This is the sentiment many old friends and a few relatives carry regarding their experiences with church.
I grew up in a small town in Indiana – a Hoosier hayseed. The churches were small and, too often, small-minded. It’s just the way it was.
Theology or the big ideas of faith weren’t really the topic of sermons. We usually heard fire and brimstone, something related to how we dressed, the dangers of alcohol, the sinfulness of long hair for boys and short hair for girls – it was legalism on steroids.
There was a lot of “not to,” rarely “why to” (other than “because God said so”), and virtually no “how to” when it came to our faith and the Bible.
Ironically, it wasn’t unusual for us to be introduced to lifestyles and behaviors that we could never have imagined on our own, through the messages and warnings of the itinerant evangelists. The first time I heard about drugs and same-sex intimacy was through a Teen Challenge presentation. Go figure.
It aroused curiosity, but that was wrong, right?
I was also curiously aroused when I went to my friend’s house across the street and we looked through his parents’ deck of nudie playing cards and his brother’s collection of “French” postcards.
The playing cards were a double whammy since they represented the sin of gambling and sexual allure. Double-dipped dissipation.
I felt that there was something wrong with a family having nudie cards, but I wasn’t sure why. I mean, anything connected with gambling – a deck of cards, dice, pool, and the like – were all taboo to me. Throwing in the nudies really sent it all overboard – the proverbial hand-basket and hell scenario. But, again, it also aroused curiosity, among other things.
Yet, my friend was a nice guy and my parents and his parents were friends, sort of.
It was all very confusing.
What simple life?
Church was supposed to provide answers and make life better and easier. Yet what passed as answers weren’t always particularly clear, and growing up, life didn’t necessarily get simpler. And easier? Are you kidding? At least, not while living the way church taught us.
Why not? Mostly because my little church didn’t teach us much of anything about how to live in the real world. What we heard in church was fine for managing life within its walls; once outside, it was every person for himself or herself.
And all those taboos!
Don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t wear racy clothes, don’t go to movies, don’t think bad thoughts, don’t breathe, don’t be who you are!
Once puberty set in, I was a goner. What I didn’t understand was that I wasn’t alone.
I used to think that I was the only one who couldn’t avoid all of the don’ts and that everyone else must have some magical power that allowed them to live “successful Christian lives.”
I was sure that I’d missed something along the way. That I was some sort of unholy freak, beyond the reach of whatever grace really was.
No decoder ring for you!
Seriously. I’ve gone through a good deal of my life feeling like I was left out, kept on the outside, not given the magic keys to the kingdom because I just wasn’t and couldn’t ever be good enough.
For awhile as a child I truly believed I must be the antichrist because I was so “bad” and “evil” inside! Church did not always provide a healthy self-image.
Still, I kept going to church, even after my parents couldn’t make me, and I still do.
Many of my friends and some relatives don’t.
Eventually, within the past 10, 20, 50 years or so, I’ve been able to sort through all the stuff I learned, separating the wheat from the chaff. Most importantly I’ve learned that I wasn’t left out of anything. No one else got any magic keys either. We were all just really good fakers and faked each other out.
Most importantly, I learned there’s plenty of grace available for all.
Moving on but not out
The church as we knew it then failed us, being more about itself than about the Word and discipleship. Sadly, it seems a lot of the same thing still goes on in little hometown churches today.
A lot of my relatives and friends that I grew up with, and a lot of their friends and their friend’s friends, just gave up on church. For a lot of reasons.
Their reasons for giving up are the same ones that more than once almost nudged me out. I don’t know why I never completely gave up on church; I guess God put a certain kind of stubbornness in me that just kept me going back.
While I never gave up on church in general, I have given up on certain churches and even my childhood denomination. I moved away from some churches because the pastors were just too full of themselves to be even half-full of the Holy Spirit. There were some churches I visited where the problems we so glaringly obvious I left and never looked backed.
Finding a good church takes time and effort.
Some years ago, I moved into a new church associated with a different denomination where I experienced, for the first time, the reality of ministered grace I’d always heard about in sermons.
The grace was poured on more heavily as I went through an unwanted and unwarranted divorce. In my old denomination, two previous divorces (both of which were not my idea) had made me a marked man and someone to hold to the side. In fact, current and ex- relatives who claim to be Christians still look at me with a measure of disgust for reasons that elude me. This really calls into question the quality of their “spirituality.”
In my new church, I was just a guy who needed God’s love and forgiveness, just as did everyone else there. There was a true sense of “we’re in this together.”
This is the way church is supposed to be. Such churches exist, too. There’s a place for you in one.
God is on your side
Understand that, while you and I are sinners, God still loves you and me and wants to have a relationship with us. He doesn’t want a relationship with a pretender, but with a real, live, created person who is afflicted by sin, struggles with life’s challenges, and doesn’t always do, say, or think the right thing.
God created you. He made you. He knows you. He understands better than anyone else who has ever lived or who will ever live on this planet what makes you tick and tock. He knows your desires, successes, failures, longings, hopes, and dreams. And He has never given up on you, no matter what.
He doesn’t cast you aside if you smoke, drink, cuss, sleep around, take drugs, dress immodestly, cheat on your taxes, don’t go to church on Sunday, or never read the Bible. He’s not necessarily thrilled if these kinds of things are ingrained in your lifestyle, but He’s not walking away from you.
Quite the opposite.
The Hound of Heaven wants you!
God longs, furiously and passionately, to be in relationship with you. He longs to hear you call His name, to turn to Him for help and answers, to seek Him out. He loves you intensely no matter how messy -- or perfect? -- you think your life is. And no matter how messy or perfect you think your life is, you need Him.
My hope is that if you’ve been avoiding God and church that you’ll stop running away from what is really a faulty view of religion and Christianity just long enough for the Truth to get hold of your heart.
If you’re burnt out on God and church, calloused by Christianity and noisy preaching, and disinterested in the Bible and Jesus, I dare you to keep trying anyway.
My prayer is that as you turn your attention ever so briefly and reluctantly to God that His Holy Spirit will find the chink in your protective armor and begin filling your life with a new faith.
Keep checking out churches and giving God a chance to not suck so much.
But be warned. You can turn your back on God, but God will never turn His back on you. He will dog your steps until the day you die, quietly waiting and hoping for you to turn back to Him.
Until death, it’s never too late to say yes to God. There is a place for you in His Kingdom. And one of His churches.
Did you once attend church but dropped out? Why or why not? What’s your favorite thing about church? What’s your least favorite thing? If you’re not in church now, what would it take to bring you back? Please share your thoughts in the comments!