What I Got by Going to Church

Posted: October 7, 2014 in Uncategorized, When Church Hurts
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It happened again. Talking to a friend, I was asked, “Where are you going to church now?”

“No where.”

“Oh, Ellen, you need to go to church! How are you going to grow? You need the fellowship of other believers!”

Hmmm . . . . really?

That got me thinking about why I wanted to go to church in the first place. Why did I work so hard, even in the midst of all of the shaming, condemnation, retribution, lies, coverups, shunning, to reconcile my relationship with “the church”?

I went for family. I wasn’t raised in church. So, when I had my first deep encounters with Christians back when I was in college, I went to church because in my mind, other Christians were my true family of faith. I went to be with ‘family.’ Those folks became my brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, friends and comrades, confidantes and conspirators. My family of faith was full of love and welcome and joy and acceptance and community.

Maybe it’s just different in some college towns where the church decides to love and welcome students and everyone comes from somewhere else so there’s very little political or social motivations. Often Sunday evenings were spent in the homes of locals who wanted to be a Christian family to us. I discovered my love for broccoli on a Sunday night in one of those homes. I discovered the most lovely rose-scented soap in another. And that you can grow oranges in northern Missouri if you keep the potted tree small and bring it in on your heated back porch during the winter months.

I also learned that Jesus lives in and reaches through people in the family of faith. This is where grace abounds and graciousness thrives. Students on campus knew and talked freely of the professors who lived out their faith in front of them daily. Professors from my church and others. It was truly a community of believers and those ‘outside’ knew that we were Christians by our love for one another and those around us.

In my naivete, I thought all Christians in every community were like that.

I went to learn. Because, not having grown up in the church, there was so much that I didn’t know about faith and doctrine and theology. And we could discuss our thoughts on scripture, politics, sexuality, faith, abortion, race, immigration, philosophy, doctrine, theology, the price of gasoline . . . freely and without offense. Because no one worried about being offended. Because we were family and we knew we were loved and accepted no matter what our position was on any topic.

In my naivete, I thought all Christians in every community were like that.

I went for support. When I came home from a wedding with food poisoning, it was a couple of people in my Christian family who drove me to the emergency room. When I twisted my ankle on the front steps, it was people in my Christian family who ace-wrapped it, brought me ice packs, and loaned me crutches to get to class for a few days. When my car wouldn’t start, it was people in my Christian family who fixed it (these were the days before all of the computerization and spark plugs and batteries were easy to change).

In my naivete, I thought all Christians in every community were like that.

I went to serve. I could teach small children about Jesus. I could go to the nursing home and lead a hymn sing and just love on folks for a while. I could invite non-Christian friends to Sunday night meals when the dining hall wasn’t serving. I could go on mission trips over spring break. I could take care of others, help others, be with others in their crisis or their loneliness or their longing to talk through their questions.

And in all of it, we were messy and imperfect and we tussled and bantered and laughed and cried and bled and loved all over the place. And life was gracious.

And perhaps a bit sheltered.

Because, for the past 30 years, I have had very little of that experience in church.

I went for family. But what I discovered is that outside of the church building, very few people are interested in including ‘outsiders’ in their family of faith. We would hear all the time on Sunday mornings about the get-togethers that had taken place on Friday or Saturday night or were going to happen that Sunday afternoon or evening. Never once were we invited to join in. Never once.

In my naivete, I thought that with time that would change.

I went to learn. I am voracious when it comes to learning all I can about faith and God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit. So, being told I couldn’t so much as attend a Sunday School class for over a decade, that left me with only sermons or my own private study to draw from.

So, I started to write down what I can remember of sermons. I remember sermons that pointed out feuds between people in the church. Feuds between business owners, business owners and patrons, feuds between adult siblings, parents and siblings, neighbors, church members.

I remember sermons about sex. At my first abusive church, the pastor preached about Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky’s affair one Sunday and was ousted the next for having an affair with a woman he was counseling. Other sermons made it clear that you should be having sex at least three times a week, people. And did you know that it is during orgasm that you are closest to experiencing God? Sermons about boys masturbating in the church bathrooms. Sermons about people in the church who were having affairs. People involved in swinging, and “naked twister” parties. If you’re not familiar with naked twister, it’s basically an orgy. A bunch of people get together, strip naked and play twister – culminating in having sex with any number of people en masse.

I remember sermons about abuse. Parents abusing children – physically and sexually. Spouses abusing spouses. Elder abuse. Physical. Emotional. But never spiritual.

I remember sermons about money and “show me your checkbook and I will tell you if you are a true believer” and people in the congregation being berated for spending more money on their pet’s food than they give to the church.

I remember sermons about sports. Lots of sports illustrations. But when your son plays in the NBA, I guess it’s a good way to boast. Oh, and when it comes to sports and money, you can always bemoan the fact that your son makes more in a week than you make in a year which makes it sound like you really could use a raise, don’t you think? Oh, and by the way, the pastor gives at least 20% of his income back to the church. (I’m glad he makes enough that he can afford to do that.)

I went for support. When my husband had surgery, no one came. When my husband cut off his finger and thumb with a table saw, no one came. No one out of a staff of over 30 people. And not one “friend.” When my mother died, no one came. When my husband’s mother died, no one came. No one. No pastor, no one on the church staff, not even one person whom I would have called “friend.” Not one.

When our sons graduated from high school, it’s a big deal around here to have a party. The youth leader came to my oldest’s party. That was it. No one else came. For his or my younger son’s two years later.

I went to serve. For about 8 months, I served in the music ministry on the platform for all but 5 services. And while I didn’t do it for the praise, I was completely ignored. The pastor would come up on the platform before or after services and thank everyone involved, and turn away just as he got to me. Every. Single. Time.

Then I was told I couldn’t serve. No music. No rocking babies. No bringing treats for youth group. Nothing. For over a decade.

When I was finally told I could serve again, I was asked to do landscaping (a hobby of mine), and to teach classes and to serve in the coffee bar every Sunday. And if we had to be gone, attitudes would be downcast. We had obviously displeased them. And when we finally stepped out completely, we were ignored by the person in charge. Walk in the door and she would immediately go to the back room. Sure, we wanted to serve, but we were serving 10-12 hours per week which was just overwhelming in the midst of work, family, my sons’ wedding, and life in general. Oh, and there were sermons on keeping the Sabbath. But working from 7 a.m. to noon in the cafe every Sunday was an expectation. We got to work so that the staff person in charge could have her Sabbath. Most Sundays, my husband couldn’t even go to the church service because someone had to man the coffee bar. Staff Sabbath was more important than peon Sabbath.

I have one friend who is so incredibly dear and sweet, and she is concerned that I get back into a church. Yet she is honest enough to tell me that her church is too broken right now for her to recommend. She is well aware that I don’t need a church that is mired in pettiness, is ruled by power-plays, where gossip runs rampant, and where church discipline is a farce. What I’m pretty sure about is that this describes most churches. Maybe even my college church and I was too young and naive to see it.

I’m also pretty sure I can experience the family of God outside of a building. I already am – with my friends who have proven to be true, gracious, caring, loyal, and trust-worthy. I’m pretty sure I can learn in any number of ways besides sermons and Sunday School classes. I am fairly certain that the support I receive from my biological family and those friends I just mentioned will be there when I need it. And I am now free to serve out in the world – helping a kid at school get a coat or lunch money, donating to charity fund-raisers for people in need, stepping in to lend a helping hand wherever it’s needed – not just in church or church-sanctioned ministries.

I have so much freedom now. Freedom from condemnation. Freedom from judgment. Freedom from gossip. Freedom from fear. Freedom from abuse. Freedom from works-based friendships. Freedom from gods who are not God.

So, the next time someone tells me I need to get back into a church, I’m going to ask them why they want me to be exposed to all of that.

  1. William Heppner says:

    Good Morning, You write so well, so timely. I am 63 y.o. and I am in dispare. Please keep writing that which I have thought before but could not put into words. THANK YOU. May the GOD of ALL creation BLESS You. William

    • Ellen says:

      Oh, William, I am so sorry that you are suffering. Please remember that whatever negative or abusive things have happened to you, that was not of God. He doesn’t treat people like that, and anyone who does, doesn’t know God. He will never leave you nor forsake you.

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