Thursday, February 27, 2020

How Not to Get People to Attend Church

So I've been toying around with finding a church again. I've found one or two that seem promising and was committed to trying one of them out last weekend. But all that got put on hold when I saw an article a Facebook friend had posted.

The title was something like, "Church Should Be Your Excuse for Missing Other Things," and, really, I should have known that would be triggering, ha... but I was in a decent mental space that day and was like, "I can read that, I'll probably disagree but I want to know what they say!" and then after finishing the article was left with such a sense of hopelessness about ever being able to attend a church again, and when the time came for me to go check out the one I wanted to check out, the words of that article came back to me and convinced me that it was pointless. I wish I hadn't let that article have that power over me, and I'm hoping writing this out will be one way of stripping it of that power.

The gist of the article was nothing I hadn't heard before, just not one I'd had to contend with in awhile: that church is the most important priority, and that you cannot be useful as a Christian unless you are a regular attender. (And I'm not being hyperbolic, I went back to confirm what it said and it was literally stated that you cannot be a blessing to other Christians if you aren't regularly attending church. Because Christians only exist at church services and fade away into nothingness once they step outside the building, I guess.) It also informed me that by not prioritizing church, I was making it clear that I was not prioritizing God. And then it got real fun by hinting that even if I attended church all the time, if I didn't love it, I was still a bad person.

Where do I even start with this?

I guess I can start by saying that the most frustrating piece of this is probably that this article thinks my story is a lie. Despite the benefits it promises me for church attendance, the years I spent prioritizing church above all else were the loneliest years of my life and the worst years for my faith. Church attendance has never been a good source of fellowship or connection to God for me, most services just aren't built to help me with any of those things -- and that's fine, they don't need to, I am not the center of the universe and I can appreciate that they work well for other people. For me, the social and mental energy it takes for me just to take up space in a pew once a week leaves me with very little left to stay focused on my faith throughout the rest of the week. Often attending church uses me up completely, and that only gets worse the more weight is placed on my attendance. Prioritizing it means that I am prioritizing it over my true fellowship with Christians and prioritizing it over my daily walk with God, which, I think most Christians would agree, is not ideal.

I feel like I explain this all the time but nobody really believes me. They assume I wasn't giving it my all or that I was in the wrong church or something else that means it was all my fault. I'm OK if people don't get it, if it's so far removed from their own experience that they can't fathom it being the case, but it's important to me that they at least believe it was how I felt. (I feel similarly baffled that people are getting something meaningful out of church attendance, but I'm willing to believe they do!)

The most frustrating thing about this article, and the piece that immediately discouraged me from attending church the following Sunday, is how elevating church attendance to a mandate with no wiggle room reinforces the Us vs. Them that was one of the most isolating things about the church experience for me. There's Us, the good Christians that are at church on a regular basis and prioritize God, and Them, the weak Christians who don't come at all, or (maybe worse?) come occasionally. There's Us, the good Christians who are working to bless our fellow brothers and sisters, and Them, the lazy Christians who only focus on themselves. There's Us, the good Christians who love church and could never go without, and Them, the weak Christians who might not even be Christians at all, because they just keep making up excuses to not attend church.

Here's the thing -- even at my most committed, I have never felt like an Us in the church.

No matter what I did, no matter how many rules I followed, I was always, always somehow a Them.

I wasn't extroverted enough.

My views on art were too weird.

I wasn't witnessing enough.

I read the wrong writers.

I befriended people from the wrong denomination.

One of the biggest mental hurdles I'm trying to get over is the fear that there IS no faith community where I will be accepted or valued. Going to church for me is a step in faith, trusting that maybe there are some Christians out there who are willing to believe my faith is real, and maybe they'll let me hang out with them.

This article, however, informs me I will always be a Them and there's no point in even trying. Because I can't prioritize church attendance over my personal relationship with God and the global church. I won't. It's not good for me. I have to be able to have a Sabbath (which church attendance may never be for me). I have to be able to choose an actual daily connection to God over a weekly demonstration of connection, which is what it was for me all those years. I have to be able to be honest about the stress and anxiety church attendance brings up for me and have the response be, "We love you. We hope you join us. We care about you," rather than, "You have no excuses to not be here." And this article says, "Well, if that's your attitude toward church, we don't want you anyway."

I am not the only person battling isolation, anxiety, and shame in my relationship with church. I know I'm not, because as I was in a near-panic state after reading this article, I reached out to a group of podcast fans who nearly all grew up Christian (some still are, some are not) and so many of the responses spoke to the same anxieties, the same sense of "You'll never be enough," the same sense of not belonging. This article continues to build up the mountain of shame that I have been trying hard to knock down and/or climb over. That right there is the titular "How Not to Get People to Attend Church."

I don't have much else to say, just wanted to unpack this a little for myself. For those of you who have found a faith community of your own and can't imagine my story happening there, good, I'm glad for you, but I encourage you to continue to have patience, love, and grace for those who struggle. Be the one who loves and believes them, be the one who sees the burdens they already carry and does not place more on them.

And for anyone else who happened to see that post and also felt immediately shelved and dismissed... I'm sorry. Reach out to me and vent if you want. I believe you, I believe your story, and I hope you find a faith community you can trust again. Here's hoping I can too.

1 comment:

  1. While my experience hasn't been exactly like yours, there are some of those feelings of isolation. I go and get something from the service but I do not get anything from the faith community there and there are feelings of not fitting in or being a part of something that I should be a part of. There's lots of reasons for that, some of them you mention, feelings that me as me won't be accepted. There have also been some very obvious examples shown to me of how insincere the faith community in churches can be that have hurt deeply. We stopped going to a church last year, and literally only two people called up after a few weeks to find out where we were and if we were okay. People who had literally said they considered us like family, never once reached out.

    Anyways. It's helpful to read your posts about church: honest and clear feelings about where churches aren't meeting needs. Too often that seems to be a taboo subject in church or among Christians and it's super helpful to have it talked about. Thank you for writing this. I know it probably wasn't easy to write and share it.