the saga of my church search

Posted: January 14, 2013 in Uncategorized

I knew I was going to have to rethink my perspective, on the day I felt sure that God actually rolled His eyes at me.

I was church shopping.  Having moved back from Chicago to the Quad Cities, I needed to find a church home.  I lived in Rock Island, courtesy of my employer, and the church I had belonged to before I had moved away was about an hour’s drive from me.  It made sense to me that I should plug in to a church nearby. 

My plan was to find a church in Rock Island.  I could live, work, and worship all in the same city.  I planned to plug in to my neighborhood…to really be an active part of it.  I didn’t want to have to drive way across town to church.

The first place I tried was a Baptist church that my old junior high Sunday School class and I had visited when we were doing our “survey of the faith” unit.  I went there because I remembered that there, everyone wasn’t white.  In fact, almost NO ONE was white.  I was feeling the sting of having moved away from Chicago’s most culturally diverse neighborhood, and I longed to do something – anything – to maintain some diversity in my life.  I never wanted to live in an all-white culture again.  This was important to me.

What I loved about this church was the sea of dark faces.  The passionate, loud, long worship – I  had long wanted to be as uninhibited as what I saw in “black church.”  The fact that 2 hours into the service, they were really just getting started.  That the pastor would get worked up and HOLLER when he preached.  That the prayer went on and on.  That everyone was so very scrubbed and dressed in their special-and-very-best clothes. 

It was a fun place to visit, for a lot of reasons.  But I was suffering from some social backwardness, just overcome by being new and a stranger almost everywhere I went.  And this church didn’t know how to reach out to help this awkward, silent white lady as I sat smiling around me, unable to summon the will to strike up conversations with people who seemed nothing like me at all, who seemed as unable to speak to me as I was to them.  I didn’t hold it against them – they were just doing what I was doing! – but after awhile it felt like I had no hope of every really fitting in there.

So, though I visited a couple of times (and would gladly visit again, many a time)…it was not home for me.

The next place I visited was a very charismatic nondenominational church.  As at the previous church, I was one rare white face in the congregation.  (I REALLY didn’t want to go back to all-white church!)  This was a very uncomfortable experiment.  I’m a huge fan of charismatic worship and prayer – I think those who pray and sing in tongues and call out prophecy and let their hair down as they go have a corner on freedom that many of us lack. 

What I loved about this church was that free worship.  How people danced around and got excited during worship.  How the pastor had to wipe the sweat from his bald head continually with a cloth napkin as he preached.  How people went out of their way to smile, shake my hand, learn my name, ask why I was there.  How the pastor called me by name from the front, the second or third time I was there, asking me to stay after so we could talk. 

What made me uncomfortable was how the worship team and the pastors made demands on the way the congregation interacted, telling us what to yell and when to yell it, telling us what to turn and say to the person beside us, asking that people stand up and SAY how much money they were going to put in the offering plate.  I’ve VISITED a lot of charistmatic/pentecostal churches, but in truth I grew up Lutheran and later Presbyterian.  In my adult life I had been American Baptist and then Southern Baptist.  So the uncomfortable stuff was REALLY uncomfortable, and even the stuff I loved left me off-kilter and awkward in my unfamiliarity with it.  I didn’t last long at that church.

Next, a coworker who knew my love of diversity and social justice recommended I check out a little Calvary Chapel congregation.  It met in an old storefront.  What I loved about this church was the racial mix – people of every color, without leaving me the single white face in the crowd.  The contemporary worship.  The focus on teaching straight from scripture each week.  People who smiled and were friendly without making me self-conscious with too much pointed attention toward me.  The deliberate outreach to troubled folks. 

This church was a serious contender and a real possibility for me.  It was awfully small and I was bummed that there was no Sunday school available, but it seemed like it might be a good fit.

Meanwhile, some friends kept inviting me to their Vineyard church – a new church plant.  They gushed on and on about how welcoming it was.  How people came up and prayed just the right thing for them, without being told what their needs were.  How the heart of giving was so intentional and so free there. 

The thing was, I didn’t want to visit.  I mean, it sounded nice, but it seemed to me that going to my friends’ church would be such an EXPECTED thing to do.  I hate being predictable.  I hate doing stuff that is so expected that it’s practically a cliche.  I didn’t want to be a cliche.  (This was my artist/rebel without a clue side talking loud.)

But my friends persisted and I started to feel like I would be a jerk for not at least going once. 

I went once.  It was nice.  My friends were right – the people were uncommonly welcoming.  The pastor didn’t flinch from challenging people to give to one another.  I loved the worship. 

So I was going back and forth between the Calvary Chapel congregation and the Vineyard one, and feeling very undecided.  Asking myself questions, making observations.  Sometimes visiting other churches.  Getting nowhere. 

I was also reserving the “right” to just decide to go to one of the two mega-ish churches with which I had experience.  I knew I liked the music there.  I knew the teaching was nice and there were an abundance of programs.  I also had experienced how lost a person can get – how completely unnoticed – in a place that big.  So…I was probably not going there.  But I was holding on to my right to do so.

My daughter and son-in-law came to visit.  I was sitting with them at the table, talking over the whole journey of hunting for a church.  My son-in-law, the seminary student, was helpfully asking questions, pushing me to probe my thoughts and motivations about the Vineyard church, mostly, since it had most of my reluctant attention at the time.

“Do you feel like they can use your talents there?” he asked.  I know that’s a big deal to some people, the question of what one’s role will be.  But the thing is, I’ve lived so many places, done so many things, been so many iterations of me, served in so many roles of ministry…I wasn’t worried about whether they could use my talents.  I can do a whole lot of things.  I can be used pretty much anywhere I go.  Not that I’m some kind of rock star…I’m just a nice combination of experienced and willing.  That’ll take a person far, you know?

We picked and poked at the details of the Vineyard church together.  I offered my small objections – it was another almost exclusively white church.  There was no Sunday school  Finally, I heard myself saying to Zack, “I just don’t know if I want to join there.  They are so seeker-friendly, so good at welcoming, that it’s not going to stay a small church very long.  And I really don’t want to be in a great big church.”

That’s when I felt God’s eyes rolling at me.

Really?  You don’t want to join a church because it might draw a lot of people?  REALLY?

I heard my selfishness, my short-sightedness, my lack of love.  It was LOUD AND CLEAR in that moment. 

Not long after that, I let down my defenses and stopped making excuses.  I stopped trying to reason it all out perfectly, and followed the feeling of *home*…which was, without a doubt, that mostly-white, no-Sunday-school, bound-to-get-too-big-too-fast Vineyard church.  Where the worship is a place I can get lost every week.  Where the others greet me with as much gladness as I feel upon seeing them.  Where the teaching never retreats from the call to give of oneself.  Where some of the most JPUSA-ish folks the Quad Cities has to offer hang out…folks who are something between hippie and hipster and crunchies, where tattoos and ironic shirts and a sea of denim jeans preside.  Where I don’t need to use the title “Pastor” before my pastors’ names.

So much for my big plans to keep my whole life together in one community –  today, I live in Davenport, work in Rock Island, and attend joyously belong to my Vineyard church in Moline.

Gotta like God’s sense of humor.

And that He loves me enough to roll His eyes, when I get stupid, instead of swatting me with the great cosmic flyswatter.

He is good, and His mercy endures forever. 

 

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