For most of my life, I would have described my spiritual path as very personal. I neither attended church nor temple. I studied A Course in Miracles but only once in my life ever participated in a study group. It didn’t take.
Sometime shortly after I was married, I started longing for fellowship. My husband and I have different spiritual beliefs, and though he’s a wonderful listener, I often feel like I shouldn’t talk too much about it with him. At one point I tried going to temple. It felt alien to me. The one service I liked best was at a temple that didn’t have an transliteration for the Hebrew anywhere. That meant when they prayed or sang I couldn’t follow along because I can’t really read Hebrew. I felt left out. I also never really felt like anyone cared that I was there. Nobody introduced themselves to me and nobody wanted to talk to me.
When I became born-again, the first thing I did was start reading A Course in Miracles daily. It was a wonderful way to connect with G-d, but I still really needed fellowship. I needed to find a group of people who I could talk to about G-d and not worry that I would say something “too weird” for them. I wanted to be able to talk about praying and about how G-d was moving in my life.
One night, my husband and I took my mom and grandma to our favorite restaurant in town for dinner. Our waitress was incredible. She treated us as if we were guests in her home and it felt like she was serving us more than just our food. I asked what her “other job” was. (I assume all waiters and waitresses have either another job or a dream of another job… I did grow up in L.A.) She told me she and her husband were youth pastors at a local church and gave me her card.
It took a couple months, but eventually I walked into the church. I was greeted warmly, and she introduced me to one or two other people. They were genuinely interested in me and were extremely welcoming. The music before the service blew my mind. I didn’t quite know what to make of it when they started to pray.. OUT LOUD… ALL AT THE SAME TIME. The sermon was delivered by the Associate Pastor. He had power-point slides, and LOTS of information. I felt like I needed to take notes. The message was way too much of the things I was worried I would find at an evangelic church: putting on the armor of G-d and battling “the enemy.” I liked the people, but I just couldn’t do this. Apparently, I said something like “too much for this Jewish girl” when I said good-bye to my waitress friend afterwards. Several months later, I found myself back in church.
This time, the service was delivered by the Senior Pastor. It was called “Chutes and Ladders.” how cute! He had 5 different sized ladders on stage. He spoke about being in different stages of our walk with G-d and how the view is different from different rungs. He cautioned not to try climbing a ladder you weren’t ready for, and also not to try to see things from a rung you couldn’t reach. He talked about how sometimes we need to slide down from our perch in order to really understand things. He said a lot more. In fact, it was a two-parter. Really! That meant I had to go back the next week.
Well, the people I had met the FIRST time remembered me a little the second time I came back, and they were happy to see me. The THIRD time I went, they really made me feel like I was at home. So I stayed.
I never thought to ask about their “statement of faith” or what doctrines they held to. I never stopped to wonder how many of their beliefs matched mine. I didn’t care. I was looking for fellowship. I was looking for a community that put G-d first in their lives, that believed in praying, and didn’t think you were strange when you gave credit to G-d for good things in your life.
So I found myself attending a “charismatic” church, and all I could tell you about it was: they’re evangelists. They take communion once a month (using matzo as the bread.. super cool!). They think the bible is the definitive Word of G-d. They do baptisms, believe that prayer can heal, and speak in tongues. But we don’t play with snakes.”
Many times I prayed and asked G-d, “why this church? why not something easier to explain?” Usually my only answer was laughter. I remember writing about it once in a journal, and I came to the decision that I could wonder about the why’s and how’s; I could question the little things like “is the bible literally true?”; or I could simply take what was there before me and find value in it.
I attended regularly for over 4 years. I was very active and participated in every way I could. I sometimes went to the pastors afterward and said, “I don’t get it.” or “I don’t like this.” They would point me toward a place to explore and encourage me to work with what I was struggling with. Every time I grew. My personal beliefs strengthened. I came to my own conclusions. Sometimes I didn’t agree with what I was learning was the basic philosophy of my church. I was okay with it.
Last September I found myself thinking it was time to leave my church. After all the times I questioned “why this church” and came up with the answer of “stay and find out,” I was really surprised to keep thinking “you need to move on.” I didn’t want to hear it. I didn’t want it to be true.
I prayed very hard. I prayed for clarity, wisdom, some explanation of what was next if this weren’t it. The answer came in early November when our lead pastors announced they were moving their family back home to St. Louis. The next week we learned that the administrative pastor (my closest friend at church) was also going to St. Louis to be with her daughter and new-born granddaughter. The following week, the two couples who were in charge of the children’s and high school ministries also said they were leaving. By the end of November, the entire pastoral staff would be gone.
I went to the meeting to meet the new “on-site” pastors and the new senior pastor. I sat and listened to what they had to say. I listened to my friends ask questions and to how the new pastor answered them. I ministered to friends who didn’t know what to do. I shook hands with the new pastor and introduced myself. All the while, I kept hearing in my head, “he is not my pastor.”
I tried not to let “he is not my pastor” be a reason to leave. It’s not supposed to be about the teacher as much as it is about the lesson. I know better than to think of my teachers as anything but human. I thought maybe I didn’t want to go to the televised services, so I tried one.
The message was about seeking “wise counsel.” There was a lot to it. I wrote it all down like I always do. I sat in AWE as I listened to this message that was taylor-made for me. It showed me clear as day that it doesn’t matter WHO the pastor is, the message is what matters. It also showed me loud as thunder that I wasn’t listening. The pastor was talking about how we so often pretend we don’t understand or ask for clarification because we don’t like the answer we get when we pray. I don’t remember all of it now, but I do remember laughing as I realized this pastor was the chosen messenger to make me see I had to leave his church.
So why this church? Because it had so much to teach me.
I learned about studying the bible and how to be a member of a church. Two things I’d never done before. I learned to question and challenge what I hear, and to ultimately make my own choice. If I had been going to a church that totally aligned with my beliefs, I would not have been as challenged and I would not have grown as much. I learned to pray with people and for people. I got over my fear of talking about G-d.
I also learned great things for my business: I learned about leadership by watching how our pastoral team worked and how they were trained. I learned that making someone feel welcome is the most important thing to do if you ever want to see them a second time. I learned that the new person, no matter how out-going, is not likely to talk to existing members of a group; I teach this first to my leadership team. It’s their job to make others welcome in our school.
I also learned what I want in a church. So as I go out looking for a new one, I have some criteria.
I thoroughly enjoyed my first church experience. Right now, my church experience is wandering. I am on my first pilgrimage, so to speak. I’ve met some nice people so far, and have discovered lots of churches. I don’t know how many I’ll explore before I settle down, but I’ll keep you posted.