Recently we were on our way to church when in the course of playing with the stuffed animal Caroline had brought along the stuffed animal asked Caroline, “What is church?” (Making stuffed animals and dolls ask your child questions is a great, sneaky way to assess what she knows although that wasn’t my intent at the time.) Caroline didn’t answer. Apparently she didn’t know how to articulate what we were doing.
At first I was surprised because we do talk and pray about the church we attend. Obviously it hadn’t made an impression on her. So I had one of those parental moments of, “Why is it my child is five years old and can’t explain what church is? How have I been failing her?”
But to be honest, I found myself almost at a loss to explain it to her because everything I said or thought to say at that moment sounded trite and hollow to me.
“We go to church to worship God.”(Aren’t we trying to teach her that worshiping God happens all the time?)
“We are going to be with other people who love Jesus.” (Well, yes, but it’s kinda sad we have to drive almost a half an hour to do this once a week and then we have no contact with the people again.)
“The church is where we use our spiritual gifts for the body of Christ.” (Nice in theory, not really happening. And why do I have to go to a building to use my gifts?)
I didn’t give her all these answers, but answering her questions about God and the church in recent months has left me feeling like my answers are not heartfelt. It isn’t that I don’t love God or want to serve Him. It isn’t that I don’t believe in Jesus. It is just that our church life is totally disconnected from our real life. How can I help Caroline understand that “church” is important when it doesn’t feel like it matters much in my own faith?
Whatever my faults, I strive to be honest. And when I tell Caroline that it is important to go to church I feel like I am being dishonest with her because it really isn’t how I feel. I don’t feel that being at church contributes in any significant way to my life or faith. Yes, I appreciate the music and I get something out of the sermon. But I appreciate music we play at home and get something out of Scripture being exposited online or in a book as well. Fellowship with other believers? Apparently some people find this, but I’m not finding it.
There is a total disconnect for me. And for all three of us really. We aren’t known at church and our presence there (or lack of) really doesn’t make a difference to anyone. I’m not saying this in a sour grapes way, but just as reality. We missed five weeks in a row this fall due to being out of town, sickness, and avoidance and apparently no one noticed except one person who we saw elsewhere and mentioned that she hadn’t seen us around. How do I tell Caroline it is important to partake in church each week when we can miss five weeks and hardly be missed? How can I tell her church is where we participate in the family of God when there are no “family” relationships? What is the point of attending a book study or Bible study when you don’t really matter to anyone there the minute you walk out the door?
Again, I don’t mean this in a sour grapes way, but just the reality that I think so many Christians face. They have a deep hunger for real relationships and it’s just not there. People want to be in meaningful relationships with people that is more than ninety minutes in someone’s living room twice a month where everyone gets 4.6 minutes to talk about their faith and life before everyone races back to their own homes spread forty minutes apart in order to get ready to go to school and work the next day. Honestly I think I would have a better chance of developing a meaningful relationship with the Christian woman who owns the coffee shop in town if I took the time to chat with her more every time I go in there than I do someone in my own congregation. That’s reality.
The other thing I’ve come to realize is that most people in churches do not truly want to get to know you, understand who you are, and know your troubles. Don’t ask me how I know this, but I do. And we’ve learned the lesson multiple times although I think the last experience was the one that finally drove home the point. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me three or more times and apparently I’m either really naive or stupid. I’ll settle for naive, but I won’t be that stupid ever again.
Karen recently wrote about some related topics in Where does a homeschooling family fit into the church? I related to a great deal of what she wrote and have asked myself many of the same questions. Although her focus was about homeschooling families, there were a few quotes that I thought applied to the broader church in general. She wrote:
George Barna, who researches matters of faith and culture, says that, based on data from the past two decades, roughly two thirds of Christians today see the local church as their greatest source of spiritual growth but by the year 2025, half of the body of Christ will have rejected the traditional church and will be pursuing alternative ways to relate to God and pursue their faith. These are people who recognize that they are responsible for their own personal growth as believers and for ministry to others so they “stop going to church so they can be the Church.”
I left a comment over there and said:
I completely believe this and think it is already starting to pick up. I know quite a few people who love Christ, practice their faith, and take their spiritual growth seriously who have stopped attending church for various reasons. None of them want to be apart from the church, but church had become so problematic that they simply walked away.
While updating my site, I’ve been going through a lot of older posts. It has been interesting to read again some posts related to this topic such as Fragmented Lives, Community, and some other ones now I can’t find. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
In thinking about all this related to churches and doing some reading online, I found some thought-provoking quotes from an article by Wayne Jacobsen entitled “Why I Don’t Go To Church Anymore: Living in the Relational Church.” This is written by a man who is deeply involved in his faith, serving Jesus and living out being the church. In the article he answers a series of questions. It is well worth the read as I suspect it will resonate with a number of us. Here is a sampling.
Shouldn’t we be committed to a local fellowship?
That has been said so often today, that most of us assume it is in the Bible somewhere. I haven’t found it yet. Many of us have been led to believe that we can’t possibly survive without the ‘covering of the body’ and will either fall into error or backslide into sin. But doesn’t that happen inside our local congregations as well?
I know many people who live outside those structures and find not only an ever-deepening relationship with God, but also connections with other believers that run far deeper than they found in the institution. I haven’t lost any of my passion for Jesus or my affection for his church. If anything those have grown by leaps and bounds in recent years.
Scripture does encourage us to be devoted to one another not committed to an institution. Jesus indicated that whenever two or three people get together focused on him, they would experience the vitality of church life.
Is it helpful to regularly participate in a local expression of that reality? Of course. But we make a huge mistake when we assume that fellowship takes place just because we attend the same event together, even regularly, or because we belong to the same organization. Fellowship happens where people share the journey of knowing Jesus together. It consists of open, honest sharing, genuine concern about each other’s spiritual well being and encouragement for people to follow Jesus however he leads them.
But don’t our children need church activities?
I’d suggest that what they need most is to be integrated into God’s life through relational fellowship with other believers. 92% of children who grow up in Sunday schools with all the puppets and high-powered entertainment, leave ‘church’ when they leave their parents’ home? Instead of filling our children with ethics and rules we need to demonstrate how to live in God’s life together.
Even sociologists tell us that the #1 factor in determining whether a child will thrive in society is if they have deep, personal friendships with nonrelative adults. No Sunday school can fill that role. I know of one community in Australia who after 20 years of sharing God’s life together as families could say that they had not lost one child to the faith as they grew into adulthood. I know I cut across the grain here, but it is far more important that our children experience real fellowship among believers rather than the bells and whistles of a slick children’s program.
Jacobson answers several other questions and each one could be an entire discussion in and of itself.
There is no tidy conclusion to this post. I still don’t have satisfactory answers for Caroline. I can already tell by age five that she can sniff out dishonesty and insincerity a mile away. I won’t alienate my own child in the faith by giving her answers that are less than honest. I want her to have a vibrant faith of her own. How to help her develop it and where it has the best chance of happening are questions only God can answer as He leads us step by step in the days, weeks, months and years ahead.