What is your only comfort?

Urban God-talk for the church-o-phobic.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Being Church-o-phobic

At the birth of this blog, it received both a name and a description. The name was easy since I love the Heidelberg Catechism (as an aside, I come from a family where the prescription for just about any of life's problems involves the recitation of some portion of the Heidelberg). The description, though, required some more effort. I didn't want the blog to be just about me and my life, but rather I wanted to find a way to speak both to and for folks who feel on the margins of church.

I grew up in seriously Calvinist communities. More than half my life has been spent in or around the two RCA seminaries (with a hiatus of 10 years at Colgate Rochester Divinity School and four years at Columbia University), and I've been a part of one RCA church or another for my entire life. My family comes from such towns as Orange City, IA, Cedar Grove, WI, South Holland, IL and Holland, MI. In places like these you can still find the odd bumper sticker proclaiming "if you ain't Dutch, you ain't much." Thanks to the generous genes of my foremothers and forefathers, I can almost claim complete Dutch ancestry. In spite of the "insider" status such a background might confer, I know first hand what it's like to be outside of the church. It's actually a perspective for which I'm incredibly grateful.

There was a time in my life when I considered killing myself because I was gay. Having absorbed the powerful messages that exist within the RCA that demands conformity, I knew at a gut level that as a gay person I was no longer welcome by a large segment of the church I love. In college, I certainly didn't want to endure the public condemnation forced upon people who are "different" from the majority of the others. I didn't have many places to turn, since the place I should have run to in a time of such pain was actually what I needed to run from.

If it hadn't been for two amazing parents and a handful of wonderful pastors, I would have undoubtedly have left the church years ago. Thankfully, I managed to get through such a difficult period and emerge as a whole person, and somehow developed a thick skin in the process. But I definitely relate to being afraid of the church. Even now, as a full-fledged adult, I'm scared to the core by much of the church. It's often with a sense of dread that I meet new people, wondering if they are going to shake my hand or if they will refuse to make eye contact with me. The natural-born extrovert still has a self-protection mechanism that can scream "run away" under certain circumstances. And there are a lot of these that occur within the life of the church.

Sadly, I'm not alone. There are far more people in the world who are afraid of the church than people who feel comfortable being around God's people. It's the "church-o-phobic" with whom I most easily relate. We don't want to be afraid of church, but we are - and with good reason.

This is why this blog has the description of "urban God-talk for the church-o-phobic." Unfortunately, though, I haven't been doing as much theological reflection as I would have hoped. I'm sure that this will come in time, as the dust gets settled in my life.

Why then, you ask, would a church-o-phobic person embrace a calling to the ministry? I certainly would rather be an investment banker or a lawyer or just about anything other than a pastor. Low pay, long days, emotionally demanding work, why would anyone want this job? Well, it isn't a job - it's a calling. Unfortunately, I'm all out of arguments with God. Like Jacob, I lost the wrestling match. In my heart, I can't do anything else other than be a pastor. And it's all because of the church-o-phobic. There has to be a way to open the doors so that people who have been hurt or exiled from the church can come back to God and embrace a community of faith.

Late Saturday night, Jen and I sat in a booth at the Denny's in Holland, MI. Ever an exciting place for a little spiritual mini-focus group, I decided to ask our waiter if he had heard of the Reformed Church in America. Indeed, he had (no surprise there). I asked if he had ever attended an RCA church, and he said "No. Never." When asked how he felt about church, he replied "I won't go to church because they're all a bunch of hypocrites who act holier than everyone else but don't express much love to their fellow human beings. They're bad tippers, too." I asked him if he feels like an outsider in Holland. He said yes, he did, but that he was planning on moving soon to a place where he felt more welcomed.

This was ultimately a very sad conversation for me. I wanted to say, "hey, man, give it a try. Church can be great. God loves you; don't let the hypocrisy of God's followers keep you away from experiencing the grace of our Lord." But, he made it clear that no amount of urban God-talk for the church-o-phobic was going to encourage him to give church a chance.

At last year's women's triennial gathering, the workshop that had the most participants was titled "When Church Hurts." The room filled up with so many women, from all over the country, from the youngest new mothers to the oldest grey-haired grannies. They all came to a presentation about what to do when you're hurt by the church. Looking across the room, I realized that these are the ones who have been hurt and stayed. How many more have been hurt and quietly left?

People ask why the Greenpoint Church is growing. By the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, the congregation has developed the ability to take in those who have been kicked out of other places. It's the place that has provided me with the most healing in my life, and it's the place that has become home to many others. We're all a little church-o-phobic, and we're all a little surprised to find ourselves worshipping in a church on Sunday morning. It isn't due to flashy marketing or good coffee, but it's thanks to the irresistibility of God's grace. God gives us infinite chances, and sometimes we're able to give God's church an extra chance as well.


At 10:37 PM, Blogger greg said...

"...don't let the hypocrisy of God's followers keep you away from experiencing the grace of our Lord."

It took me about 30 years to come to that. Either I'm slow or you're fast.

At 10:46 AM, Blogger Purechristianithink said...

You're doing good work! However, I'd just include the observation that sometimes folks with strong negative opinions about church have actually never been involved in a church at all. They have absorbed negative stereotypes from the culture at large, or are making vast generalizations based on one or two fundamentalists they have encountered. When pressed,(respectfully, of course), they will admit that their opinions have very little connection to any real personal experience. This, too, is an opportunity to invite/challenge them to come see for themselves.

At 9:58 PM, Blogger Songbird said...

You just described my husband! All his exposure to church people had been very negative, mostly having tracts about the end of the world foisted on him. He works in the nuclear power industry, which I guess attracts a lot of conservative types of people, both politically and theologically (although not necessarily both at the same time).
Small Church has just begun renting space to a new church start that does a contemporary service. They call it "Church for People Who Don't Like Church." It's a little weird for me because I get the idea of feeling rejected, but not the church-phobia, since that was the place I was resoundingly accepted as a child.
I'm glad it's going well for you and Greenpoint, Ann. And I'm not surprised to hear it!

At 11:43 PM, Blogger greg said...

Well, I was raised Catholic in the 1960s, so church was definitely NOT a place that I felt accepted or loved or anything like that. Church was the place where people had the answers. As I got older and realized that not only did I not have the answers, but neither did anybody else, that was pretty much the end of church for me.

Only very slowly did I come to realize that 1) God is about seeking, not about knowing, 2) seeking is best done in the company of others, and 3) that is what church should be about, and can be about. Our Vicar gave her final sermon at our church today, in which she observed "you should not be asking yourself whether or not you need to come to church; you should be asking yourself who at church needs you to come." I'm almost 46, and had honestly never thought of it that way before. Sometimes I am amazed by what I don't know. It's about seeking, and I found something today.


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