Within the last two weeks, Rachel Held Evans has written two posts for CNN about millennials and the church that have gone viral. They, coupled with one of the most beautiful services I have attended in a while this past Sunday, have gotten me thinking about why I have come back to the church.
I grew up in the evangelical church. I went to services Sunday mornings, Sunday evenings, and Wednesday evenings, and was heavily involved in worship teams, choirs, musicals, and youth events. I loved it, so much so that I decided I wanted to go to college where my faith would be affirmed, and so I went to a small evangelical college in Minneapolis, MN. However, it was here that I was first confronted with questions. Where before the things I believed were assumed, now I was being challenged to answer the question of why I believed what I did, and I didn’t have the answers. I was also introduced to other ways of thinking about the Bible, and other explanations for what I was reading, other ways of interpreting it. This was incredibly scary, but also very liberating; I felt as if a whole new world had been opened up to me.
In order to work through these questions, I went to the people I trusted the most with my faith- ministers and people from my church back home. However, rather than having my questions met with thoughtful answers, they were met with a recitation of what our church believed and the admonishment to not be swayed from them by people with a more liberal viewpoint. I was shocked. I did not expect to be so blatantly told to not ask questions. All of a sudden, the faith I had felt to be so sure felt to be more of a blind faith. All this time, I had been believing people who discouraged the asking of questions, and this I could not stand behind.
It was around this time that I stopped going to church. The only people I knew who went to church were the same people who believed the things I was told to not doubt, but had begun to. I could not bring myself to go to a place that could not stand up to questions, and I became angry. Angry at the preachers who had led me so trustingly for years, and angry at the people who continued to follow them so blindly. I was no longer interested in their ‘hip’ worship songs that felt a copy of the ‘secular’ music I so loved, and I was no longer interested in the young preachers who seemed determine to push aside my doubt and questions to get me to join their small group. It all seemed fake.
Despite all my anger at the church, I still loved the Bible, and I still felt a strong personal faith. I didn’t know how to describe it, and it certainly didn’t look like what I was seeing at churches, but I knew I loved God and wanted to better understand it. I knew there were tons of people my age who were experiencing similar doubts and frustrations with the church, and I wanted to be able to help them and come alongside them. I felt that in order to do this, I needed a fuller understanding of the Bible. So I went to seminary.
In seminary, there is a running joke that it should really be called a cemetery. Seminary is where all the former beliefs you had go to die in light of the intellectual knowledge you gain about the Bible. When I came, this is what I wanted. I did not see a problem with it- I wanted a fresh understanding, unbiased by the evangelical church, one that was open to interpretation and made space for free thought, doubt, questions, and provoction. If the Bible was true, it would be able to stand up to the scrutiny. I soaked up my professors’ words. I became more and more convinced of the fact that what I had been taught my whole life was only one small sliver of what faith could be, and I no longer wanted anything to do with it. My heart was slowly getting angrier at the church while my head was slowly getting bigger with thoughts that now I knew more than Them. I was the educated one; they were the blind sheep.
Then one day, I heard a group of my fellow students sitting in the commons lawn playing worship music. I was in the library, trying to study. I became so angry that these people were inflicting their worship time on me while I was trying to learn more about the Bible. How dare they impose that! I was literally seething. But then- I became frightened, frightened at myself. What had happened to me that I had become so angry? Anger is not something a Christian is supposed to be- and I still considered myself to be one. I left the library, feeling my foundations a becoming bit unsteady. Rather than thinking something was wrong with the church, I began to think that something was wrong with me.
Slowly, over many months, I realized that I might actually want to go back to church. It needed to be the right one, preferably not evangelical. I was still too wounded and jaded. I had a lot of friends who had begun exploring the Episcopal and Anglican traditions, and I liked how different they were from what I grew up with. One of my friends from school was attending one not far from campus and when I shared my thoughts with him, he invited me to come along.
That first Sunday that I stepped into St. James Episcopal was the start of something brand new. I had never participated in liturgy. I didn’t know the tune of the chants. What was the proper way to take Communion- was I even allowed to because I wasn’t Episcopalian? The answer to all of these things was, “It doesn’t matter-come.” Here, I was not a stranger being asked to come to small groups, or take part in the offeratory, or come to a ladies’ luncheon the next Saturday. I was being asked to be a part of their church family- and the fact that I was in the pew was reason enough for them to accept me. I didn’t feel pressure to meet people, join things, or even participate. I was welcome to slip in the back pew, and slip out. I was welcome to take Communion, or to stay in my seat. It was wonderful, and I was intrigued. Cautiously, I began attending a few Sundays here and there. Cautiously, I bought a Book of Common Prayer. Cautiously, I began reading the Daily Office in my own time. Ever so cautiously, I was coming back to church.
Although my attendance at St. James was spotty in the beginning, I have been regularly attending for a year now. This past Sunday there was a baptism, and I cried at the beauty of it. Growing up, baptism was only for people who could say what they had done wrong and why there were now going to live differently. But here, baptism was the acceptance in the family of God simply because you are born, not because of anything you had done well. When the water is poured over their heads, they are given a candle, lit from the large one that is always left burning, and blessed with the words, “You are now a light in this world.” The congregation all says in unison that this little person is now a part of their family. It brings me to tears every time. Where before Communion was a time of anxiety for me, a time to hope I had thought of all my sins so I could confess them and not “fall asleep” as Paul had said in the verse that was always quoted beforehand, now it was a time to participate in the union of God with Man. I was welcomed to participate no matter my spiritual state. My desire to partake was sign enough of my penitence and faith.
The words that are spoken by the priest before the Sacrament are the most soothing words I have ever heard, and they are the reason I have come back to the church:
“So come to this table, you who would have much faith and you who would like to have more. You who have been to this sacrament often, and you who have not been for a long time. You who have tried to follow Jesus, and you who have failed. Come, it is Christ who invites us to meet him here.”
This Sunday after the baptism I turned to my fiancé with tears in my eyes and said, “Remember when I hated church? And now I love it. I never would have guessed I’d be here in a million years. But I’m so glad I am.”