We do things a little differently at Christ Church during the month of July. Attendance is significantly lower than normal, and the sanctuary — because no structure built in New England in the 1960s has central air — gets unbearably hot by mid-morning. So we convene instead in the parlor — we sit in a circle, small-group style, and I play the hymns from a digital piano in the corner.
Given this more intimate setup, the pastor decided that, rather than preach a full sermon, she would invite a member of the congregation each week to share a personal account of where they’ve experienced god in their lives — what, in my home church, we’d have called “giving testimony”.
Though I’m technically just staff and not a member of the congregation, Rev. Hope asked if I would consider speaking Sunday before last. By no coincidence whatsoever, it was the Sunday we’d be reading the story of David and Jonathan.
Now, I don’t think I’d ever — even in my Bible-thumping hey-day — really spoken in church. So I was hesitant to say yes. But I managed to throw some thoughts together that appeared to have a coherent message, and shared them with congregation. To keep myself from getting too far off-track (which I’m very good at doing when speaking off-the-cuff), I wrote down most of what I wanted to say. So I thought I’d share them here as well, my “prepared remarks”, if you will, with some additional filler…
I spent my childhood at Shandon Baptist Church, in Columbia, SC. It was — and, I believe, remains — the fastest-growing church in South Carolina. When I was in sixth-grade, the church moved from its standard Greek-revival building on Woodrow Street to a brand-new facility featuring a 1,400-seat “worship center” (not a sanctuary). In the time since, it has expanded that space and now holds services in a 3,000-seat auditorium. It has a multi-million dollar budget; the number of pledging units is not a concern.
One of the reasons it has grown so much is that Shandon, like all evangelical congregations, puts a substantial amount of effort into “outreach” — getting people to church, and getting them saved. In fact, when I was growing up at least, Tuesday Night Outreach was the main weeknight activity at the church. Folks would get together in the Fellowship Hall for a meal, then break into groups that would make phone and house calls to those had recently visited. It was a big deal. Such a big deal, actually, that after a while one of the common complaints you’d hear among long-time members was that Shandon spent all its energies on outreach — getting new folks into the building — that they didn’t spend enough time ministering to those who were already there.
Anyway, my entire life revolved around church activities. There was Sunday morning, of course, which meant Sunday School and a worship service. Sometimes, we’d attend the Sunday evening service as well. I’d be at church on Tuesday nights, not for Outreach, but for Boy Scouts, since Shandon was my troop’s sponsoring organization. I’d then be back on Wednesday night. When I was little, Wednesday night was for Children’s Choir (where I got my weekly dose of Orff instruction) and RAs — that is, Royal Ambassadors, a boys’ devotional program, which ran parallel to GAs, or Girls in Action. As I got older, Wednesday night meant Bible study with the Youth Group. Then, after I decided I didn’t care for Youth Group (it wasn’t really my style), I started attending the Adult Choir rehearsals, which went on at the same time. The weekends, often had additional ministry events going on, especially once I was in the Youth Group.
Suffice it say, I spent a lot of time at my church. Not only that, I took it for granted that everyone else did as well. I assumed that everyone else’s life was equally centered around church activities, and I would be shocked when I found out otherwise.
I was a pretty aggressively devout Christian, too. For most of middle and high school, I’d carry my Youth Study Bible from class to class. I went through two or three Bibles, actually, because I’d highlight, underline, and otherwise notate them to the point that certain passages became downright unreadable and I’d need a new one to start afresh.
I was also, in the tradition of my church, a completely literal interpreter of the Bible. If the Bible says Jonah was in that great fish for three days, then he was in that fish for three days. And, more relevant to me at the time, if the Bible (as translated for us today) tells us that homosexuals, among others, will not ever enter the kingdom of heaven, well then that’s pretty clear isn’t it?
That became a bit of a problem.
You see, I had gotten to that point in life when, as you might say, a young man’s heart starts to beat more quickly for a young woman. But mine did not.
I’m brushing over a lot of details, here, for the sake of time, but ultimately it came down to this: there was an irreconcilable conflict between what I had been taught to believe was the truth of god, and what I knew to be true about myself. This meant, then, that one of those things had to go, and it wasn’t going to be me (truth be told, it almost was me, but that’s a different story).
Now, when I came to this conclusion, there wasn’t a sudden, overnight dropping of my faith. I didn’t just wake up and declare that I no longer believed in Jesus and that I wasn’t going to church anymore. That wouldn’t have gone over very well in my mother’s house. So I just needed to bide my time until I left for college. Then, once I was a comfortable five states away and no longer facing any external compulsion to attend church, I would free to construct my life, and identity, within a completely new community.
If I had been asked at that point in my life just what I believed, I honestly don’t know what I would have said. I never called myself an atheist, because my belief in god never left me, even if my conception of god evolved over time. I probably most often called myself “agnostic”, even I certainly had no idea what that really meant (and probably still don’t). What I did know was that I was on a search for truth, and that this truth was not going to be found amongst the things I’d been taught at Shandon Baptist Church.
Jumping ahead a few years, I was music-directing a student production of a fabulous little show called Altar Boyz. If you’re not familiar (and it’s too bad if you’re not), the Altar Boyz are a Catholic boy band, bringing people to god through the sweet sounds of glorious pop music. The concept of the show itself is that you’re at the final performance of their nationwide “Raise the Praise” tour, and — without going into all the details — you discover towards the end of the show that most of the band members are having a major crisis of faith.
We were in rehearsal one night, and the actors were trying to wrap their heads around where this faith crisis stemmed from. They weren’t having much success, so I stepped completely out of my bounds as music-director and spoke up, saying, essentially: “The issue for the group is that they are so focused on reaching others, that they’d fallen into the trap of neglecting their own spiritual needs. They put all their effort into outreach, while ignoring the need to minister to themselves. And in failing to minister to themselves, they ultimately undermine their effectiveness as the witnesses they are trying so hard to be.”
After I said all that, I had a very real moment of, “Now where did that come from?” It was one of the first, and clearest, realizations I’d had that maybe not everything I’d learned in church had to be left behind. That maybe it was time, and maybe I was ready, to take a fresh look at this thing called the Christian faith and what it might mean for my life.
(In a grand irony, when I was younger, my mother would voice concern about my desire to work in musical theatre, saying “It’s just so hard to live a godly lifestyle in that environment.” Who would have guessed it would be a musical that turned my attention in a god-seeking direction?)
As when I left the church, this was not an overnight shift. It has been a slow, deliberate, back-and-forth expedition to rediscover something I thought I knew. There is still a great deal more of which I’m skeptical than I’m certain. But I like this church, I like this group of people. There I things I hear from the pulpit that make sense and are needed in my life. I like it here so much that I’d probably come every Sunday even if you weren’t paying me to.
Alexander and I have a friend back in Bloomington, Rachael Jones, who ran a cafe until just recently. Every time I went in I’d ask her how she was doing, and her reply was always the same: “Life is an amazing journey.”
This is the journey I’m on, and this where I am in it. I have no idea where it will take me, but I’m very grateful that it has led me here thus far.