Why I stopped doing church (or, how repentance got me off the pew)

This one is about when my family changed churches when I was five years old. We were a family of eight, but my mother and I were the only ones who went to church with any regularity. To be honest, I don’t know what was behind the decision to move. But for whatever reason, we left St. Mark and went to the big church on the hill.

Funny, what memories stick with you. I remember the car ride on that first Sunday we went to the new church. My mother called to me in the back seat and said, “Carolyn, this is a big, fancy church, and we have to be very quiet during the service. You cannot talk during church.” I didn’t remember talking during church before but I can tell you, I was very quiet at the new, fancy church.

We must have liked it there because we stayed but you know, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Just like at the other church, we were still among the last to leave every Sunday because my mother would not go home until she had spoken to everyone.

Maybe that’s why I liked communion Sundays so much. It gave me something to do while I waited for my mom. After church on communion Sundays, while my mother talked, I’d go up to the altar and play with all the little cups that were left there. Now, remember – I was five years old. Five year olds eat dirt at home so church germs were certainly not a threat.

You know how there is always a little bit of grape juice left in the bottom of those little cups? Well, I could take the leavings from two or three little cups and just about fill up another one. And I could usually down three or four shots before my mother caught sight of me. “You can not play with the little cups!” she’d say, as she drug me off by my arm.

Usually when I tell this story, I end by saying that I find it ironic all these years later that I make my living talking during church and playing with those little cups.

But this week, I’m thinking of that story because I’m realizing I’ve never known how to act in church. Since I was five years old, I’ve had a church problem. I’m either talking or playing. I’ve always had a bad habit of saying things you aren’t supposed to say in church. I belong to a denomination that follows the liturgical year but frankly, I am not a fan. I realize some of this is a matter of taste. There are people who like to sit on wooden benches and sing the old songs. It is a comfort to them. It feels like home.

Not me.

Can I be honest and speak from my heart? I can’t believe I ever went to church. I don’t think I could ever go back. My experience at Mosaic has ruined me. The transparency, the concern for the one who doesn’t quite fit, the willingness to move with the Spirit, the desire for real community … that speaks to something deep inside of me. It feels like “home.”

And it has ruined me for anything else.

I don’t claim to know God’s whole vision for the church but I do believe he is looking for more than just somebody to talk on Sundays who occasionally plays with those little cups.

But that’s what I knew when I started all this and I’m beginning to realize something sort of profound. I have what is in my heart and then I have what I grew up with. And even all these years later, those two things can still be in conflict. There are bizarre times I find myself irrationally choosing the old in favor of the new; it creates an inner conflict. A traditional heart covered in bluejeans can be a very uncomfortable thing.

Please don’t hear what I’m not saying. Traditional forms of church are not the point of this blog. The point is the state of my heart. Am I willing to change, to go with God, in whatever direction he calls?

I’m telling you all this because sometimes I find myself dealing with God’s call to do a new thing. Am I really willing to go when God says go? Am I really okay with how he makes all things new? Am I truly open to new moves of the Spirit? Am I willing to try new things, or is that only for when I’m miserable enough to change?

Repentance is a willingness and intention to change in the direction of the Kingdom of God. But I’m not always ready to repent, even when I see my fault. Sometimes I have to ask God to “repent me” because I can’t honestly repent myself. I want to want to change, but I’m not always fully there when I recognize the need for it.

But this morning, I see both my need for change and that change in a Kingdom direction is good for me. So repent me, Father, for all the little ways I rebel against your creative call forward. Repent me for the habits I consciously hang onto, hoping you won’t notice. Repent me for the things I stuff and deny and ignore when change and growth are the better alternative.

Repent me for my religious spirit, for my anxious spirit, for my fears. Repent me for every moment I’ve done “church” in the comfortable ways rather than pressing in and forward toward the Kingdom.

Carolyn Moore

I follow Jesus within the communities of Mosaic Church, Asbury Seminary and the Moore household.

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