Confessions of a Chronic Church Hopper

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Leslie Verner -Church Hopping3

Lately, evangelical Christianity has felt like too many dissonant musical notes strung together. I keep waiting for the resolution in the music. And I’m struggling to stay in the room.

***

As a ten-year-old, I knelt by my bed to “ask Jesus into my heart.” Another fifth-grade friend had told me the day before while we pumped our gangly legs on the blue swing set in the backyard that she hoped she’d see me in heaven. If I wanted to be sure to go there, I needed to pray and ask Jesus into my heart. “Do you want to do it right now?” she pleaded. Shaking my head, I told her I’d think about it. I did, and decided I would rather spend eternity in heaven than in hell. Easy-peasy.

In When We Were on Fire, Addie Zierman recounts her evangelical youth culture upbringing. I could have been reading my own memoir as I flew through the pages. To be a Christian teenager in the 90′s was WWJD, See You at the Pole, “dating Jesus,” Teen Mania, True Love Waits, going to the Christian concerts of Michael W. Smith, Steven Curtis Chapman, Newsboys, Petra and D.C. Talk. It was secret public school prayer meetings, youth group mission trips and camps, Christian T-shirts and worship to six kids strumming guitars in the public park.

It meant doing communion with chips and juice on a sidewalk behind the science building before school and slipping homemade gospel tracts into every student’s locker. And it was having your heart smashed by boys who said God told them to break up with you. But life was a battle and we were going to win (so we couldn’t be held back by petty things like love and romance.)

I sometimes miss those days when Holy Spirit fire flooded my veins. When I wanted to live “sold out and radical” for Jesus and “soar, soar, soar” for Him. I miss crying to worship songs and shouting out victory praise choruses, stretching my arms to the sky. I miss knowing without a doubt that God had a radical life planned for me.

The fire didn’t dissipate right away. Instead, after burning hot and wild, it sank to coals, glowing with a more steady heat. But the poker of Life couldn’t leave it alone. Jobs, relationships, disappointments, shame and questions jabbed, poked and prodded once steadily burning coals.

Over the years, I have often heard this illustration about church attendance: You need to stay in community; otherwise you will be like an ember taken out of the fire. Alone in the cold, your flame will eventually extinguish.

I fear that is happening to me now. I have become an expert church hopper. We visited 13 churches in the past two years after moving from Chicago to Colorado. We really have tried to make many of them work, jumping into small groups, church potlucks, newcomer’s luncheons and homeless outreaches. But after so many months, I am ready to admit that perhaps it is not the church that’s deficient. Maybe it’s me.

Last summer we attended the SimplyJesus gathering in Vail, Colorado. The conference was full of people wanting to change the world. It was a grown-up version of the youth culture that first ignited my love (emotions?) for God. But unlike those early days, this conference was made up of disillusioned Jesus people on the fringe of evangelical culture.

At SimplyJesus, we focused on the words and life of Jesus, measuring our life by his. It turned out there was a pretty wide disconnect.

At the time, I was hugely pregnant with my third child, married to a man who didn’t share my affinity for sensationalized spirituality, and living in a city most known for sculptors, retirees, and drive-through liquor stores. I had nothing to give, nothing to prove and nowhere to go. I didn’t feel destined to win and I certainly wasn’t soaring on Holy Spirit wings. But for once, I felt at home in a crowd of people who had a rocky relationship with the church, but still loved Jesus.

We finally picked a church last November, mainly because it had some transplants from Chicago and the leadership wasn’t threatened by gifted women or dipping into conversations about social justice and diversity.

But I’m still struggling.

I struggle when another black teenager is shot, refugees are banned and immigrants are being routinely rounded up, but the pulpit is silent. I struggle when my tiny children are taught stories about David and Goliath, baby Moses and the crucifixion without consideration for the murder, genocide, and torture that are the backdrop for each of those tales.

I struggle with the way individualism kills community, hedging us into our safe homes in our safe neighborhoods. And I struggle with the fact that I often feel more comfortable with my non-Christian friends than with my Christian ones.

But I can’t leave the church.

Because Jesus.

Because sometimes my heart still burns when I read the Bible like the men on the road to Emmaus. Because I can’t deny that the supernatural presses on my chest so I can barely breathe when I admire the snow-crested mountains in the distance, inhale the scent of the purple lilac bush outside our bedroom window or stroke the soft, dimpled skin of my eight-month-old.   

And because people are imperfect and come together imperfectly, perpetuating their imperfections in the form of pews, collection baskets, wafers, insensitive comments, grape juice, potlucks, bad coffee and VBS sign-ups.

And so I’m still searching for the sacred. Like so much of my generation, I’m drawn to the mystics and the beauty of the liturgy. I’m enthralled with the living poetry of water, wine, light, incense, feasting, fasting and contemplative prayer. Up-side-down, sacrificial, face-in-the-dirt love compels me.

So I’m standing on the scaffolding of tradition and the cloud of witnesses that have gone before me. And I’m trying to make room for the slow work of relationship-building to occur that only comes from allowing my roots to stay in the ground for many seasons in a row.

I’m trying not to hop again.

Lately, the story of Jesus chasing down the one sheep who wandered from the 99 has been coming to mind. I’m tired of trying to keep up with the pack. But it is not the 99 who are coming after me, coaxing me back, it is Jesus. Sacred Love is calling me, cradling me, cajoling me; going before me and after mewhether I ask Him to or not.

And so I will wait here a little longer, hoping these dissonant notes resolve themselves. I’m trusting that somehow they are a part of what will make the music more hauntingly beautiful in the end.

If church has stopped resonating with you, what keeps you going?

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Leslie Verner
I am a goer who is learning how to stay. I’ve traveled all over the world and lived in northwest China for five years before God U-turned my life and brought me back to the U.S. to get married to an actor in Chicago. I’m a former middle school teacher, mama to three little ones and like American cuisine the least. I currently live in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado and write regularly about faith, justice, family and cross-cultural issues at Scraping Raisins.
Leslie Verner
Leslie Verner

Latest posts by Leslie Verner (see all)

  • There have been times in the past couple of decades when the church has felt like an obstacle to my faith. I got tired of all the administration and hoopla, but stubbornness mixed with a conviction that if I kept showing up God would do something eventually won out. And the people. I love the people God has gathered at my church.

    When I’m worn out on “church,” I read Eugene Peterson. He has been showing up for a lot longer than I have, and is pretty philosophical about it. He admits: “Church is difficult. Sooner or later, though, if we are serious about growing up in Christ, we have to deal with church. I say sooner.”

    • Love this. Thank you, Michele. I always appreciate hearing your perspective. Wish I could sit down over coffee with you sometime;-) And I still haven’t read any Eugene Peterson. I’ll shift that higher up on my reading list priorities!

  • Yes. This. May I send a resounding … ME TOO your way?

    • Please do. I always like hearing I’m not the only one;-)

  • Same. It is Jesus that keeps me there. Not people essentially, not the effort, not the “ambiance”, not the music, not the preaching, not all the endless activities and meetings… it is Jesus and it is for my children… Thanks for writing this.

    • Yes, and the children. I should have added that one! Thanks for sharing your perspective.

  • Andrea Palmer

    Thank you, siStar! This conversation is so needed, so healing, so illuminating. It was many years ago that disillusionment set in with me relating to the church when I was abused by the pastor and alienated by certain ones in that particular church. It was my first year as a beloved of Christ. I loved Him and drew near to Him, but I went into a dark place, and in that place Jesus comforted me in the area of His shepherding and His variegated flock. So that imagery you shared is so affirming for such a journey. I do believe much of what we call church is an imposed cultural interpretation. It’s flawed, of course, but there is a better way to engage in community with the body of Jesus intimately and more wholeheartedly, especially when leaders aren’t afraid to listen, rethink, reimagine and reconnect. And for that, we benefit in staying and forbearing with one another. Jesus showed us His staying resolve as He went to Temple worship and confronted hypocrisy, spiritual manipulation, pretentiousness, greed, marginalization, and the list goes on. He stayed, until it was time to pass the mantle on to us. We are in good holy company as we follow in His footsteps. Thankful that you’re staying, anyway.

    • Andrea, Thank you so much for your comment. I love that idea of “Jesus showing us His staying resolve.” What a beautiful thought–and empowering.

  • Have you read “The Way of the Lord” by N.T. Wright? It’s about how we need to leave Jerusalem to encounter Jesus. Sometimes I need that reminder. That Jesus is in the center of Christian culture and he’s on the road leaving the heart of that culture.

    • I haven’t! I’ll add it to The List! Sounds perfect.

  • Andrea Christiansen

    Way to be tenacious, dear sister! God can take us imperfect people, when we open up, or are willing to find common ground, or slog through the mud together, or deal with the hard stuff and the conflicts together, and find reconciliation; God can make beautiful things out of these. Just keep pecking away at it, I believe you will find your home!

  • Denise

    Thank you for this post as it describes my journey also. Today I am on the path to consider Catholicism- a horror to my Protestant past/up bringing. However my heart and mind won’t be silent

    • I have several friends and family members who have become Catholic. I really respect the amount of time they spent attending classes and learning what it meant. And I do love the beauty of liturgy and so much about the Catholic church. Blessings on you as you seek out Jesus!

  • Chris Moore

    Hey Leslie,

    I am probably one of only a handful of male readers here. I see articles on Facebook, I click, and sometimes get in trouble for it. But growing up in church in the 90s, what’s in this article really resonates (except I was raised church of Christ, so the kids with guitars in the park just isn’t happening). It also explains why I couldn’t get a real date until I was 25 and I had the brilliant idea of looking outside the church where girls weren’t “dating Jesus,” but that’s another story.

    But what really struck me is I never really got much out of church either. I never felt like I belonged. I struck out on my own in my 20s and decided I wanted my own “church identity” and I must have visited 2 or 3 of every denomination out there.

    Last year, with the advent of the amazon kindle that can hold a library in about 3 ounces, I set out on a quest to read the entire New Testament in a year. It never felt more real to me, and it was so different from what church taught me as a child. Different in a good way – Jesus was a real guy who endured a very violent life. As a child I got was “Jesus rose….he’ll be back…THE END.”

    In 2017 I am giving the Old Testament the same treatment. I remember the children’s stories of Moses and David….compared to the real bible, which almost feels like it could be a game of thrones episode with all the slavery, beheading, invest, infidelity, and war (and I’ve only made it to 2 Samuel).

    Church is important – I ended up marrying a catholic woman and masses provide a very meaningful fascination. But what matters so much more is what you do as an individual. Read your own bible, make up your own mind. Don’t just fall into the WWJD dogma that we had as teens.

    • Hi Chris! Glad you weren’t deterred by the name “SheLoves”–hopefully our articles can mostly transcend gender lines! Thank you for sharing your perspective. I love that you are searching out Jesus for yourself. Really, it’s those times I encounter him in the Bible when I know I can’t ever really leave the faith. Those times when it really, truly feels like a LIVING book and I know that He won’t let me leave. It seems like you have a bit of the best of both worlds–leaning on the history and liturgy of the Catholic church as well as having a “personal relationship” with Jesus that goes beyond the emotionalism of your youth. Blessings on you as you keep searching!

  • Lizzie Goldsmith

    I relate to so much of this — thank you, Leslie. I wasn’t expecting SimplyJesus last summer to be as impactful as it was given my doubts and cynicism, but I’m glad it was. I still find that I’ve had a hard time integrating it and some of the other things I’ve read or seen or conversations I’ve had into everyday life. It’s so much easier to drift away when church and religion, etc., stops making sense, instead of looking full into the face of what, deep down, still draws me, and asking myself if the drift is actually what I want to happen.

    • Hey Lizzie, I feel like it’s always hard to integrate those types of experiences back into everyday life because they are nothing like our everyday lives. That’s why I compared it to the church camp days of my youth. It was a mountaintop experience for sure, but then it’s hard to know how to live when you come down off the mountain. But I think what I loved most about it was that in spite of sitting next to tons of world-changers, I never felt less-than. I appreciated the humility and vulnerability of the people there and the way we weren’t expected to have everything together. It felt like church the way it should be. But I fully understand the tendency to drift (as this article attests to), but am learning not to focus so much on the people in the church as to focus on Jesus Himself. I don’t worship the evangelical church, I worship Jesus.

      • Lizzie Goldsmith

        Thanks for the response, Leslie. I guess part of where I am now is that I don’t understand my relationship to Jesus or the church. But getting glimpses of community and love as it’s meant to be gives me all sorts of hope, even here in the in-between.

        • I get that. I feel like I’m in the in-between, too. Praying for glimpses of him, though. Because I know God is still there even when I don’t see, feel or hear Him. I’ll pray for you, too, Lizzie.

          • Lizzie Goldsmith

            Thanks, Leslie!

  • Oh my gosh, this made me tear up. I’m just back in the US after 6 beautiful and brutal years overseas, and my husband and I are taking a break from church for the first time in our lives. It has been freeing and good and necessary for us. But we miss it. We know we need to and will get back to it, but its hard to know where even to start, the logs in our own eyes blinding us to so much. We’ll get there, we know we will, but it’s nice to read all of this that we’re feeling written so eloquently. Thank you.

    • Beth, This is probably bad form, but have you read anything I’ve written about reentry (check out my blog from the link in my bio–and I recently wrote a piece about reentry for Velvet Ashes)? I lived in China for five years and coming back has been a huge challenge for me. In fact, after a friend of mine read this piece, she pointed out that some of my disenchantment with the church is most likely because I lived overseas. Just to prepare you, I’ve been back nearly seven years and this is still an issue for me! I hope it’s an easier transition for you! In the meantime, take it slow and feel all the feelings. You’ll find God hasn’t changed even though everything in your life has.

      • I’ve been all over Velvet Ashes! Such a great resource. I love your pieces and love your line, “a goer learning to stay.” I am exactly that right now and so happy for people like you who have gone before and are sharing all of your experience and expertise with people like me!

  • Angie

    This totally echoed my experience as well! I often wish I could go back to my certainty in the ways of God and the passionate emotions I had for Him. During the past eleven years, my faith has become unraveled and it has been a very slow process putting it back together. Jesus keeps drawing me back. Have you read anything by Kathy Escobar? Her blog and book Faith Shift have been very helpful for me. You say a lot of the things she says. She also lives in Colorado. Look her up.

    • Thanks, Angie! She writes for SheLoves and I always appreciate what she writes. I’ll have to check out her book!

  • Debbie Fuller

    Simply Jesus was an amazing place to be last year – both confronting and comforting all at once. I was irreversibly changed by it.
    Thanks for sharing your struggle. Praying He provides both your needs and desires.

    • Thanks, Debbie! (sorry, I just saw this comment!)

  • Stephanie Thompson

    “And because people are imperfect and come together imperfectly, perpetuating their imperfections in the form of pews, collection baskets, wafers, insensitive comments, grape juice, potlucks, bad coffee and VBS sign-ups.” Truth to behold as experiences lead to discouragement. Navigating that path to find community that falls between the above reality and one that seeks for further transformation individually and collectively is challenging. Blessings on your family as you seeks God’s face and your place in Christ’s local body.