three semi-Christian people gather” dealio, yet it is not a religious service either.
I’ve read fancy theology books that carefully define the word “church” and at the end of the day the main thing that matters is that church is not a place you go to, it’s a family you meet with.
Once a week I wake up and drive to a building where I listen to my pastor preach the Bible, I sing great hymns, and I take communion. Once a week I meet with a small group of fellow Christians and just talk about us and God. Both times are equally church, in fact, I’m almost inclined to believe the latter one to be more “church” than the former.
I don’t do this because I’m good enough to enjoy “going to church” or because I’m obedient enough to follow the directive to “go to church.” I don’t do it because I like religious services, though God knows many people go to church (and have made church a religious ceremony) because that is what they like. I don’t go because church is not boring. I don’t go because church is entertaining. I don’t go because I fit in. I don’t go because I’m as religious or as faithful as everyone there.
I go because I’m no matter how flawed I am, I’m still in the family.