If You're Struggling With Church...
You're not alone
A physician in his mid-fifties walked up to me with tears in his eyes after a worship service. He was one of more than fifty doctors in that Presbyterian church where I was the associate pastor. The congregation also included a number of real estate agents, lawyers, and even a judge. It was unusual for any of these professionals to show such emotion in public. He was struggling with something.
If you are struggling with the tension between the next step in your spiritual journey and the religious structures available to you, you’re not alone.
In the service, I had preached about the benefits of going deeper with God. In response, the man greeted me with eyes downcast. Sheepishly, he said to me: “I always feel closer to God in nature than I do in church.” This was a confession. He thought something wrong with him. I was quick to encourage him. He didn’t need forgiveness. He needed permission to continue his spiritual journey outside of the church, in the place where his experience of God was most powerful.
If you, like this man, are struggling with the tension between the next step in your spiritual journey and the church options around you, you’re not alone. You didn’t make it up. You aren’t being difficult. You aren’t the problem. You are experiencing something that is really there.
Take it from me, I’m a former missionary to Latin America and Africa. I’ve been a pastor in the United States for more than 20 years. I’m the ultimate religious insider and I can tell you from personal experience that your struggle is real. It’s confusing. You feel stuck. You feel guilty that what has worked for others isn’t working for you. But there is a silver lining. I’ve found that the struggle itself is part of the faith journey. It’s an opportunity to experience something more.
A few years ago, I was experiencing a Christmas hangover. Not the kind that first comes to mind, but the kind that pastors and active church members have after all of the special programs and worship services churches put on during the Christmas season. The idea is to create such great experiences that the people who only attend church once or twice a year will keep coming back in the new year. But invariably, year after year, the effort far outweighs the results. This gives rise to the cocktail of fatigue and disappointment I am calling the Christmas hangover.
This year, however, through my “hangover haze,” I accepted an invitation to a post-Christmas Handel’s Messiah sing-along. It was being hosted by an older Jewish couple which intrigued me. When their daughter and son-in-law invited me to join them I accepted immediately.
When the day arrived, I walked up to their home, a few minutes late, and heard the familiar sound of Handel’s Oratorio wafting through the windows. The quality of the music was top-notch. So much so that I said to myself, “They must have a great sound system to get so much out of a CD.” I entered their home expecting to see a few family members sitting cross-legged on the floor with dog-eared lyric sheets in hand in front of a basic stereo system. Instead, the second-floor living room was filled with at least a hundred people gathered around a small orchestra and conductor. I took a bound book of lyrics of Handel’s Messiah and joined a group of men and women as they sang:
“And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.”
I was in awe. This “church language” had somehow found its power again; outside of a church building, without pews and stained glass windows, without any goal of getting people to come back again. Everyone was focused on the music, enjoying each other, and delighting in the gift of the present moment. It was a thing of beauty.
However, my awe soon gave way to frustration and then confusion. This is the kind of authentic celebration I had spent over thirty years of my life trying to recreate within the walls of the church. And now I had walked into a home where it was happening organically?
Then it dawned on me. This experience was my invitation. I was invited to explore the possibility of a fresh spiritual journey, outside of the institutional church. The familiar chords of Handel, played by friends in a family home, sounded a clear invitation to my heart.
Since accepting that invitation, I’ve learned a lot about this journey beyond religious institutions. It isn’t an invitation to condemn existing churches or to look down on those who are moving along quite nicely in their own church. It isn’t yet another attempt to radically revise traditional religion. It is an invitation to join with others who are faithfully and creatively taking the next step in their journey outside of the church in their everyday lives.
MakeGoodHappen is a Substack channel for people on this journey. Whether you are a spiritual person who is having trouble connecting with institutional religion or you are involved in a local church but wonder if there is something more, this platform is for you. If you are someone whose rhythm of life does not allow regular involvement in a local church or you feel challenged to meet God in the community around you, this site provides a way forward.
You are not alone. The tension between your spiritual intuition and the religious structures around you is real. Instead of letting this tension stall our spiritual journey, let’s face the tension together, find the invitation, and decide on the next steps on the way.
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