Sunday, July 17, 2011


Sigh, where do you start a post about church?

Chronologically, with a little quip about the churches you grew up in, the church you went to during college, the one you drug your new husband to where you listened to him sigh and pull his collar, the one where you were on the pet ministry committee so you helped organize a pet blessing ...

Theologically, with how you started out as Lutheran, but then went to a Unity church, and now you want something in between the extremes of Unitarian Universalist and Episcopalian?

Emotionally, with my departures from the church, my experiences with the born-again Christian supervisor who was determined to guilt me back to worship, my thoughts about belief in God versus worshipping Jesus while my mother believes Revelations a little too much ...

Sigh.  I'll try to stick to the parts of the story that are most relevant:

When I lived "where I used to live" I walked into a church that felt so much like home it scared me.  It was  Lutheran church that used the same "green book" that I had grown up with - in fact I could recite the service without looking at the weekly pamphlet.  The sanctuary was sunlit and airy and beautiful.  The minister was a caring and devoted woman who had been in a science field before becoming a pastor, whose other gifts were a knack for history and skillful storytelling.  I started going regularly, then - as I tend to do when I start going to church - I didn't go back for six months.  When I started going again, I was greeted by name, with a smile, and heart that was warmed to see me, no matter how long it had been.

I cried through tons of baptisms at that church.  Every time there was a baptism I was determined not to cry.  But I cried at every one.  (Why do they do those right before the "sharing of the peace", so everyone gets to see your tear-stained face and embarrassment?)  When I found out I was pregnant, I held my hand over my belly as I said my thank you prayers.  Then my daughter was baptised in a ceremony just like those I had cried through.  Photos in this post.

But, as you all know, I don't live there anymore.  I live here.  So I assumed I'd be going back to my old church, the church I grew up in.  We did that a few times.  Each time my mom and I would whisper afterwards in the car "it's just changed so much, you know."  When I was a tween and a teen, there was an active youth group and lots of families.  It was an active, vibrant congregation.  Now it seems that attendance and enthusiasm is dwindling.

Subsequent conversations with members have helped to shed light on some of the reasons.  The pastor, while many agree that he is a fantastic biblical scholar, doesn't seem to be as active in his pastoral duties as the congregation would like.  Doesn't visit shut-ins to bring communion, doesn't visit the hospitalized or sick, and doesn't make much of an effort to put forth a caring personality.  He's had some health issues of his own, and even (according to one story) was offended that people weren't more understanding of his own illness.  There are many people that we see in the community that have now gone to other churches.

We tried.  My mom and I taught Vacation Bible School last summer, and we tried to attend Sundays.  But there aren't many families attending anymore, and the atmosphere is no longer vibrant and enthusiastic.

I didn't go to church for a while.  After a week of workdays, I'm fine to hang out at home with my kid on Sunday mornings.  But I feel a compulsion to raise her in a church environment, so I started on my quest to "find a church".

We went to a Presbyterian church that some of my friends attend.  In the plus column - lots of families, a well appointed nursery, an active church community.  I just couldn't get past the "aw, shucks" southern accent and paternalistic presence of the minister, after the scholarly, story weaving pastor I'd left behind.

We went to a Christian church, where my mother continues to attend and is becoming more active.  They have a high quality nursery program (despite the fact that they inaccurately diagnosed my kid as having head lice).  I just couldn't get past the blatant misogyny in the sermons.  I know that I won't feel comfortable in a conservative setting.  It was at that point that I had a conversation with my mom that suggested that she and I don't need to find membership in the same church.

I went to the Episcopal church.  There were very few people in attendance the morning we went, because it was very snowy.  So there was no nursery.  Meaning I had to entertain my kid in a loud, echo-y wooden sanctuary and follow a worship service I don't know.  The experience did inform me that I like the idea of traditional service.  Oh, and a nursery.

I went to a United Church of Christ.  The minister there (female) did a good job of the history and storytelling - as she read from her notes (ugh).  And the sanctuary was too small.  Am I nitpicking because there is some other reason I don't like this church?

I went to a Unitarian Universalist service.  I thought maybe the problem was that I was visiting these Christian churches, when I'm not totally sure I identify as Christian.  So why not try something more progressive, and more in line with my liberal views?  As I expressed to a good friend afterward, it felt like I had been to a consciousness raising, rather than a church service.  While I don't mind a good jab at Sarah Palin in a "sermon", I always thought I would raise my daughter in a more traditional setting than that.

Okay, back to the Christian churches.  And if I'm going to do that, I'd like to stay with the tradition I'm most comfortable with, the Lutheran church.  There are no other ELCA Lutheran Churches on my side of the river, so we start heading across the bridge to go to church.

First, a Lutheran Church in a quaint little part of town, and near one of my favorite Irish Pubs (that's a reason to go, then, right?)  Their website makes a point to demonstrate that they are accepting and open.  And it doesn't take nearly as long to get there as I thought it would, since we were half an hour early the first time we went.  The church is a beautiful old church with a huge church building.  And yes, they have a nursery.  But the weekend I went was a big Synod meeting, so the regular minister wasn't there.  Can you get a feel for a church if the minister is a substitute?  Either way, this was on the "possibility list".

Next, a large Lutheran Church a little farther from home, but not much.  Much larger congregation.  So big, in fact, that we were not personally greeted and not informed where the nursery was.  A nice little old couple said after the children's sermon they take them to the nursery.  Only ... they never had a children's sermon.  So I spent much of that worship service in the hallway chasing my kid.

Another Lutheran Church, this one near the campus where I teach.  A much older congregation.  Again, the minister was out (this is the problem with doing church tours in the summer) so it was all old white men giving communion to mostly old white people.  I was hoping for some diversity, wasn't I?  But the sanctuary was beautiful.  My kid was well behaved until she'd had enough, and then a teenager took her to the nursery.  And brought her back to me for communion.

I've pretty much narrowed the selection down to the last three, the Lutheran churches.   That's where I get stuck.  I was thinking that the question would come down to whether I wanted to attend a church with a larger congregation or a smaller one.  I would think larger, with more families is what we want (even if we weren't personally greeted, which was likely my own fault - I'll be less absorbed in not dropping my kid or my diaper bag next time).  But they don't start worship until 11:00 and with the driving distance, that doesn't fit well into our schedule.

The two smaller congregations (both worship at 10:30) are close together and often work together on joint ministries - for example they are having a joint VBS.  So I feel the decision is slightly less "either/or" there.  And with a smaller congregation comes the opportunity to get involved and practice leadership, right?

All three churches do communion every Sunday.  None of them have a Saturday evening or a Sunday evening (my ideal) worship service.  They all three (I believe, at least two do) have kneeling benches and have an opportunity for kneeling during the service.  (See, I'm getting into really wonky details here to try to set them apart in some way).

So how do you decide?  How do you pick a church?  Does it feel hard because I haven't found "the right" church yet?  So do I keep looking, week after week?  Does it feel hard because, despite my trying, I'm really looking for my last church in this city and it's not here, so nothing feels quite "right"?  What's more important, families and opportunities like youth groups for my kid?  Size of the congregation?  A fantastic historian/storyteller/caring minister?  Openness and inclusion?  Diversity?  Having a Library?  Having adults in the nursery instead of teenagers?

I made a list of criteria that I would like to use.  Things like "the pastor" and "youth group opportunities" and "openness and inclusion" ... but then what?  How do you decide between a church with a fantastic female minister - who is an interim and won't be there permanently - and a gay male minister who is young and might move when he finishes divinity school?  How do you decide between a really large church where you feel like you'll get lost - but that has awesome youth opportunities - and the smaller church where you'll be able to get to know people, but where there are currently like three kids in the youth group?  Is the church that says they are open and welcoming to all, but has a sanctuary full of old white people on Sunday any different than the church that has a couple of gay people?

How do you decide about church?

Yesterday morning I saw a car pull up out in front of my house.  My kid and I had been outside blowing bubbles.  She was in panties that were drenched by the bubble solution she had spilled, and it had just started raining so we came inside.  I saw someone get out of the car and run to the front door.  My doorbell is broken, so I opened the door to find a woman with a gift bag containing a fresh baked loaf of bread.  The sprinkles had stopped, so I stepped out onto the porch to talk with her.  She looked familiar, but I couldn't place where I knew her from, until she started talking.

She is from one of the churches that I visited.  I've been twice now, once when the pastor was at the Synod meeting, and once last Sunday to meet him.  She brought me some information about the church, and the bread, and a wonderful little card.

All I got from the big church was a form postcard that said "we're glad you visited, see our website". 

I feel really guilty now, like I should totally join this church just because this woman brought me bread.  I decided that the Wee One and I will should probably go again today.  I was planning on us going to "church" I just wasn't sure where we would go, so this helps make that decision.  The pastor had a neat one-on-one conversation with Wee One in the nursery, and I met his partner who was singing this morning.

Is "they brought me bread" a reason to choose a church?  Is any other reason any better? 

So how do you decide on a church?  The people all seem nice enough.  I mean, I can totally put on my academic hat, make a list of questions like "what is your approach to catechism education" and "where do you see this church in five years" and "how does your church support alternative family lifestyles" and interview the pastors and make an obnoxious ass of myself in the process.  But since it now appears I'll be living in this area until I retire (God willing and I get tenure), then this could be a long term commitment.

So I'm open to any and all suggestions and advice, because at this point, I'm probably going to just keep going to the church that brought me bread.  (Except I keep thinking about the other churches too.)


Anonymous said...!!

Serifm said...

If it's "they brought me bread and made me feel like family," that's a good reason. If it's "they brought me bread and I'll feel GUILTY if I don't keep going there," that's a bad reason. ;-) Praying for you, that you find somewhere you love!!! <3

Elizabeth said...

For us, it is a combination of the feel of the congregation and the fit of the theology. I've visited churches where I just loved the people and felt at home, but just could not subscribe to the theology. I did a lot of reading and investigating and fell in love with Episcopal theology. So we searched for the Episcopal congregation we feel most at home in and that is the church for us. It's a long process.

Chris said...

I am not sure 100% if this is how you meant it but this post is hilarious! I feel your pain .. went through a bunch of different options and stuck to just going nowhere at all. For me it was a combination of similar things: not enough openness, too much misogyny or the church was too big or too small or I didn't like what they said when the donation plate was being passed around or I didn't agree with the fact that they were funding missionaries .. the list goes on.

I hope you find the kind of church you're looking for and I hope that whichever one you stick with is for a better reason than bread; although, truth be told, that totally gave them a competitive advantage. And maybe that's the other thing on the list: the fact that most of them are businesses above all else.