Until very recently my church attendance was sporadic at best. The most effective motivators to get up and go were guilt and desperation, but only rarely did I leave with anything other than disappointment and emptiness.
This season without Sunday services began as a result of my work. As I moved into a position of greater authority, Sunday became a work day. I had already grown frustrated with my home church, and by extension, all the nearby church clones, so it didn’t take long to break ties completely. Looking back, I believe my dissatisfaction stemmed from unrealistic expectations for what the local church should be.
As a musician and as an artist, I struggled with the absolute adherence to corporate worship music and the sense that, even as an act of personal worship, there was only so much room for indulging myself as a musician. To explain, let me turn for a moment to jazz. When a jazz artist improvises, it is an instantaneous creative explosion. Even with my training, I don’t always get it and I can’t always appreciate the mechanics of it. However, when I see the player who is lost in the moment, I see something of beauty. For a believer, those moments are time we revel in God’s gift in us and that is something I absolutely can appreciate. And as a musician, it is something I revel in and long for. It is worship. But in my experience, little room, if any, is made for this kind of worship.
As a student of the Word and later as a teacher, I grew frustrated with sermons. Early on in my journey with the church, I wanted theology. After being raised Baptist and suckled on topical sermons, I discovered a Bible church in college that taught me the value of expositional preaching. I devoured it. During that time, I scorned topical sermons or sermons that were anything but orthodoxy. Practical application was important, but I didn’t want to hear the seven habits of highly effective people from the pulpit. Later on, after I had been given the educational equivalent of a Seminary degree sans Greek, my dilemma changed. I found myself growing critical, just as I had during my time in music school. My knowledge made me judgmental. But more than that, the Word, at least in its exposition, grew stale. There was no longer anything new. Just the same old recycled truth, like a little boat pulled out, dusted off, spattered with a new paint and thrown out to float on shallow waters.
This brings us to today. I once again have what I consider a local church home. It is different, and it isn’t. You see, as regards the practice and method it is the same. We pray. We sing. We read the Scripture. Someone teaches. We share in communion, and then we go home. The worship is still corporate, and nobody’s losing themselves in an extended worship solo. I still find times I gain nothing new from the teaching, or disagree entirely. Though, surprise, I’ve come to value the more practical seven habits applications far more.
So what has changed?
I’m no longer the same man I was.
I read these words from Father Thomas Keating earlier today in Phileena Heuertz’s book Mindful Silence.
“If you stay on the spiritual journey long enough, the practices that sustained your faith will fall short. When this happens, it can be very disillusioning. But if we stay on the journey, we find out that this is actually an invitation to go deeper with God.”
I had reached a point where the “practices that sustained (my) faith” fell short. And the church life I’d relied on could not take me any further on my journey. So I left it behind, and in doing so I found a deeper faith and a more fulfilled life.
My journey outside the church led me to intentional personal development. A path that required me to not only seek my purpose in my passions and desires, but also to take responsibility for that purpose. Before, I always hoped that things would simply fall into place. I wasn’t living the life I wanted to live, and spiritually I looked to the local church to provide it. I wanted fulfillment as a musician, but the church service wasn’t a venue for performance or creation. I wanted deeper discussions that challenged the norm, but even small groups were not structured with that depth or level of freedom. I wanted to be closer to God, but I had exhausted all the options I knew and the church wasn’t providing anything new. In the end, I had to learn that these things I longed for depended on me. I had to take responsibility for myself, the only thing I have any control over, and trust God for the rest.
In the end, I received an incredible gift away from the local church. I learned to live without it. In doing so I returned able to embrace it, to receive everything it can give, and I am the richer for it.