I changed churches about twelve years ago. I didn't necessarily mean to do that, and if I had it to do over again I probably wouldn't, which in and of itself means that it's a good thing I don't ~ have it to do over again, I mean.
At first I just stopped going to church for awhile. I stopped teaching Sunday school and serving on committees and helping to run programs. I had been so busy with the programmatic and administrative life of the church that it had been easy to ignore the the fact that I had little sense of the Presence at its center, but that stance was no longer satisfactory to me. I started reading a lot and praying a lot and journaling some, taking much of what I encountered at Chautauqua each summer to heart and trying to peel back the layers of "church involvement" and "church membership" to find some sense of "church source."
I knew I was on the right track when, after I told the head of Christian Education at our church that I wouldn't be teaching Sunday School the following year because I was going to take some time out to focus on my own spiritual life, she responded, "Well, give me a call when you get bored."
I wasn't all that keen on a church leader implying that a personal spiritual search would become a boring enterprise. Maybe that's why, despite the energy and activity of that church, I no longer felt at home there.
A friend who knew that I was at loose ends suggested that we try her Presbyterian church. She told me that a new minister had just begun his tenure there, and said that he was an incredible preacher. It was actually a bit strange that I'd never been to her church; our children attended a Montessori school housed there, so I'd been to the building nearly every day for seven years. Still, I'd never been in the sanctuary. I decided to take her up on her offer.
Sure enough, fine preaching and terrific music, along with a long tradition of social justice work. The church had been in the forefront of community racial integration efforts in the 60s, a move which, I eventually learned, had cost it hundreds of members.
A lot of people, I think, when they hear the word "Christian," envision masses of religious fundamentalist political conservatives singing contemporary praise music. And that is an accurate reflection of a powerfully vibrant portion of American Protestantism. But it's not immediately apparent -- certainly not through the media -- that while our numbers may be declining, there are still thousands of congregations housed in mainline Protestant churches, listening to preachers whose education and knowledge stretch far and wide, singing under the direction of well-trained and multi-talented classical musicians, and engaged in significant social action.
It took me maybe seven or eight years to switch church memberships. For one thing, I was preoccupied with some family issues and a major career change, from law to teaching. For another, I had learned my lesson -- as soon as your name in on the rolls of a church, people start to call you up and ask you to do things. So I just modeled myself on a leech for awhile. I went to worship services, taught some Sunday school, volunteered here and there, and otherwise followed on my own little tangential path. My daughter got caught up right away -- this particular church welcomes its children enthusiastically, and the music director doesn't hesitate to get them right up there in front for their little solos. I will be forever grateful to her for noticing that my girl could sing, giving her opportunities to perform, and helping her prepare her very first audition, for a place in the Children's Chorus of our city's orchestra.
Eventually, I felt ready to make the committment that church membership implied to me. By that time, I could no longer interest anyone in my family in even accompanying me on the occasional Sunday, let along joining with me. Even my daughter, having reached that middle school age where friendships are so difficult to sustain outside one's usual mileu, abandoned ship. I decided not to worry about it. If God were calling me to participate in a religious community, then I would respond. Church can look like a "family thing," but it doesn't have to be. I mention this because so many of my friends whose spouses have no interest in church ask me whether I have ever felt awkward in attending solo. The answer has always been "no," and I have developed a small group of church friends, mostly women but also the occasional man, whose spouses seldom put in an appearance.
I admit, though, that at first I felt a bit out of place for other reasons. I had been on a journey of several years toward a more interior life of the spirit, and that's not a process Presbyterians are known for. Presbyterians, at least the ones I know in the liberal PC (USA), tend to focus on corporate worship and social action. Many will readily admit to a rather dramatic level of Biblical illiteracy and even less familiarity with the great writers of the last several centuries of Christian theology, prayer, and spirituality. Our own senior pastor is a man deeply committed to a life of prayer and a journey with God, but his natural pastoral inclinations tend toward the sphere of political and social engagement. I had been very much interested in those kinds of matters in my previous church, but had been on a different journey for so long that I doubted whether I had really found the right place with the Presbyterians.
However, I had become part of a small group at the church that was committed to pursuing the inward spiritual journey, and in bringing it to the attention of the congregation. It was a slow process, but with the arrival of a new associate pastor a few years ago, we have seen lively movement. I served on the committee that ultimately called her to our church, and I was there in large part as a voice for the need to hone the adult education and spiritual formation component of out church. She has helped us us make major strides in becoming a congregation that is truly focused on both the inward and the outward journey.
Our senior pastor has been at the church for twelve years, just a little longer than I have. His message has consistently and emphatically been one of God's pervasive love for all of us. He hammers home themes of diversity and inclusiveness week after week. In a practical sense, that means that it's pretty easy for us to get from the Biblical text to committments to justice . In a personal sense, it means that we all hear, over and over again, that God's love for us never falters in its all-encompassing presence.
For me personally, the church over the past few years became the community where my own gifts were welcomed and celebrated. Those first nagging thoughts about ministry had emerged years and years ago, but were torpedoed by the need for me to address my attention elsewhere. As they started to bubble to the surface again, I was an astounded beneficiary of our associate pastor's attentiveness to the gifts of her parishoners, and found myself intensely involved in every aspect of our adult education and formation program, invited to preach on occasion, expanding my activities into the Presbytery, and enthusiastically supported as I began the process that would lead to seminary.
I also discovered a source of enormous grace outside my own church. Who knew about the Jesuits? Well, okay, a lot of people ~ but not me.