Last month, Natalie and I came home from a day at our respective workplaces and we’d each been asked the same question, “Where do you guys go to church?” I’ve asked it of others many times. Depending on their answer, you make assumptions. There should be no shame or harm in asking it of Christians. But our awkward answer is, ‘Nowhere, at the moment.” And as we reflected on the coincidental questioning, we both couldn’t help go through the reasons and options before us… again.
We live in a part of the world where lockdowns have eased and attending a service on Sunday is open and easy. We don’t have logistical reasons for going nowhere. There are about ten church services we could attend within ten minutes drive from our home. We know people in most of those congregations. We don’t work Sundays. We have deep love and respect for many of the pastors of these congregations – some are friends. Yet, most Sundays we find ourselves anywhere but at a church service. Like many who find themselves unable to answer the opening question with ease, our reasons are complex.
As I list some of the reasons behind why we don’t attend a local church, I have to acknowledge that part of me is still living with a combination of guilt and shame because we don’t take our family somewhere on the weekend. My kids don’t attend a youth group. We don’t attend a small group of sorts. We don’t give or tithe to a church. Yes, I still advocate for the support of pastoral workers (and their families) whose wellbeing lays heavy on my heart. But as a guy who served on stage two services-per-Sunday for decades plus spent nearly 7 years travelling to help churches, it has taken me a couple of years to shake off the habit and feeling that I ‘need to’ or ‘should be’ attending somewhere on the weekend. But I just can’t…
If you know my background, you’ll know the life Natalie and I poured into The Church, both voluntarily and in career/jobs. It has shaped me. From the little AOG Church on Bribie Island QLD where I came to learn about Jesus in my teens, a missions stint in Tokyo in my twenties, through to deep involvement in inner healing and pastor-support in my thirties, my life has been anything but dull or uncommitted. As much as I gave, I have also been a receiver of much… and still am. But now, in my early 40s, my relationship with the church looks different. At this point of life, I face unique challenges. By no means have I written-off the value of attending and being involved in a local church. Nat and I often talk about getting back to it later in life. But I’d like to share with you some of the reasons we don’t attend a church anymore.
Before I list my reasons, I am aware that there are some who have come to a place in their life where they are done with church altogether. They may or may not still hold a level of faith in Christ. They may have been hurt by a church and absolutely hate it. I get that. I really do. But that is not us. Yes, I am still recovering from a degree of C-PTSD as a result of the work I was involved in and exposed too. But I don’t hate The Church, nor am I done with it. I list these reasons knowing that very few people will relate to all of them, but you or someone you know may resonate with a few of them and I want you to know that you’re not alone. Let’s face it, recent events and restrictions have disrupted the reasons and habits of gathering on Sundays. Lots of people are wrestling in their relationship with The Church.
KIDS AND NERVOUS SYSTEMS
We have three children. 17,13,11. Two of them live with diagnosed sensory conditions. All of them spent years of their childhood in church. They also spent years of their childhood with their dad travelling to distant churches half of the year. They simply don’t want to go anymore. We don’t want to go without them. And we don’t want to force them. We pray with them. We talk about being Christ followers but getting them in a car on Sunday morning and taking them to a church service now is just too stressful for us all. (I clearly remember the last time we attempted it involved lots of bribing and swearing.) We don’t want their memory of church to be negative or traumatic. So we have learnt to let it go for a season. If you or someone you are sensory diverse, whether HSP, ADHD, HSP or otherwise, you’ll know that many modern church services are overwhelming. The lights, sounds, music, crowd, preaching, cheering etc are a LOT to take in. As a highly sensitive person (HSP – it’s a nervous system trait), having not attended regular services for a few years now, I have come to realise how much overwhelm and stress I held in my body on Sundays. I was never able to sit through a sermon without going to the toilet to pee. I could never relax. I would always come home and need a nap because my nervous system was shot. As I’ve aged, my ability to push through, coax the kids and ‘just turn up’ has wained. Nat is the same. Sundays have become true Sabbaths for us; Restful, restorative, reflective. Maybe you can relate.
I’ve always had an interest in theology. I know many Christians don’t nerd out on it like I do, but my curiosity finds itself at home in the research, books and podcasts that dig deeper into scriptures and history than Sunday sermons or pop-preaching allow. I’ve always tended to shy away from anything mainstream – preferring to read and ask questions at the fringes and origins of things. The core tenants of my faith don’t differ from most but, at the moment, I do hold differing and suspended views on topics of eternity, atonement, salvation, sexuality, gender roles, spirituality and end-times that many protestants do (incl. evangelical / pentecostals ). Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy to hold space for a variety of sermons and views but if I’m honest, I don’t know if I could actively commit and invest in a local church family where sermons, prayers and actions are based on the same theological views I once held and lived by. Is that pride or rigidity in me? Perhaps. I hope not. I can see the importance and appeal of many of the theological views I once held too. But I’m not the kind to attend church, only to be untangling the sermon from myself and my family on the way home. Let’s face it, Sunday messages are not meaningful conversations. They are a monologues. I’m also at a stage of life where I can’t just turn up and participate with a large part of me silenced and shut down? I’m a pretty diplomatic guy but I made a decision a few years ago as I was travelling and preaching that if a church wasn’t prepared to hold a space for all of me, they wouldn’t have any of me. My invites decreased, but the sense of being true to myself skyrocketed. Still today, there are a small number of congregations I feel very much at home and honoured in (but none of them are local, unfortunately). In short, image-management and peace-keeping through silence requires more energy than I have right now. Maybe this is you too.
Natalie works as a social worker in a low socio-economic community. Everyday, she’s at the coal-face of service to the underprivileged and under-resourced. Like many social workers, she’s practically a community pastor (with fair pay and better training). By the weekend, she doesn’t want to be around needy people who find her after the service for advice. She doesn’t want to be serving another charity. She needs a break. We need to shop, clean the house, prep the kids for school etc. She’s had her faith and community fix at work, chats with friends and in our home.
I work at a Christian charity two days per week. I mainly work with Christians. I work as a chaplain and trainer of sorts. I attend/facilitate the workplace devotions most days. On other days I catch up with friends for coffee and chat. Most of them are Christians. I connect with pastors often. I run my Poetry Chapel group. I have plenty of fellowship. I know many people who don’t have work weeks like I do and Sunday is where they connect with other Christians and are encouraged in their faith. I’ve been there. It’s super important and I get the desire to be part of services and communities on the weekends. But that’s not us.
STAGE OF FAITH
I have been a follower of Christ for 25 years. I have no intention in stopping. I love God too much. I’m loved with an everlasting love. I’ve been in church leadership positions for decades. I founded a ministry. Managed others. Written books. Seen miracles. Travelled nations. I’m parenting young adults. I’ve been through bankruptcy and countless personal and familial challenges. God knows my heart and the long hellish roads we’ve journeyed through. As far as my faith goes, I’m not a kid anymore. Nor am I a teen. I hope, if there is anything I’ve achieved in my faith journey, it’s not accolades or attendance stickers – it’s maturity. And maturity comes to us over time, by God’s grace, on the narrow road of obedience, suffering and healing. Maturity even comes via deconstruction and reconstruction – AKA sanctification. If you knew our full story, you’d know we’ve helped countless others through their fair share of challenges too. One of the books that describes the stages of faith very well is called the Critical Journey. I’ve taught on their model quite/a bit. It’s given me the language and permission to be OK with where life finds us now. Maybe you’re OK too.
AGE & MATURITY
If I may, I’d like to add some final and developing thoughts regarding maturity and age. This may come back to bite me, but… withstanding reasonable excuses, if you have been in The Church for 20+ years, sat through thousands of sermons and taken your faith seriously, I personally think you should be able to successfully lead your own faith journey and have something significant to offer those in earlier stages on their faith and life journey (AKA discipleship). Is that often preached? Are people who’ve attended church for decades told to grow up and go out? Sadly, no. I tend to think many modern Western models of church prefer to retain attendees and want a return from their members in volunteer service and funding instead of doing the brave, hard, healing work of releasing them.
Let me put it another way:
* Healthy families invest in their children to release them into the world. Right?
* Profitable companies invest in their customers for a return. Right?
* Perhaps churches desiring to be apostolic should invest in their people to release them, not retain them (Eph 4). And maybe this should look more like a family than a company or empire. Yeah?
Church models interested in keeping people in immaturity and dependency trouble me. Don’t get me wrong, there are always dysfunctional sheep who like to push away personal responsibility and prefer to hand agency and authority over to willing and possibly narcissistic or codependent shepherds – but that’s not the point I’m trying to make. Here’s the thing: I meet so many smart, capable mature Christian men and women 35yrs+ who are waiting on some kind of permission, invitation, qualification or carved out ministry plan to start something of their own. Man, if my daughter, at 25 is still calling me to see if she is allowed to change jobs or date someone, I have failed as a parent! Does this resonate with anyone?
In summary, the reasons we don’t attend a local church are complicated. Some may think we are forsaking ‘the gathering together with others’ (Heb 10:25) – but that would imply we believe it’s unimportant. No way! If our daughter finds a church somewhere she wants to drive to and attend when she gets her license, we’ll support and encourage it. If our son wants to go to a good local youth group with a mate, we’ll gladly take him! But for us right now, it’s not as simple as clocking in at a Sunday service anymore. We’re capable, responsible, skilled adults who are in a season and stage of life where things look different than the ingrained or expected norm for many. Did it take me a few years to stop feeling guilty? Yep. Did I see a therapist about it. Yep. The inner tug that I should be attending a single church we feed and learn from was very real – particularly because the Pentecostal denomination I spent years in and was ordained by (ACC) holds service attendance in high regard. But right now we’re happy, healthy and at peace with where we are at. Perhaps, you are too.