Wednesday, March 10, 2010

If I Were Superstitious . . . More Thoughts About "Going to Church"

If I were superstitious I would start to wonder about someone trying to tell me something. It is about something else I often rant about . . . the centerpiece of our Christian culture . . . Sunday morning Church going.

Once again, I will defend myself as one of the most faithful church goers you can find. As I’ve said, I may miss once a year at best. My motives for going are multifactoral and too complicated to discuss here. But here is my story from yesterday with commentary on the other side.

So, I’m sitting in my coffee shop in our little village after work. I was stopping by on my way to the gym (to burn off the mocha’s I am addicted to). While I’m standing in line, in comes an old friend, Chris, whom I haven’t seen in over a year.

Chris has a PhD in geology and who use to come to our church. He is married to the daughter of one of our most conservative church members and head elder. This is the head elder who said in front of the entire Sunday school class (as we were discussing the Ken Hamm videos on creationism) that “You can’t be a Christian if you don’t believe the Bible. You don’t believe the Bible if you don’t believe that the earth is 6,000 years old.” He wasn’t just hinting that I wasn’t a Christian. This was a direct response after I said that I believed the universe was probably 13 billion years old and the earth multi billion years old.

This is where I see the modern Evangelicalism making a huge mistake. Chris has had many long arguments with his father-in-law over this issue. His father-in-law sets the same standard for him. He must “believe the Bible” and to do that he must believe in the young earth. So, to Chris, as a—geologists—believing in a young earth is a great barrier to him being a Christian. Chris wants to be a Christian but can’t get past the “mandatory” belief in a young earth which is ludicrous to a geologist. And it is not just because he has been “brainwashed by the secular-humanist pagans who rule our campuses.”

Chris and I had many conversations about this. My strong encouragement to him is that he certainly can be a believer and not throw away his geologist brain at the same time. I don’t think my words with him set well with his father-in-law.

After not seeing Chris for over a year I was so happy to talk to him. But literally, the first words out of his mouth were, “I’m really sorry I haven’t been to church lately.”

I was perplexed. Him not being in church service wasn’t even on my radar and I made that clear to him. “I don’t care if you haven’t been coming to our church service. I just was wondering how YOU are doing?”

We had a good talk, again about geology and earth formations.

I left the coffee shop at 6 P.M. heading for Thrive. I switched on the radio trying to catch the end of All Things Considered. We have four public radio stations and they are close together on the low end of the FM dial. You have to constantly switch back and forth between them as you drive because the signal fades in and out, depending on where you are in relationship with the local mountains.

But sitting right in the mix of the NPR stations is a very popular and (loud with a strong signal) Christian radio station.

The drive from the coffee shop to Thrive is only about a mile so, once I had the dial on the Christian radio station, I do sometimes listen to it, always hopeful that there would be something good on it. But I’ve been perpetually disappointed.

This time, as usual, it was a very loud pastor with a Texan draw. He was screaming about people making excuses for not being in church. He said, “When you put God first in your life, the way Jesus wants you to, then you are in your church door every time it is open.”

He gave examples of bad people who didn’t put God first and missed a church service because of a football game (and he added that he loved football more than anything . . . but God). Then, once that person misses once or twice, they just “go over to the devil’s side completely before long.” He made it clear if you don’t go to the Church service, you are not putting God first in your life.

If I were a secular psychologist listening to that program, one word would constantly pop in my mind . . . “M-a-n-i-p-u-l-a-t-i-o-n.”

Then I arrive at Thrive. In the locker room, I looked up and saw Dan (factious name), the son of the friend of mine who died from cancer a year ago this week.

Dan (20 years old) has been on my heart a lot. I’ve spoken to his sister and mother several times and it didn’t seem to me that he was doing very well emotionally (as if any of us could do well losing their father suddenly). According to his family he never cried around his father’s death but became very irritable. Also, if my memory serves me well, he attended church regularity up until the time of his father’s death and has not been back since. His mother told me that he had been, “doubting God” then she rolled her eyes.

So I care a lot about him and wish so much that we could talk about things.

The first thing I noticed was that he saw me, but then tried to get out of the locker room without talking to me. I stopped him, “Hey man, how’s it going?”

Dan, “Fine. I’m working a lot.”

Me, “I’ve been thinking about you and your family this week because I know it is the one year anniversary since loosing your dad.”

Dan, “Yeah.” He shrugged his shoulders.

Me, “So, are you doing okay?”

This is where things got really strange.

Dan (speaking in a defensive tone), “I’m sorry I haven’t been in church lately. I work late on Saturday night and it is really hard to get up Sunday mornings. I do see some Christian friends on Wednesday night . . . it is sort of like a youth group. I will try to get back to church when I schedule changes . . .”

Me, “I couldn’t care less about you coming to church, I was just concern about you! I knew that this would be a hard time for you and your family.”

Gee wiz I thought. Why is everything about “going to church?” Is that how we define ourselves? Who invented “going to church” as our practice of penitence?

I will speak confidently, and what I’m about to say offends 90% of the Christians I talk to, especially my own pastor. This is where I make the point that I, rather than being a liberal flake, am really more of a Christian fundamentalist that the most fundamentalist. Because, I think that we should go by the Bible and if it is not in the Bible, we should not make it Christian dogma.

So, as I’ve said before, “Church” is not: 1) A building, 2) A meeting, 3) A service, 4) a local organization or 5) denomination. I think to Jesus and the disciples, “going to church” would be about as odd as saying, “going to family.” Church is a loosely defined group of people called out of the world for a single purpose . . . period. It is community! It should be a safe group that you call up when you need them. Where you dine together on a regular bases and talk about your real, messy life. You can’t go to community. Actually, it is my impression that today’s churches do an extremely poor job of community. That’s why people, like Dan, disappear whenever they need help because they know that our culture’s concept of “Church” is all about programs and rituals and not about community. Who invented “worship” as a service? Does not the New Testament say that “Worship” is presenting yourselves as a living sacrifice? How did it become a program of singing and rolling your eyes in the back of your head followed by a lecture?

Another dogma that isn’t mentioned (at all) in the Bible is how old the earth is.

I rest my case. But, I believe that if you handed someone from another planet the New Testament, then immersed them into our modern Evangelical culture they would be very confused by all this madness.


Justin said...

It's not just the purely evangelical culture. I grew up in the Churches of Christ denomination, and attendance to worship services was equally as mandatory. We must not forsake the Assembly, as is the habit of some. While I did not leave that denomination over this issue--I have since stopped attending my "current" church--this is one of the biggies that prevents me from re-engaging the corporate system. None of it resembles what seems to be written in the NT, or what Jesus talked about. I can no longer pretend that it does, and I have better things to do with my Sunday morning.

In my experience, what I have found is similar to what you mention here. Fellow churchgoers are more interested that you are "present" than they are in you, or your life's struggles. I can have no one care about me doing something else.

I feel a kindred similarity to Chris and Dan.

abmo said...

Hi MJ, what is your e-mail adress?

Anonymous said...

Given a lot of Evangelicals' knee-jerk hostility to everything Catholic, this is a hoot.

What MJ describes is basically the Catholic rule of Mass Obligation taken to the extreme of Excessive Scrupulosity.

A rule that does make some sense in a Liturgical church tradition, where attending the liturgy -- Mass or the equivalent -- has great importance. But for a totally non-Liturgical church? Especially taking it farther into the firewall than any Uber-Trad Catholic I've ever met?

All it becomes is a game of one-upmanship, where I'm Holier Than Thou Because I'm In Church More Often (even if I have to lie through my teeth about it). And My Holiness becomes the club to beat you down so I can feel Holier by comparison. "I Thank Thee, LORD, That I Am Nothing Like That Filthy Publican Over There..."

As for Chris & Dan's automatic defensive reactions, well, when the zero-sum game really gets going, anything you say can and WILL be used against you, and you get gun-shy of the Thought Police informants everywhere.

Headless Unicorn Guy

Anonymous said...




Anna A said...

And the interesting thing about liturgical churches, at least for us non-extremist kind, is that the game can't be played.

If you don't see someone at Mass, the usual assumption is that they went at a different time. (or place)

And as far as your uber-Thought police, were you at my RCIA class meeting today. I, a team member, was a victim of that from the team leader. When even stony faced silence is interperted as rebellion. (I'm having to bite my tongue big time to keep from calling out hypocrisy, and the blank face to keep others from reading it like a book.)