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To continue on telling the story of how a recovering legalist moves forward in faith, I must share the steps (and missteps) that our family taken in regard to church. What I will share in this post is not meant to be a scathing exposé. Rather, it is meant to be an explanation of the windy path that led us, ultimately, to our (now) church home.
When we moved to North Carolina in the spring of 2013, my husband and I were not 100% on the same spiritual page, nor did we want the same things out of church.
[Yes, this can happen in a good Christian marriage.]
Cheating on my church: God is bigger than our denominational boxes – read here
What to do when your church isn’t meeting your needs – read here
Church Attendance: on being “in your place” in church – read here
Safety in the comfortable cocoon of fundamentalism – read here
Russ was concerned about doctrine, Baptist church polity, conservative stance on Bible versions, and other bastions of fundamental baptist beliefs.
I wanted to know if they loved Jesus. But mostly, I wanted to know if they would sing Chris Tomlin, if they had small groups, and if I could wear jeans. I wanted to know if I would feel safe there.
I believe it’s an act of God that there was a place where both of us could be happy.
The very first church we visited, which I shall call Church XYZ, had pros for both of us. For Russ, they used the still Textus Receptus-based NKJV in the morning service (although the assistant pastor favored the ESV). They were an older church with long-standing baptist roots. The pastor said that he no longer liked to call himself a “fundamentalist,” but the church doctrine and polity was still pretty much completely independent baptist in its tenets.
For me, they had a “blended worship” style of both contemporary music as well as traditional hymns. Everything was performed conservatively with only piano and choir, which mean that there was an opportunity to use my IFB-based musical training by participating in the music ministry. They didn’t have small groups – yet – but they were “in the works” and we let them know that we wanted in at the ground floor in that ministry.
The pastor didn’t always wear a tie. There was no evening service on Superbowl Sunday and Easter so people could spend time with their families. Women were allowed to wear pants – even if *gasp* they were singing in the choir.
Our first Sunday there, we were sold. Russ was sold after telling the pastor our life story and pretty-much-done-with-fundamentalism past and having a surprisingly favorable reaction from the pastor. I was sold when the music selections that Sunday were “How Great is Our God” by Chris Tomlin, Wilds/Soundforth favorite “Worthy of Worship”, “Because He Lives” by Bill Gaither, and the good old fundy hymn “To God Be The Glory.” (Okay, so I wasn’t thrilled about the hymn, but it was balanced out by Chris Tomlin).
After picking up my jaw off the floor, I just couldn’t believe that this place actually existed.
We had some really great times at Church XYZ. Our son learned a lot of Bible stories. Russ and I got involved teaching kids during the evening service for a while. For a brief time, we got to host a brand-new small group in our home twice a month. I was able to serve in the choir and even a few times at the piano or for singing a special. A highlight for me was getting to sing Forever Reign as a solo for the first time.
We had a few friends there that we did things with. I had at least two pretty good girlfriends that I could go out for coffee or playdates. In time, I was able to develop some friendships with some of the single girls in the church, as well as some older women who connected with me, surprisingly, because they enjoyed reading my blog – which was both awkward and pretty cool.
So why, two years later, did we pull the plug and walk away?
I wish the answers were simple, but they aren’t. I think that, Russ and I came to this church as two very broken people. Far more broken than we realized. The two years we were there broke us even more as we realized that the transition out of Army life caused a lot of damage. Add to that coming to terms with our son’s diagnosis. It was just a lot of brokenness.
I cannot speak for my husband, but I think I was hoping that somehow, this church would be the magic fix that would put my faith back together. When it didn’t happen and the church did not meet my (albeit high) expectations, I was very much let down.
Why we left Church XYZ
1. It was a family. It just didn’t feel like OUR family.
Everyone in Church XYZ was related. Okay, not everyone. But it felt that way sometimes. This church was well established with families full of kids who had grown up in the church and then married each other. Even the people who weren’t actually related were just as good as family.
It’s a wonderful thing when a church is a family. More churches should be this way. The problem was that, two years later, it still didn’t feel like we were a part of that family.
It was really hard to put a finger on it. Nothing blatant or overt. But what I do know is that there were many Sundays my husband and I got home, looked at each other, and said, “I don’t really think anyone likes us all that much.”
I doubt that how we felt was actually true. But, at the time, it felt true. It felt like constantly walking up to a group of people chatting and laughing saying, “Hey, what are we talking about?” and being given “the look” that makes you feel just a teensy-tiny bit like they wish you would just go away and let them be friends sharing their inside jokes in peace.
It’s listening to our Sunday School teacher go on and on about how he loves to mentor the youths in the church…raising your hand and boldly saying, “You know what? I would love to see more of this between the older moms and the young moms in the church!” It’s having people smile and nod, but no one coming up to you afterward and saying, “It seems like you are struggling. Can we get together sometime?”
It’s feeling like the signals people giving you when you make suggestions in Sunday School or choir practice are ones of annoyance instead of acceptance. It’s wondering if the whispers and giggles in the row behind you are about you, or if you are just being paranoid.
It’s feeling every Sunday like you came to the party just a little bit too late.
2. We weren’t allowed to be real.
I will never forget the Sunday morning that one of the teen boys sang the song Stained Glass Masquerade.
Is there anyone that fails
Is there anyone that falls
Am I the only one in church today feelin’ so small
Cause when I take a look around
Everybody seems so strong
I know they’ll soon discover
That I don’t belong
I was so moved, so deeply touched. I think it took every ounce of strength in me to NOT stand up and say, “Yes! Me. I’m failing. I’m falling. I’m feeling small! I’m not strong. I need someone to stand beside me in my brokenness.”
As the pastor approached the microphone, I wanted nothing more for him to say, “You know what, let’s just stop. Let’s take off our masks. Let’s get real today and reach out to those around us who are hurting.”
Instead, the audience clapped. The pastor said, “Turn in your Bibles…” and the congregation moved on like nothing had happened, masks still firmly in place.
Just a few weeks later, the moms group at the church was starting the Bible study Unglued. One of the discussion questions was something along the lines of “What would make you feel safe in this group?”
I recounted to them my feelings when that young man sang the song: “I feel like we come to church on Sunday morning and no one ever gets vulnerable. We just say we are all fine and do the Sunday morning thing, and we aren’t allowed to be honest with each other. I really would love to see us get real.”
The response to my comment was negative. Another mom responded hotly that I wasn’t being fair. Sunday morning is a really busy time that should be dedicated to corporate worship. Everyone is busy with their children and ministries, and it’s not the time to get deep and vulnerable.
I was taken aback at such a visceral response against showing people our true selves. I never went back to the moms group after that.
3. There were little-to-no supports for our special needs child.
We started attending Church XYZ a little over a year before our son was diagnosed with ADHD, adjustment disorder, and sensory problems. Our son’s behavior in the church nursery was problematic – just as it was at home and everywhere else we took him. At the time, we didn’t fully understand the depth of the struggles he was facing. He was our first kid, and all we knew is that we were constantly being called out of services to deal with his behaviors.
Church was the first place where someone suggested we take him for a psychological evaluation.
Church was where people kept telling us that we just needed to “be consistent.”
I dropped out of the choir because week after week I was trying to discern my husband’s hand signals from the choir loft as he tried to communicate that I was either needed in the nursery, or we just needed to cut our losses and take our son home. On more than one occasion, after Sunday evening practices, I would come out of the choir room to find my husband on the verge of a panic attack after getting in fights with our son while he tried to keep him occupied.
When we put our child in the Christian school that our church ran, and he was subsequently expelled at the ripe old age of just-barely-four, support was limited. No one texted or called to see if I was okay. (Newsflash: I wasn’t.) No one offered to watch him or asked me if I needed a break.
When he was throwing chairs across the church nursery and they came to get me, they didn’t say, “Aprille, you go back to moms group. Let me take Ezra on a little walk around the church.”
When an older member saw me on the verge of tears when my defiant child was screaming at the end of a fellowship, she offered to “counsel” me. She told me she wanted to see our son grow up happy in this church. I thought that some of her experience would offer valuable insight into our situation. I needed to hear that it was okay to be angry and confused about what was turning out to be a really challenging motherhood. I needed to hear that this wasn’t my fault – that sometimes mental illness touches our lives.
Instead, when we sat down for counseling, somehow we ended up talking about the issues that were completely unrelated to my parenting problems. Eventually, she told me, “I just don’t sense that much love for God in you.” She suggested that, perhaps, the problem was that I was too inwardly focused. That I needed to get involved in ministry (like rejoining the choir) and serve rather than focusing on the problems I was facing.
4. They didn’t offer us tangible help.
Just a month after Ezra was given his diagnoses and began therapy, my husband got fired from his job. No one offered any support to us other than to pray for him to get another job. No one asked if we needed financial assistance. No one slipped us cash or a gift card. This probably comes across as petty, whiny, and selfish. And maybe it is. We got through the crisis. But it would have been nice to be asked.
5. It felt like no one noticed when we quit showing up.
We did not leave Church XYZ in a drastic flounce. Rather, it was a slow fade. It was a few Sundays in a row of Ezra having a meltdown as we were walking out the door and calling it quits before we could even get there. It was the Sundays we ended up packing up and heading to the mountains to hike because it was just easier than the fight to get to church.
It was my husband going after weeks of missing church, while I stayed home with Ezra, and returning to tell me, “You know what? I don’t think anyone even notices when we aren’t there. The last time we were there we left in the middle of a very visible fight. We could be going through a divorce and no one would even know.”
6. It really was a matter of bad timing.
In 2013 I wrote a post called “When You’re Church Isn’t Meeting Your Needs.” In this post, I talk about how no church is perfect – and that sometimes, when you needs aren’t being met, it’s because you need to be the one to step up and advocate. You need to be the one to reach out. You need to be the one to suggest or create the ministry hole that needs filled. You need to be the change.
I wish I could tell you that I took my own advice. That we fought long and hard to make it work at Church XYZ. That we advocated for what we needed. That we spoke up. That we had hard conversations with the people who had hurt us or that we were struggling to get along with. That we were the change that Church XYZ needed.
The truth is, we did none of those things, because we were just too darn tired and broken.
I remember those hard Sunday mornings when just getting Ezra dressed for church ended with my husband lying on our bed in the fetal position, so distraught that he didn’t know how to be a good father. I remember the times Russ and I were arguing in quiet corners of the church, trying not to draw attention to the fact that we were totally not on the same page about parenting or even our marriage sometimes. I remember the times we left church in the middle because we were fighting with each other – or Ezra – or both.
I guess we just didn’t have enough fight left in us to make a less-than-perfect church situation work when we were already going through so much.
I know there were so many good people there. I know there were people who deeply cared and tried to reach out – in their own way. Maybe we just missed it. Maybe we just didn’t know how to accept what was offered because we were so focused on what wasn’t there for us.
Maybe it just wasn’t the right place for us at that time in our lives.
Maybe it wasn’t them. Maybe it was us.
If someone who was looking for a church were to ask me about Church XYZ, I would tell them that it’s a good church that preaches truth that’s full of really good people. I would tell them that it didn’t work out for us, but that was just as much our problem as it was the problem of the church. I would tell them that there is no perfect church. I would tell that that sometimes you have to take a leap of faith – for better or for worse – and commit to a church made up of less-than-perfect people. I would tell them that sometimes, you have to work hard to make a place fit your family’s needs.
I would tell them that other times, you just have to cut your losses and walk away. I would tell them that, ultimately, Church XYZ wasn’t where we were meant to be. I would tell them that Church XYZ was where God led us for a time to show us what we wanted – and what we didn’t want – in a church family.
I would tell them that our family is pretty much a really hot mess, and that it was going to take a very special church congregation to embrace us as we are – with all of our glaring flaws.
I would tell them that, “Sometimes, things need to fall apart to make way for better things.” – Ted Mosby
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