Unchurched Church

Unchurched Church

I worked at a church for 18 years … 18 years of Bible studies, services, ministry and leadership. It has now been over a year since I’ve attended a church service at the building I called home. Two decades ago when I went through a Celebrate Recovery Step Study, there was a woman who was in recovery from church. I thought that was an off-beat reason to enter into a recovery program, but it makes perfect sense to me now.

“Unchurched” was the Christian buzz word in the hallways of the church I worked at. We were trying to pull the “unchurched” into church, debated how to reach the “unchurched” , celebrated when an “unchurched” family showed up in church and prayed for those lost “unchurched” men, women and children.  I am now one of the “unchurched” and for now am perfectly OK with that status.

I stepped into the church after my mother’s death, which was profound on many levels. In those final moments when her heart was still beating and the lungs still drawing for breath it was physically obvious that her spirit, the entire essence of her being had already left her cancer battered body and that provoked questions … big questions.  Upon returning home I began seeking answers and the church seemed like the best place to get answers.

I don’t know that I got the answers I was looking for, what I did get was a head full of more questions.  So I asked, and I read, and I listened, and I practiced Christianity.  In the early years of my new and growing faith, my behavior resembled the behavior that used to scare me away from churches and the Bible.  I felt the need to slather everyone around me with my new enthusiasm for Jesus with expectations that they too would see the light and jump on board with me. How could my friends, family and strangers not see the truth?!  That brand of evangelism felt like an ill-fitting pair of shoes that you continue to wear even though they hurt your feet.

Eventually I took off those tight shoes and returned to the familiar and comfortable bare feet that allow me to feel everything I step on or into.  Jesus washed the bare feet of others and allowed others to wash and perfume his own bare feet, taking those sandals off was a radical act of humility and love.  The longer I spent inside the walls of the church, the more I felt like an impostor loudly proclaiming the truth while wearing shoes that were giving me blisters, when what I really longed for was the quiet barefoot Jesus.

Working in ministry for money is not for the faint of heart, it has the potential to really, really mess with your spiritual life.  The inner office wing was filled with regular people like me, some who tried to mask the pain of walking in shoes that no  longer fit. There were times it did not feel like a safe place to be unsure, to question or to disagree with what was being taught as concrete scriptural truth.  We all had real life problems going on and my impending separation and divorce after 20+ years of marriage was a big one for me.

My experience of going through a divorce as a very visible leader in a church was an eye opener.  I generally experienced one of two things, complete avoidance of the topic OR the need to quote every scripture related to marriage that could be found, meant to encourage me to stay in a place that was no longer working. Neither was very helpful.  I knew the biblical stance on marriage, I’d been wrestling with it for years. I actually had the pastor tell me my divorce was “awkward.”  Divorce isn’t awkward, it’s really quite tragic.  I did not take divorce lightly, and I now have great compassion for other families that are drowning in those deep waters.

I appreciate the lessons the mountaintops and valleys of leadership taught me.  And there are steadfast and inspiring individuals whose unwavering faith continue to be a lighthouse.  It is my time in the wilderness, barefoot in the sun. What an adventure it is to discover God, to practice love, kindness and tolerance outside the confines of organized religion.  I take deep breaths, choose my words carefully and think about God a lot.  I still believe in a higher power, I need something outside my finite body to cry out to and be grateful for in this lifetime.

I sometimes walk my dogs past the church on Sunday mornings as the congregation files through the newly landscaped entryway and I smile and say hello to familiar faces.  Some have asked if I am in “fellowship” anywhere and while I am in fellowship all the time I know the real question is, “Are you going to church?”  The answer is “No” and often the response is that they will pray for me, and I wonder what exactly their prayers will be. I don’t tell them that I can always use more grace, forgiveness, and gratitude.

To those that are happily embodied in the life of a church, I applaud you and will be slightly envious of the joy that it brings to your life.  Maybe there will be a day that organized religion brings that same solace to my life but today I am headed out into the world, barefoot on rocky ground.

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Keep Looking Upward,

Hillary D.