I grew up going to church at least three times a week. Sunday morning. Sunday evening. Wednesday night. In between those expected church times there was Good News Club, or rehearsals for the girls singing group I was in, or Christmas program practice, church work days, Vacation Bible School…you name it, I was there.
And I was okay with that.
I knew the building inside and out. I knew where the janitor kept the garbage bags, knew where the extra visitor cards were stored, knew how many choir robes there were hanging in the downstairs storage closet. I even spent happy hours up in the steeple (a fully sanctioned visit) vacuuming up dead flies.
I must admit that I even knew the exact length of time it took for a six year old to wiggle on her tummy beneath the pews down the length of the sanctuary – long enough for Daddy to be able to come down from the choir loft during practice and haul that six year old off the floor and plunk her down on the front pew with dire warnings not to budge until choir practice was finished.
I didn’t mind going to church because it was a place of safety. Of acceptance. I knew everyone and everyone knew me. They encouraged, acknowledged, and probably even reprimanded me. I felt secure there. Loved.
And yes, the stuff about God was fine, too. It was all part and parcel of the warm atmosphere of the building and the people.
I suppose that’s why it was such a shock to me when a friend asked me one day as we were playing if I intended to go to church when I grew up. I was probably about ten years old.
“What?” I asked, puzzled by her inquiry.
“Will you still go to church when you grow up and aren’t forced to go there by your parents?” she repeated, looking down at me through the rail of the loft in my bedroom where we were playing.
I looked up at her, uncomfortable with her question yet old enough to understand that she did not understand why it was that I went to church, why it was that my parents “forced” me to go with them.
I didn’t answer her question right away. I remember pausing to consider my words, thinking even as I did so that this was a great opportunity to explain to my friend why church was more than a building, why God was more than a concept, a cosmic being out there keeping His thumb on the world.
But I wasn’t very old, and I didn’t have the words.
I simply said, “Yeah. I’ll still go to church.”
“Why?” she asked from the loft, looking down on me in more than one way.
“Because of Jesus and stuff,” I replied, shrugging my shoulders.
“Huh,” she said. “I wouldn’t if I were you.”
I remember that moment with mixed emotions. I felt like I’d failed God in some huge way, missing out on an opportunity to “witness”, whatever exactly that was. But I also recall feeling sad for my friend. Sad that she didn’t understand the good stuff about church, the nice people, and the truth of Jesus’ love.
I do go to church now that I’ve grown up. I’m not there every time the doors are open – and I sometimes skip meetings that I ought to attend – but I go because I still really like the people I find there. That and I still I love Jesus.
Some people say that religion is a crutch. I prefer to think of it as a hand to hold through the mountains and valleys of life. What’s the difference? Maybe there isn’t one. But it doesn’t matter. I go to church not because it’s a habit or anyone is forcing me or I’m trying to make someone happy or it’s the social thing to do.
I go because I believe.
“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.” Ephesians 2:8,9, NIV.