Church Shopping

St. Stephen Lutheran Church in Bloomington, Minn. This is where my parents were married and where my grandparents still attend — it's the place I've felt most comfortable attending services in the past decade, in which I can't say I've had a true church home.

St. Stephen Lutheran Church in Bloomington, Minn. This is where my parents were married and where my grandparents still attend — it’s the place I’ve felt most comfortable attending services in the past decade, during which I can’t say I’ve had a true church home.

I’ve been a Submarine Christian — the kind, we joke, that surfaces only on Easter and Christmas — for the better part of a decade now, a longer period of time than I can now fairly explain away by recalling my parents’ discontent with my childhood church home or busy weekends in college.

So let’s get heavy now, shall we? As I resolve here and now to stop thinking about church-shopping and to start actually church-shopping, I’ve been thinking a lot about the profound disconnect between how comfortable I am identifying as a Christian and the cumulative discomfort I’ve felt every time I’ve attended a church service in roughly the past six years.

It’s very possible this is all my fault — that, aside from being lazy about rolling out of bed on Sunday mornings, I’m just a picky customer. I don’t want rock bands, coffee shops or T-shirted pastors sitting cross-legged on a stage. I’m too progressive for most traditional Protestant denominations (which, I grant, works greatly to narrow my search) but I’m not progressive enough to reject some very traditional notions about church liturgy and even some traditional notions about church doctrine.

Look, I’m going to be fine. I know part of finding a church home is for me to put in a reasonable amount of effort. But why is it that I believe every word of The Apostle’s Creed, yet have also come to shorthand my frustration with my church search by simply telling people who ask, “I love Jesus, but I don’t always love Jesus’ people”?

Key to my frustrations: For the last six years, I’ve lived in mid-sized college towns — for four years as a student, for nearly two years as a working adult. I’ve avoided the rock bands, the lattes, the cross-legged, jean-clad preachers. (That’s the easy part. It’s not hard when your church building looks like a Wal-Mart and has a wistfully vague name emblazoned in neon.) But when I find myself in the pews of a church that reminds me of the Lutheran churches I consider home — you know: organs, stained glass windows, traditional hymns, kyries, Nicene Creeds, communion by intinction — I invariably hear from the (invariably very kind) person designated as the cheerful greeter of unfamiliar faces, “You should check out our youth group!”

Cheerful-Unfamiliar-Face-Greeter means no harm by the invitation. I don’t know what I should fairly expect as a single, childless twentysomething male (the traditional church’s most difficult demographic to reach, I’d guess) in a college town. But Cheerful-Unfamiliar-Face-Greeter also doesn’t know I’m so over that phase of my life. I was over it when I was 13. I wasn’t there when I was in college. Friends of mine in college were past that point too. Should it not signal something to Cheerful-Unfamiliar-Face-Greeter that, as a young adult in a college town, I’ve made deliberate choices to avoid the campus ministries and big-box churches sprouting all over to cater to my demo to come to your church?

“You should check out our youth group!” No. I came to your church because I’m done laying the foundations with my faith. I’m ready to get to the hard part. I’m ready to get to the part where we grapple with the difficult realities of the world… and to the part where we grapple, as Christians, with the fundamental contradictions, paradoxes and moral dilemmas at the heart of our Christianity.

I’m not a big fan of all of Marc Solas’ language in this post, but I found myself nodding along with a lot of what he wrote:

It’s not that our students ‘got smarter’ when they left home, rather someone actually treated them as intelligent. Rather than dumbing down the message, the agnostics and atheists treat our youth as intelligent and challenge their intellect with ‘deep thoughts’ of question and doubt. Many of these ‘doubts’ have been answered, in great depth, over the centuries of our faith…

Rather than an external, objective, historical faith, we’ve given our youth an internal, subjective faith. The evangelical church isn’t catechizing or teaching our kids the fundamentals of the faith, we’re simply encouraging them to ‘be nice’ and ‘love Jesus’. When they leave home, they realize that they can be ‘spiritually fulfilled’ and get the same subjective self-improvement principles (and warm-fuzzies) from the latest life-coach or from spending time with friends or volunteering at a shelter…

Why would they get up early on a Sunday and watch a cheap knockoff of the entertainment venue they went to the night before? The middle-aged pastor trying desperately to be ‘relevant’ to them would be a comical cliché if the effect weren’t so devastating. As we jettisoned the gospel, our students are never hit with the full impact of the law, their sin before God, and their desperate need for the atoning work of Christ. Now THAT is relevant, THAT is authentic, and THAT is something the world cannot offer.

The reason Solas’ piece hit home for me wasn’t because it critiques the contemporary, big-box Christianity I take pains to avoid. Those are easy critiques to pen.

Solas’ critique hits home because it affirms my frustrations with church shopping are more than just my imagination. If the wider church wants to do something about the number of sheep my age straying from the flock, it needs to find a way to reach me. I hope, for the sake of the wider church, that it does. Many people my age have become comfortable with the idea that it’s okay to love Jesus but hate the church. And even I’m concerned at the number of people my age who nod along with YouTube videos-gone-viral saying “Jesus and religion are on opposite spectrum.” Doesn’t that shove aside the hard part of being a Christian? How can you divorce the experience of worship — of community — from your being a Christian?

I don’t know how. That’s why I’m done being a Submarine Christian, holding my breath for 50 weeks out of the year. I do intend to make up for time I’m responsible for losing. I’m sure I just haven’t looked in the right place yet to find my church home.

But it’s for others my age that I think Solas is right to be concerned.

“We’re failing,” Solas concludes. “We’ve failed God and we’ve failed our kids. Don’t let another kid walk out the door without being confronted with the full weight of the law, and the full freedom in the gospel.”

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2 thoughts on “Church Shopping

  1. Marc5Solas says:

    Well written and transparent. Right in line with what I’ve written for this weeks article. Jesus > Religion is a huge move as 20-somethings react to the disaster of the last 20 years of evangelical pablum. Where it leads, though, is incredibly cyclical in church history.

    Again, great post here. I hope you’ll check back later this week for the new article. I think it may line up with where you’re at right now.

  2. […] my earlier post on this topic. (I’ve been out of town the past few Sundays, so my church hunt has momentarily stalled. […]

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