I grew up in the church. I have no shortage of experience with doing “The God Thing.” My dad was and still is an Independent Baptist Bible Believing Minister who has been faithful to God and the church for forty long years. I’ve seen the ups and downs of his ministry within the context of churches as a whole, trends that have come and gone to make his ministry look either shabbier or shinier. There are so many things that have shaped my spiritual journey in such a messy way, that I have a hard time peeling away the layers to really evaluate a bare nuts and bolts relationship with Christ. I think for those of us who have grown up within the institution of the church, it is easier for us to know God as introduced to us by our first exposure to Christianity. We relate to Christ in a way that has been ingrained in us by a continual outward conditioning common to those who attend Sunday School regularly with almost militant commitment to church attendance. I am so thankful to my parents for their unrelenting pursuit of God’s will in their life as well as their unprecedented passion for instilling the Faith to their children and grand-children, with doubtless belief in the merit of a life grounded on Biblical truths that have proven ageless. At the same time, I’m so thankful for my Godly heritage based on my parent’s early decision to commit their children to the Lord. I’d like to address some of the challenges for those who grow up within the context of Christianity as defined for them by their parents or grandparents, especially those whose exposure to a particular brand of Christianity outweighed that of their equal exposure to a diversity of traditions and beliefs. Perhaps you may find that the ebb and flow of your relationship with Christ, models that of your ever changing relationship with your own parents, one day warm and close while in the next season, frighteningly volatile–should there be things that you still don’t understand about their perception of your purpose and place in God’s Kingdom as related to passing on the Godly legacy they might have hoped you would model to the T. This passage is meant to encourage those whose faith has been challenged by having grown up as insiders to faith as it played out within a community of believers who were professional Christians, with Ivy League educations in “blending in.” As a thirty year old woman with a life much different than what I ever imagined, I’m forced to question how I ended up here and now and why I don’t feel like I fit in. I grew up in a Christian home as a preacher’s kid. For most of my growing up years, my dad was a pastor. My childhood was relatively stable and I had minimal exposure to what might be considered traumatic events that could have significantly affected my ability to healthily relate to the outside world. But my own elite training in the ways of Church and God has steadily affected my personal relationship with Christ as well as to the outside world and I’d like to reflect on a few areas of conditioning where my thinking is fighting to be freed from what I’ve been taught in church as opposed to what Christ longs to teach me at a personal level of studying His Word–while mustering enough hope to believe a genuine quest for personal faith is not an automatic rejection of religious tradition.
The complexity of how we got to where we are now, as Christians in the 21st Century, is not a subject I dare tackle now. This point has more to do with the organized insitution of church and its relevancy in a world quickly changing. It is a reflection on the dialogue common among those of my type: Childhood church-goers who are still struggling with personal faith and their role within an ever-changing community of believers.
I was recently in a churchwide meeting for Sunday School goers and the main attendance was that of individuals over the age of sixty. The woman in charge of Sunday School for young children stood and gave testimony about the lack of Sunday School attendance in contrast to her growing up years where as a child, she had not missed a day of Sunday School, even when vacationing with her family. It had simply been an expectation of her parents that their family attend Sunday School and Church faithfully, rain or shine, life or death and that is why, she said, “I still attend today.” I felt somewhat condemned as I sat in the pew and heard her say “Parents just don’t come. They don’t model Sunday School attendance for their children. They may drop the children off. But that’s it.” Here I am. On the church staff. A house full of Sunday School aged children. And I can count the number of times I’ve been to Sunday school in my adult life on one hand. I haven’t even been dropping my children off. There are a myriad of reasons I don’t take my children to Sunday School. But let’s start with me. Why don’t I attend Sunday School? This particular lady had cited the parent’s lack of commitment as the reason their children do not grow up and attend Sunday School with just as much unfailing commitment. But this does not hold true for me. Just like her, I personally grew up in Sunday School from the time I was Sunday School age to the time I left my parents house in pursuit of independence. So am I the exception to the rule? Do most children produce an exact model of their parent’s faith traditions without ever slacking off to the point of almost absolute denial of regimented Christianity? No. Having grown up alongside families of similar dedication to instilling faithfulness to the church, I know that the success rate is something like 50% at best. Meaning, of the families that regularly attended church, 2 out of 4 of their children may still faithfully attend today. These are discouraging numbers for those parents who raised their children with the belief that their boots of steel dedication would ensure the ultimate salvation of their children’s souls. I am 1 of the 2 out of 4 children who does not regularly attend Sunday School. For the most part, I feel horribly guilty about my lack of desire to get up an hour or so earlier so that I can make it to Sunday School. But there are other reasons I don’t attend, beyond my simple lack of spiritual fervor and commitment. First off, I’ve most always attended churches where there was no Sunday School relevant to my age group or time of life. For instance, at the present church where I serve as music director, in the most recent Sunday School get together, there was no group representing 30 year old mothers who are sick and tired of being sick and tired, who are feeling disappointed by life’s current lack luster, and who question a relationship to their husband which has been traditionally described by mainstream Christianity as one of stifling submission with no emphasis on the pre-requisite of Christ’s love. So strong is the opposite in fact, that at this meeting, an older gentleman stood and jokingly complained about the resistance he gets from the older women in his Sunday School class when he points out the woman’s place, as mandated by God’s Word. The ironic thing about this is that the attendance of women at that meeting far outweighed the attendance of men. Yet all of the women chuckled under their breath as if on cue, with the understanding that this is a part of their faith tradition. I am tired of laughing at jokes that are not funny in church. I am tired of silently sitting there with questions that fly in the face of status quo, watching my faith shrivel up from isolation: not physical isolation from The Church, but spiritual, mental and emotional isolation that piles up quip responses over top of the place from within that cries out for real answers to a life that is much larger than getting “it” right on Sunday mornings. I personally feel like my time would be better spent attending a support group where the expectation is more along the lines of sharing your present reality, not applying canned Christianity to the sore spots because your story is too graphic to share with those whose lives are hiding beneath layers of Christian polish meant to hide the scars.
But there are other reasons I don’t attend.
In a way, I’m tired of God’s Word. My mother will make sweet comments about how she never gets tired of reading through the Bible and that she gets something new everytime she re-reads a particular passage. I really do envy my mom and I actually know what it is like to read something through a different lens at different times of life, coming out with a new perspective on something that had just passed me by before. But something about my mother’s tone, grates on my nerves. It is one of those volatile moments in my relationship to my parents, that I have to grit my teeth in resolve to turn the other cheek. I can’t help but take my mom’s comment as trite and overly delicious in context to my own understanding of life as I know it. It’s like she has already reached the other side, and I find this particularly annoying when my own level of Christianity still finds me cursing under my breath or not so under my breath, when my toddler and teenaged children or husband daily push me almost to the brink of insanity. I read the Bible. But most devotional books or accompanying material to guide us through God’s Word are based on the premise that IT (God’s Word) has already been figured out by someone, someone spiritually superior– and that you, as the Sunday School goer, or church attendee, just need to understand the interpretation at hand. So sometimes, that is how Sunday School feels. It is like a place where you go to reach the pinnacle has having already been reached by others before you. It feels like you have to subscribe to the “group think” or else you may as well pin on your Scarlet A and be prepared to wear it proudly. I feel horribly cynical and extremely unspiritual when I share these thoughts, as if just by sharing them I will be labeled as someone who has not quite found the Real Christ as I claim. I see smirks and hear head shaking by those who feel like they are failures for breeding within me a spirit of contempt. Yet my purpose is not to point fingers at those who regularly risk vulnerability as Sunday School teachers and Church program coordinators. My aim is only to be an honest voice with whom others may be able to relate, so as to push forward with solutions without ignoring those insiders who even after years of conditioning, still have one foot in and one foot out. At this particular Sunday School meeting, the pastor related the idea that Sunday School used to be an outreach, not an insular institution of stagnation. I think this is key. When we think of church as an OUTreach, we no longer expect perfection, we no longer expect participants to behave in a certain way, to have already figured it all out. We know that others are coming in with rough edges, and perhaps our own need to put up an unrealistic front becomes less prevalent.
So why don’t I carry my children to Sunday School? I mean after all, when they visit their grandparents and come home saying Bible verses and singing Jesus Loves Me, I do feel so much better about them having been exposed to something of spiritual quality. Why not make this a habit for my family? Why not make my parents proud and ensure that their grandchildren know every single flannel board story that exists by having attended Sunday School regularly over a significant period of time.