Is life like hell without faith?
My wife, Amy, and I have been in Pueblo for nearly three years, trying to grow a new church. Had we known how hard it would be, we might have opted for an existing ministry. Starting a new church is one of the most emotionally volatile experiences we can imagine.
It’s easy to get hung up on the number of people who show up on any given Sunday. It’s hard not to take it personally when someone says they will come, and then they don’t. That, or they come once every few months and consider themselves regulars. Both of these scenarios happen all of the time.
We’ve heard nearly every excuse for not coming to church that could be imagined, to the point that we don’t hear them anymore. We believe we have something to share that’s worth people’s time, but we can’t make them do anything.
Some people said they really wanted to come, but that meeting in our home where we originally began was too intimate for them. When we moved to the college they still didn’t come. Some who felt the CSU-Pueblo campus was too far away hedged. We’re now located on the southwest side of town, and they still don’t come. Dozens of people said they’d come if we had services in the morning, so last week we had our first morning worship. None of the new people came.
Why should they, after all?
There’s a growing perception that faith can happen in a vacuum, that we don’t need community to nurture our connection with God. As Amy said in a recent sermon, many people find their spiritual nourishment on a mountaintop, in a book or by the ocean. While these things are useful and perhaps even inspiring, when you need an ear to listen or a shoulder to lean on, a book is no consolation.
No matter how much you love the divine creation of the outdoors, a mountain just can’t love you back.
Author Anne Lamott concedes that she makes her 14-year-old son go to church. She says it’s one of the only places she knows of where he can see people loving God back.
We learn about our spiritual ancestry by learning from the wisdom of others. We understand compassion and humility by seeing it modeled. We can’t learn the value of a community of faith if we’re so isolated that we never take the risk of sharing what we believe.
Church can really suck. I’ve been hurt by church, as have many people, but this is no excuse for walking away. We don’t abandon our families simply because we have hard times, do we? Do we quit our job every time we experience conflict? Maybe some people do both of these, but it’s a sign of one’s character to see how they respond to hardship. Do you withdraw, or do you allow yourself to be vulnerable?
No one has to go to church, though some churches are based upon the very opposite precept. Somehow they have a corner on salvation, and without them, you’re outside the circle. Lamott’s response: Religion is for people who are afraid of going to hell, and faith is for people who have been there.
Fear is a terrible reason to go to church. As Lamott says, we’ve all been through hell, in one form or another. Still, we feel like we shouldn’t burden other people with our problems. In an increasingly do-it-yourself society, a communal approach to healing is hard to comprehend, let alone embrace. It’s risky, scary and will demand more from us than sitting on our butts, thinking up reasons not to go.
Church isn’t about getting a weekly dose of religion. It’s about realizing faith by living it together. You’ve been through enough. It’s time to stop thinking of reasons why you don’t deserve to be loved, for God’s sake.