Back in December, I wrote here and at Patheos about how I was having a hard time attending my evangelical church after the election. That piece struck a nerve. To date it has almost 7,500 Facebook shares, making it the most read post that I have ever written, by far. This tells me that lots of other people are feeling the same way and struggling with the same things that I was in the wake of November 8th.
I wanted to tell the rest of the story – what happened after we left that evangelical church and started going to a “mainline” one. It’s not the story of theologically weak/watered down preaching that I thought it would be. For my fellow dissatisfied evangelicals who aren’t sure about leaving: there is light at the end of the tunnel.
My family is now attending a Presbyterian church (USA) about five minutes from our house. I had always thought of the PCUSAs as the “liberal” Presbyterians, and they are, in a sense. This is the first mainline church that I have personally ever attended, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was probably not alone in having a mental picture of mainline churches as being kind of like this: wishy-washy, unfamiliar, lukewarm.
But…surprise: that’s not what I found at all. Our new church feels surprisingly similar to the traditional Baptist church of my early childhood: pews, hymnals, a full choir. All the children coming to the front for a children’s message.
There are some welcome differences, however – the associate pastor, music minister and youth minister are all women, in addition to other roles that are traditionally filled by women in evangelical churches, such as the children’s minister.
The church is unapologetically formal – hymns only, from an actual hymnal, no projection screen. A pipe organ. People up on stage wearing robes. This formality has taken a little getting used to, as I have attended contemporary churches since I was eight years old. It’s growing on me. I appreciate that they don’t try to thread the needle between traditional and contemporary, as many churches do, with the awful “praise team” approach that no one ends up actually liking. While I miss singing my favorite praise choruses I’m gaining an appreciation for the deep theology in the lyrics to the old hymns.
The main thing I was worried about was that a mainline church wouldn’t actually preach the Bible. I have found this not to be true at all. The sermons are very similar to the sermons at the evangelical churches I have attended all my life.
What makes our church special is that even though my family is new, and the church is large, the pastoral staff went out of their way to make us feel welcome immediately. I mean, really: Jonah and I went to one service in early December and talked to staff members briefly on the way out the door. The following week, I got a card in the mail from the pastor, Jonah got a postcard from the children’s minister, and the pastor added me as a friend on Facebook and Instagram. On our next visit, staff members somehow remembered my name, and Jonah’s name. That’s the way it’s done, folks. I have never felt as welcome anywhere.
By way of comparison, at the last church we were visiting, the pastoral staff and their families had a special section to sit in during the service. (Maybe it’s not nice to link and put them on blast – but I think they should know how they came across, amirite?) Unless someone outside of the section went up to them, I never saw them interact with anyone besides other staff members. No staff member other than the children’s minister ever even looked at me, let alone spoke to me. Not once, over the course of three months.
Regular readers will recall that I was looking for a church that wasn’t filled with Trump voters and that would speak against him. The first Sunday we visited our new church happened to be the first Sunday of advent. The pastor spoke about the difference between happiness and joy, and mentioned that attendees might not be feeling very happy this Christmas season. Though he wasn’t explicit, I took this to be a tacit reference to the election. I’ll never forget it. I knew I was home.
Everything has not been perfect on this point. This previous Sunday I just felt sure that the pastor would mention the Muslim/refugee ban from the pulpit. When he didn’t, I was pretty disappointed. There was talk about divisions in the country and reaching out and spending time with someone whose life is radically different than yours, and a prayer for justice and against oppression, but nothing explicit.
But here’s what’s different from the past: even though I’m not a member and haven’t been there long, I felt comfortable enough to message the pastor and ask him about it. So I did. He was very thoughtful and transparent in a way that I am not used to ministers being, saying that he is attempting to minister to a diverse group of people, and while most members feel like he and I do, not everyone does. I’m going to quote him directly, as I appreciated his thoughtful response, and because this is anonymous:
“I probably missed an opportunity yesterday and I’ve struggled with that. I’m still processing the faithful response, in our community, to these days of chaos and outright hatred. I won’t always get it right, so I’m grateful for the gifts of grace and of community. I need voices like yours to speak your truth in love and challenge me to deeper faithfulness.”
I’ll take it. If things go the way they may with human rights abuses and outright evil from the Trump administration, however, I’m going to need a stronger response. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.
How are you feeling about church these days?
(By the way, if any Atlantans are looking for a new church, please feel free to contact me, as I would love to share my church’s name so you can visit!)
P.S.: Please check out Dee’s comment below. She provides some excellent context about the obstacles facing pastors talking politics in a PCUSA church.