Where I explain that I left “church” and why I have decided to try again … kind of.
My quirky little mountain town clears the road by the park every Friday morning for The Farmer’s Market. One half is art and crafts, the other half is local produce, food, and flowers. The street is lined with tent tops on either side and lines of crowds streaming between, to pet rescue puppies, taste salsa, buy bread or admire woodworking. For me, last week’s market meant beets, basil, and honey from the guy who owns the RV park out in Lake George that just got hit by a freak tornado.
This summer I have made a commitment to be at the Farmer’s Market early, and to be open to pause and engage with whatever interactions happen. I don’t intimately know absolutely everybody, but a majority of the people wandering the street at least know of each other. And since I stepped away from the church our family attended for over a decade, I hear a common question, over and over. At community events, weddings, funerals, or farmer’s markets I hear, “Hey, what church are you going to now?”
For a while, my acceptable answer to the inevitable question was the name of a downtown church that my husband and I occasionally attend. It’s a progressive Anglican-influenced faith community that meets in a retro auditorium of a high school about 30 miles down the mountain. I enjoy visiting there for three reasons.
One: The pastor is a spiritually gifted and anointed teacher. Freakishly personal things come out of his teachings. Some Sundays I’m like, “Was he a fly on the wall of my house this week?”
Two: Group worship and communion are just plain good for my soul and my faith.
Three: It is far away. The downtown church is a long drive down the mountain. This worked especially well for me during my season of healing from what I’ve known as church. I benefitted greatly from being the consumer anonymous. In a Farmer’s Market sense, I became the warehouse shopper without any connection to the food growers.
The cool new downtown church-plant is an awesome community, but it is not ‘home’. My soul has not set down roots there.
The idea of living out faith in a community is bolted, welded into the shape of my faith. I grew up happily bouncing between pews and Fellowship Halls as a pastor’s kid in a northwest suburb of Chicago. I spent rich childhood years with close friends in rooms with insider names like The Fireside Room and the Narthex. My weeks were filled with Sunday School, youth groups and church services. A long thread that is the American Protestant church weaves and sews through the tapestry of my life through adulthood.
If I have been woven and spun within the culture of conservative evangelical churches, the past couple of years have been a rather strenuous unraveling.
In the untangling of what I’ve understood as church, I have come to understand how the work of church became a drug for me. I mistakenly came to use church like a false cistern to fill my sense of worth in a constant flow of programs. I had a hundred busy ways to ‘serve’ God while running away from any true rest or healing from him. As Christian mystic, Richard Rohr puts it, I had “a love affair with words and ideas about God instead of God himself or herself.”
Somewhere along the way, church became my best means to avoid true intimacy with God, and people.
During our shared process of church deconstruction, my husband and I chose a stripped-down faith community setting. We moved into a micro-church and met with our 3 or 4 people each week. In living room spaces, I learned a lot about the benefits of:
- Eating together in homes
- Intentional time that is not scheduled down to the minute and is open to spiritual interruption
- Healing Prayer
- Reading Bible quotes
- Hard questions about how to stop ‘managing circumstances’ and rest long enough to really trust Jesus
- Authentic conversation about how to allow God’s Spirit into marriage and real life struggles
According to Christianity Today, we were in good company:
“24.5% of Americans now say their primary form of spiritual nourishment is meeting with a small group of 20 or less people every week. About 6 million people meet weekly with a small group and never or rarely go to church,” [Ed] Stetzer says. “There is a significant movement happening.”
It’s all fine and well to be a part of a significant movement. But personally, I just needed time to relearn community in a smaller context — one with space to heal and the absence of a stage. After some time away from my ‘drug’, I feel lighter now, more authentic, in a new way both sober and joyful.
If my faith used to be a full pot of thick liquid on the stove, it is now boiled down to the last essential salty remnants. A handful of irreducible minimums remain of my core beliefs as a Christian. So many add-ons and non-essentials have evaporated. What remains for me are a very few tenants of Biblical doctrine as found in ancient bottom-line statements like the Apostle’s Creed; a whole lot of listening prayer; and a longing to love people in a newly-born Jesus way.
And, boiled down, at the very bottom of my pot called Jesus Faith, I can honestly say I still believe we are built to grow in context of a larger faith community.
I just have so many open questions about what that means. I feel like I’m starting over.
Most of the people I know who are looking for a new faith community head down the mountain to large worship centers and mega churches; the ones with blockbuster worship, coffee shops and parking attendants. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
In food speak, most people I know choose to make a long drive to the huge high-volume warehouse versions of church down the hill.
But The Farmer’s Market got me thinking about about the benefits of going local; of eye contact, everyday relationships, shared food, and sustainable travel. And somehow that translates cleanly to my current experience with church.
The Farmer’s Market used to kind of stress me out because it was so … well … social. Little local markets are about face-to-face community, people and their livelihoods. Commercial warehouse and grocery stores are about clean floors, well marked exits and entrances, properly marked shopping cart returns, and customer service. Farmer’s markets are about dogs, soil, weather, unplanned conversations and a lack of parking.
Don’t get me wrong. I am all about the comfortable convenience of a commercial grocery store. But these days, in a lot of ways, I’m more about the mess.
I am walking the streets of the open air mountain market more slowly, with a lot more peace and freedom. I am seeing people from the faith community I used to attend and I am freer to engage. I find myself simultaneously holding a hope for those who have left, and a love for those who stayed. And that freedom has led me to a question.
What would it mean to go local with church?
Even though I was obviously very involved at a church here in town, I don’t actually know all the faith communities within spitting distance of my house. I want to embark on a journey to find out about the local church around me. At least, I think I do.
Like I’ve said, this is a quirky town. People move up here because we tend to be difficult lone-eagle types with authority issues. Area churches tend to sprout up and split-off the way viruses grow under a microscope. I’ll talk more about that as the series goes on. Frankly, I am a little nervous – concerned that maybe I am poking a black bear or a bees nest.
But I want to do this. I am hungry for a bigger picture of the organism called local ‘Church”. And it all seems right and messy like the Farmer’s Market. Eye to eye. Hearts beating. Face to face.
I’m going local. ’Wanna ride along?
I’d love to hear your thoughts:
What about you?
Do you relate to the need to explore a new way of doing church?
Don’t miss any of the small town adventure.
On my first stop … find out what I discover at the church
with recliner Lazy-boy chairs, tambourines, and a puppy in the front row.
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Christianity Today, “The State of the Church“, Ed Setzer, October 2013.
“The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See” by Richard Rohr, 2009 Crossroad Publishing. (I love this book!)