Lurid Fantasies About "Perfect Churches"...

I have a confession: for the last six months or so, I have not been going to church with any regularity.  SHOCKING!  I know.  It's not that I haven't gone to church at all... but the lack of regularity, along with the lack of consistency in where I have gone, has contributed to an increasing feeling of disconnect.

For some time, my seminary classes helped blunt this feeling: I do experience fellowship in school, so during the semester, I could experience connection to a sort of faith community.  Now that I've been out for several weeks, churchlessness is starting to sink in.

I don't take it lightly.  And it's not like I haven't tried.  I've visited the local United Church of Christ (Congregational) church, as well as the Lutheran (ELCA) church.  I still intend to visit the Episcopal church here in town - I've heard good things.  And from time to time, I've visited my United Methodist Church from the last few years.  It all remains different - foreign - because, by personal culture, I am an Evangelical.  I view and relate to God as an Evangelical.  I simply cannot socially or theologically be an Evangelical.  It is a hard space to inhabit.

What's my problem?  Why can't I settle?  Part of the problem is that I've never stayed at a particular church for very long.  Let me see if I an give a brief overview of my church-going experience (as far as I can remember)

  • 1979 - 1987 - Albany Calvary Chapel; various non-denominational and Pentecostal churches; house churches; etc...
  • 1988 - 1993 - Albany First Assembly of God
  • 1993 - 1997 - Albany First Church of the Nazarene
  • 1998 - 2002 - McMinnville Covenant Church
  • 2002 - 2003 - Corvallis Calvary Chapel
  • 2003 - 2005 - Albany First Assembly of God
  • 2005 - 2007 - Lebanon River Springs Church (Disciples of Christ)
  • 2007 - 2009 - Corvallis First United Methodist Church

To my knowledge, I have never been a church "member."  It's always been easy to walk away.  I believe the Church is supposed to function like a family - you don't walk away from that.  Instead, my relationship to the Church has been more like dating relationships - I enjoy the "new relationship butterflies," and when those start to fade, my eyes start to wander.  Greener grass on the other side...

I'm starting to feel convicted that the problem is clearly me: I'm looking for a "perfect fit" - a fantasy church that gives me what I need, strokes my ego, validates me, reflects a progressive social agenda, and still manages a feel-good Leave-It-To-Beaver church family environment.

I thought I had learned this lesson before.  And I'm self-aware enough not to really think (or admit out loud) that the previous paragraph is what I'm looking for.  But the dating analogy remains: we know it's immature, superficial and narcissistic to create long lists of ideal attributes for some would-be significant other.  But we still live our lives, slaves to the fantasy.  I confess, I haven't learned how to die to the lurid, exciting, captivating fantasy of the perfect church.  I don't rationally believe in it.  But I still conduct my life under the tyranny of its possibility.  An ecclesial wet dream.

This morning I played Jonah in a sketch at the United Methodists' regional meeting in downtown Salem.  It was an outdoor service, led by Robert Hoshibata, Bishop of the Oregon-Idaho conference. I felt convicted there by the passionate commitment all these folks had - commitment to the future of their church.  They genuinely want to embrace change, they genuinely want to positively impact the communities they inhabit, and they seem... well... teachable.  I didn't hear any "quick fix" or "magic pill" remedies to the fact that the United Methodist Church (along with most liturgical mainlines) is shrinking. Only passionate commitment to their "family" of origin.  I think that's a good start.

I've got to figure out who my family is, how and where I fit, and then - much harder - I've got to learn how to be a family member to them... to you.


Anonymous said...


I can completely relate to your experience. Although at times I'm not certain if I should even wear the Christian label, I have considered all the churches within 45 min from where I live & don't believe I'd be comfortable attending any of them.

I found this statement interesting: "I view and relate to God as an Evangelical. I simply cannot socially or theologically be an Evangelical."

Could you elaborate on in what sense you remain an Evangelical?

Also, have you come to a place where you are relatively established in your beliefs? Do you still foresee the possibility of an about face in regard to your religious beliefs?


Bad Alice said...

Oh, I relate to this. For a long time my husband and I were looking for quite different things, and that mean that I was never quite comfortable. The perfect church: liberal but still embracing the core doctrines of Christianity (whatever those are), committed to social justice, intellectually challenging but still welcoming to all, upholding true fellowship (everyone knows and loves each other and we’re all getting together for bbqs and weekend rafting trips as well as growing organic foods for the community and participating in Habitat for Humanity). The sermons wouldn’t be boring and the music director wouldn’t own the show and there would never ever be a women’s ministry tea with Beth Moore videos. We finally decided to do church in our house as a family. That’s great for worshiping together, and we’re making an effort to engage in community service and be involved in some larger gatherings, but I feel pretty disconnected from the larger community of believers all the same.

Rhiannon Y Orizaga said...

Pete I get you 110% on this!!! I was not raised as a Christian per se- both my parents are Christians, and I went to mass with my Dad more or less regularly, but we never had any pressure to believe anything in particular. The older I get the more I realize that I was raised with Christian values, we just didn't phrase them in Church-talk. When I became a Christian I immediately felt pressured by good-intentioned (I hope) Evangelicals to be rebaptized, because my baby baptism as a Catholic counts for nothing according to some people. My struggle has always been to find a place where I "fit in"- that "ecclesial wet dream" of a perfect church, where, as Bad Alice said there will"never ever be a women’s ministry tea with Beth Moore videos." Having never been a Catholic, I still love Mass. I love the way it feels like a community- you don't even have to know eachother, but when you get in that room you are family, and you participate as one unified body in the ritual. The priest is not some white-bread, WASP-y guy with gleaming teeth and a Hollywood tan, but an old fart in a glamorous robe. I trust priests more than I trust Evangelical pastors, despite the media storm about abuse. Priests are like grandpas: they gave up on being cool a long time ago. The ritual is a self-acknowledged ritual. It's not some Protestant pretense at spontaneity. That said I am an Evangelical. I believe in sharing the gospel. I believe that it is more important than anything else. But I am letting my fantasies of the perfect church slip away, because I know that with or without a church, I am expected to be and accepted to be a Child of God. The reason, I think, that no church fulfills our needs is because our needs were not meant to be fulfilled by other people, or by rituals, or by customs. These are all great but what we need is Jesus. Jesus is enough for us to gather around.

Peter said...

Riley, great question about remaining an evangelical. I think Rhiannon and Bad Alice book did a good job at approaching the question. I would say it's definitely different for different people.

For me, Evangelicalism has become as much a culture as a theological approach. Evangelicalism paints a picture of God that is somewhat unique from other Christian traditions. I will be blogging about this very soon, so I hope you'll stay tuned - it's a big question and I want to give it its due.

Thanks everyone!

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