It was Father's Day.
“Chris, if they sing Good Good Father and preach on the Prodigal son, I might blow my brains out.” I groaned.
We were driving to try another new church that Sunday and I was already weary. Weary because I knew what lay ahead.
Hi, my name is Gabby and for the past two years I've been a church-shopaholic.
I know it's bad. I'm ashamed to admit it, but it's true. I know I'm the type of millennial that inspires hilarious mock videos like this one. It's not something I like to share because I know I really fit most of the stereotypes. Flaky, non-committal, in-it-for-the-wrong-reasons, like I’m picking out a Starbucks drink.
In the last two years I've tried nearly every kind of church Nashville has to offer. I've been to your classic suburban, middle class white evangelical church, with that stellar kids ministry and a multi-million dollar play complex on the grounds. I've been to small charismatic churches, lit with candles and bead drapes hanging from the walls, and people shouting and swaying side-to-side with Holy Spirit abandon. I've been to churches with female pastors and churches with male pastors. To Episcopalian churches where I sat and stood, tears streaming down my face because it felt so good to read Scripture out loud as a congregation. I’ve been to churches where worship is just a bluegrass band twanging out ‘Be Thou My Vision’ (this is Nashville after all). Churches where worship is led by 30 year-olds who look like 20 year-olds, dressed in long t-shirts and jumping to ‘This Is Living Now’. Churches where my hand cramped from trying to write everything the pastor said because it was so profound, and churches where I didn’t need to open my Bible. One church started at 8:30 (isn’t this suppose to be the day of rest?!), another on Tuesday at night. Oh, and they all served coffee. Except for the Episcopalian church which had wine and real bread at communion. None of them felt like home.
Yet I knew I need it. I felt this yearning for connection every week. So I kept visiting churches, waiting for one to feel like home.
“Church is not entertainment, church is not entertainment. Father, help me absorb this message, meet me in the worship, this isn’t about me, this is about you. Jesus, I love you, I want to draw near, why I am I so bored?!?”
That was my inner monologue that Father’s Day Sunday (and most Sundays). Equal parts guilty for feeling bored, trying to open my heart to the experience, but also wanting to be real with God about where I was at. I didn’t want to fake it until I made it.
I’m not saying I was faultless, or that my heart didn’t need a healthy dose of humility, truth and good old-fashioned faithfulness. I’m just saying this is where I was at until recently. However, I also don’t think it’s entirely my fault that I struggled with this for so long.
Think about it, 90% of Sunday mornings are structured like this: you file into your preferred seat (given you arrive early enough, ideally somewhere near the action but not too up front), you sit in the congregation (audience) and wait for worship to start (the opening act), after which there’s sometimes a moment to greet your neighbor (an intermission) before the sermon (the main act). Sometimes you can even pick up the sermon at the book store (merchandise table).
While I know there are good reasons why churches across America structure services this way, I also wonder if it’s time to rethink it? We structure our gatherings like entertainment events, so is it any wonder we come in with an entertainment mindset? The problem is, compared to a Justin Beiber concert, Sunday morning, no matter how many lights, doesn’t really hold up.
In my search I was hungry to be taught and to learn more about the Bible, I just didn’t want a sermon. I was thirsty to be ushered into the presence of God through worship and communion, I just didn’t want a concert. I wanted to meet the person next to me, I just didn’t want to have 30 second conversation with someone I may never see again. I was desperate for something real, that I could take with me into the week.
I know, I’m even cringing as I type these words. But this is a confession, so hopefully y’all can take it.
In the last two years my favorite church services were the ones we had on tour. Everyone on our team would roll out of bed in their pyjamas, find some coffee and sit in a circle. We’d read Scripture and our tour pastor Dustin would share a 15 minute lesson he’d prepared that week. Then he’d turn it over to us. I learned so much about God in what he revealed not only to Dustin (who did an amazing job every week), but through my peers on tour as they shared what they learned from that passage. I felt closer to them, more encouraged to pray for them, I saw Jesus actively working in their hearts and it made me want to open my heart up too.
I think this is what most people want from a church— a forum to bring their real selves, to be accepted, a chance to speak, a chance to respond to what God’s saying and doing, to meet with Jesus and feel him near. As my Northern Irish Pentecostal husband often remarks about American church services, “sometimes it feels like we program the Holy Spirit right out!”
Anyway, my purpose in writing this wasn’t to “fix” church, to say I’m better than a standard church gather (because I’m not!), or to offer some wisdom about what church should be. There are plenty of wiser, more experienced men and women out there who can speak to those things. What I do hope to do is a couple of things: 1) share my experience in case it’s your experience too. In those two years there was only one friend of mine who voiced the same struggle, and it made me feel even more lonely than I already did. So if this is you, don’t give up. Keep pressing into Jesus, he knows the desires of your heart. 2) To ask my questions out loud, if you have questions, voice them too. Maybe some of you have some good answers, maybe there are some solutions someone who has been down this road can bring.
All in all, I think we’ve all been guilty of this mindset at one point or other. I just wonder if what’s often interpreted as flakiness, is just a yearning for something more?
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Epilogue 1.0 - I have found a church that meets in a high school auditorium a few blocks from my house that feels like “home.” Yes, I file in and sit alone most mornings (Chris is on the road), and we sing Chris Tomlin songs and there are candles. But Jesus meets me there so I’m going to keep going. I’ve been twice and signed up for a small-group. This is big for me haha!
Epilogue 1.1 - Sounds like you need a house church, some of you might be thinking. But if you’re just visiting, attending a house church can feeling intimidating and intense. Not saying it’s a good reason to not go, just saying that was my honest reason for avoiding them.
Epilogue 1.2 - Yes, they did sing Good, Good Father that morning, and yes, the pastor did recap Tim Keller’s Prodigal God. My brain is still in tact, and God met with me that morning despite my fears and anxiety about the content.