As I think I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, we have left the tiny, struggling church we’ve attended for more than a decade and are now looking for a new church home, a process my husband and I do not enjoy. We have chosen a church we plan to attend for a few weeks and see if it is a good fit for us, especially for Jasper.
This forces me to face certain truths I have been avoiding for some time, one of which is that I’m not going to find a church where I feel “at home,” soon or ever. The only way to achieve that is to change my definition of “home,” because the kind of church I’d love to attend does not exist in our community.
What kind of church am I talking about? I’m talking about a church that still believes in the participation model for congregational singing, led by a song leader instead of a worship band, using hymnbooks with all the musical notes in them, and accompanied by an organ and piano, and maybe augmented by the voices of a choir singing in four-part harmony.
The truth, I know, is that if I were to find a church like that, it would almost certainly be populated exclusively by people even older than me, and be waiting for enough of them to die off to justify closing down. (I know there are exceptions in other parts of the country, but I haven’t learned of any around here.)
But the point of this essay is not to decry the death of real congregational singing or the ubiquity of performance-based worship bands. This transition has already occurred, so there is no point in my searching for something I know I won’t find, and which is not even one of the essential elements of a “good” church.
So what else do I want from a church? I’ve had to think long and hard about the difference between my preferences and what is actually important. Obviously (I hope) I want to be in a place where the word of God is preached in a way that helps mature me as a Christian and deepens my understanding of God and His word. I want to be able to go home with something to think about and mull over and apply to my life.
I would love to see a congregation with a wide range of ages and ethnic backgrounds, with a vibrant community and a passion for reaching out to their neighbors, both locally and globally. A congregation where people volunteer willingly for kids’ ministries because they love kids, not because they feel obligated or pressured. A congregation where people form deep friendships and hang out with each other during the week as well as on Sundays. (This is an especially longed-for feature for me, after going for so long to a church where I never felt accepted and never formed a close friendship.)
Some of these characteristics are more likely to be found at large, mainstream evangelical denominational churches, yet I resist that choice because I don’t want my identity to belong to a denomination, especially if it’s one that believes its particular brand of Christianity is the only “true” one and that everyone else is hell bound. Or that its missionaries are the only ones who preach the true Gospel and all other sincere people sacrificing to minister in the same area are irrelevant. Most mainstream evangelicals hold to the same core beliefs, and I don’t understand why they won’t acknowledge this and can’t seem to appreciate each other’s efforts.
I’ve come to realize this is another loss experience for me. We all experience various losses throughout our lives. The really big one for me was losing Africa, having to face the reality that I am unlikely to ever live there again, which was all I wanted from my adult life. The grief has lessened, but it has never gone away—nor do I expect it to. The churches of my youth, the vibrant congregations with their sublime traditional music that I would love to find—they are even more unreachable than Africa is, and rather than exhaust myself searching for something that doesn’t exist, I mourn their passing and look for something different.
By “different” I do not mean “inferior” in any way. Last week, we went to Spencer’s church and I saw a vibrant, enthusiastic congregation with a real passion for reaching the community. There is nothing inferior about a church like that, even if it is not an environment where I feel at “home.” It is a wonderful example of a living body of Christ and I am so glad Spencer is a part of it.
This week we went, as I said, to a church we are going to try out for a while. We know quite a few people there, if not many of the songs. It has some wonderful qualities. I don’t know if we’ll ultimately choose to stay, but I do know that regardless of where we end up, I’m going to have to set aside my grief and my longing for a vanished reality, and learn how to embrace something that is real and powerful and vital, even if it’s not what I’m used to.