Just a week shy of my fourth birthday, my family I moved to the small rural town where lived until I graduated from high school. I lived there again briefly after college. As we settled into small town life, my mom began dragging my brother and me to the local Baptist church. (These roles were reversed when I was in high school, and I was the one dragging my mom to church.) I once asked my mom why she chose the Baptist church since she had grown up attending a Lutheran church. She said she hoped that my dad might one day be persuaded to go to church with us since he had attended a Baptist church when he was younger. To my recollection, my dad never set foot in that, or any other, church for the rest of his life except for the occasional wedding or funeral. I would often ask my dad why he never went to church with us. His only response was that churches were mostly just full of hypocrites. While I don’t believe that, as I got older, I understood more and more where he was coming from.
Over time, we became fixtures in the small congregation of our church, attending nearly every Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night service. My mom was in the choir and I was actively involved in the youth ministry, going to as many camps, retreats, and other such activities as I could stand. I read my Bible all the way through a couple of different times. I memorized the scriptures that were assigned for the next week’s class. I even learned the names of all of the books of the Bible in order. I short, I faithfully and dutifully did most of the things I was “supposed” to do.
But there was one area where I was deficient in the eyes of the church. I rarely, if ever, brought any of my friends with me on Sunday. I wasn’t embarrassed of my faith or the fact that I went to church so often. I had a simple explanation. During one of the many “Visitors Sundays”, my Sunday school teacher confronted me about why I never brought anyone to church. My explanation was that most of my friends already go to church. He asked where they went to church. I pointed up the street and said, “A bunch of them go to the Catholic Church up the road.”
This was one of those surreal moments where, as soon as I gave my response, I knew it was the “wrong” answer. The next few moments seemed to move in slow motion, and the memory is still very clear to me twenty-plus years later. My Sunday school teacher made a pained expression, shook his head, and said, “Michael, you really need to get your Catholic friends to church. They don’t worship the right way, and they’ll all go to Hell if they don’t get saved.”
I didn’t know what to say to that. My first thought was “This guy’s lost his mind.” That moment was when I first began to question everything that I had been taught about what it meant to be a Christian.
I still went to church off and on while I was in college, if for no other reason than the social aspect. I attended a church that had a very large and active college group, and I made some really good, close friends during those years. But I couldn’t help but be critical of much of the preaching and teaching that I heard. The older I got, the harsher my criticism became.
When I graduated from college, I moved back in with my parents for a little over a year while I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. While I was back in my hometown, I tried to go back to my old church, but I couldn’t do it. I went a couple of times, but after being away for four years, I had mostly rejected many of the ideals of those who were running the church.
For the next several years, I mostly didn’t even bother going to church anywhere, at all. When I met my wife, we discussed church and tried a few different churches out, but I was never happy with any of them. There was always something to complain about, and I nearly always left church in a worse mood than when I arrived.
Then it happened.
I became a father…twice. Folks tried to tell me that being a parent would change my attitude about things, but you don’t really know what that means until it happens. Once I had kids and they got old enough to understand, I wanted to do for them what my mom had done for me. Even if I have personal issues with some of the doctrines of many churches, I still wanted my kids to grow up learning about Jesus and the moral lessons that Christianity could teach them.
So I tried again.
My wife and I finally found a church that with great kids program…and I can tolerate the preaching…most of the time. I still have moments in church when I feel the urge to just turn my hearing aids down and let my mind wander, but in light of all that has happened recently, it’s probably good for me to listen to viewpoints that I don’t always agree with.
Throughout my time not going to church, I never, ever, lost my faith in God. My life has been too blessed for me to think that it was all just coincidence or some cosmic accident. The part of my faith that was tested was my faith in mankind. When I see and hear Christians bashing, trashing, and judging others, Christian and non-Christian alike, it makes me sad. That’s not what we are here for. When my Sunday school teacher told me my friends were all going to Hell, I never for a second believed that. What his statement did was make me more observant to how so many churches, religious organizations, and Christians in general treat each other and others outside of Christendom. I didn’t like what I saw. That’s not to say that I do everything exactly how I should. I’m the furthest thing from perfect that you could find, and I mess up…often. I’ve said and done some pretty awful things in my life, but I have faith that the One who is perfect has forgiven me, and He will continue to set me back on the right track.
I’m a work in progress that will never be complete, and I’m okay with that.