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On not going to church
Let's face it: it's easy to stay home on a Sunday morning.
I’ve been on sabbatical for almost nine weeks. Over those weeks, I have been to worship a total of four times: twice as a spectator in other churches on Sunday mornings, once leading worship in another church that needed pulpit supply, and once (really, several times over the course of a week) at the United Church of Christ’s General Synod.
And one of the things that I’ve noticed is how easy it is to not go to church. So let’s talk about that: let’s talk about the barriers to going to church, even when you’re a pastor.
The first barrier is the simplest: sleeping in is easier than getting out of bed.
I’ve never been a morning person. Getting out of bed is a chore on most days, and is just that much harder at seven o’clock on a Sunday morning.And that’s while I’m on sabbatical. I don’t even have to be anywhere on most days, and I can imagine how much harder it would be to give up a few hours of extra sleep or time with the family or peace and quiet if it was one of the few days that I could enjoy those things.
The simple fact is that it’s easier to do the things that you already do, and, even before the pandemic, most people weren’t going to church every week. Attendance at worship was a soft sort of habit; while there were some people who would show up every week—or even more often!—it was a once every couple of weeks kind of thing for most folks.
Since my congregation reconvened for in-person worship, I’ve noticed that the pandemic pause caused most people to drop one level in attendance. A lot of weekly people moved to every couple of weeks, a lot of every couple of weeks people moved to every six weeks or so, and so on. The habit was broken. Some people let go of it entirely. Even people who tried to hold onto it lightened their grip.
And that all makes sense, especially in a social environment where religion is perceived as less and less important every year and by every generation. And I’m a little bit sympathetic to it. But I also want to acknowledge that—even from a secular perspective—giving up that communal work on Sunday morning comes with a cost. And if we can make sure to invest our time in Duolingo every day, or in our yoga practice every other day, or our favorite television show once a week, surely we can invest in our spiritual health on a regular basis.
The second barrier is more complicated: many people—even pastors—have histories with the church; and those histories aren’t always good.
As I wrote earlier, I’ve been to worship a few times during my sabbatical. The first time was to a church that I already wanted to try out. The second time was to a church where I was leading worship when they were in need of pulpit supply. The third was at an official meeting of the denomination. And so, in a sense, those were all chosen for me: they were prepackaged and ready to go.
It wasn’t until last week that going to church meant looking for a church. And that was hard.
Googling churches in my community handed me a list of churches that I vaguely knew. But, as soon as I looked at their website, I knew exactly who they were. I could tell from the name of the church and the hero image on the website. They were conservative evangelical crypto-charismatic megachurches—or aspiring megachurches—with a contemporary worship style. They were churches that I knew from experience would welcome me right up to the moment when they found out that I am queer-affirming and universalist and progressive and more.
And that’s not fair, because despite the images and language on those church websites, those churches and the people who are part of them might surprise me. But because of real actual lived experiences that I have had, I—a Christian and a pastor—reflexively recoil from that imagery and that language. I strive to follow Jesus and I long for God’s reign of love; I am uninterested in Bible-believing kingdom people who are working to make disciples.
And, again, I am a Christian and a pastor. I can’t imagine what it would be like if I had all of the spiritual abuse with none of the grace.
The third barrier is that strange churches—even when you can be confident that they aren’t going to be downright dangerous—are hard.
I settled for a congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America last week. I know who they are. There are roughly a million of them in my area. And, unlike the congregations of my own United Church of Christ, I can find one where I don’t know the pastor.
I went to the traditional service. Some of it was familiar. Some of it was not. And I was a little lost, even though I knew some of the outline and even though I could follow the lead of the strangers around me.
And I’ll admit that there are a lot of places that—even if they think of themselves as wonderfully welcoming to new people—just kind of leave it up to new people to figure out what is going on. In fact, I suspect that anyplace that is used to having regulars is a little bit like that: the gym is hard if you’ve never been to the gym, the theme restaurant in hard if you’ve never been to the theme restaurant, and so on.
But let’s own that churches are especially hard. Even those of us who think that we’re brilliant at making space for new people rely on those people to figure things out and go with the flow. And that is more complicated than most of us who are regulars think that it is. And that is true whether we are liturgical or contemporary, high church or low church, or whatever.
Maybe these are the reasons that this image has been floating around on my socials lately. Of course, I can’t find it now, but it’s about how basically no one tries out a church because the website is great or the pastor talks to them or there’s a good advertisement. People try out a church because a friend invites them.
Let me say that again: people try out a church because a friend invites them.
Because you trust your friends. And your friend is only going to invite you to a church that they think you’ll like. And your friend will be there to guide you through the weirdness of doing a new thing. And you’ll hang out with your friend even if it means getting up early on a Sunday morning.
A friend makes it easier to do the non-easy thing.
I sometimes joke that if I had a time machine, I would go and find the women on the way to the tomb and let them know that two in the afternoon would be a perfectly fine time to head to the garden.
Of course, I would argue that religion is, in fact, important to everybody all the time. It’s just that we starting calling some things ‘religion’ and sequestered them off while adopting other religions that we don’t name that way. In other words, a lot of us practice the religions of consumerism or patriotism or some other ism. Similarly, we managed to convince ourselves that spiritual health—that spirit itself—isn’t a thing, all while handing bits of ourselves over to the marketplace, or a political party, or whatever. There are reasons that we are lonelier, more depressed, more anxious, and so on than we used to be. And I am convinced that one of those reasons—not the only reason, but one of them—is that we’ve ignored our spiritual health and the ancient wisdom that taught us to maintain it.
The other side of that, admittedly, is that it’s hard to make things easier to new people when there are rarely any new people. As a pastor, it’s weird to explain how we do communion to a room full of people who have been doing this thing in this way for longer than I have been here.