I’m just going to say it…I hate schmoozing. I really dread it. A room brimming and buzzing with unknown people is the first sign of a great big adventure for many, but for me, it’s just limitless potential for awkward and surface-level conversation. It’s certainly not as unpleasant to me as the thought of treading water in the middle of the vast ocean with hundreds or thousands of feet of dark water surrounding me and God only knows what populating the space below. But for me, nearly every anticipation of a stranger-filled mingle produces an inner grimace and groan. I can fake clever, witty and comfortable and I might even appear to be enjoying myself (and maybe…for a second here and there I am), but just below my convincingly confident and chatty exterior there’s angst.
With all my years in church, I’ve come to understand that it’s not “Christian” to dread the “turn and greet your neighbor” time of a church service, but if I’m going to be honest, it’s a struggle for me, especially in a new church where I know basically no one. I know I can’t be the only one who’s uncomfortable. One of my major issues is that receiving and conveying genuine care and interest within the boundaries of a few meager minutes feels so unattainable for me. There are a handful of ways I’ve noticed people trying to escape the compulsory greeting. Some people slip out sneakily from the sanctuary to avoid it all together. And then there are the congregants who plop busily into their seats to nose around in their belongings as if to queue others to find someone else to connect with. And I really don’t think I’m imagining that stiff, hesitant side-turn of my neighbor. I see it play out, over and over again around the sanctuary. I truly don’t blame any of these people, I’ve been guilty of all the avoidance techniques and likely the clumsiness too.
With all this admission of my stranger stress, I absolutely don’t mean to say that I don’t desire, need and greatly value friendship. It’s very much the opposite! I don’t do life well without a deep sense of belonging and connectedness. I long to feel wanted by my friends and my constant desire is that I would fill a “Kristin-sized” hole in each of my friends lives and they in turn would come to fill a unique void seemly created just for them. But getting from the place of spotting a potential fray-nd to arriving at the intersection of comfortable and vulnerable can feel like a tremendous journey.
So…the reason I’m coming out of my reclusive closet (of sorts) is because I’ve been challenged to look at my introverted and “lone-ranger” tendencies. A common thread has been running through the conversations I’ve been having and it has woven its way into my thoughts. What (might you ask) is this mighty inspiration? It’s the concept of community.
In our modern, bustling society we don’t do community anymore, at least not in the way it was intended to impact us. We used to live side by side and raise children together. We used to plow our fields and harvest crops together. We used to do life and share life together, side by side and shoulder to shoulder. Now we’re all so spread out and spread thin, that finding a place to fit relationships can be challenging, and even when we find the time, others may not have room for it. Life can leave us feeling isolated even while being surrounded by masses of people. And then there are those who literally avoid human interaction all together. It wasn’t more than a couple of weeks ago that I nearly lost my mind on an unsuspecting shopper. In this person’s defense, my frustration with feeling ignored by fellow shoppers and treated as part of the aisle had approached its boiling point in me. As I, and this other shopper approached each other coming from opposite directions of an aisle, we twice nearly chose the same path but without ever looking up from her cell phone, this shopper adjusted her path…and never once looked at me even though we nearly smashed into each other. I was shocked by the lack of human interest and even though I didn’t have any connection with this individual apart from our near collision, the whole experience made me feel very sad and alone.
I really believe that sharing our lives with others is a large portion of what we were designed for. We weren’t meant to be alone (Gen. 2:18). I’m not my best ‘me’ in isolation. I think we were all made to be enhanced by the companionship of others. My healthiest seasons and greatest moments of revelation have sprung from a deep sense of connection with others.
So maybe the greeting time at church is a puny attempt at connecting people, and maybe for me it very sadly misses the mark, but I believe that the heart of the issue and the reason for the attempt is valuable. We all need community.
With the intensity of our church search beginning to wind down, one particular question with a whole bunch of tentacle filled arms has been whirling all over my mind. Honestly, I’ve been subtly aware of it nudging at me for the past few years, but over the course of the last few months, it’s taken on the appearance of a flashing neon sign; demanding my attention.
So, the colossal unsettling question is: (Deep breath) How much of “church” is really God?
I can’t even read that question out loud without running through it at chipmunk speed and then nervously sliding low into my seat. I’ve been a part of communities that might consider this sort of thought rebellious territory and giving it permission to leave my lips or pen/keyboard might be labeled as un-submitted. But for some reason it’s like a car wreck in my mind that I just can’t look away from. Because as scary as the question is, I think it’s one we all should be asking as we stroll through the doors of our churches and slide into the pews (even though they’re not really pews anymore…OK, some of them are).
About a week ago, I was reminded of a story from the book of Exodus in the Bible. In this story, the Israelites are wandering in the desert when God says to Moses that he’s going to give HIS people their Promised Land; everything they’ve pleading for, but that HE himself wouldn’t be going with them. Moses’ response is this:
“And Moses said to the Lord, If Your Presence does not go with me, do not carry us up from here! ...Is it not in Your going with us so that we are distinguished, I and Your people, from all the other people upon the face of the earth?” Exodus 33:15-16
What an incredible reply!! Every time I read these verses I feel something inside of me shift and align with the proclamation of these beautiful, pristinely pure words. Every part of me wants to shout out, “YESSSSS, me too!!” I could just fall on my face weeping with how deeply I want these verses to mark my life! But how many times have I been willing to forfeit HIS presence for that “thing”. How many times have I longed for value and respect and influence and joy or love, only to find myself wandering away from the one who gives it definition?? Truthfully…far more times than I wish to admit.
And I wonder how many times we’ve done this with church; where the pursuit of our visions have walked us right out of the presence of the Almighty God and into our own self-constructed promised lands. I wonder how many of our ministries have been authorized by God but are entirely void of him? I don’t want to get so far down the road of chasing my dreams, even my “God-dreams”, that I haven’t stopped to notice that I’m alone.
What would church look like if we allowed God to pick and choose all the elements of the service and also gave him permission to scrap the rest?? I’m not sure that I have the answer to that question. But I hope I don’t ever stop asking.
Yes, we’re still looking for the right church for our family. Seven months in and the hunt continues. It’s been arduous and discouraging at times, but it hasn’t been all negative. A great deal of it has been quite wonderful. We’ve met lovely people spanning the entire spectrum of Christianity. Some of them worshiped with their arms pined to their sides and others were very expressive. Side note: one thing I adore is seeing someone, full throttle - all out worshiping at the top of their lungs, singing... completely off tune. In my heart of hearts I feel that it’s so endearing and beautiful to see that degree of honesty and freedom in a person. I know God thinks it’s beautiful! Here is where my husband would likely point out that although I love worshiping with that person, I struggle with singing directly next to them because I can't carry a tune either when I'm surrounded by multiple tones. But what I love about church is that it's a place where people of all ages, nations and walks of life can come together, exuberant or withdrawn, and encounter something amazing.
I grew up in church so I’ve always had a context for the things I experienced. Church was embedded in my family culture; immediate family and distant. This season of being a “visitor” has allowed me the benefit of a number of awakenings of sorts. It has opened my eyes to how unique (dare I say strange) the whole church experience can be, especially for a newcomer. I think that not feeling at home in a church is affecting my sense of context. I believe that church commitment is comparable to relationships in that we tend to let down our guards, do less questioning and more accepting and eventually maybe some excusing as we commit ourselves fully. Similar to the classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life”, I get the sense that I’ve been given a glimpse of sorts: church from an outsider’s perspective. I’m finding myself questioning all the little nuances and rituals we Christians have created that have come to make up the church experience.
To pass the offering basket or not…that is the question. I loosely quote Shakespeare to bring some lightness, but to be honest; it’s one of the ship-load of questions I’ve been mulling over throughout our hunt for our next church home. Suddenly I find myself wondering why we do this. Since the dawn of church, has money always been requested or did giving have a different catalyst?
Throughout the last half year, I’ve visited churches passing the offering baskets a hundred different ways. (Ok, not literally a hundred, maybe more like a handful.) Some request an offering nearly under the radar and others have pastors who preach mini messages in preparation for giving. I even visited a church where 2 offerings were elicited back to back, both intended for the needs of that church. Many times churches encourage visitors not to feel any obligation, but even when I'm not the visitor, the word “obligation” is kind of an icky word for me. Obligation seems to rob me of a bit of the pleasure or joy I find in giving.
Then there's the mini pre-offering sermon or extra long sermon-prayer. Usually this consists of being reminded that 1. God loves a cheerful giver, 2. my gift in faith is sewing into something totally unrelated in my own life and 3. that giving equals increased personal financial blessing. I can't help but wonder if the presentation of the request is manipulating me to give. Church theology, in these moments, seems to take a hard left away from the Gospel message of “done” to “do for God and he will do for you.” As a person who's always struggled with forgiving myself for my wrongs, I sincerely appreciate the common sense of that system, but I’ve never found freedom there. My deepest moments of liberty have come from the revelation that God gave everything for me and there’s nothing that "doing" will get me.
I absolutely don’t believe that the bulk of churches intend to manipulate their congregants into giving. Needs are real and God wants us to be givers. How can needs be met if needs aren’t known, right?? Is asking wrong? I don't think so, but I can’t help but wonder what would happen if the offering portion of church was taken off the menu. If churches stopped prompting their congregants to give would the giving cease?? Without a prompt, would the giver fade away? Does God need us to communicate our needs in order to meet them? Would God speak to me or us and stir our hearts to financially support ministries in the absence of an official request? It’s a heavy and scary question, for me included. Yet with all this wondering, I’m finding myself fantasizing about a church with no financial ask; not because I don’t want to give, but because I’d love to see what God would do in that kind of place. What degree of freedom might flow from an inner prompting rather than an outer one?
Writer and fellow traveler on the road of life.