17/52: People of the Steeple

April 20, 2014

Last week’s experience with community got me thinking a little bit more about my 36-year habit of going to church. My earliest memories of this weekly ritual are about as organized as my daughter’s closet. Sitting in the back pew singing every third word of the verses from “Bringing in the Sheaves” before nailing the chorus with gusto. Walking around the church popping seed pods for “impatients” which, years later, turned out to be impatiens.  Sitting in Sabbath School, my friend Kela on one side and me on the other, seeing who could get our mutual crush, Sara, to laugh more. Early outwitnessing I guess. Seeing tears on wet skin as black-robed bodies emerged from the waters of the outdoor baptistry. The same baptistry that tempted me every week with its pool-blue paint job.

My primary memories of the weekly trip to the Big House were positive. I liked the singing. Liked the friendly old people. Liked cracking wise with my friends when a Sabbath School teacher had a rough week and just let us watch a nature video on manatees.

It didn’t get awkward until junior high. My family moved to a different state, and I went to a church where I knew no one. Those years of Sabbath School were angst-filled. Who would be there? Who should I sit by? How can I part my hair so that nobody notices these giant glasses? Why are all these girls so tall? It was very difficult to properly take in a lesson on the fruits of the spirit when these worries were giving me indigestion.

This social crucible lasted through high school, ending mercifully in college when I stopped going to Sabbath School. But while this was going on, I actually still appreciated going to church. I still enjoyed the music. The harmonies of the college choir. The majesty of the organ. Most sermons were fairly forgettable, but they often gave me food for thought. And it was fun to people watch. Occasionally I slept in, but I never really considered dropping out of church. However, if someone had asked me why I kept going, they probably would have gotten a really inarticulate answer with the word “like” sprinkled in about 27 times. It would have been fair to say that I was living the unexamined spiritual life.

My experience as an adult, and particularly my recent experience, has helped me understand the value of going to church. I understand it’s not for everyone. If I didn’t have a family, I would probably still feel a bit like that awkward junior high kid wondering who I should sit by. I can understand how the music that stirs me can be a turnoff for some. I know that hypocrisy and self-righteous judgment are alive and well under many a steeple.

However, I am unable to ignore the siren call of the pew for a variety of reasons. For one thing, I think it is not entirely bad to take a weekly break from self. Ideally, this would happen more often, but during the week I get so wrapped up in my own needs, desires, and stresses. A time where I can place my focus outside of myself to contemplate something bigger than myself seems fairly healthy. It’s the perfect combination of humility and affirmation.

I also think that church is a good place to interact with a variety of people. Most communities are bound by something fairly specific. They like playing bridge. They enjoy football (the new American version of church). They like watching birds. They want freedom for the unjustly imprisoned. They just like a beer after a hard day of work. However, most of these groups will still be fairly homogeneous in age, gender, race, or socioeconomic status. Most people like to hang out with people who are similar. Some communities, like a yacht club for example, are created with an expectation of exclusivity.

That’s the beauty of church. When you have an abstract idea like God, it’s a club that anyone can join. How many organizations can claim the diverse membership of a church? On any given weekend, I can shake hands with an elderly person, sing with a high school senior, smile at an infant learning to walk. I can look around the sanctuary and see people of different races. When I’m a deacon, I can pass an offering basket to a poor college student, a single mom, a wealthy business owner. When I listen to a sermon, I hear the same words as the high school dropouts and PhDs that surround me. I realize that church isn’t an inclusive Utopia. That for members of the LGBT community, many churches do not embrace Jesus’ teaching of loving one’s neighbor as one’s self. It is a big deal, and it is tragic. However, I feel that my church and many others wouldn’t be exclusive in this manner, and that this will eventually change. I also know that people in church often segregate along racial lines, age, and socioeconomic status, but isn’t it better to come together than never associate? I’m glad my kids will grow up feeling connected to a diverse group of people.

This feeling of connection is important. When I lived in upstate New York, I had very little in common with the church membership. The hardest difference was the fact that they were far more conservative, and sometimes things said from the pulpit or the pews really bothered me. But because we saw each other every week, and because we had at least one core belief in common, we gave each other a chance. By the end of my four years, I respected and admired many of them.

Aside from the diversity of its membership, I think church also provides an opportunity to grow holistically. I will admit that my experience may be a rather limited picture of what the average church-goer actually does. Some may only engage in a few of these activities on a regular basis. Today, I did very little in terms of physical activity. However, I think it feels quite natural to spend a Sabbath finding fulfillment mentally, socially, emotionally, and physically. If a sermon is halfway decent, it should provide some mental stimulation. Even completely illogical sermons that I heard in New York would often cause me to look at the Bible or clarify my position on particular issues. While not being everyone’s cup of tea, music provides a way for me to access my emotions. This is especially valuable to me, as I tend to be imbalanced toward the analytical. Meeting people, shaking hands, and especially connecting with parents at Sabbath School has helped me establish a social network that would have been very difficult to create on my own. And although I don’t do it nearly enough, it wouldn’t be hard to make plans every week to explore God’s creation and literally take a hike. Many churches also have gym nights for members to get physical in a puritanical sort of way.

Although some of the uber-religious peddle paranoia about the government trying to destroy religion, and their atheist counterparts make money off of religious PTSD, I don’t think that church communities will ever die out. While attendance is down overall, and many churches struggle to grow, others thrive while some just stubbornly plug along.

I’m not sure why other people engage in the weekly ritual. Guilt? Obligation? Fear of damnation? I’d like to think that the biggest draw is being part of a diverse community bound by an idea that is accessible to all. An idea that challenges, stretches, humbles, and validates.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: