This past Saturday afternoon I warned my husband, “I’m not going to church tomorrow.” In the morning when he went off early to help with music for the service, I went for a walk, made bacon and eggs, sat by an open window, and read every single page of the New York Times.
I really, really enjoy not going to church.
I’ve been going to Sunday services nearly every week as far back as I can remember. I figure that between ages four and forty-four I’ve been to around 1600-1800 church services, subtracting vacation and sick days and adding the years I went twice on a Sunday.
That’s a lot of church services. I feel like I need a break, at least from attendance as my default setting, and while I feel relieved to come to this awareness and sense that it might be okay to take a break, there’s also sadness and a pinch of fear.
The sadness is because my identity as a churchgoer is such a longstanding part of me—I literally don’t know a life without it. The thought of changing that brings with it a sense of loss of something that has mattered a great deal to me at various points in my life. There’s also the sadness of thinking that perhaps the entire experience of church as I know it is a failed experiment in Christian community that got off track long ago. I’m not saying it is (and I’m not saying it isn’t), but even entertaining that thought makes me sad.
The fear part is complicated. Part of it is fear of judgment, that when I leave this earth God will call me to the throne, raise the scepter of righteousness and—with a frown—say, “Well, you were doing pretty good until mid-2015 when you moved church way down on your list of priorities. DEPART FROM ME!” (Yes, there’s a not-that-small corner of my soul that still worries that this version of God is the real one. I can’t overestimate the influence of Chick Tracts cartoons on my psyche.)
Relatedly, I wonder if slacking on church attendance is the first step of a slippery slope that leaves me skidding quickly downhill and ultimately into a ditch where I lose my faith entirely. But I don’t think I’m losing my faith, or straying from it, and I’m not denouncing it. I think I’ve just lost faith in this particular expression of it. I’m not even sure why, though I know it’s not because of any horrible experience.
Another thing on the list of fears is the fear of what people will think. When I was a kid, we prayed for “backsliders,” and “backsliding” seemed to be evidenced by something as small as not showing up to church for a few weeks in a row. I don’t want to be reduced to that by my church friends. I don’t want people praying for or talking about me in the context of worry that I’ve “fallen away.”
On the flipside, if going to church stops being the primary signifier of my Christian identity to the rest of my friends, what will replace it? What if my nonbelieving friends see me out at brunch on Sunday and think I’ve gone pagan and that’s just one more piece of evidence of “See, this Christian thing doesn’t really work, even for Sara, who I thought was really into it”?
But then, if going to church on Sunday morning really is the primary way people know I’m a Christian, or that I know I’m a Christian, something is wrong. What about them knowing I’m a Christian by my love? What about me knowing by my attempts to follow Jesus by practicing the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount?
Maybe going to church every single Sunday, putting offerings in the plate, and helping with the coffee hours, fools me into thinking I’ve completed all of my Weekly Christian Tasks, and I don’t bother with loving my neighbor and enemies and refraining from worshiping money, my computer, and Netflix.
My concept of Christianity is so entangled with Sunday service and being a good girl who shows up that I think I might be kind of messed up about it. Or maybe I’m not messed up at all; maybe the two things are supposed to be entangled and this is one of those times that I need to be suspicious of my thought process about it and just go.
Then I’m suspicious of my suspicion, the roots of which seem to come from a place of fearing rejection and disapproval and judgment and misunderstanding. I’m nearly forty-five. Why is this so hard?
I’ve been trying to come to some biblically based definition of the point of it all for myself. Other than the call not to neglect the gathering of the saints, there’s not a whole lot about what “church” is supposed to look like. Who said it has to be in a certain building, at a certain time, in a pew, in certain clothes? Who said, “And thou shalt print a bulletin and have an approximate fifty-fifty balance of traditional hymns and contemporary choruses, an offertory, and announcements, all of which shall last no less than an hour but not very much more because people will get impatient”?
I love the quiet of a non-church Sunday morning. Listening to the classical station’s choral music and reading the paper. Going out to the neighborhood coffee shops in the very religious city where I live and seeing fellow sojourners who have let go of something, come to some place in their lives where they can’t do this thing any more if it’s only to please others, check something off a list, and avoid judgment and disapproval and gossip.
This is not a Quitting Church manifesto. I have absolutely no idea what it feels like to go more than a couple of weeks without a service when I’m not traveling. I may not last for long, or even try. But I deeply—almost desperately—want to better understand why church matters. Maybe it will take letting it go to figure that out.
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Written by: Sara Zarr
Sara Zarr is the author of five novels for young adults, most recently The Lucy Variations, which the New York Times called “an elegant novel.” Her sixth, a collaborative novel with Tara Altebrando, came out December 2013. She’s a National Book Award finalist and two-time Utah Book Award winner. Her books have been variously named to annual best books lists of the American Library Association, Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, School Library Journal, The Guardian, the International Reading Association, the New York Public Library and Los Angeles Public Library, and have been translated into many languages. In 2010, she served as a judge for the National Book Award. In fall 2014, she received a MacDowell Colony Fellowship. She currently lives in Salt Lake City, Utah, with her husband, and online at www.sarazarr.com.