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WHY BOTHER WITH CHURCH?
This is a big old ship, Bill. She creaks, she rocks, she rolls, and at times she makes you want to throw up. But she gets where she's going. Always has, always will, until the end of time. With or without you.
J. F. POWERS, WHEAT THAT SPRINGETH GREEN
As I grew up in Georgia, church defined my life. I faithfully attended services every Sunday morning and evening and also on Wednesday nights, not to mention vacation Bible school, youth group activities, 'revivals,' missions conferences, and any other occasions when the doors might open. I looked at the world through stained-glass lenses: the church told me what to believe, who to trust or distrust, and how to behave.
During high school I attended church in a concrete-block building located on the grounds of a former pony farm. Several of the former stable buildings were still standing, littered with hay, and one Sunday morning the largest of these buildings burst into flames. Fire trucks noisily arrived, the deacons dashed about moving lumber and uncoiling hoses, and all of us church members stood and watched as orange flames climbed the sky and heat baked our faces. Then we solemnly filed back into the sanctuary, suffused with the scent of burnt straw and charred timbers, and listened to our pastor deliver an impromptu sermon on the fires of Hell which, he assured us, were seven times hotter than what we had just witnessed.
That image lived long in my mind because this was a 'hellfire and brimstone' church. We saw ourselves as a huddled minority in a world fraught with danger. Any slight misstep might lead us away from safety toward the raging fires of Hell. Like the walls of a castle, church offered protection against that scary world outside.
My ventures into that outside world, especially in public high school, brought about some awkward moments. I remember the hot shame of standing before a high school speech class giving the pious reasons why I could not accompany them to view a Hollywood version of Othello. And even now I can quote the sarcastic words used by a biology teacher explaining to the class why my 20-page term paper had failed to demolish Charles Darwin's 592-page Origin of Species.
Yet I also recall the satisfying feeling that came from belonging to a persecuted minority. We congratulated ourselves for living 'in the world' without being 'of it.' I felt like a spy, clutching some precious secret that few others knew about. 'This world is not my home, I'm just a passin' through,' we used to sing. During childhood and early adolescence, I rarely resented church: it was the lifeboat that carried me through the ocean swells of a turbulent world.
My church frowned on such activities as roller-skating (too much like dancing), bowling (some alleys serve liquor), going to movies, and reading the Sunday newspaper. The church erected this thick wall of external rules to protect us from the sinful world outside, and in a way it succeeded. Today I could do any of those activities with an unsullied conscience, yet I am also aware that the very strictness of fundamentalism kept me from deeper trouble. Strict legalism pulls in the boundaries of deviance: for example, we might sneak off to a bowling alley, but would never think of touching liquor or drugs.
Later, though, I came to view some of their rules as wholly arbitrary, and some as flat-out wrong. In the Deep South, racism was an integral part of the church subculture. I regularly heard from the pulpit that blacks and that was not the word we used for them were subhuman, ineducable, and cursed by God to be a 'servant' race. Almost everyone in my church believed that Martin Luther King Jr. was 'a card-carrying Communist' we cheered every time a Southern sheriff hit him with a nightstick or locked him in jail.
A religion based on externals is easy to cast aside, and that is what I did for a period of time. When I moved out to taste the broader world for myself, I rejected the legalistic environment of my childhood. The words they used suddenly seemed deceptive, like Orwellian Newspeak. They talked about Grace but lived by Law; they spoke of love but showed signs of hate. Unfortunately, when I emerged from Southern fundamentalism, I cast off not just the shell of hypocrisy but also the body of belief.
Circling the Buttresses
I now see that the Deep South fundamentalism of my childhood represented far more than a place of worship or a spiritual community. It was a controlled environment, a subculture. I now recognize that a harsh church, full of fierce condemnation and empty of humility and any sense of mystery, stunted my faith for many years. In short, Christianity kept me from Christ. I have spent the rest of my life climbing back toward faith and climbing back toward church. My journey of return to faith is a long story that I dare not begin here. Rather, this small book centers on the blunt and simple question: Why bother with church?
Is church really necessary for a believing Christian? Winston Churchill once said that he related to the church rather like a flying buttress: he supported it from the outside. I tried that strategy for a while, after I had come to believe the doctrine sincerely and had committed myself to God. I am not alone. Far fewer people attend church on Sunday than claim to follow Christ. Some of them have stories similar to mine: they feel burned or even betrayed by a former church experience. Others simply 'get nothing out of church.' Following Jesus is one thing; following other Christians into a sanctuary on Sunday morning is quite another. Why bother? As the poet Anne Sexton put it,
They pounded nails into his hands.
After that, well, after that everyone wore hats.