You know what I realized last Sunday? I’m bad at church.
Not all of it. I’m pretty good at the singing part, the greeting those sitting next to me part and the passing the offering plate part. I’m not always the best at paying attention to the sermon, but I do alright with the Lord’s Prayer and I can take communion with the best of them. So yes, I suppose there are aspects of church that I am adequate at—but none of those are what church is really about. Those are activities that take place at church. They are not the purpose of church.
The purpose of church, as we read in Acts 2:44-47, is for Christians to live in fellowship with one another. It’s not so much a place as it is a spirit wherein individual believers are joined together as the “body of Christ.” This is the part of church I’m bad it.
For the past three years, I’ve been a “serial visitor” at a handful of churches around Southern California. Rare is the Sunday morning when I’m not at church. Rarer still is the Sunday afternoon to Saturday evening when I’m making any effort to involve myself in the life of that church. I go, I sing, I listen, I pray and then I go home for 166.5 hours until the next week when I do it all over again.
My failure to invest in a church can be blamed in part on the fact that I’ve moved four times in the past two years. It’s hard to form lasting relationships when you can’t hold still for more than six months. So that’s one contributing factor, but I’ve got a better scapegoat than that: my parents. That’s right, in the proud tradition of many other troubled members of my generation, I’m going to lay the responsibility for my problems on the shoulders of dear old mom and dad. But mostly dad.
My dad is a pastor, and, as the son of a pastor, church was a constant presence in the first two decades of my life. If the doors were open, we were there, arriving earlier and leaving later than everyone else. If we weren’t there, we were talking about being there. Church came first; life outside the sanctuary was scheduled as time allowed. Now before you go writing this off as another “my parents burned me out on church and I need a break for a couple years” tale of woe, let me assure you: it is not.
The problem with having a preacher for a dad is not how often church is, it’s how easy church is. When your dad is the pastor you are at the center of your church’s community and you don’t have to lift a finger to stay there. Everyone knows you, everyone loves you. From the sweet old ladies in the nursery, to the little kids in the nativity play, everyone wants to talk to you; everyone wants to know how they can be praying for you. Case in point: when I was in college, my dad moved to a church in Washington state. Since I live nowhere near Washington state, I’ve only been to his new church a handful of times. I know a few names and recognize a few faces, but the number of people I know is insignificant when compared to the people who know me. It seems like everyone in his congregation knows my name, knows where I went to college, knows where I’m currently living and would love nothing more than to talk to me for 30 minutes about my life.
Congregations love their pastors and want to bless them in any way they can. The pastor’s children are extensions of him, and they benefit, by association, from his congregation’s warmth. But this is not the way the world works. When I visit a new church, I do so as a blank slate. The greeters at the door don’t know me from Adam. The people sitting next to me don’t know my dad from Dwight Moody. If I want to get to know them, I’ll have to do something I’m not used to doing at church. I’ll have to make an effort.
This may seem a small step to take, but, after spending 20 years on the receiving end of other people’s efforts, it sounds exhausting. The bustling, post-service lobby of a church can be an intimidating place when you don’t know a soul and don’t have a last name in which to root your Sunday morning identity. This is why I’ve spent the past three years silently scoping out donut tables and heading for the door.
I made excuses for years about why I wasn’t ready to join a small group or how I would go to the new member luncheon next month, but there was really only one thing holding me back: laziness. I knew that if I began developing relationships with others in my church, I might actually like them. And if I liked them, I might want to get more involved. And if I got more involved, I might not have as many free evenings to sit at home and watch Family Guy reruns. I wasn’t ready to give that up, and what I got instead was a church experience that felt like a Cinnabon—fun while it lasted, but I always ended up wondering why I’d even bothered.
That’s been my church for the past three years, and I’m tired of it. I’m tired of making excuses and ready to start making an effort. So I’m not the pastor’s kid anymore. So what? That didn’t stop me from making friends at school, or at work or in any other facet of my life. Why should it stop me at church?
Maybe you’re not a PK. Maybe you have other excuses that work for you. Whatever the case, if you find yourself doing the same “serial visiting” I’ve been doing, start looking today for ways to increase your involvement with a church community. Church without community is no church at all.
Kent Woodyard is a freelance writer living in Southern California. He is a founding editor of http://thetalkingmirror.com/.