It has been about 5 years since I experienced a significant crisis of faith. This crisis ultimately became the source of my atheism. How I got there is a complicated story, one I’ll get to a little later. I want to talk about my current experience as an atheist who loves the Christian church.
As a young child I grew up in the Catholic Church by only minorly observant parents. I went to catechism. My family went to Mass occasionally. I loved the complicated pageantry, the incense, and the choirs. I was dazzled by the towering stained glass windows, intimidated by the white marble statues gazing down on me, and awed by the hoopla that accompanied holidays. My church experiences were in many ways overwhelming and they shaped who I am now. But I did not love the Catholic Church. I walked out with a clean conscience just months after my confirmation. I was justified in my abandoning the church because of its blatant and unrepentant misogyny. If I couldn’t be a priest I wasn’t going to be a parishioner.
But I did find a church I loved just a few months later. It was a little Presbyterian Church just a few blocks away. I had attended VBS there when I was young and loved how exciting the week-long event was. They had a very active youth group that I attended before joining the church itself. Anyway, it doesn’t really matter why I started going to this particular church. What matters is that I ended up loving this church and, through it, the larger quasi-evangelical church. I still love my home church.
I haven’t been a Christian in many years but I always go to church when I’m home.
The church makes me angry and frustrated with its ever-increasing conservatism and truly ridiculous forays into the culture wars. But I go and chat with the old ladies and feel a little better.
The current pastor is bonkers and once gave a sermon on the Fetus Jesus. But the little place is trying to make a go of it, supporting the current members and reaching out into the community.
I have to keep from throwing my hands in the air and giving an exasperated sigh whenever I’m reminded of the church’s new name: New Life Community Church. I think that’s it at least. Such a white bread name makes it hard to tell it apart from any other Non-Denomination, Bible-Believing, Evangelical Nonsense that I have a hard time remembering the name exactly. It reminds me of the church in the “Left Behind” books that I despise so much, New Hope Community Church. Dear my church, don’t become that church. Thanks, Sara.
But I love how the church smells. I love in the summer, when it gets so hot and sticky because there’s no AC, and you can smell all the wooden pews and banisters and lecterns give off their aged spicy piney smells that are hidden the rest of the year under varnish. I love that in the winter all the ancient Christmas decorations come out of the garage smelling like 1970’s plastic. I love that when they get the kitchen going, for a pancake breakfast or strawberry social, the kitchen always smells like canned peas and burnt coffee. It’s like being transported back to the simplest times of my childhood in the most visceral way. My old church feels like home. It feels like family.
My church also showed me the larger world of the “capital-C” Church. I feel about the larger church what I feel about my home city of Pittsburgh. I don’t think I’ll ever be back there, but I want it to be the best it can be. I have less familial love for this part of the church, but I often agonize over its continuing difficulties. I watch Rick Warren make a fool of himself on Twitter. I see the blogosphere have an apoplectic fit over Rob Bell. I watch politicians fall over themselves to prove how Evangelical-friendly they are. It all makes me shake my head in shame.
I know most of the main actors in the Evangelical Protestant arena and keep up with their shenanigans on websites like The Slacktivist (go read it!). This group of people embodied “The Church” and “The Saved” and “The Establishment” for me for so long that I can’t just cut ties with them. I want better things for this segment of Christianity than being known as homophobic, overly coiffed, global warming denying, poor-hating, patriarchy-supporting idiots.
Maybe that seems a little strong?
I love the church, big and little “c” versions. I want them to make news through radical inclusion, fantastic acts of equality, and humbling performances of grace and mercy. That’s what they’re there for. I want to see them busily saving the world, not trying to prevent me from filling my birth control prescription or breaking up immigrant families through deportation. So maybe my criticism seems harsh or unconstructive but it comes from my deep love for the people and the institution of the church and how much better I know they can be.
What kind of institutions fall short of your expectations? What is a good way to start the process of changing them?