The Year I Didn’t Go To Church
Well, that’s a little misleading. The year after my divorce was final, I visited several churches.
And had a little difficulty finding a home.
Churches of Christ (and probably other faith fellowships) weren’t sure what to do with divorced people in 1984, and while I would be greeted enthusiastically as a guest, the warmth of the smiles would visibly cool when I said I was divorced.
I did find a home at Pleasant Valley, where no one seemed to mind very much what my marital status was. There was an singles group, and for the most part, folks did not regard the divorced as people with a scarlet “D” embroidered to their blouses or seared into their chests. But in the meantime I’d found another home among people who readily accepted others and took them in and shared commonalities of interest:
Trekkies. Well, Trekkers, actually: the United Trekkers of Arkansas, so named because there was some kind of nomenclature debate going, in which “Trekkies” was perceived as an insult. Hey, it was just a word then and it’s just a word now. (There’s a chance that “Christian” may have originally been intended as an insult. It certainly is used that way now in some circles.)
You could be a Trek-fan and go to meetings and (in those days before widespread Internet) share rumors of movies being made and news of new books and comic books and collectibles; debate motivations of characters and planetary cultures and 23rd-century technology. And nobody cared if you were married, divorced or single (there were members of all those categories); or whether you were painfully thin or dangerously obese; whether you were old or young or somewhere in-between; or whether you wore Trek t-shirts or uniforms or street clothes or dressed like a Klingon from time to time.
The findings of many a research project in religion point to what people seek most in a church: community. That’s what the Trekkers excelled in. They were a community in which deep friendships formed and grew, based on a shared peculiar interest. They worked together. They had garage sales that raised money for local charities like Big Brothers/Big Sisters. They even put together three or four local science fiction conventions — again benefiting local charities — that attracted some of the writers and actors from the television series and movies to participate.
Not unlike followers of Christ.
Now, the club was no paradise to be sure, and it had a rival. Sort of. There were for a while a few members of the UTA who were also members of a larger local chapter of a national organization known as Starfleet. The national organization — and particularly the local chapter — took their charter very seriously. Members had a rank in Starfleet and could advance, and they wore Starfleet uniforms (whatever era one chose), and they participated in community service projects while wearing them. (The local chapter adopted a mile of highway for cleanup.) One member famously wore her uniform as a candidate for the jury in the impeachment trial of President Clinton.
But the Starfleet folks developed kind of a disdain for the undisciplined ways and unlimited acceptance of the UTA folks, and a rift developed, and most of the UTA folks who had also joined Starfleet let their Starfleet memberships lapse. And Starfleet soon went the way of all interstellar hierarchies.
As far as I know, neither organization persists all these years down the road. I let my membership in UTA lapse in 1987, the year I moved to Shreveport.
And that, really, was the year I didn’t go to church.
There was no Pleasant Valley there. There was a church across the river with a single again group of six morbidly depressed people. There was a church on the north side that was all folding chairs in a circle and worship renewal and total unawareness of visitors. There were others, and I was quick to pick up on the dress code and bylaws and expectations and requirements of them. But there was no home.
Every other month or so, I’d roll three-and-a-half hours back up the road to Little Rock to go to church and reconnect with my Pleasant Valley brothers and sisters. Fortunately, my sojourn in Shreveport was just for that one year, parts of 1987-1988.
Now, the point to all this is (if there is one): Jesus was in Shreveport as surely as He was in Little Rock. It may have been shallow — and may be shallow — for someone to look for a church home based on a craving for community rather than Christ. It may be self-seeking, selfish, self-interested.
Yet it can grow into something more.
When people visit our churches, we have a very narrow window of opportunity to offer them the comforts of home — especially those who are hurting and hungry and desperately in need of comfort. I was one of them, and I am not proud of the judgment I showed or the speed with which I exercised it in some cases.
If we greet people with our charter and our uniform requirements and our expectations for performing service and cleaning up highways and leave a general impression of disdain for folks who aren’t going to advance in the ranks, well ….
On the other hand, if we show acceptance as Christ accepts us … if we do not judge others as He eschewed judgment while in this world; what they wear or what their background is or what their potential level of commitment might be … if we work together to help others and honor children and obviously have a great time doing so … then I think we’ve got a better chance at reaching the folks who are starved for community and may have only the vaguest idea about the One who puts the lonely in families.