For an hour each week we sit together. Most of us are mostly silent. Sometimes we listen, sometimes we sing, sometimes we wander off in thought. Sometimes I wonder what other people wonder about. What do they wish church would be? What do they really believe? What pains would they share? What recollections warm their souls? So I asked. I interviewed six people of various backgrounds and ages. Over time, I hope to ask the same questions of dozens more people. This is not a methodologically tight poll in any sense, just snippets of conversation intended to prompt your own conversations and reflections.
What has been most meaningful in your church experience?
Sense of community. Relationships. Choirs. A feeling of acceptance. Weekly communion—“making Christ manifest”—and dedicating oneself to the people of God. Absorbing the wisdom of elders in small-group settings. Communion in the form of weekly potluck meals as an affirmation of community. A very conservative man serving communion to a relative just after learning that person had come out. Poetic hymns that embrace mystery. Dedicated people. Worship experiences. Baptism. A sense of security and belonging in childhood. Insights shared in sermons and elsewhere. Singing Handel’s Messiah with the Mennonite Oratorio Choir.
What has been most difficult?
Long sermons. “Feeling like I’m not able to be honest in church about what I believe.” Focus on the heavenly realm. “Too little silence. . . . Church can be quite noisy.” Gender-exclusive language. The crusade atmosphere of church in youth. Church “laziness” toward current global issues. (“I feel like people kind of live in the past.”) Tim Hortons cups in the sanctuary, from “invocaffination” to benediction. “Just finding my way . . . making sense of what is said” within the broader context of our world.
Is there room in church for your passions and pains?
Yes. No. Not really. It’s risky to share passions and pains. Can feel “ripped off” if misunderstood. People will listen, but nothing gets off the ground. “I have to hold myself back in terms of expressing my opinions,” because it’s not worth risking friendships.
Has the church stuck with you in your darkest times?
“Yes, not even a question.” During illness, yes, during mental illness, no. “I take responsibility for not communicating my dark hours.” Yes, particularly in small-group settings. “[When people ask me,] ‘no, seriously how are you?’ I value it enormously.”
What aspect of the Bible do you find most meaningful?
“Oh goodness . . . . maybe the Magnificat.” The last chapter of Revelation (“for the healing of the nations”). The teachings of Jesus. “[It is] an absolutely spectacular book, . . . an enormously rich narrative from beginning to end.” “Oh brother.” “We are created in God’s image, meaning we have been given the capacity to love and to forgive and to be there for the orphans and the poor.” Jesus’ “counter-cultural wake-up message.” “Nicodemus really grabs my fancy.”
“Reading it.” Wondering “what is this? What can be found here? . . . and still feeling God there.” Abraham being asked to slaughter his son; “that’s a crazy story.” “John 3:16, because that was supposed to take me straight to heaven, but it never did anything for me.” “It’s old. Seems far away and irrelevant even though I studied it for much of my life.” “Because I take a certain approach to it, I don’t really find it difficult.”
Do you believe in a literal, eternal hell?
No. “I don’t know. . . . I don’t care.” No. “I don’t know if there are flames.” “I haven’t given it a lot of thought in the last 10 years, but I like to tell [my husband] he should be a little bit afraid just in case.”
What role do you see for the broader church (national and area churches)?
It unites people. It provides a broader sense of connection to history and people in other places. “I haven’t really thought about that.” Not invested in that discussion. “I don’t think it needs to provide a creed or statement of faith.” To maintain a sense of belonging, history and story while still engaging with a wider set of people.
How would you like to see church change?
Inclusion of poetry. Better acoustics; churches shouldn’t be designed like pig barns just to hold a certain number. More specific teaching and resourcing on very practical relational matters. “We talk in great detail about great things, but I just want to be more patient with my kids.” “Maybe be more honest.”