I used to feel tremendous guilt about sleeping in on Sunday mornings, or as I like to call it, attending the first church of Bedside Baptists. Where I come from, not going to church is the first sign of backsliding into sinful habits and regaining your heathen status.
There are about five churches within two miles of where I live, and every time I drive past one of them, I feel a slight twinge of guilt. I think about checking out their Sunday service, and then I think about all the things that come along with joining a church and that thought is squelched.
Growing up, I can barely remember a Sunday that we weren’t in church. And we weren’t just your average Sunday service sitters. We were in church for Sunday school, Sunday service (sometimes two services), Tuesday night Bible study, Friday youth night, choir rehearsal, and most of the other events held by the church. And it wasn’t just my immediate family, my grandmother and most of my aunts (minus husbands and significant others) were frequent plants in pews. Over the years, a few of my aunts have been in and out of the church. When they were out of the church, any update about their struggles or challenges were judged based on whether or not they were in church. And any prayers uttered on their behalf were usually not about their situation, but about them getting back into the church or getting right with God – as if finally going back to church would magically make everything in their life alright.
When I was in college, I clung to the same kind of regiment. I joined a few Christian groups on campus, including the gospel choir, where the expectation was that you had a home church. And if you didn’t have one, because you never did or it was back in your home state, you were invited, cajoled, and sometimes bullied into at least visiting a local church on a regular basis. There was a bevy of reasons as to why having a ‘home’ church was important, but the most important one seemed to be that regular church going meant that you were seriously committed to being a Christian. The implication being that not going to church consistently suggested that you were a lukewarm Christian fit to be “spit” out of the mouth of God (that’s what Revelation 3:15-16 says about lukewarm Christians).
Among my family and my Christian friends in college, there was a shared judgment for people who weren’t as ‘faithful’ as we were. Faithfulness was determined by how frequently we went to church and how much we participated in services and events. Showing up on Sunday was good, but you got bonus points for tithing, serving as an usher, joining the choir, going to youth group, being part of the dance ministry, showing up for all night prayer, etc. And beyond the events, you were even more “faithful” if you could sing songs without needing a cheat sheet, stood up during the worship session, raised your hands while singing, quoted scripture, or were able to pray out loud. But one of the most faithful acts you could do was invite somebody to church. And if the person you asked to church decided to get saved or join the church then you had hit the jackpot. But if all you did was come to church, no matter how sincere your intentions were, you were considered a pew warmer, and there three ways you were dealt with:
- People ignored you. Since you hadn’t joined any group or clique within the church, no one really talked to you. Of course, there were the Sunday morning hellos and possibly a few hugging hellos, but beyond that, there was little genuine connection.
- People overwhelmed you with invitations. Especially if you were new to church – people were coming out of the woodwork inviting you to every committee, event, team, board, group, or project. And if you said no, or didn’t say yes fast enough, it’s possible you would be slightly bullied before eventually being ignored.
- People talked about you. This mostly happened to people that initially joined something or had been a consistent churchgoer, but at some point stopped coming on a regular basis or had less enthusiasm for doing the things that made you faithful. I can’t count how many conversations turned gossip sessions I participated in over my years as a church goer about people who went off track. And I don’t even want to think about how often I was the topic of one of those conversations, once I started pulling away.
I am not saying that all people at all churches are like this. There are always well intentioned, well meaning souls who genuinely care about their fellow church members. But it has been my experience that you have to show up with the same consistency, enthusiasm, and fervor as those viewed as faithful to be seen as a valuable member of the church. And as long as you show up that way, you are considered in good standing – even if all you are giving is a show. It seems there are always more people providing a show than there are people who genuinely show up in most churches.
Something else has been happening when I drive past those churches in my neighborhood. I start to think about all the people that I gossiped about because they weren’t as faithful as my clique. It saddens me to think about the judgment I passed because someone didn’t worship, pray, or attend the way I did. And I am ashamed to think that I added to the burden of people who many have been hurting and really needed friendship, by focusing on how they showed up rather than why they were coming to church.
This is what I think about when the notion of joining a church crosses my mind. I can’t ditch the feeling that I will find new cliques and judgments on the other side of any Christian church door I walk through rather than a supportive community of people. I haven’t been to church in years, and I honestly believe that my spiritual life is the better for it.
P.S. I think Jesus would have been a pew warmer.
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