When I first started attending my former mega-ish church, I was overwhelmed by the experience in the best of ways. Coming from a childhood church with a mean age of 74, and enrolling in a grad program that strongly emphasized materialism as the only reality, it was a balm to my soul to be surrounded by thousands of people my age who were whole-heartedly worshiping the same God.
It was difficult to meet people at first, but I did eventually meet some people when I volunteered to help out with the kiddos for about a year, and then later when I joined a “small” group that was ~100 people. Another great thing about this church was that they regularly have ‘drives’ that ranged from collecting school supplies for local kiddos to fixing cleft palates for kiddos overseas. Most importantly, the theology of this church is solid. They have a strong focus on the gospel, and go deeper than some of the other big churches I’ve been to in the area.
I mention these positive features up front because I want to emphasize that this post is not about poo-pooing this particular church. I am, however, going to share the issues and concerns which ultimately became such a big to deal to me that I didn’t want to come to the services anymore. I would still serve, but then I would slink home after I had “put in my time,” like a guilty church mouse.
So what were these issues and concerns?
1) Lights off during worship and sermon
This was kind of symbolic, but why do we need to put a spotlight on the leaders and not be able to see each other? It promoted a sort of concert-y, celebrity atmosphere that I found out of line with the biblical presentation of churches and church-leadership.
Sometimes we would have guest speakers or worship leaders, and Lo and Behold their new book or CD would be for sale at our church resource area. I felt uncomfortable seeing crowds of people lining up to buy merch in a church. It reminded me of when Jesus turned tables in the temple for desecrating the temple with their vending. Maybe that’s a little unfair, but.. I thought of it, and it gave me the heebie-jeebies.
3) Celebrity culture
Many of the guest speakers and worship leaders mentioned above were celebrities of sorts in Christian Land. Granted – people usually gain a celebrity status because they’re very good at something, and I don’t think it’s necessarily wrong to recognize someone for being an especially gifted musician or speaker. But sometimes it felt like that there was an undue emphasis on the star power of the people on stage. Even if they were 100% focused on glorifying God, I would see people in the audience snapping pictures and sending to their Christian friends and relatives. Again, just kind of gave me the heebie-jeebies.
4) Emphasis on church “brand”
This church does an annual volunteer rally in which they gather everyone, hand out prizes, give talks about church culture, etc. A lot of the ideas they talked about were basically telling us Best Practices for Customer Service. It’s not that I don’t want people to feel comfortable and welcome when they come into church, but… I think what most people need is sincerity, not polished perfection. In concordance with this customer service idea was this overarching, unspoken theme that we were an Organization that had a Brand. And our job as Volunteers was to promote that Brand by adhering to the values and goals of the Organization. It just made me wonder — even if the leaders claim that all of this is ultimately for the purpose of bringing glory to Jesus, is it really? Or is it more about their brand, which is inextricably linked to the name of the pastor? Would they be willing to do a church event with “lesser” churches to help the community, if they couldn’t slap their name on a huge banner outside? There’s a good possibility I’m being unfair, but I would guess no.
5) Passively ignorant leadership
As a volunteer, did anyone in the leadership really know who I was, what I truly believed, how I lived my life outside of church? Not in the least bit. But, because I passed a criminal background check and mentioned during my “interview” that Jesus changed my life in some way, I could be plopped into a position of spiritual leadership within the church, most likely over kids. I think there’s a balance here – no one wants a church leadership team that’s booting people for not posting enough scripture on their fb page, but… it made me a bit uncomfortable to know I could be performing satanic rituals during the week and then teaching children in Sunday school.
6) Lack of accountability
I could easily choose what sort of persona I wanted to project each Sunday. If I stopped going to church at all, if I embraced an obvious sin.. I truly doubt anyone would notice. Please read my tone correctly – I’m not pouting about this, just stating it matter-of-factly. I’m not sure it’s possible for it to be any other way in a church this size, structured the way it is. But, I have really felt the need for older women who aren’t necessarily my pals to speak truth into my life, to hold me accountable, to counsel me about family stuff that I don’t necessarily want to share with other family members. Let’s bring back Sunday school, amiright?!
7) Stretched too thin to tend
There was a time when I was very concerned for the mental health of one the other volunteers, but for various reasons I didn’t feel that it was appropriate for me to reach out myself.* So, I called the church and asked them if a man on the leadership team could check in on this person. The lady I talked to sounded genuinely concerned, took down all the info, and told me she would have someone call me. They never did.** Maybe someone reached out to my friend and just didn’t call me back to tell me, maybe not. But it struck a wrong cord within me that with something this serious, I couldn’t even get a callback. Beyond this episode, there are some things the pastor at this church brought up that I would truly have liked clarification / expansion on. But does he stick around after his sermons to chat with people? Nope.
8) Work to belong
There was no membership class for this church. To be a “member,” you have to volunteer. I get their point in some ways, but I really dislike this for a few reasons. One, some people truly do not have the capacity to dedicate 3+ hours of volunteering + another 2 hours of attending services on one Sunday. People work, some people are not mentally or physically capable… some may be saved, but in a very spiritually dark place and not necessarily ready to be the face of the church. So what about them.. they’re poo in the eyes of this church? It came across that way to me. Secondly, I really think it’s promoting an anti-gospel ethic: work to belong, work for community. I believe with my entire heart that is *NOT* the church’s heart behind their reasoning, but even so— it can still be the result, intended or no.
AGAIN, let me re-emphasize that I’m not trying to trash this church, but the points above really bothered me. I know that there is no perfect church. There are, however, different degrees of health among churches. Maybe some churches – even if the leaders have the purest hearts of gold – are simply too big to provide the sort of real community and approachability of leadership that promotes spiritual health.
It’s also worth mentioning that I strongly disagree with church-hopping. It’s unhealthy for the spiritual growth of individuals – and the health of the church as a whole – for committed Christians to come into church with a consumer mindset (e.g. I want this sort of worship, these sort of programs, this sort of experience, blah blah blah, me me me). It can be healthy to feel a little uncomfortable in your church – it probably means you are contributing to the diversity and broadening the reach of that church. Clumping into churches with people that look, think, talk exactly like us is how we have such imbalanced churches – those that are awesome at reaching out to the community, but have weak-sauce theology vs. those churches that seem to care more about theology than being the hands of feet of Jesus.
BUT I think most every Christian would agree that sometimes, it’s legit to move on. The main reason I moved on was because I came to the point where I dreaded going to service. I was talking to my ‘rents about it, and they were like “Okay, soooooo — why not try other churches?” And ever since then, I’ve felt this great freedom and peace, and have been greatly enjoying my visits to other churches in the area.
All this being said — I would genuinely like feedback from my fellow Christians about these points I brought up. Fire away!
— EDITORIAL NOTES —
*A hard lesson I learned in 2016 (?) was this – it’s not a great idea for a single woman to take on the role of a single guy’s “helping friend.” It turns weird fast.
**so I reached out to another friend, and he very kindly reached out to this person. [praise hands] Christian community FTW!!!