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

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