One of the subjects which interests me tremendously is: What experience do people have with church? To what extent does church inculturate a faith in people? How does it change us? Why do we drift away, or move to different churches or forms of religious faith? What do we find in a church, and what do we not find?
I am merely reflecting on my own experience here; I'm not developing a thesis or arguing a point. I am only offering one person's encounter with church in the context of the questions I've raised, and even that in no particular order.
Why were we personally so attracted to a church about which we knew next to nothing? The preaching was the first main thing. Our senior pastor, who turned out to be rather famous in preaching circles, had started that new year off with one of his favorite approaches: a short series on a theme. The theme arose from the book In His Steps by Charles Sheldon. Written in 1896, it was, as far as I know, the first book to ask the contemporary question, "What would Jesus do?" For four weeks, our pastor preached on the response to that question -- as it might be answered at church, in the workplace, etc. His sermons were exactly what I was looking for, as I tried to figure out how to reconcile an increasingly upscale professional life with the call of the Gospel, although at the time I wouldn't have identified what I was trying to do as such.
For the first couple of years, we were content just to go to church on Sundays. Church as lecture and concert, I guess you could say. We didn't know anyone (there were about 1500 members, with about 400 in attendance on any given Sunday morning) and we didn't know how to get to know anyone. That changed a bit when I was asked to join a committtee, but we were still on the periphery of the community. I don't think that we really understood that there was even such a thing as a church community. In retropsect it seems a bit odd, but I gave birth to my twin sons and then to my daughter during that period and, while their arrival and baptisms were duly noted in ther church bulletin, no one beyond the senior pastor showed up with a dinner or a prayer or anything else.
Things changed shortly after our daughter was born. The church began to focus on small group development, and we found ouselves hooked up with a neighborhood group of several young families like our own. We all had small children and most of us were on our own, far from extended family support. We were starving for companionship, eager to learn about our religion, and thrilled beyond belief to have found each other. Suddenly -- community!!! In the early years, we met regularly for various Bible and other studies and began to celebrate our holidays together. As the women quit work to mother fulltime, we began to get together for conversation every week, and started going away for an annual week-end together. At the same time, we all became deeply involved in the life of the church: teaching classes, taking classes, and serving on committees and boards. Many of us took two or three of the Methodist year-long DISCIPLE Bible study classes together.
I suppose, looking back, that each of us was approaching a life of faith differently from the others. Many in our little group had a childhood faith that was being nudged back into practice. Others were skeptical, but willing to go along. Certainly the magnificent worship services we attended enriched all of our lives, those of us who did DISCIPLE found the intellectual side of our religious lives well nourished, and there was plenty of community activity: programs and service in the church itself and lots of time together, building the friendships that have sustained us all for 20 years.
As the kids grew and moved into involved sports and activities schedules and the moms went back to work, we found it harder to get together, and some of us drifted away from the church. A few years ago, the moms reinstituted our weekly get-togethers -- at a coffee shop these days, where other groups of women also show up and sometimes merge with ours. The days of meeting in someone's kitchen while the children play underfoot are long gone, but more recently we have been known to settle in at the tables we pull together for breakfast at around 10:00 and on occasion decide a few hours later that we might as well have lunch, too. Most of us are pretty liberal, politically and theologically speaking, and we live, intentionally, in a community of unusual diversity. We never run out of things to talk about.
For myself, over the years I found less and less sustenance of a spiritual nature through the church itself. Ministers came and went, and the preaching waxed and waned. I got burned out on volunteering. My husband lost interest -- and it's VERY hard to keep children focused on weekly Sunday School when their dad is sitting in the kitchen reading the paper. Our family was vacationing at the Chautauqua Institution every summer, and it was to the speakers and classes at Chautauqua that I was increasingly turning for my religious life. There were a few years when the music and preaching at Chautauqua would carry me all the way through to Christmas -- I would buy the tapes of the summer lectures and church services and listen to them as I drove around all year long. (I still do.) I took at least three journaling classes there over several summers, took yoga classses in the early mornings, and bought stacks of books from the authors I heard speak.
At Chautauqua I was discovering a rich tradition of Christian spirituality, contemplation, and scholarship that was not particularly accessible through my local church. Over the years, I heard, many times over, speakers such as Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister, Episcopal priests Barabara Brown Taylor and John Claypool, religious scholars Marcus Borg and N.T Wright and Huston Smith and Karen Armstrong, Unitarian pastor Forrest Church, rabbi and lawyer David Saperstein.
My favorite concert ever, and as spirit-moving an event as any of the Sunday services where 5,000 people rise every summer Sunday morning to sing Holy, Holy, Holy in an outdoor ampitheatre, was Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie in combination. There we were, the same outdoor ampitheatre crowd that would come back to worship the next morning when, late on a summer Saturday night, Pete Seeger got all 5,000 of us to sing All People That on Earth Do Dwell in a ROUND.
So I was a Methdodist in form and name, but not in practice or attentiveness anymore. I was reluctant to give up my church -- the building is huge, but I knew its every nook and cranny, and the architecture and stained-glass windows are breathtakingly beautiful -- and yet, I wasn't really there anymore. The questions I had weren't being answered and the experience of God I had begun to seek wasn't being fostered. We went as a family to Christmas Eve services, because we couldn't abandon the music and the candles held by hundreds of people in the dark of a cavernous cathedral at midnight, but I was gradually responding to a call from another direction.