I’ve gone to church since I was a baby. I can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t feel the call to be with people who love God. I’ve attended the Seventh-day Adventist (SDA) Church for my entire life, as well. As someone “raised in the church”, I’ve spent my life immersed in the unique SDA culture and it is my comfort zone. Even in times of adolescent rebellion, there was a feeling of safety in the routines of vegetarian potlucks, Friday night worship, Sabbath afternoon naps, and church school.
Even when I struggled with being good enough, my Sabbath School teachers and Pastors told me that Jesus loved me--loved me so much that He died for me and wanted me to spend eternity with Him. They explained grace to me again and again, even when I couldn’t believe it could be that simple. They showed me the peace that comes from setting aside a day to worship and rest. They explained the importance of understanding Creation and knowing my Creator, so that I would grasp how He could re-create me when I sinned. I was taught all of these things and more in my church. But somewhere along the line, I picked up the message that God loves good little girls and boys and I must never make wrong choices because God wouldn’t love me anymore. This fed right into my tendency to believe I wasn’t good enough; it left me so discouraged by every mistake I made and feeling defeated by every temptation I encountered. All of the other kids in Sabbath School seemed to have it figured out. Why didn’t I?
For me this is a question that took 50 years to answer.
As I sat down to write about church I realized that my relationship with church has had some distinct phases, and in each one of them I’ve learned different things about church and God and myself.
Phase One: Childhood/Adolescence
- “Jesus Loves Me, This I Know”
- Jesus loves good little boys and girls
- Are you going somewhere that God can go with you? (A question often used to point out the need to avoid temptation. I know now that God is always with me)
- Jesus IS coming again. Will you be ready?
- Know your Bible--read it, study it, learn it.
- Keep the Sabbath as a time holy and set it apart.
- Your body is God’s temple--No caffeine, smoking, alcohol, or “unclean” foods. No adornment (piercings! tattoos!!) No dancing or Rock & Roll or “bad” movies/TV. No sexual immorality.
Phase Two: Young Adulthood
- God is love--people around us will know we are Christians by our love!
- Spend time in Bible study & prayer every day
- Tithe & give offerings from a spirit of praise/worship/gratitude.
- Go to church! Be active and be heard!
- Raise up your children in the way they should go....your responsibility for your children is immense and has eternal implications.
- If you are struggling with anything from Phase One, don’t let anyone else know. They might not think you are good enough for the responsibility they gave you.
Phase Three: Middle Age
- Church politics and church cliques. Some leaders are going to lie and misrepresent and mislead.
- Friendships evaporate when you are a part of an uncomfortable situation--even tangentially.
- Discovering your true self and expressing that is NOT rebellion. It is simply your truth.
And this is my truth...
It’s hard to leave a church I’ve attended for 25 years.
It’s hard to grow in a church where you feel like you can’t ask questions that are outside of the accepted dogma.
It’s hard to make myself go when I know that few people care whether or not I show up.
It’s hard to be truthful and be myself in a church where I feel appearances are judged and I know some of my lifestyle choices wouldn’t be or aren’t acceptable.
Each little act of living truthfully has pushed me further away from my church body, until I find myself on the outside looking in.
But what am I looking at?
Other sinners in need of a Savior.
Other wanderers in a place that is not their home.
I don’t want them to expect me to be perfect and I can’t expect that of them, either.
Someone will always be looking; that can never be avoided. Where does my responsibility to set a good example end, and their responsibility to make their own informed decisions begin?
For years I couldn’t understand how people could walk away from a church that had been their home--a church they loved and that they had poured so much energy into. How do you walk away? How do you get to the point of giving that up?
I know now that it happens so slowly and so quickly, both at the same time. I know it doesn’t happen because you feel hurt or angry. And it doesn’t happen because other people are angry at you. It might start that way, but it really happens when you stop being hurt and angry--when you stop caring. That’s when the pivot occurs. When you look around and realize it doesn’t matter whether you show up or not. Let me tell you, that’s not bitterness. For years I assume that bitterness was what poisoned a person’s love for their church, but I was wrong.
No, it’s not bitterness. It’s the realization that you no longer belong in this “club” and few people would really miss you if you never showed up again. It’s the realization that you are an acceptable loss in the church’s need to show the world that everything is “Just fine, thank you!”
It’s apathy with a tinge of sadness and it’s so much worse than bitterness.
The question isn’t how do you walk away--at least not for me. The more important question is why did I stay so long? Why did I think this church, both locally and as a denomination, was my home? Because if I don’t know why it was, I’ll never know why it isn’t now. And it isn’t. That is one answer I am sure of.
Over 50 years my church has taught me so many valuable lessons--so many songs to sing. For years, the most powerful melody it taught me was how wonderful it felt to belong and be needed. But my love for God can never be based on that song. Because, just like a Top-40 hit, it will fade someday. God needs to be at the top of my play-list forever.
These days I’m asking questions of myself, of God, of the other people sitting in the chairs and the pews with me. And my questions sound roughly like this:
- What does God expect of me--in my heart, in my home, and in my church? This must ALWAYS be my first question!
- What is my responsibility to my adult children, with regards to modeling a healthy spiritual growth?
- What is reasonable for my fellow church members to expect of me? And is it OK for me to be there if I’m not living in full agreement with their choices?
- What is reasonable for me to expect from them--agreement, acceptance, tolerance?
- What can I learn from worshiping with people whose beliefs are slightly, or even greatly, different from mine?
- And finally, where is the balance? I want balance in my life more than anything right now!
I want to embrace the message that Jesus loved me enough to die for me...I was more than good enough in His eyes...I am His perfect creation.