COVID-19, Faith

Church homeless

I haven’t set foot into my church since early March of last year, just before Indiana locked down for the pandemic. That level of lockdown ended after several weeks, and West Park Christian Church decided to reopen last July.

WPCC

It was challenging to arrive at that decision. Some of our elders wanted to open sooner, saying that we shouldn’t live in fear, and that us staying closed was starving our members of Christian community.

I took offense to the first point — it’s prudent, not fearful, to avoid a disease that can kill you, or leave you with chronic health difficulties, or at least lay you up for a solid two weeks while it has its way with you. God won’t protect us from it simply because we gather to worship him. Anyone who thinks so has a gross misunderstanding of faith and the nature of God.

I conceded the second point. I’ll come back to that in a minute.

Other elders, including me, took the position that our first duty is to keep our congregation healthy, especially given how many of them are elderly or have health conditions that put them at serious COVID risk. I wasn’t eager to stand before God one day explaining the people who suffered or died because I voted to open too soon.

We reached a compromise: we would ask at-risk people to stay away, require masks for all who enter, and alter the service to limit physical proximity. I’m naturally drawn to compromise so I said yes, but soon after I felt a regret I’ve never shaken.

Margaret and I have not been willing to expose ourselves to COVID risk, so we’ve stayed away. Most Sunday mornings we take in the services of North Point Community Church on our TV via our Roku. We both value the teaching of North Point pastor Andy Stanley; even before this, we often listened to his sermons on long car trips.

But a sermon is not the complete church experience, and it is not the main reason to attend church. We go to church to be a part of a community where we can encourage each other in the faith. Hebrews 10:24-25 lay it out very well:

And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another.

West Park CC Sanctuary

Sure, a sermon is part of the worship experience. So is singing, and praying, and giving — other Scripture provides for all of these practices. But the point of these verses in Hebrews is that we’re meant to be Christians in community. This is a faith we do with others, if for no other reason than we can help each other stay with it and keep growing in it. Classically, we find Christian community in church.

That’s what’s been missing for Margaret and me as we’ve watched Andy Stanley preach every week. I can’t write with certainty about Margaret’s experience, but I can about mine: I feel increasingly isolated in my faith. I’ve lost feeling connected to fellow Christians. In parallel, the habits of my faith have fallen off, or feel increasingly stale. I don’t pray as often. I’m not in the Bible as much, and when I do study it, the words often fail to connect with me. And I’m not doing very much that expresses my faith. My faith is action-oriented: what mission am I on and what am I doing to move that in service to him is critically important. I’m not doing anything related to God’s mission right now. Margaret and I have our hands full holding things together with some family challenges during a time when everything is more difficult anyway.

For a long time, I believed that God wanted me to be a part of my church’s urban mission. We did our best to meet our neighbors, most of whom know the problems of poverty, lift them up as best we could, and introduce them to Jesus. My ability to organize and run things helped my church execute on its mission more effectively.

Since the pandemic, I’ve become disconnected from that mission. What is right in front of me is my family, whose spiritual needs have been underserved and often unmet for months now. I feel compelled to give all of my attention to us.

It’s become clear to me over the last couple years that my church’s leader’s need to live in its neighborhood. People like me who don’t live there just can’t be fully involved, and full involvement is needed. We live a good 30 minutes away. And we don’t feel at all led to move there.

Moreover, as an elder it’s my duty to minister to our people. But I and my family need ministering. We’re out of spiritual gas.

I think that my time at West Park is coming to an end. Margaret and I agree that when we think it’s safe for us to return to in-person worship, that we will choose a church together. (I was at West Park long before we met, and she is technically still a member at the megachurch she attended with her children for nearly 20 years.) We want to find a community of Christians where we can make friends and find mutual encouragement in life and in the faith.

As we contemplate and (soon) search for a new church home, we feel church homeless.

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33 thoughts on “Church homeless

  1. I’ve never heard this ‘parable’ in the US, but my wife’s father (in Italy) loves to tell this story:

    There is bad weather, storms, and flooding forecast. The authorities are suggesting evacuation. Yet, Giuseppe decides to stay. He’s a man of faith and is certain God will protect him.
    The storm comes and the waters rise. The authorities come by in big military vehicles to pick up stranded people who didn’t leave. Giuseppe is certain however that God will protect him and so does not leave.
    The waters engulf the house, Giuseppe has to retreat to the top floor. A rescue boat comes by, but Giuseppe refuses to evacuate, as God will protect him.
    The waters rise, and now Giuseppe has to crawl onto the roof to survive. A rescue helicopter flies overhead, yet Giuseppe has faith that God will save him, and waves off the helicopter.
    The waters come up, and drown the faithful Guiseppe.

    Guiseppe now stands at the Gates of Heaven, and in puzzlement asks, “why did God let this happen? I am a faithful man, and was sure that God would save me.”

    To which the Host replies, “Giuseppe – this is your own doing. God sent you a warning, he sent a rescue vehicle, he sent a boat, he even sent a helicopter to save you……..”

    Sometimes we have to accept that we were given consciousness, rationality, and life’s challenges not as tests of faith, rather as the expression of faith by our Creator in His Creation. Can we not reciprocate by using those tools according to lessons contained within the Bible? Good luck on your search for your congregation.

  2. Nancy Stewart says:

    Tammy and Mark had searched for a church for many years, and then they went to Grainger Community in Mishawaka …. and Tammy said that she immediately knew she was “home” and they have been there ever since !! Hopefully you will find your new “home” soon.

      • I forgot to add earlier – that which you already know but it’s ancient divine wisdom that’s helpful to remember when choosing one’s associations: 1 Cor 15:33.

  3. You are quite blessed to live where you do. There are several excellent Bible teaching churches in your area. We left a church my parents help found and my wife and I attended for more than thirty years. The church we selected was close to home, closer by about an 1/8 of a mile to our former church. ;-) We knew many people from Christian circles and in the community and our older daughter was attending there at the time. It was hard to leave but the change has been incredibly positive and has helped to improve us in our Christian walk. May God bless your search.

    • We plan to move back to Indianapolis one day — it’s not impossible it could be this year, but more likely 2022 or 2023. I hope we don’t end up selecting a church here only to have to do it again based on where we land next!

  4. George Rogers says:

    Hello again, Jim. Hope this finds you well. It’s quite a personal blow when you lose motivation with faith. I was a bell ringer for a church in Devon for 52 years. The man who taught me, when I was 9, was captain of the ringers and his team were a formidable force for many years in the world of competition ringing. He was like a father to me for 40 odd years and his faith was unshakeable despite more than his fair share of family tragedies. When he retired from ringing, he handed the captaincy to me and it was then that I started to learn about people that I thought were friends and that I’d known for years. It all came to a head 3 years ago and after a particularly nasty row, I walked out and away from one of the biggest loves of my life- ringing. I’ve never rung since or been to a church, nor will I ever go to one again. Not one of the others contacted me in that time, nor the church. One thing I do that makes me feel that He (assuming, hopefully, that He is there) might forgive me is to be as kind as I can to all wildlife and to look after it and help it whenever possible. Also to photograph it to promote it and hopefully bring pleasure and understanding to people. I really don’t feel the need to attend a church anymore, especially when my experience of most of the churches I’ve attended have more people there that shouldn’t be and not enough that should! Your diary and photographs, I think, are inspirational and just by doing that, you enrich the lives of many people. If God is there, Jim, He will be smiling on you, believe me. Take care and keep being Jim!!

    • The church isn’t the haven for the saints – it’s the hospital for the sick. I’m terribly sorry that you had such a negative experience after all those years. I hope in time you’ll be willing to try again,

      • George Rogers says:

        The main body of my comment wasn’t really about my experience with that church. But never mind. Please don’t be sorry for me, it won’t really change much. Take care.

  5. DougD says:

    Yup, I’m feeling it too. Our church community has followed the letter of the law and had up to 30% capacity (masks and no singing) but currently down to 10 persons in the building running the livestream. We have only attended when we’ve needed to do something like play music or run video equipment.

    It’s made us consider where we were at. We’ve been there about 4 years, and although they were very good at the initial welcome they are very bad at what I call level two community where people start to bring you into their homes and lives. Hasn’t happened, despite us being very involved but maybe that’s 50% us.

    You and Margaret need community, but there is a community out there that needs Jim and Margaret too. I hope you will be led to connect.

    • So many churches are bad at that kind of community. I wasn’t happy with our abilities at it at West Park, either. People used to complain that the new and the in-crisis got all of our attention — and they were pretty much right.

  6. A dry time….you will look back with gratitude, these are the times when real growth happens, even though it usually doesn’t seem that way at the time. Keep listening, a new chapter is not far away!

  7. I’m not going to pretend to have wisdom to impart here as I’ve never found a church that feels comfortable to me. If you notice, the vast majority of my church photography takes place from the outside looking in and that point is never lost on me. I am a person of faith and a preacher’s granddaughter but have struggled to reconcile the merciful God that I believe in with the judgment and attitudes that I have encountered in many churches in my area. Even when the leadership is quality, some members treat it like an exclusive club where only a special few are actually welcome and this is beyond troubling to me.

    You can have a relationship with God anywhere but it is much harder to develop that community you crave from your living room. It’s worth reaching for though and I wish you the best.

    It sounds like you’re doing the right thing, Jim. When the time is right, you’ll find your place and a place where you and Margaret can worship and call your own as a couple. Have faith.

  8. I have all of these same feelings. Our church moved and so did we, and we never really fully reconnected but haven’t had the impetus to change. That might be now. It does make me grieve, however, for the community we had that no longer exists (many people didn’t follow the church through the move). But these things are not meant to be forever.

  9. Some overzealous young members of a church when I was around 11 (and my parents had recently separated) really spooked me and I’ve barely been inside a church whilst a service was on since.

    I love the idea of a church community, and the support that can offer people, but it’s incredibly difficult to implement and maintain for those involved. My limited experiences also showed me that there seems to be little room for personal and indivdual interpretation of God and belief, it’s a case of “follow what we follow to the letter, or leave”. That just isn’t realistic, we’re all unique human beings, with common ground but we don’t have identical experiences and beliefs.

    Still, I love being inside and around empty churches as a large proportion of my photography reflects. My private joke is that I love churches, just not when there are people in them!

    Jim you have much to offer, I’m sure you’ll find a new community that works. It might be that it’s something church related, or more widely, people related, but not so obviously and directly about going to church services.

    • So many people have been repelled from the faith by a bad experience in the church. It’s maddening.

      Churches are often a great photographic subject! Especially old and ornate ones.

      Good point that the community we find might not be directly about going to church services. I need to be open to something that looks different from what I’m used to.

  10. tbm3fan says:

    Naturally being born into Irish Catholic family I was baptized Catholic and was sent to Catholic School from K-12. I am well versed in Catholic teachings and their way of thinking which lead me to chucking them out the window totally. I am quite able to think for myself and reach my appropriate conclusions. However, I still recall their teachings which were in theory great on paper but poorly executed in real life and still are. Now no offense towards you Jim (you maybe the rare real deal) but I have dealt with many a “Christian” and have yet to run across one who I would say was Christian in their life. They have all been pseudo-Christian where they pick and choose for the day and then try to apply it to others in their life. I am all for Freedom of Religion but I am also strongly in support of Freedom from Religion.

    Interestingly, in the 80s, while practicing with an MD in Castro Valley I had a priest in the exam room one day. After that, every now and then, he asked to go out to lunch where he would ask me my opinion. Never ever tried to change my mind but just wanted to learn why my views on the Catholic Church, and religion in general, were the way they were.

    • My wife’s family is Irish Catholic; she’s seventh of eight children. About half of them remained Catholic, at least nominally. The rest are Christians of other denominations now. My wife specifically has serious beefs with some of the Catholic line and rejects it. We’re in a branch of the faith that isn’t nearly as dogmatic, and is much more about faith in action (love ’em all and let God sort ’em out later).

      • tbm3fan says:

        “love ’em all and let God sort ’em out later.”

        Too bad I have never met any Christian who can truly say that. Once an alternative lifestyle choice enters the discussion the judging starts coming. I don’t believe in any religion but end up more Christian that those who say they are Christian. I don’t care what you are. All I care about is do you have principles, ethics, and honor in your life private and public. If yes then you and I will get along just fine and if not, then not so fine…

  11. Rick Bell says:

    I agree with the necessity of association with people spiritually related to us, but also see the danger in gathering together at this dangerous time. We meet with our congregation on Zoom and while it’s not ideal, we haven’t missed one meeting since the lockdown started. Spiritual encouragement is a must in these pandemic times. I hope you find a source for continued spiritual growth as that’s vital in our quest to please God.

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