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GRACE NOTES: Rediscovering Church

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By Nancy Kennedy

Lately I’ve been fascinated by stories of people who grew up in church and now have abandoned the denominations of their youth, and sometimes church altogether.

In a very funny memoir, “Mennonite in a Little Black Dress,” Rhoda Janzen writes about having to wear frumpy skirts, granny panties and doilies on her head and eating lots of potatoes.

When she was old enough to do so, she left her Mennonite community, although she did return years later when her husband left her. Still, she kept herself as an outsider, as if to be Mennonite again would be taking a step backwards.

So too the 22 various contributing writers of “Jesus Girls: True Tales of Growing Up Female and Evangelical,” most of whom wrote about “overcoming” or “surviving” their church upbringing. Praise choruses were banal and simplistic, music to be endured. Youth group, Sunday school, Bible study – all trappings of a faith that chokes, or so it would seem from these women’s perspectives.

While the Mennonite book made me laugh out loud because the author wrote it with respect and not scorn for the faith of her childhood, the Jesus Girls book made me sad.

In “Churched: One Kid’s Journey Toward God Despite A Holy Mess,” Matthew Paul Turner, describes growing up in a fundamentalist Baptist church in which pants on women or long hair on men were “abominations unto the Lord” and neckties on males were required attire for holiness.

He writes nostalgically about growing up “fundy,” but in the end he too leaves. However, instead of giving up on church altogether, as if church is something one outgrows, as a young adult he kept searching until he found a church in Maryland that he could call home.

Turner writes, “The pastor wasn’t the most dynamic preacher, but every time he spoke about the good news, he cried. He felt something. He couldn’t always communicate the hope effectively, but he felt it. I had moments when I felt it too.”

By 2008, when Turner wrote this book, he had moved to Nashville and joined a large church with loud music and a light show he describes as “the aurora borealis on steroids and a timer.” He says it’s gaudy and gives him a headache, but the pastor allows him to bring to church all his honest doubts and questions about the doctrines he learned growing up.

I love Turner’s book because it’s not anti-church like many contemporary books are. Turner says no church is perfect, but that’s what makes a church endearing.

To me, a church where the pastor and the people allow you to be human and flawed and in process rather than perfect, and who will walk with you, sharing their struggles with you as you share yours with them – without fear of condemnation or judgment – is as perfect as a church gets.

Not all churches are that way, however. Mine, thankfully, is.

In 2008, the American Religious Identification Survey showed that 83 percent of American adults identify themselves as Christians, but only 20 percent attend church on any given Sunday.

Sept. 12 is National Back to Church Sunday. The aim is to reverse the declining church attendance in America by encouraging those who once attended to revisit. Last year, the hundreds of churches that participated in an “invite a friend to church” campaign saw a 19-percent increase in weekly attendance. This year, more than 3,000 churches have joined the national “Rediscover Church” campaign.

I think one of the biggest reasons people don’t attend church is that they think a person needs to be good in order to go – and many churches make you feel that way, whether from the messages preached from the pulpit or the unspoken messages from the people in the pews, or both.

But goodness isn’t a requirement. If we were good, we wouldn’t need God. But we’re not good and so we do need God. And we need his people – we need each other.

A study by LifeWay Research and the North American Mission Board of 15,000 adults found that 67 percent of Americans said if a family member invited them to church they would go, and 63 percent would go if invited by a friend.

If that’s true, then consider yourself invited by me.

Church shouldn’t be something you outgrow or grow beyond, but something that embraces you and that you can embrace. That said, see you in church this Sunday?