If you watched the above video (a clip from this year’s Easter Show), you saw how emotional I was while singing the cover of “I Can Only Imagine”. I could barely choke out the new lyrics I added to reflect the dark times we live in. Why?
Why do we get emotional when singing, painting, or maybe even some of you got a little teary while viewing my art? Just seeing the image of Jesus may make us feel powerful emotions. For some, it’s intense anger and malice, for others it’s overwhelming love and forgiveness.
I’ve attended many kinds of churches in multiple states and multiple countries. When living in Ireland, my family attended a church in downtown Cork. They were excited to see Americans, as an American had recently returned home and they were now without any in their congregation. They were keen to show off their “light lunch”, which they started up as a new tradition after their American friend told them about potlucks after church. Well, something got very lost in translation!
Yes, Irish and Americans both speak English, but trust me, Cork English is very different and hard for the uninitiated to understand. Also, the use of language and story telling, our different backgrounds, and the way we turn a phrase can cause some confusion. However it happened, the event they called “light lunch” was the biggest church feast I’ve ever had!
They were interested in our response. Did the Americans think that they’d done it up well? I’m laughing just thinking about it. It was a buffet rivaling a casino’s all you can eat binge fest- nothing like the more modest potlucks with casseroles (or “hot dish” as the Minnesotans call it), baked goods, and a few sides. Not that I haven’t been to large potlucks in which people went all out, but the Irish really took it to a whole new level. I have no idea how they got such an impression about American church lunches, but it was quite the experience!
I bring this up as an example of how church is all about perception. What we think church is, what we think it should be, and what it really is can sometimes match up perfectly, but often does not. A church is run by imperfect people and attended by imperfect people, so it will never be perfect. The history and religious foundations may be misunderstood, altered by political powers, or lacking understanding. The music may be off key. The speakers might stumble. The sound system may malfunction. Worst of all, people may leave church feeling more alone than when they came in.
The social and political aspects of church sometimes distracts and suffocates us. Maybe all we really want is the shared hope of life after death and seeing our loved ones again, redemption, mercy, unconditional love, forgiveness, deliverance, peace (“it is well with my soul” even when troubled times come), and gathering with other human beings who also want these spiritual gifts; sharing our lives with other families, seeing babies grow up, couples marrying, and supporting those who grieve- a community based on a genuine desire for everyone to be blessed by God. But the reality of how a church operates can be a vastly different experience than the raw honest emotion and connection that we long for.
So do we want to go to church? Is it worth the risk of feeling angry by something said at the pulpit, or by interactions with the congregation? It is worth feeling lonely, misunderstood, and rejected? Is it worth getting up early, making ourselves presentable, and pushing ourselves socially?
These, and more, are the questions I ask myself every time we move to a new place and need to settle the church question. I also go through this when a church situation is dysfunctional for our family and we need to look at making a change.
We’ve made changes. We’ve taken breaks. And we’ve somehow managed to still want to go to church. There are times when the Holy Spirit is in that place, and the love between fellow humans- many times complete strangers- is very real and powerful.
We have our boundaries though, and 2020’s government control of churches was one of them. We were half the choir, but when they banned singing as a response to orders without scientific foundation, we decided that they banned us. We did not return. For me, a church must be about the people who attend. More so than the political and religious order, more so than the government, more so than history and tradition, the church must be about the people. Jesus never pushed the lepers away, He went to them. He never rejected the elderly or the children. I can’t imagine a scenario in which Jesus would have agreed with the order to ban singing.
And in the end, I will not attend a church that violates my individual sovereign beliefs. Because, what critics say is largely untrue. Many of us do not attended church as cult-like drones, but instead our personal faith is the deciding force wherever we are, including church. And because of this, church (in many cases) is real. It is a space where humans gather, where personalities sit alongside each other, and our differences are tamed only by our desire for love.
When the government goes after the churches, we can imagine it’s because our gathering together gives us power that they do not want us to have. That alone should be enough reason to want to go to church? Maybe so. As I sit here today I don’t feel ready to face a new church experience, but I’m open to changing my mind and heart. I still want the things that I go to church for.