"Wealth will increasingly be defined by our ability to go offline whenever we want." - Fernando Gros
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Blog // Travel
February 26, 2009

The Church Thing

Last week I mentioned that we are, at least in the short term, not attending church. Like a lot of people who find themselves in this situation, ours is not a conscious or active decision. We haven’t “lost our faith,” succumb to any major conflict, or radically changed our outlook on church life. In a […]

Last week I mentioned that we are, at least in the short term, not attending church. Like a lot of people who find themselves in this situation, ours is not a conscious or active decision. We haven’t “lost our faith,” succumb to any major conflict, or radically changed our outlook on church life.

In a way, it’s just, sort of, happened.

Before I explain the detail, let me flesh out some history. In the late 80s and very early 90s, I was working in finance. I wasn’t a high flier, but I mostly enjoyed that time (though in church circles there’s a lot of pressure to pretend to have been destined to be CEO while simultaneously being deeply dissatisfied with “corporate life – yawn). However, I felt a strong urge (what some Christians refer to as a “calling”), to leave that career for church work. So, I embarked on a season of training and education, during which I had opportunities to lecture and also to work in churches.

Then in late ‘98 we had the chance to leave Sydney for London. It felt like a win-win for both our our vocations. But, finding a church in London was an unexpected challenge.

See, in the mid 80s, when I started attending church regularly, I chose based on public communication and the people I knew there (good preaching, good worship, good friends – that sort of thing). However, when I left work for theological training I lost that choice – churches were pretty much appointments. Now, I was in London, I’d gone back from being a “company man” to a “free-agent.”

And, the reactions of the churches we visited freaked me out. Sometimes, I wasn’t even finished my introduction and the church leaders were planning how to “use me.” One pastor even offered me his pulpit for the next week!

Eventually we found a church with a wise minister whose networks intersected my own. While the focus of my time was really at King’s College – both as a researcher and chaplain, I was able to serve that church in small ways for a year or so, doing some preaching and consulting on their worship “design.”

But, that minister left. I preached quite a bit during the interim and, as often happens in “free-churches” a new minister brought difficult challenges and sharp changes of direction. We felt frozen out and moved to a local Anglican church. I was soon found a role (again preaching and “designing,” over-committed my time and then was not supported by the leadership.

No point beating around the bush – when I left London in 2003 I felt flat, burnt out and exploited.

So I made a decision: no more laying my cards on the table, no more looking for “opportunities,” no more networking. I would just be myself; father, husband, golfer, musician, academic, whatever. Let church people find out my story in their own time. The consequences were surprising and disorienting. I had forgotten how aloof and disinterested churches can be. Maybe church leaders are jaded, maybe there is just too much supply of eager volunteers ready to overcommit, maybe there really is something wrong with the system. I don’t know the answer, but I do know now that I choose a lonely road.

I haven’t lied or concealed, I’ve just tried not to sell. I haven’t turned down opportunities to serve or preach, play or teach. I just haven’t pressed my CV and background into every conversation.

In Delhi there weren’t a lot of choices when it came to English-language churches, so we stuck with one throughout our time there. Some seasons were better than others. We made friends, went regularly, but never felt like insiders. However, the big positive was the Sunday School, which gave L an opportunity to serve and C a warm and friendly environment to learn about the faith (and play!).

Here in Hong Kong there are more church options and it took us a while to settle on one. In the end, simple (semi-traditional) worship, missionary focus and a good kid’s Sunday School won out and we choose a church We were a bit unsure about the quality of the education/preaching and the overall friendliness. But, honestly, no church is perfect – right?

I’m not sure how long we attended, but in the end it was around two years, probably a little more. For most of that time we were regular, attending most Sundays when we were all in Hong Kong. But, it became increasingly hard to muster the energy to go. Or, maybe just harder to overcome the conflicted emotions we felt everytime we left a Sunday service.

Not surprisingly, I was the first to lose interest. The preaching felt rudderless and lightweight. Having been in that situation and having watched, up close as new ministers adapt, I’ve grown more lenient to what they can and can’t do early on in a role. But, things were not improving and it soon gets old when the Sunday lunch conversation is always the same “what was that about” game.

But the unfriendliness was the killer. I’ve written before about my struggle with churches where you are “welcomed” on a Sunday, then ignored by the same people during the week. I’ve got to be blunt – it makes me angry. Please don’t shake my hand on Sunday if you are going to avert your eyes from me on Monday. Please don’t invite me to your “homegroup” if you are not going to return my hello when we see each other at the cinema later that week. One day I might tell all the stories that come to mind here…

The final straw for me was a tough patch. L had been travelling a lot and everything was heavy (school, work, family, etc). I wasn’t struggling, but I was missing my friends, family and that sense of certainty I once had about my work and vocation. We had not been to church for three weeks and (as usual) no one had followed up to see where we were. Then, in the mail, we got a form letter asking for donations for a building project. Please!

That said, the real heartbreak is not what this experience has done to me, but what it has done to my family. L is genetically hardwired for church and she was the last to give up. C is a kid, but even she could sense how harsh the situation was. She used to love, straight out love Sunday School in India and wanted the same here. But, she was regularly noting that she had “no friends” at church and Sunday School was nothing more than sing a song, hear a story, do some colouring and go home.

So we are not going to church right now. Although we have freed ourselves from a depressing and life-sapping Sunday “ritual” it’s not a situation I like. We are still talking a lot about faith in our home. But, as parents, we can’t substitute for what a good Sunday School can provide a young kid in terms of safe fun, music and friends to share with. L misses the friendship that a good church experience can provide (though I’m not sure there are many churches in the whole world that are genuinely friendly to true career women). Personally, I have a hunger for worship and teaching that can’t be met books, blogs and podcasts.

For now, we will assume our defensive posture. We’ll keep trying to make friends here, devote time as a family to sharing our faith, encouraging each other and praying. Who knows, maybe this season will be good for us?

Maybe this is the future?

My feeling is that choosing a place to live (as a family) is an intersection of five things – work, school, recreation, culture and faith community. But our situation (and that of many ex-pats and really, many people generally), is that work decides – you follow the work and try to make everything else fit.

Right now some things fit better than others…

Responses
Mike Mahoney 14 years ago

Some might say this is the perfect time to start a house church. There must be like-minded people in Hong Kong. Certainly you have the background.

I would be one of those people who suggest it, but I also know well enough that that might not be where you head is. Fern, you certainly need no one else to validate your faith or relationship with God. But you could probably do a lot of good, for yourself and others, getting together, having a little worship and a little word.

Toni 14 years ago

Fern – I’m really sorry to hear how things have turned out, and astonished that people have treated you like that. We struggle with not being part of the right group, outside the in-crowd and a bit different to many, and we know how it can hurt. There was a time I used to ask myself “why do my friends outside the church treat me so much better than those within it?”. I find it almost unbelievable that people will ignore you in the street, except it’s happened to me on the odd occasion, although not so much in the last few years (memories of people who ‘didn’t see you there’ until you greeted them to the point they couldn’t pretend any more can be found tucked away in my head).

I dunno why, still, people will go to church, pretend something and then act otherwise. Maybe they can’t face having real contact with others sometimes – I know I’ve felt that way at times.

I’m also slightly afraid our new church could be like this, although I think we’re there to change the atmosphere and bring groups together, rather than sit on the outside and be ignored. We already seem to be gathering people around us, and I *hope* we can encourage them into being warm and welcoming to others, rather than closing the circle to outsiders. We are also afraid that we’ll end up with the hunger you describe for good teaching and freedom in worship. And I can’t ‘withhold’ my CV like you described – my real place as a musician is in worship, and that’s too much a part of me not to bring it up. Maybe there’s a balance you could find, between becoming a deputy pastor and an outsider?

I wish we could talk face-to-face about this. Writing is such a clumsy medium for such a discussion with my hands on the keyboard.

I hope the season is good to you. Maybe it IS time to think about developing a true house-church?

John Smulo 14 years ago

Thank you for posting your experience and journey up till now with church. I sighed through most of it because I can relate and also because I continue to have mixed feelings about all of this, perhaps especially with our kids.

Though I don’t largely have grown to dislike the Sunday church subculture thing, there is something in me that thinks what isn’t good for me is good for my children. Though I struggle even with those thoughts.

“Church” leaves me utterly empty at best, and angry and full of angst at worse. I’m hoping for something more, I just have no idea of how to get there.

Thanks again for posting on this.

roy donkin 14 years ago

Yours would be a very difficult position for me… but I certainly understand how you got there.

thoughts and prayers are raised for you, L, & C.

Jason 14 years ago

Hi Fernando,

I enjoy reading your blog and would like to suggest checking out IslandECC (islandecc.hk). We attend the 5pm service and would love to meet your family and do dinner afterwards (if interested). Regardless, I hope you all can find a church home soon.

Regards,

Jason Case

Fernando Gros 14 years ago

Mike, thanks for the encouragement. I really have mixed feelings about church planting and part of that stems back to having tried, twice, to propose a plant to a denominational authority. I would also have to change my mindset, since I’ve always viewed planting as justified only where there are not enough churches. HK actually has a lot of churches for its size (geographically).

But, I am trying to be open and creative and I welcome your words on this issue.

Fernando Gros 14 years ago

Toni, I’d love to meet up and have a chat sometime. I’ve been on the journey from the edge to the centre before, but this time it just didn’t feel like that was going to happen.

Fernando Gros 14 years ago

Hey John, agree. I still believe the structured/programmatic thing has it’s place for kids, especially younger kids. Well, up to a point. Education, even for younger kids is shifting quickly to a more inductive, learner centred and enquiry based approach. That puts a lot of emphasis on the teacher to tailor the curriculum and include the kids. However, it feels like churches are shifting more towards non-teacher dependent standardised/franchise resources – a great response for where education was heading 20 years ago.

Fernando Gros 14 years ago

Roy – thank you.

Fernando Gros 14 years ago

Hey Jason, thanks for the encouragement. An evening service doesn’t really work us, because of uber-early school starts during the week. But, we will consider the kind invite to check out Island!

Liam Byrnes 14 years ago

Fernando, Thanks for writing this, it has helped me make sense of many of my feelings since deciding not ‘ to put my CV out there ‘ about a year ago. Let me know when you get the answers to this stuff 😉
Warmly, Liam

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