Why I Go To Church Even When I Don’t Feel Like It

What leaving and returning taught me about church.

I have the same memories as many evangelicals who grew up in church at the same time I did: felt-board Bible stories, Sunday school donuts, praise chorus lyrics on overhead projectors.

Even before I was old enough to do much besides doodle during sermons, church was a fixture in my life. I was sometimes bored and sometimes enjoyed myself, but going to church wasn’t a choice—it was just what everyone did.

As I got a bit older, I realized that not everyone went to church, but I gathered that being someone who did was a moral imperative. It meant I was taking my faith seriously, being a good person and making God happy (or avoiding God’s anger). By the time I was old enough to join the youth group, other factors reinforced my involvement: church was where my friends were, where the cute boys were and where much of my social life took place.

Heading off to college meant that my parents no longer took me to church, and my social life was no longer headquartered there, but I still saw my attendance as a basic requirement of following Jesus. Where else could I grow in my faith and find spiritual community?

Over the next few years, however, something strange happened. I followed Jesus right out of church and into the streets, communing with homeless people over slices of pizza and hearing sermons in the words of the people who lived in the shelter on skid row where I served breakfast on Sunday mornings. Jesus showed up in all sorts of unlikely, unofficial places.

I realized that church was not a place to go because everyone had their act together. It was more like a refuge where all sorts of people could gather to remind each other of the story we are all in.

I continued to journey alongside other Christians, but I no longer understood the importance of attending church. It occurred to me that perhaps what was more important than how often I showed up for a Sunday service was how often I showed up for people who were in need: quietly listening, crying with them, sharing my food and time and space and joining my voice with theirs to demand justice.

The more I learned about poverty and systemic injustice, the more frustrated I became with churches whose weekly programming is disconnected from the world beyond their sanctuaries. I was tired of prayer without action; simplistic spiritual formulas without any mention of the Gospel Jesus preached: good news for the poor, freedom for the captives, sight for the blind. I lost hope that most of the Church would ever get its act together enough to closely resemble Jesus.

But then another strange thing happened. I kept following Jesus, and eventually, He led me right back into church. I was surprised. There were plenty of people there working toward justice, but I realized that church was not a place to go because everyone had their act together and was doing things right.

It was more like a refuge where all sorts of people could gather to remind each other of the story we were all in—the one about how God loves us, and is renewing our world and our souls in spite of all the damage that’s been done. It was more like a school for conversion where we were all stumbling through basic lessons on how to love.

We sang about this love and this mission to be part of it; we sang about our brokenness and our hope. We looked each other in the eye. We confessed our sins. We shared bread and juice and remembered that we are all tied together in this dysfunctional family that God has cobbled together.

I’ve slowly learned that going to church can be about something other than moral requirement, fear of punishment or even social connection.

It wasn’t perfect—sometimes I felt frustrated, bored or hurt—but it was good, and God was in it. Yes, church people could be apathetic, judgmental and selfish, but so could I. And just like everyone else, I needed to be welcomed and loved anyway.

Then one day, an older church lady put my husband and me in charge of finding people to serve communion each week. We were still “the new couple,” so I’m pretty sure she was just trying to rope us into consistent, punctual attendance—and her plan has absolutely worked.

Now that we’ve shouldered even just this tiny bit of responsibility, we recognize how many people have to show up consistently to create the prayerful, welcoming, worshipful space we experience each week. If everyone involved in leading music, running sound, teaching kids’ classes and preaching sermons only showed up on the days when they didn’t feel stressed, busy, tired, bored, sad, frustrated or enticed outside by beach weather, we wouldn’t have much of a church at all.

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So I’ve slowly learned that going to church can be about something other than moral requirement, fear of punishment, social connection, getting spiritually fed, or even looking for likeminded people with whom to pursue justice in the world. Going to church can be about holding this space in which to experience the grace of God together, learn together, fail and forgive and stumble forward together.

I’ve benefitted from the sacrificial commitment and consistency of countless people who have welcomed me into community over the years, and now I recognize the invitation for me to do the same thing for others: to hold that space even on days when I don’t seem to personally benefit from it. When the songs don’t do anything for me, when I don’t want to talk with people about the difficult week I’ve had, or when I’d rather sleep in instead—it is then that I am invited to go to church anyway.

Not because God or anyone else is judging me by my attendance, but because it is a chance for me to be church to the people who are sharing this journey with me. It is an opportunity to hold space for others to encounter God, and to open space in myself to encounter, even when I least expect it, God in the midst of the people who are my church.

Top Comments

Carlos Rodriguez

82

Carlos Rodriguez commented…

The church has earned the right to be hated, but Jesus is still crazy about her. And saying to Jesus, “I hate the church” is like telling my wife that she is fat and ugly. I might be “right” according to my very “wrong” standards of beauty and vanity. But I am obviously terribly wrong - http://www.happysonship.com/when-you-love-god-but-hate-church/

Jackie Elkins

1

15 Comments

Ben

7

Ben commented…

I personally don't enjoy going to church. For me it's a chance to see how much my life isn't put together - like everyone else's is or they're pretending it is. I have a friend who said church is basically about serving (like you say in your article). I think there are two sides to this coin... people are extremely harsh on churches, and churches are extremely harsh on their people. To me it reminds me of the walk between holiness and being a pharisee. One does not have to become a pharisee to pursue holiness. It's all about judging others and how we relate with them.

I like your point about consistency. People who chase after experiences and don't stick around... people who can't commit and be involved... that's why people leave -- no one's committed to them. We treat our service to others like going to church - go and do to get that off the list. It's not real. Jesus commands us to love each other with sincere love. Love may be a feeling and love may be a choice. How do we make ourselves love sincerely? I believe that comes from loving God and letting him love on you back (or whichever way comes first).

Jackie Elkins

1

James Thomson

8

James Thomson commented…

Wonderful article Trudy thank you.

Kassi

1

Kassi commented…

The church scene is not for everyone. If you don't feel the need to attend, and aren't fulfilled from it, then don't. A lot of introverts aren't happy in large groups of people, and they don't have to be.

Adrienne B.

10

Adrienne B. commented…

Well I've been skipping church lately. Talking myself right out of it when I wake up on Sunday mornings. And then I remember "do not forsake the gathering of the brethren" because "iron sharpens iron" it's true...I can see how easily you can get out of the habit of going and before you know it years can go by. I miss that excitement I used to get where I loved church so much because I was being fed for the first time (grew up Catholic) because I was newly saved...Not sure if the answer is to find a new church or stick it out with the old one.

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