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…