Yesterday I went to church. This is not exactly newsworthy, since I just figured out that I’ve been alive for about 2260 weeks, and if I’ve missed church a hundred times (slightly more than twice a year) in all that time, I’d be very very surprised. So I’ve probably attended almost 2200 Sabbath church services — that’s not counting, of course, any time I’ve gone to an extra service on a Friday evening or Sabbath sundown, or times I’ve visited the worship services of other churches on Sunday.
So yeah … it’s a bit of a habit. (Hmm. Hope I don’t come off sounding too much like the Church Lady there. “So we only go to church when it’s…conveeeeenient???”
And I left church yesterday feeling absolutely joyous and uplifted, which is also a bit of a habit for me. I honestly can’t say why. It’s certainly not because I’m attending the Perfect Church.
I know exactly what my ideal church looks like. I’ve pondered it many a time. I can practically draw you blueprints.
My Perfect Church has between 300-500 members — not so many that I feel lost in the crowd, but enough to carry on any kind of program the church wants to run without overtaxing the willing few volunteers. The Perfect Church has women in significant leadership roles — women elders, possibly a woman pastor.
In my Perfect Church, the music incorporates all my favourites hymns and many contemporary praise-and-worship choruses, all led by musicians and singers of top quality. Worship is lively and varied, and features communion at least once a month. The pastor preaches sermons which are thoughtful, Bible-based, well-structured, and never last longer than 25 minutes. Each week the sermon leaves me both inspired by the wonder of God’s grace, and challenged to do a little more to bring that grace to the world.
My Perfect Church has a large group of children the same age as my kids, and many active programs for them. There are enough willing and involved parents and other volunteers that no one family has to bear too much of the burden of running these programs — we can be involved without getting burnt out. It is possible, sometimes, for me to drop my kids at a church program and pick them up afterwards, or at least sit quietly in the back and enjoy their participation without having to be in charge.
My Perfect Church is deeply committed to serving the poor and to social justice and runs a number of service programs which give people the opportunity to be involved in the community in various ways.
In the Perfect Church, along with the many interesting programs they run, there are a number of small groups meeting regularly for prayer and Bible study. In my Perfect Church dreams I belong to one such group, which has a diverse membership but is largely made up of People Like Me — educated middle-class professionals, politically liberal and concerned about social justice. With this group I can honestly share my questions and my spiritual struggles. We pray for each other and are involved in service projects together and I feel these people are my closest friends.
Does my Perfect Church exist? Maybe, somewhere. In fact I can think of two churches in St. John’s which I’ve visited frequently which include many of the attributes of my ideal church; there are probably others I don’t know about.
But I don’t go church-shopping, because my Perfect Church has to be a Seventh-day Adventist church. I’m a liberal, questioning, doubting, passionate but imperfect Adventist, and that’s a deal-breaker for me. It just wouldn’t work for me, even going to the Perfect Church, if I were going on Sunday instead of Sabbath, or if (as is the case with one of the Nearly-Perfect Churches in town) the statement of beliefs on the back of their bulletin makes a point of saying, “We believe in the eternal conscious punishment of the damned.” I attend the only Seventh-day Adventist church in St. John’s, so church-shopping isn’t an option.
What if I lived near an Adventist mecca, like Loma Linda or Takoma Park or any of our SDA colleges? What if I had my pick of fifteen English-speaking Seventh-day Adventist churches catering to every worship style and theological leaning? If I church-shopped long enough, would I find one that would allow me to tick every box on my Perfect Church checklist?
Probably. Maybe not every box, but most of them. At least as many as either of the two churches I like to visit here in St. John’s, with the advantage of being of my own denomination. I think in an area with a lot of SDA churches, I’d find one that fit my requirements pretty closely. And I would get tremendous spiritual blessings from the worship and fellowship there.
I would, however, miss out on a whole other class of spiritual blessings that I get from going to my real, Imperfect Church.
Let me tell you about my Imperfect Church. I was born to parents who were members there, and whose parents and grandparents were members there. I was dedicated, baptized and married there. My husband was baptized there and both my children were dedicated there. I hope they will someday be baptized there. The sense of continuity through the generations is the thing that ties me most strongly to this church, the thing I value most.
There are about a dozen children the age of mine in my Imperfect Church, and for its size (about 100-150 members) the church runs a good array of programs for them. 90% of the work (or so it seems to me) on those programs is done by me and Jason, and while we think everything we do is worthwhile for the sake of our kids, I will admit to sometimes feeling close to burnout with the routine of Sabbath School, Adventurers, and Children’s Church. I wish there were more people to share the load.
I love the pastor of my Imperfect Church to a degree which sometimes surprises me, given how many points I disagree with him on. His sermons usually run about 45-50 minutes and sometimes contain ideas which inspire me. But his strength is really in ministering to the sick and dying, a service I don’t value enough because I haven’t needed it myself. I would probably leave such pastoral care out of my calculations when designing the Perfect Pastor for my Perfect Church, because I’m thinking only about my own needs.
The Imperfect Church squabbled and quarrelled and deeply divided itself for nearly ten years over whether to ordain women as elders. Having finally decided to do so, the church has never since been able to find a woman who was willing to serve in that role and take the flak that came with it, so we have only men as elders.
Our Imperfect Church has, in the past, had small groups and I have always been involved in trying to get them going and in hosting one, and it has never been successful for more than a few months. I don’t know whether it’s me or the church but a few years ago, after the last attempt, I decided I had run out of time and/or emotional energy and for now I’ve given up trying to start/join/find a small group that will really feed me spiritually.
I say that what I love most about my Imperfect Church is the fellowship, the diversity, the sense of community even in our dysfunctionality. Yet I am actually not that good at community and fellowship. I range from shy to arrogant in my interactions with others, and usually I am too busy getting my kids in and out the door to take time to really stop and listen to the people I share the pews with. I’m most comfortable talking to people when we’re working together on a common project or goal; I don’t have one zillionth of the genuine interest and listening ability that, say, my mother does, that allows her to circulate around the church asking people how they are and really caring about the answer. I can do that professionally at work, but at church I’m on my time and I actually have a short list of people to whom I will not ask the question: “How are you?” because I’m afraid they will tell me.
So I’m overworked and overcommitted at church, the worship doesn’t suit my tastes half the time, I don’t see women in leadership where I want to look up to female role models, I’m terrible at fellowship, and I can’t find the small group involvement I believe I need. And yet — I still love it. I can’t explain why.
Partly it’s that I’m very easily pleased. I’m willing to put up with a lot of inconvenience for the sake of something I basically like. Some people view this as a flaw; I see it as a spiritual gift. I once bought a stereo system on which the volume “Down” button stopped working two weeks after I bought it. It was still very much under warranty but rather than go through the hassle of returning it, for five years I lived without a “Down” volume button. I just got used to the volume it was set at (and to shrieking at guests: “Don’t turn the music up!! I’ll never be able to turn it down!!!”)
So maybe that’s why I find it easy to love my church in spite of its imperfections. It’s not any special virtue in me: I’m just easily contented with what I’ve got.
Yet my relationship with my church goes beyond mere contentment. As we rose for the closing hymn yesterday I was so joyful I had to physically press my hands together to keep from lifting them up. (In my Perfect Church, of course, it would be OK to raise your hands in worship and no-one would stare or comment or disapprove, but that is not my real church). I don’t know what to put this joy down to — not to any one hymn we sang or any phrase in the sermon or any conversation I had; just because I was there. Imperfect Me in my Imperfect Church, learning the lessons God apparently wants me to learn.
I have dear friends, people I care very much for, who have left churches — including my Imperfect Church — because they weren’t feeling blessed or spiritually fed there, because they attended church and left feeling angrier or sadder or lonelier than when they came. I don’t condemn or judge them for leaving. Sometimes, maybe, you are driven to go find a place where you belong, a place where you can grow. I’m just incredibly grateful that my Imperfect Church is the perfect place for me — the place I belong, the place I am growing.