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False Choice: The Problem with Finding a Church

3 years ago

1865 words

Photo: We had a major water incident this weekend. Water flooded the 2nd floor bathroom and trickled down into the 1st floor bathroom. My Husband, thank God, knows his way around tools, so he was able to fix it all. My husband is a lot of things, but at least he is my lot of things…

 

I am going to break a rule that I set for myself, dear reader. I’m going to blog about my faith a little bit. I’m choosing to do this for two reasons: First, because it is Lent, so I’m thinking about my faith anyway and second, because something interesting and odd happened this weekend and I’m actually seeking a little bit of advice. I’m telling you this up front because this is not a faith blog, and I know that some of ya’ll long-time readers are not necessarily affiliated with a particular religion (then again, I know that an equal amount of you are very connected with your faith), so if you aren’t interested in reading on this particular topic, I hope you’ll choose to join me on Wednesday or Friday.

If you are still with me, I hope that you’ll choose to give me a little advice, because I’m feeling a little bit jammed.

I don’t know where to begin… let’s start with the Husband.

My husband grew up in a home tied very closely with the Lutheran church. They aren’t just Lutheran, they are Missouri Synod Lutheran, which is the most conservative of all the various iterations of Lutheranism that you can get down with. My in-laws attend church every single Sunday, they had their boys participate in Sunday school and Confirmation classes, and The Husband and his brother are both quite well schooled on the Christian tenets.  The regularity of his church going dropped off during college because of the usual reasons–too much studying, no chance to get home, yada yada… and when we moved to Boston, it really dropped off, especially because there was a lot of ambiguity over it we were going to move back to Maryland. It was better to hold our breath for a return to a church that we both love rather than try to commit to a new place.

During the entirety of our time in Boston, my Mother-in-Law has pestered us about joining a church community, and I can tell that my husband sincerely misses worshiping at a church on Sundays. It isn’t just because his mother tells him to go, it’s because he feels something when he attends. We’ve tried multiple communities and we never found one that stuck for varying reasons. So The Husband’s observation of Lent this year has been to select a church to attend every week in order to find a community that will be right for us as a family.

I was born to parents who were raised in United Methodist homes. Where my in-laws aren’t necessarily active in their church community beyond sending their kids to Sunday school, my grandparents were incredibly active in their church communities: Choir directors or Choir participants (father’s side), Ushers and Deacons (mom’s side), running Bible School and working in the kitchens, making famous pies for the Bake sale… We can talk about the historical and racial reasons why church was more than just a spiritual place for my grandparents, but that is another post for another time. My parents, though, didn’t carry on the legacy after they went off to school. Father stopped attending church as soon as he was old enough to say “no” and mean it, and he has since become agnostic.. I think? Mom, after her first separation from Father, stopped attending her home church because she couldn’t deal with a town-full of eyeballs and gossip on her in the place where she worshiped. She keeps up her faith in different ways, and, like me, she doesn’t often talk about it.

So I was left to fend for myself. When I was in elementary school, I begged my mother to take me to church because one of my classmates told me that I was going to Hell otherwise. Mom thought that was ridiculous and din’t comply. In middle school, during those important years of identity development, I turned to Buddhism and meditation, but didn’t find anything satisfying from it. In high school, after Father came home from China with a wedding ring on his finger (“Father, what’s that on your hand?” “Oh, by the way, I got married,”), I found myself really struggling with my need to figure out my spirituality, my anger with both of my parents, especially my father, my fears of death and beyond, and my hunger for belonging because high school just plain sucked. I turned to my grandmother’s pastor for advice on the whole “honor thy mother and father” gig, and received advice that helped, but didn’t fix.

God was listening to me in my anguish, and I met my husband during the Fall of my senior year of high school and started attending church with him come spring. The Husband’s church has two things going for it that have spoiled us: First, it has an excellent music program. The people who run it and perform for it are real musicians who love music just as much as they love God. This means that every service is accented with beautiful moments of song that really put you in the right mood for prayer. Second, and even more importantly, our home church has a Pastor who is incredibly gifted. He is smart, he is wise, he is funny, he is a scholar and intellectual, and his sermons are for the Christian who is thinking as well as worshiping.

And I’ve come to an understanding that my walk with God has to be an intellectual exercise first and an expression of faith after. I love God because he has given me the capacity to think and understand, and more importantly, he has given me the will to question, challenge, and analyze. Thus, a Pastor’s sermon must pass through the gateway of my brain before they even have a chance of touching my heart or soul.

But here is the problem, dear reader. My husband has other needs. The message means something, but for him, the music means more. My husband worships music, understands it on a level that few do, and won’t go to a church that has subpar music. Give him a mediocre pastor any day, as long as that music director knows what he’s doing.

So here is the conflict and the false choice that my husband gave me this weekend:

The husband has narrowed our selections down to two churches. One has a pastor who is out of this world smart and connected and interesting. The Husband was blown away by his sermon and was also impressed with the down-to-earth community of the Lutheran church in town. The problem? They choose to mix contemporary worship songs into their services along with the hymns, something neither of us really likes that much. We’re conservative like that–let’s break out the hymnal and get down with the old-school hymns, please. The contemporary stuff is just not us.

Option Two? A beautiful ancient Episcopal church in the neighboring town, popular and packed  with a crowd a little above our usual league (The Husband said that he felt grossly under-dressed). The music program was out of this world. The Husband has never been so impressed. The pastor? “Good, but nothing special.”

Awesome.

So I say to him yesterday, “Well, what does your gut tell you?”

“Well, I think we should go to the Lutheran church. I want to choose a church that makes you happy.”

I don’t like this line of argument. It puts a lot of pressure on me. I don’t feel like I need church to walk with my God and live by his tenets. I know that He loves me and I think that I live in a way that pleases Him.

So I say to him: “But baby, if you love the music, that’s really important. You should choose to attend a place that really makes you want to be there.”

And then he dropped this bomb, which has echoed in my head all day today: “Well, I don’t want to pick a place that has only an okay pastor, and then you go and make an impression on the people who we meet, but then you only attend maybe four or five times before you are frustrated, and then I’m left to go and have people ask ‘oh, where is your wife?’ That’s an uncomfortable situation for me.”

And so he adds: “I mean, I don’t need you to go to church. If you don’t want to, you don’t have to. But it seems like you want this, so…”

For me, this feels like a coercive false choice.

Yes, I’ve expressed a desire to join a church community. First, it’s important to me that the boys are introduced to Christianity and are taught the Christian faith. I just don’t want them to spend a lot of time wondering about their souls like I did. I also think that an extra community for them to utilize as a resource is just generally helpful for their upbringing. It is also true that I’ve been longing to join any community and to make new connections and relationships. Talking to a 3-year-old all day sucks sometimes.

But then again, I don’t need to be in church every Sunday like I know my husband does. I get that my husband needs this break in his week, this time to reflect and sing and connect and love. I think that he feels like this should be a family activity, done as a unit, and that it makes him proud to have the four of us there worshiping together for everyone to see.

But I hate that he is holding me responsible for his spiritual satisfaction. If I choose to go to the church with the great pastor, I get something amazing but we’re both stuck with music we’d rather not listen to and I’ll always know that the Husband would rather be at the other church, listening to the good music. If we go to the church with the great music but the mediocre pastor, I’ll really resent the entire practice of getting up on Sundays and going to a place that doesn’t feed my soul the way I want it to be fed.

So what do I do? Is there an elegant solution? I understand that marriage is full of compromises, and we’ve both done our share. Should I just be of the mindset that it’s only 2 hours of my life every week? I can do this much for this man who I love? What kind of message will it send if only Daddy goes to church and mommy doesn’t? Eventually, one of the boys is going to say “Well, Mommy doesn’t have to go…” and I’ll have no leverage to compel them…

I’m very annoyed and conflicted. If anyone has any advice out there, I’d love to read it.

22 Replies to “False Choice: The Problem with Finding a Church”

  1. My first thought is this, you say what each church offers you and the husband, what do they offer the kids? Are they welcoming of sometimes noisy, energetic offspring with programs to use that, or are they just tolerant? It was that which stopped a lifetime of regular church attendance for me.

    1. That is an excellent point. We really ought to think of it from that perspective (we’ve done it for everything else… why wouldn’t we do that for this??). I know that both have childcare during service and that Ursa Major is eligible for formal Sunday School in both already. So I guess it is about the culture of childhood, the community that they create around the children and the support that they give parents… Thanks for this!! This is exactly what I needed!

  2. Also, what do they offer for women? Women’s Bible studies are so important to us stay-at-home-moms, and if you do end up at the church with the good music, it would be good for you to have a place where you can go for some deeper study.
    I am a Southern Baptist (now) and we are taught that the husband is the spiritual leader of the household. That’s a big responsibility that they have, isn’t it?

    1. There is a lovely point to this that I will have to consider. I had not really thought of what the church will do for me beyond the weekly Sunday worship, though I know that I’ll probably be pulled in to other ministries (as it seems like women of a certain age end up being at church all the time performing various functions for the organization). The thought of studying the Bible with other layfolk, though, makes me bristle…. I’m very used to my religious learning being a “trickle down” thing: I’m a student who knows nothing and wants to learn, the Pastor is the professor who is the expert and is there to teach. When I think of group study, my mind is like “Oh no…” isn’t that awful? Clearly there are a lot more “me” problems here than there are anything else… maybe this just isn’t what I should be pursuing to begin with…

    1. I believe the same, though I’m always loathe to ask for trivial things in my prayers. I always feel like God has significantly better things to do than help me with stuff such as thing. I can hear him saying “didn’t I give you a perfectly good brain? Go forth and figure it out, young lady.”

  3. I love this whole thing, K.C. This is an important decision and you’ve expressed that beautifully. You know I’m a Jesus girl, too. My husband grew up in a Taiwanese Methodist Church, but that wasn’t going to fly for me. I think I’m more like your husband and want it ALL: sermons that make me teary, songs (only the traditional ones!) that make me soar. I found that in our local Episcopal Church. It sounds very much like the one you described… except our pastor is excellent. Unfortunately, she is temporary as we are looking for a new, permanent rector. Are you certain the sermon you heard is from the rector, not the curate (a more junior sermon-giver) or even a guest lecturer? Could you give that rector another chance? I only ask because I’m right there with you on the music actually being THAT important.

    Also important: a good Sunday School so you can enjoy the service without the Ersas. And I agree a thriving Women’s Bible Study is a boon. I go every week. I realize this makes me sound like a bonkers bible thumper… but it’s something I really look forward to. And our younger moms do a bit of babysitter-sharing to get that hour free.

    Please don’t judge those well dressed people! (I’m one of them.) Keep in mind those are the good guys… the ones who got up and got spiffy because they needed a bit of God and music that morning. Good luck with the search!

    xoxo,

    Britt

    1. Thank you, Britt, as always! This helps and hurts… I wonder if I am just being a commitmentphobe? I just don’t want to be locked into something and then feel gross about it later? Your point about WHO was speaking and if they are the regular speaker is well taken… I’ll have to look into that. And you are also right… it would probably be good to give things another go just to be sure of the quality of the sermons. Every leader deserves to have a less-than-stellar performance form time to time… not to say that the guy was AWFUL, it’s just that he wasn’t sublime…

      And I wasn’t judging in a bad way… Lord knows that whenever we DID go to church when I was younger, we were dressed to the nines. It’s my husband who is going to have a problem… he usually goes to church in jeans (something that I forever frown upon. I don’t like it at all!). But then again, all of the men in the house have fantastic wardrobes (especially the boys) and I’M the one with the shabby stuff. I never buy new clothes, and all of my stuff has holes in them… I’ll feel so… inadequate…utterly underdressed…. I think… but that’s probably the least of my true concerns. There are ways to work around that (especially in the summer. I do have a pretty good arsenal of lovely summer dresses).

      I want to be thoughtful, I want my husband to be happy, I want to feel spiritually connected and also connected to my community… I feel like I’m asking too much. Again, I’m circling around the “just suck it up and do it,” idea just to make The Husband happy and get the little bears into a great community… that’s what we women do, right?>

      1. This is, indeed, what we do. And how I remember my sad wardrobe during the preschool years: mom jeans, stained t-shirts, my husband’s fleece. Every day. Won’t we all feel better when we can bust out our summery dresses!

        But K.C., this isn’t a sign-your-life-away deal. If that Church doesn’t feel right next week, don’t go! Find another. We Church-shopped for two years. My husband probably still thinks our Church is a bit too (ahem…) white. But the people there are just so good, so generous.

        And now it’s out into the cold for do-gooding, fundraising activities.

        Oh, and drop off parties for children under 5 or 6? No fucking way.

        1. RIGHT!?!?!? NO FUCKING WAY!!!! This ish right here is CRAZY!!!!!!

          I have been wearing the same two skirts and the same pair of jeans since December. Seriously: Jeans outside, Skirts inside. Cami over the skirt till I get cold, then there is a little long-sleeved shirt that I wear. Yesterday, I shit you not, I just didn’t even feel like putting the bra on to take Ursa Major to preschool. I was like…. nope…. and just put on a shirt over the crappy pair of jeans and threw on my little peacoat and strolled out the door like that was appropriate… Lord…. such a hot mess. I had my back-up pair of glasses on and everything. You’re lucky if I’ve got my locs up in a NICE ponytail when I leave the door.

          I used to be so cute. 🙁

          It’s funny that your husband thinks your church might be a little bit…color deficient… because that wasn’t even a factor in our looking. First, Churches are still some of the most segregated places in the country. Second, you KNOW where I live (I’m west of you now. Between you and Worcester) , so there was no point in even wondering if brown people were going to be anywhere. Both places have zero people of ANY sort of color. ZERO, Britt! *sigh* And the Black people who I have talked to in this regard (like our pediatrician and a few other people) have been like “so, uh… you are gonna get on route 2 and drive to town to go to church, right??” Girl, that’s a 45 minute drive… ain’t nobody got time for that.

          And I know that you are right about it not being a permanent thing… I just know that once we get started, we’ll get sucked into the various million ministries and stuff… and I don’t want to bounce the boys around, you know? I’d like to pick a place and be a part of it. I’m a girl who likes stability…

  4. Maybe you should join the Mormon church?? 😉 Here’s the thing, as I was reading all of this, it really got me thinking….for me, church is a WONDERFUL community, but it’s more than that too. Yes, I thrive from the friends I’ve made there, the activities for my kids and for the women, but more importantly, I thrive from my relationship with God and Jesus Christ. That is the ultimate to me. So, if I were in your shoes, I’d be focusing more on truth. That may sound harsh (I’m not trying to sound judgmental here), but that’s part of the reason why I can forgive the bad singers at church, the people that offend, and the occasional church leader that may bug me. I feel that ultimately I have found the truth in a doctrinal sense. There are a million and one churches out there, but they all believe different things. I feel like no matter where I go in the world, the mormon church I attend is going to be teaching the same lesson in South America, Canada, Uganda, and the United States. For me, it’s about more than the community. Maybe that’s not what you want to hear….but I’ve never understood the thinking behind picking a church based on the people that make it up. Because people are imperfect. God is not. Just something else to think about in your already difficult decision. 🙂 My Mom joined the mormon church in her mid twenties and she was a very intellectual thinker as well. She went through several missionaries teaching her before she could grasp that spiritual conversion because she was thinking so much with her head. Prayer is the key. I believe that God will lead you to where you’re supposed to be, and your prayers are not trivial to Him. Your desire to seek a good church home for your family is anything BUT trivial. 🙂

    1. I love you, Meredith! And I love this so much. There is so much truth in here… “People are imperfect. God is not.”
      Augh, but that makes me just want to walk away even more. People are imperfect, People run the Church… God is perfect. Cut out the middle man and just continue to walk with God as I do already? I use church as a tool to learn how to walk with God more thoughtfully. The music is nice, the community is a bonus, but ultimately, I see it is as a place for learning, contemplation, meditation…
      And you are right, prayer is key, and I don’t do enough of it. I’m rarely on my knees in real, thoughtful prayer. I don’t know if I always hear God when I pray… I see him and hear him in other things. and in other ways. The more I think about this, the more perturbed I am…

      1. Ha! Sorry to add to your problems! 🙂 That’s not what I meant to do at all. Even in my own religion, I believe there are people that fall away because of men and their imperfections. HOWEVER, I don’t believe that God has left us helpless either. It’s hard to know how to hear those answers to our prayers. But, it takes practice practice practice!!

  5. My dad’s music director (well, it’s not as formal as that, but he gets lumbered with organising the worship group rehearsals etc) at our church, and he gets so infuriated when all the songs are the really modern, really high, only-suitable-for-guitarists-and-tenors worship songs. You know, Tim Hughes, Ben Cantalon, that lot. I mean, some of them aren’t BAD songs, but they’re so difficult to sing if you’re not a tenor, and they’re in about five sharps, so… :/

    But at the same time, I remembered once I was on a conference thing, and somebody said, “We’re not here to mark the worship group out of ten, we’re here to spiritually refresh” or something like that. So yes it’s definitely more conducive to singing-worship to have good music, but the teaching and stuff is probably more important to general life-worship … if that makes sense?

    Honestly, I can see why this is a super complex situation, and it’s really hard decision. If I were in your position I would probably advocate going with the good preacher because after all, becoming part of a community is the first step to changing and improving it until it becomes what you want… I don’t know how formal their worship system is, of course, but maybe it’s something you could get involved in? And in the end the preaching is the bit you can’t change so you should prioritise that.

    But I don’t know. I haven’t really been to church enough recently to feel justified in making a point (I just go to the local youth group and pretend that counts, ha ha)…

    1. I just realized I didn’t reply to this! Sorry!

      My husband loves music on a molecular level, so when he is impressed by the music, I know that I’m already losing the war. For me, it’s a choice now of do I want to go and be miserable, knowing that it’s the right thing to do for my boys or do I want to not go and understand that I’m going to fight with the boys later? I feel like I can find spiritual understanding, growth and satisfaction in my own way and in my own time… but it’s hard to find a good music community that really gets it and stirs the soul…. so that means I should prioritize that for the husband…. right?

      The husband went to a different place yesterday to check things out and came back saying that he wasn’t a fan of the preacher because she was too “excitable” but that he liked the music. So I asked him where he would put it if we were going to rank churches that he has been to so far. He said he put it at a higher priority than the place with the good preacher because the music was better.

      So that basically means that I’m not going to win… Lordy…

  6. Dude, I so got this:

    First, remind husband that God doesn’t give two shits; He’s everywhere, so both curches are fine. And like the lessons Solomon taught us, sometimes it is easier to solve problems by giving and taking from both sides.

    There are, on average, four Sundays each month. Tell husband he can attend the church of his choosing, go there three of the four. One Sunday per month, the family can go to a church that you love. Since there are four Sundays, perhaps a third Sunday you can go to one the kids really like (as they grow they’ll probably develop their own tastes, and might find comfort and belonging in a whole other church, or even religion). Maybe with the fourth Sunday, y’all can stay stay home and get biblical, if you catch my drift.

    God not only gave you free will, but he gave you the options on which to use it. He won’t care where you park your butt. He won’t care if you go every Sunday like clockwork, or for a Tuesday night church-chat with casseroles and coffee. It’s about connections, and those can be made anywhere, at anytime as long as your heart is open. That’s what worship is all about-putting his principles, lessons, and guidance to work. God is not a special occasion, and he doesn’t require you to wear a tie.

    I am not religious, but I always got the impression that God is everywhere; so I can always be close to it. God is always about learning stuff, so it seems to me God is useful and handy when we need to be pragmatic and smart. I don’t think the spirit of God is containable, or limited; I think it dwells in people, so the getting together is what matters. Unlike real-estate, worship is not about location, location, location.

    Even Jesus said something about locking yourself in the closet to pray (I might be paraphrasing that wrong, but I think I’m close 🙂

    So, enjoy and embrace the variety that God is offering you. Cross all the thresholds of every corner of the earth. I suspect He’s already made you a standing reservation.

    Good luck!

    1. I love this so very much. I agree with you on so many of these points, and I appreciate just how thoughtful it is! I especially love the notion that this is really about having an open heart and about making connections within a spiritual community. The notion that our relationship with God is always about learning, that his presence is unlimited, really resonates with me also. It just jives perfectly with how I feel about this whole thing! It makes me, frankly, want to just let go and just not attend a weekly service at all…

      I wish that I could do the rotational thing as you suggest (It has been suggested by others as well), but I really firmly feel like we should stick with one place so that the boys can regularly attend Sunday School and confirm with a class. Especially because the two churches that we are considering are from different protestant denominations, I’d really like to choose one and stick with it so that way the boys can have a good foundation in a specific doctrine first before they go off and learn what everyone else is talking about. I suppose that this is my hang up: I feel like consistent routine is really important at this age, and then as they get older, I think that fully understanding the doctrine of your denomination is important, too. (That’s probably the student and teacher in me… and is probably very outside of the norm.)

      1. I think you know what’s best for the boys, and you should stick to it til you find what you need. God also gave you patience and the ability to change. Pick one, give it a fair try; stay if it works, leave if it doesn’t. No worries, God is in both places and he has plenty of time to wait 🙂
        The thing I loved most about this post is that you’ve found a home base that has more than one option you can find pros for. Some people can’t find a place of worship at all.
        I personally would attend the one with the comfiest pews, ooh! and handed out candy…

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