January 17, 2021

Musical Pews

church-pew-with-worshippersA man spent several years stranded on a desert island.  When he was finally rescued, the sailors, looking back at the shore, asked him, “You say you were all alone here?”

“Yup, all by myself,” he replied.

“Then why are there three buildings?”

“Oh, that’s easy,” the man said.  “That one there is my house, and that’s my church.”

“And the third one?”

“That’s where I USED to go to church.”

Christianity, in these denominational days, is a pretty active affair.  Born Catholic?  Move on to a more enthusiastic group.  Born Evangelical?  Seek for the tradition you’re lacking.  Born Orthodox?  Boy, that Quaker simplicity looks good.  Wait, Quakers don’t have sacraments?  Back to the Catholics.  And so it goes.

We’ve spent some virtual ink on iMonk talking about particular moves, from evangelicalism to Lutheran or Catholic churches.  But let’s talk about the phenomenon of moving itself, since it seems that American Christians are moving from and to every denomination.  Should people move?  That might depend on why they’re moving.  What’s important enough to move for or to stay for?  I’ll toss out some of my ideas, but I’d be interested in hearing from the wider iMonastery, too.

People change churches, it seems to me,

  • Because their church has changed.  They want to find or recover what they see as genuine Christianity.  Maybe their denomination begins teaching that Jesus was an alien and the ascension was him being beamed up to the mother ship.  More realistically, some have left denominations that used to say that abortion was wrong but now are willing to allow it – or birth control, homosexuality, or ordination of women.  Some took off when churches scrapped the hymnal and started projecting choruses on giant screens, while others left in disgust when hymnals were reintroduced.
  • In response to their own growth or change.  Here the church hasn’t changed, but people have.  As they’ve matured in their faith, they are looking for more challenging spiritual disciplines or a more liberal and loving attitude toward sinners; for more scripture, or more sacrament.  Of course, from someone else’s point of view, those same people might be backsliding into legalism or antinomianism and are abandoning the truth they were raised in.
  • To find certain settings and programs that are important to them.  A lot of people find, for example, that the church that suited them when they were single isn’t as satisfying when they have two little kids.  People look around for different Sunday schools, youth groups, music styles, and architecture.  They may not change denominations for this reason, but they certainly change congregations.
  • To follow a personality, such as a famous preacher, or to follow a political or social agenda that has become more important to them.
  • Because of family pressure.  They marry someone from another church and agree to go there instead, or they follow their grown child to the church he attends.
  • For personal reasons.  People have been disappointed, offended, or abused at churches.  They’ve gotten divorced and can’t stand to stay where their ex is.  They want to sing solos or be the worship leader but aren’t asked to.  Someone else takes over the rummage sale that they’ve run since 1957.

Are some of these good reasons?  Are some of them insufficient to justify so major a change?  That’s a hard call.  We could probably agree that alien theology would be a good reason to leave a denomination, and abuse would be a great reason to leave a congregation.  Maybe having a snit about the rummage sale isn’t.  I expect, though, that there are people reading this who have left for most of the reasons on this list and felt happy and justified to do so.

As you know, my family and I joined the Catholic Church several years ago.  Over my lifetime I was baptized and confirmed Anglican, became a member of a Quaker meeting, attended a Methodist then an evangelical church with my husband, and finally, after several years in the wilderness, crossed the Tiber.  I felt I had good reasons for all those changes at the time, especially for the most recent.  My reasons for moving in the past included a feeling that both a denomination (Anglicanism) and a congregation (evangelical) had changed around me to the point where I couldn’t subscribe to them any longer; also family pressure, or finding a church where my husband and I were both happy.  They included personal change – when after a lengthy spiritual crisis I once again believed that Jesus was the Son of God, I couldn’t stay with the East-Coast Quakers who were essentially not Christian.  (I’m not maligning them – they told me so themselves.)  I had some bad reasons for moving, too – boredom, instability of life, even unacknowledged sin.  Only God knows which of these prevailed in each case.

As I look at why I joined the Catholic Church, I can draw up my list of essentials for corporate faith.  This list would not have looked the same had I made it in my twenties, but I think it would have in every other decade of my live, including my teens.  I expect all of these things can be found in places other than the Catholic Church, but I didn’t find them anywhere else.

Damaris’ Essentials for Attending Church:

  • Worship is liturgical, focused on God and not on my experience, and preserves some of the mystery and holiness appropriate to the meeting of humankind with God.
  • There is a historical foundation that encompasses all the centuries of Christianity.  I’m not saying I have to approve of or rejoice in all of that history, but it needs to be acknowledged in an act of simple human intelligence and out of respect for our fathers and mothers in the faith.
  • I look for orthodoxy of belief.  This is a hard one to define, and I’m aware that I have biases and blind spots.  But the creeds, the centrality of the Bible, and the Vincentian canon (quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est, or what is believed everywhere, always, and by everyone) form a good starting place.  True orthodoxy should, it seems to me, also involve some mystery and discomfort.  If it doesn’t, then I’m probably worshiping a self-sized god.
  • I want to be preserved from cults of personality and random changes of belief and practice.
  • I want a combination of sound and silence, company and loneliness – and I want to be free from being forced into extrovert-designed, group-think worship behavior.

Things that are important but not essential to me are the quality of the music or art (but that there be some is important – I’m not an iconoclast), depth of preaching and teaching, the warmth of fellowship, or a perfect match with my culture.  And I really don’t care about programs.  (Honestly, I was surprised that I considered some of these inessential, but judging by my contentment with only a meager amount of them, I guess I do.)

So here I am now.  I plan to stay here.  You wouldn’t think, looking at my life, that there’s much chance of my doing that.  Until eight years ago, I moved every few years and had lived on four continents.  I’ve moved so much I’ve almost never cleaned an oven.  I loved the travel and the challenge of learning to survive in other cultures.  Now, though, the culture I need to learn to survive in is my own; I need to practice the Benedictine discipline of stability.  When we came back from Central Asia in 2005, I prayed, as I had never prayed before, to be content to stay.  God is answering that prayer in all aspects of my life, first in my home and now in my church.

So rather than just asking why move, I ask why stay?  It’s true that no denomination or congregation is perfect, and we are always changing.  People will offend and mistreat us, churches will not satisfy our needs for growth or comfort, and family members may want to go somewhere else.  Sometimes we will have to move.  But what do we do once we’ve moved?  What virtue is there in staying?  We’d better ask ourselves that question if we ever intend to settle and not be eternal nomads.

The Virtues of Staying:

  • Loyalty.  Stay out of loyalty to the denomination that welcomed you into the faith, to the congregation that put up with you over the years, to the family that raised you that way, even to the building that the church occupies.  Not all Americans value loyalty highly, especially given the feuding or stagnation that it can lead to in sinful people.  But it is a beautiful virtue, worth much.
  • Humility.  This involves entertaining the possibility that how I perceive things and how I feel about things may not be the ultimate truth of the matter, and that I might trust others to guide me.  Ouch.  That’s a scary one.
  • Wisdom.  The understanding of the broad picture, combined with patience and a sense of humor, allows us to weather with grace the changes of the world around us.  Ultimately this is a sense of perspective, even the beginning of being able to see with God’s eyes.

So tell me, iMonks, in the classic words of The Clash, should we stay or should we go?  What’s the balance between the virtues of seeking and stability?  When do we do one, and when the other?  Let us reason together.


  1. Did you miss the most obvious reason in your list? People move — I mean actually change where they live — for a whole pile of reasons that are not directly related to church. And when they get to their new place they have to find a new church that fits.

    Maybe that’s the same denomination as they left behind, but local circumstances differ no matter how consistent a denomination tries to be.

    • I think she was referring more to moving to a different denomination than moving cities. But even with moving cities, you could still choose to attend a church that belongs to the denomination that you had been a member of or choose to go somewhere else all together and I think that is her main question.
      As a fellow convert to Catholicism, I choose to stay. And having moved to a different state a couple of months ago, I am comforted by the fact that the Catholic Church is universal and has a code that provides consistency across all churches around the world. The readings that are read at one church in Idaho are the same mass readings read in a church in Norway on that particular day. (Different vernacular of course).
      In Protestantism, good pastors come and good pastors go. At my church, you know what you are getting when you walk into a Catholic Church, communion with the one true God in the Eucharist.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        >I am comforted by the fact that the Catholic Church is universal and has a code
        >that provides consistency across all churches around the world.

        +1 In a world flush with and obsessed with novelty – my religious practice is one place I have no interest in novelty.

        > In Protestantism, good pastors come and good pastors go

        +1 And when that happens the entire tone or focus can be upended, the entire community turn-over. Also, good pastors go bad, at least in part because far too much rests on them; creating the entire flavor of the community is the Pastor’s job. That is an humanly undoable job [and one that often appeals to those with a family sized portion of hubris].

        Last night I was seated at a restaurant and at the table across the aisle was a [clearly] protestant pastor and a woman discussing [at with-the-room-sharing volume] how to get more people to participate in programs, and why this and that person hasn’t become a member, and the returning college students, and the trouble with the musicians…. and I was so very very glad that conversation was entirely remote to me; it all seems such a tragic waste of time and effort [and a clearly disrespectful tone, those are people, not instruments in the performance]. Just read the scripture, recite the creed, and live – it requires so much less machinery, it is actually so much less routine and mechanical.

      • Richard Hershberger says

        “In Protestantism, good pastors come and good pastors go. At my church, you know what you are getting when you walk into a Catholic Church, communion with the one true God in the Eucharist.”

        This describes any well run Episcopal or Lutheran church as well. That being said, the issue of pastors coming and going is a real one. The key question to ask is does this local congregation have an identity apart from its (senior) pastor? If it is an established congregation that is doing pretty much the same thing under this guy as it was under the last guy, and the last guy wasn’t all that long ago, then this is an institution with its own existence apart from the pastor. If, on the other hand, the current guy came in, changed everything, and grew the church by leaps and bounds, then it is founded on his personality and will probably crash into crushing debt after he leaves/retires/dies/is caught whoring around.

        On the flip side, I have known Catholics who leave their parish because they don’t like the new pastor. Given that a Roman Catholic parish is run by the pastor as a personal fiefdom answerable only to the bishop, this can be a real concern. He won’t abandon the liturgy and the sacraments, but everything below that level can be up for grabs. Then there is the practical issue of stuff like sermons. They can be good and they can be bad. And let us be frank: while there are exceptions, homiletics tends not to be the Roman church’s strength. If I am choosing between two otherwise equal churches, and one has a guy who can give a good sermon while the other does not, this will determine my choice.

        • This is very true that pastoral change at a Catholic church can also be traumatic. When my old parish lost its pastor of 20+ years to a car wreck, it quickly lost a lot of its members. It’s old pastor had been there a long time and was a mensch. A truly great priest. The new guy was just a priest and while he did offer the same liturgy and sacraments, he wasn’t the community’s father like the prior one had been.

    • @ Rivikah…..I agree with Molly~I am about 99.4% sure that Damaris is referring to changing denominations or churches within a denomination even when one’s home remains the same. DH & I are both cradle Catholics and generational military (our fathers, both of us, and one of our sons all Army) so relocating every 2-4 years was the norm. We simply joined the nearest parish or attended the Catholic Chapel on base, the latter mostly when we were overseas and there was a language issue.

      Only twice have we changed parishes for cause, in fact, for reasons Demaris mentioned. In Texas, we left a large parish that had chosen to channel a huge percentage of the offerings to a political action group (they did not assist the people at all, just lobbied for them…) and in Florida we left the parish associated with the school our sons had been attending after our youngest was badly bullied—by his TEACHER! Too many bad feelings and fear for our then-nine year old to cope with, and we did not want him to link that experience with the Love of Christ in the Mass….

  2. Damaris,

    For me, when the church structure doesn’t allow for me using my gifts to serve others, it’s time to go. It’s a body, and I’m a member. If I am treated like an appendix and neglected, it’s time to go. When the church is so concerned with obeying the first great commandment that they are willing to sacrifice the second to achieve it, it’s time to go.

    When believers’ hearts are knit together in love, it’s time to stay. When the doctrine and beliefs are good and they are actually practiced, it’s time to stay. When church leaders are humble and part of the body, it’s time to stay.

    Your “Loyalty” bullet point is interesting to me. Should I have remained loyal to Harold Camping? LOL 🙂 😉 😛

    • ‘Your “Loyalty” bullet point is interesting to me. Should I have remained loyal to Harold Camping?’

      I think we all know the answer to that one, Steve! Loyalty, like all the virtues, only remains a virtue in balance with the others, especially prudence.

  3. Should we stay or should we go? Hard to say; it’s so easy to get all lost in the supermarket.

    • Does the consumer-in-the-marketplace pattern of modernism and post-modernism form us in determinative ways far more than actually belonging to any specific church communion or confession? Isn’t that pattern and model always the context of our background consciousness, even if we “stay” a long time? Isn’t “going” always the substratum of our identity, even if we never leave?

      How is it that he first chooses us if we are forever choosing him?

      • That is the tension. I think for some the consumer mindset is the primary motivation. However, for others it is some of the legitimate reasons listed above.

        People need to prayerfully consider their motivations before making such decisions.

      • Absolutely and it’s a necessity (feature, not bug) in religion. If a church could get away with it, what would keep it from abusing its parishioners? A great many pastors wouldn’t do it out of common decency but I’d bet there’d be a subset that would (in fact there is), but in a society like ours where there is a religious marketplace, each member always has the option of going somewhere else. This is the ultimate check on a pastor’s power.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      Isn’t the thing that ultimately makes a church ‘sticky’ really community? If someone has not attachments within the congregation, no real correlation to the institutions, no direct interaction with the pastor/priest/leader it seems entirely to be expected that they will eventually be tugged out of its orbit by something, the ties are too tenuous. The times I’ve seen people stick-with-it-through-the-thicket has always been because of the people.

      It only remains a “supermarket” for as long as one remains in the square looking at the steeples. The “supermarket” issue is not a problem of the denominations, that is a fault of the individual who is stuck in the role of a “shopper” or “customer” [or to use the dreadful term “seeker” (of the church with the lowest membership fees? I never understood this term.)].

      • The consumerism of both modern and post-modern societies not only results in a decrease of the “stickiness” of most traditional institutions and roles, but in fact requires such a decrease. My questions are about whether or not being individuals who choose church affiliation, and indeed choose religions, from among a large range of options is in fact not more of an index to the nature of our identity and our experience of self than whatever choice we end up making.

        Sociologist Peter Berger called the necessity of making choices regarding religious identity for oneself that is typical in liberal democracies the “heretical imperative,” where the root of the word “heresy” means to choose for oneself rather than standing within a defining religious institution that contains within itself whatever choices one might make. The locus of identity within our current historical situation is outside religious institutions, in the marketplace of choices from which we make our selections, and change our selections. This means that the marketplace rather than the religious institution provides our sociological context and framework; this in turn means that the marketplace is more foundational to our identity than is the religious institution.

        However “sticky” our involvement in a community may be or become, there is a wider framework in the marketplace that provides an exit from that “stickiness,” an option which, whether we exercise it or not, remains open for many more of us now than was ever the case in previous human societies. This openness, and the resultant contingency of the roles and institutions we are involved, most emphatically including religious institutions and roles, results in an uncertainty and instability concerning our identity that is one of the hallmarks of our society; we call this “alienation.”

        Such a marketplace structure to human social reality inevitably privileges choice in all human relations, and that in turn privileges religious institutions, including Christian churches, that stress the importance of the individuals choice in spiritual matters. No wonder that churches stressing personal choice in being “born again” have prospered in the last 50 years; their theology parallels the actual structure of social arrangements in the wider society.

        Besides that, though, even traditional churches with theologies that don’t follow the concept of evangelical “born-againism” use a language of choice very similar to the evangelicals, because both kinds of church exist in the same wider marketplace, and are shaped by forces beyond what happens within church building walls.

        The marketplace is a pervasive reality that shapes us, and our churches, in ways that are determinative and have nothing to do with our theologies.

  4. I heard that joke before, Damaris, and it is STILL funny!

    And I loved your line, “I’ve moved so much I’ve almost never cleaned an oven.” Although, I have hardly ever moved and I have also almost never cleaned an oven!

  5. melissatheragamuffin says

    I want to be preserved from cults of personality and random changes of belief and practice.

    Amen! Say what you want about the Catholic Church, but at least they don’t go changing their doctrine according to what is in fashion. I just have less and less patience with doctrinal fidget.

    • +1

      The “rigid and outdated” Catholic Church has not changed Her message…..several decades ago almost all Christian churches and society in general had the same ideas about family, children, sexual mores, divorce and the like. The only change has been in society and most other Christian denominations (Orthodox excepted!)

      • Pattie and mellisatheragamffin, from the perspective of one who is not Catholic, the Catholic Church has changed quite a bit over the long haul. Three examples: There was a time when the pope was not said to be infallible when speaking ex cathedra, and there was a time when the Virgin Mary was not said to have been assumed bodily into heaven, and there was a time when the Virgin Mary was not said to be the co-mediatrix of all grace. There are more; go back further. There was a time when the Holy Spirit was not said to have proceeded from the Father and the Son. On that issue, it is the the Eastern Orthodox who adhere to the original position and the Catholic Church who definitely changed.

        Not changed? Not changed? Pshaw! Pshaw, I say!

        I am not defending how other groups who change their views every other week to be au courant with societal “norms” that are anything but normal– that is a stench in the nostrils of God in my humble opinion.

        • Good points, btdt, but bear in mind that the Catholic Church is not only the Pope and his formal declarations. The ex cathedra proclamations were recognitions of what the whole body of Catholic believers had accepted to be true and had practiced for many years. None of them were out of the blue — they were more acknowledgements than surprises. The filioque — well, you have me there; the RCC has offered in the past to leave it off and returning to the original wording of the creed. I hope it does. Not changing, in a changing world, isn’t a question of standing still but of making constant adjustments to maintain balance.

          • “return,” not “returning.” Grr.

          • Richard Hershberger says

            Yes, the ex cathedra proclamations were recognitions of accepted practice, but let us not imagine that these accepted practices go back to the beginning. On the scale of the past two thousand years, the Roman Catholic Church has certainly changed on many things. We could start with the Pope. Yes, there is a list of names with Peter at one end and Francis at the other (so far), but does anyone really want to claim that the relationship of the Pope with the rest of the church, or whatever slice of the rest of the church we want to limit this to, is the same today as it was in, say, 50 A.D.? The idea ought to provoke giggles.

            It is certainly true that the Roman church is less susceptible to changes in wind direction than are many Protestant churches, and that this is commendable. But there is a downside. The self-image of changelessness makes it difficult to recognize what changes have in fact occurred, and to correct course if these changes were a bad idea. The saving grace is that once the church is forced to notice such things, it is very good at rationalizing course corrections as not being changes at all. It requires much effort be put into wheel spinning, but it gets the job done.

          • But Orthodoxy only goes back a few centuries more. “There was a time when” nobody talked about the two natures of Christ. Or before that, the Trinity. These are Hellenizing projections onto the original Jewish Christianity.

        • melissatheragamuffin says

          The idea of Mary as co-mediatrix is not Catholic dogma – ie – Catholics aren’t under obligation to believe it. While there are plenty of Catholics who appear to believe that nonsense, there are just as many (or even more) who scoff at it.

          There was recently a blow up over this idea on a Catholic forum. ONE person was jumping up and down proclaiming this idea to be truth and claiming that Catholic had to believe it. All the rest were like, “Nope.” Several said it’s idolotry and heresy.

          So, please don’t promote this co-mediatrix idea as official Catholic belief because it is not.

          • Again, as an outsider, I don’t know dogma from schmogma. It does seem odd, though, that some Catholics say one thing and other Catholics say something else — how very Protestant of “the great monolith”!!! Words like Medugorje and Fatima and charismatic come to mind.

            These differences of opinion don’t seem to exist just among ignoramuses (perhaps uneducated is a better word) in the laity either. Differing opinions can probably be found through all layers of the clergy as well, who all the while smile and insist the Church is right and she alone – when she can’t even make up her own mind.

            I apologize for turning my reply into a mini-rant. It was not what I intended. You certainly are entitled to your point of view, and I know you love your church. It’s just that I have some problems with it myself.

          • melissatheragamuffin says

            Oh like Protestants don’t have any silly beliefs/followings. Brownsville heres—I mean revival? Benny Hinn. When I walked away from the Assembly of God they’d gotten into some truly weird things. When I questioned the pastor about it he said they were just trying to be open to the spirit.

            Where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom. Things like Fatima and Medugorje are what the Church would call “Private Revelation.” If people want to believe it, they can, but they’re not obligated to.

  6. Anonymously Yours says

    In my case, I left churches sometimes, and churches left me (because they closed). I left my childhood denomination after watching a schoolchild skit about the parable of the sower from the back pew while thinking to myself that I had been in skits like that, heard Sunday school lessons and sermons about that parable, all of my life, and I still did not know what the parable was about. I figured I knew enough about the Bible to pursue the ministry in that denomination, but the minister said I would need to go to college for eight years, etc. By the time I got out, I figured, I would no longer care about being a minister. So although I did some things with some churches after that, I no longer considered myself that denomination.

    A friend invited me to his church, which was a different denomination, but also charismatic, which was not very typical for churches of that denomination. The first sermon I heard from my new pastor, I realized how very little of the Bible I knew, and I would need to learn everything all over again. When his mentoring pastor of sorts came from out of town, and I heard him preach the first time, I realized again how little I knew and how I would need to learn everything all over again. Also, during this time, I visited lots of other churches and loved the varying experiences. But this church was my home church, the one I consulted when I really needed an answer about something.

    But my family had to move to another state, so…I had to leave that church.

    In my new state, I opened the phonebook and picked a church. I went to that church, and that was my church. I liked the ministers and the music and the people. It was a health, wealth, and prosperity church, and sometimes seemed shallow. I eventually “quit” that church when a new charismatic denomination came to town. But I also went off the college about an hour away from home. There, I picked the college ministry that sounded most like what I had been attending (charismatic), and I went. But I also went to three other college ministries just because I liked visiting other places.

    My best college friend wanted to go to church. He was invited to two different churches while studying his Bible in an all-night diner. I went along with him to the first of the two churches. It was wonderful, a very loving church. But we got involved with a very weird young woman, a “superspiritual” woman who, in hindsight, I think led to a rift between us and that church. Later, when my best friend was wondering where to go to church next, I said, well, the first church those people recommended was great. Why don’t you go to the second church? So he did. And it was a wonderful church. Me? I flunked out of college. Then my father took early retirement, and we moved back to home state, where…

    I went back to my charismatic church. But I did not visit a lot of other churches anymore, not like when I was younger. The leadership got into disagreement about the direction of the church, though, and one of the elders left and had a house church in his house. I eventually began going to his house church while also attending my church. But the pastor of my church and I kept butting heads about what I should do with my life. I figured I could not keep disagreeing with him, so I left and went to the house church. I kept visiting my old church, though, until…it folded. The steering committee decided to disband the church. And it was no more.

    In the mean time, while attending my house church, I went to a singles group at the church up the street. It was a denominational church people in charismatic circles and elsewhere had warned me about, but I thought the place was great! At least at first. It was very missions-minded, which no other church I had attended seemed to be. That made a big difference. I never joined that church, but I kept going to the singles group until…it disbanded. The two leaders married off, and no one wanted to take their place. Plus I think gossip was leading to a lot of hurt feelings in the group. So it was no more.

    So…I kept going to my house church until…my pastor moved. He and the other mainstay of the house church are very busy people, so we have not met for over a year.

    After the singles group disbanded, I thought, hey, I could go to such and such church. But I quickly realized I no longer wanted to expend the energy on another church. I was tired, and going to my house church was “good enough” for me, I guess…until it stopped meeting.

    Now I am “between church opportunities”, one might say. And to be quite honest, I don’t really feel like going to church anymore. I am waiting for my house church to meet again, which my pastor says we will do…one of these days. So…I must soldier on.

    • Anonymously Yours, that is one of the saddest stories I have ever heard.

      There is an old poem that I can remember only a part of:

      The high soul climbs the high way,
      And the low soul gropes the low,
      And in between, on the misty flats,
      The rest drift to and fro.

      (middle part missing)

      The high soul climbs the high way,
      And the low soul gropes the low,
      And every man decideth
      The way his soul shall go.

      (end of poem)

      I don’t mean to sound harsh, but you come across as a “misty flats” sort of person.

      And probably many reading this blog have had the same sort of history….

  7. I think another important reason for leaving is spiritual growth. I was baptist for many years, until I went to seminary and began to realize that…I wasn’t a baptist.

  8. Really appreciated your perspective on this subject, Damaris, especially your essentials for attending & your last point about sound & silence. In my experience, many church services have moved so far into performance & feeling that in a town full of churches, there are still very few real choices for someone who appreciates sound & silence.

  9. I am the paragon of consistency. I was raised Catholic (12 years of Catholic school) and then joined a cult for 3 years (Children of God/The Family). After a few years living as a prodigal I was led by a neighbor to an Assembly of God church, which believed most of what I had learned in the cult, and since this was my first REAL church experience I stayed for 20+ years. Basically I “grew up” in that church (from 25 to 49), even becoming a board member and serving as the board president when the church split and we were looking for a pastor. But it was that split, and the political maneuvering and hurt personal feelings that caused me and my wife and daughter to leave. We went to a Nazarene church that some friends recommended to us, and after meeting with the pastor we decided to stay. That was in 2000.

    It wasn’t easy staying, I had a hard time “connecting” with the other members, but because the education/assistant pastor took an interest in me because of my cult background, he gave me the opportunity to substitute teach Sunday School (adults) and I was “hooked”. But in a GOOD way. I have to mention that the pastor has not changed (locations) and his ministry has been consistent, but I really don’t “learn” much about the bible from him because his “gift” of preaching is more inspirational than pedagogic. What has kept me has been the teaching gig. I have to admit that I learned more about the bible in the past 5 or 6 years because of my personal study than in the preceding 40 years of Christian experience from the pulpit, which has led me to a conclusion: If you are depending on the pulpit for your bible learning you are looking in the wrong direction!

    Looking to the pulpit for general inspiration and direction is mostly a safe way to go. After all, that is why the whole congregation meets in one place, along with fellowship and corporate worship. But for learning you HAVE TO DEPEND ON YOUR OWN STUDY! Of course this should begin in Sunday School, IF your church has it, but nothing, and I MEAN nothing, can substitute for your own bible study.

    Obviously this is my OWN experience, and one that has colored my opinion, for what it is worth. Will I ever leave this church? Well, it would be difficult unless, for some reason, my teaching gig was removed, but that seems the MAIN reason I am still there. My wife and I have no close friends in that church, despite almost 15 years, we still have friends from the Assembly of God church. We “grew up” together, after all. Would we miss the people in the Nazarene church? A couple…maybe…but for the most part they are “Sunday” friends who take as much interest in us during the week as we do of them. It’s a two way street. SO our ties are tenuous, but I don’t see it happening soon. We’ll see…

  10. Damaris, this was so interesting to me. For someone who has used the same bank through three mergers and for 33 years, the same accountant for 33 years, the same insurance agents for nearly as long and who has lived in the same house since 1986, I am perplexed when I think of the number of church moves I have made. Each time they have been for what I considered good reasons (at least at the time), but I am a little sad over my lack of stability in that regard.

    Once, not long after I was married, the elders of our church came to tell my husband I needed to quit my ballet classes (something I studied starting at age 5 due to flat feet and continued for the love of it into college and marriage) because it was a) dancing and b) required me to wear a leotard. We left that church that week.

    We left the church where we landed (after the leotard controversy) when it split and we followed the pastor and worship pastor to start a new church. We stayed there for twelve years after the pastor left, but it was twelve years of difficulty and frustration. I wouldn’t do that again.

    The next move was ultimately over two issues … money and ministry. Eventually all our tithe was going to salary and all our time given was to help the pastor move his pet ministry forward. It didn’t matter if the rest of us were gifted otherwise. We were a lop-sided wheel and a body with only one appendage. We were dysfunctional.

    Other frustrations have included/ include allocation of money, distracting and whipped up emotionalism during worship, lack of formation for children and adults, pastoral leadership resting on laurels of past spiritual growth.

    From time to time I have wondered if reasons for those three moves have been good enough. Perhaps I could have lovingly convinced my first congregation that wearing leotards does not necessarily lead one to hell. The second move was motivated by a desire to follow a personality and over the years I could see tendencies toward cultish behaviors in the congregation … bad move. Those cultish behaviors led us to the third move … no regret there.

    • Lisa, you almost made me spit iced tea all over the computer screen! I thought — until I re-read the sentence carefully — that it was the leotard that split, not the church!

      My bad….

    • Sounds like your typical Pentecostal/Charismatic, holiness church. All you have to do in their case is criticize the lack of portion control for pot lucks and warn of gluttony. THAT will get their attention. Well, on second thought, maybe not. It’s YOUR failing they are worrying about, not THEIRS!

  11. David Cornwell says

    To me this seems to be a peculiarly American discussion. I’m sure we are doing a job exporting it to other cultures, but only here in America could a discussion like this one begin, take root, and become possible.

    I’ve changed denominations only once in my life, after going through a period of hurt, lostness, illness, and spiritual disorientation. The change was not is is not easy. I was a lifelong Methodist (going way back before it was “United”).

    However, being a good American, I already had knowledge of the marketplace and made a change. It was, and remains a painful one. However it has been a happy one for the most part, because the change was based on locality and the specificness of that locale. For many reasons it could not have been made on choice of denomination, or I would probably still be a Methodist. At the church they say I’m still Methodist.

    In effect my choice is a congregationalist one. As someone else points out, in some ways we have all become congregationalists. We find a congregation we like while doing our shopping, then buy into it. Tradition and history be damned. I’m sure there are exceptions– especially among those who have changed over to Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy or other old traditions. Good for you. At least you have done the work that change requires. And probably prayer also. However it seems to me that the American Catholic Church has also in many respects fits perfectly into this marketplace. You have become like us, especially in your attempts to be good Americans.

    I have convinced myself that my orthodoxy goes back beyond the local church I have chosen. The UMC had already lost its bearings, veering both to the political left and to the “religious” right. Both lost their connection to the real Wesley and his call to a morally disciplined life. “Church growth” is the empty Interdenominational heresy left in the middle. Find your niche, get a good worship team, identify “felt needs” and begin to grow. Give the people “choices.” All unattached to theology, except the theology of the marketplace, freedom, leadership, and Americanism. It is a failed theology unattached to the traditions of the Church and the Kingdom to which we are called through Christ.

    Hey, it is a struggle to be faithful in America. Are we pleasing God with our choices, or are we pleasing ourselves?

  12. Andy Zehner says

    Damaris has presented a detailed argument for staying in the Catholic Church in particular, and for staying in any church in general. I concur with Damaris, but my argument is much simpler. I’m willing to stay where we are because I do not feel ashamed there.

    During that lengthy period “in the wilderness” she alludes to, shame was the dominant feeling I got from attending church. Overt bigotry. Extravagant glitz. Hard-sell membership drives disguised as discipleship training. Having to explain the sermon to my kids because they didn’t understand the references to Oprah and Lost on which the sermon hinged. (I’m not saying every other denomination or every other church is shameful — only that I felt shame on numerous particular Sundays in numerous particular churches in rural western Indiana.)

    The church where we are now restrains the creative impulses of the parishioners and pastors. And that is OK. Damaris positively likes the predictable liturgy. For me it is enough that the Creed is true and good. I don’t want anything new, if I can have what is true and good. The priest’s 8-minute homilies are always scripture-based and sincere, and that is enough. The songs in the contemporary songbook aren’t as good as hymns, but the lyrics aren’t heretical.

    I’m not what anyone would consider a good Catholic. (I’m still not used to pausing after “…deliver us from evil.”) But they seem content to let me attend, and I’m content to be there.

  13. Richard Hershberger says

    People also move to a church because it is popular. Indeed, I suspect that this is a big factor in any very large church. There is nothing like a crowd to draw a crowd. Once you get the ball rolling, people will show up on their own for any number of reasons. They might think that the crowd is a sign that this is the real deal, they might be curious to see what it is all about, they might be trying to make social or business contacts, they might be scam artists looking for easy targets. And so on.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > People also move to a church because it is popular

      Do they? After getting older and watching the mega-church wars, and sadly being a bit of a participant in them, it seems that *the same* people are constantly church shopping; or moving about based upon the ebb and flow of ‘the spirit’. There really seems to be a contingency of the pathological church movers. Many are even very active in each one they pass through. I’m honestly not really even condemning that… I just don’t get it. On some sociological level they are distinct [from me at least] in their desires and inclinations.

      On the other hand, at least here in western Michigan, the mega-church wars seem to be subsiding. I do not see the road-side bill boards, the mass gatherings downtown, etc… they seem [albeit still large] but increasingly marginalized. Evangelical culture was everywhere you turned back-in-the-day, now the zeitgeist seems to have moved on and left them in a bit of an intellectual ghetto.

      Several church buildings are vacant, after being the city-with-a-church-on-every-block [nearly true!]. And one big beautiful church is currently being converted into an apartment complex [not by the church, but by a developer]. I’m sure that is a bad thing.

      Outside of the ghetto you here an occasional blip about Rob Bell [a local ‘celebrity’] but not much beyond that.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        Edit: ” I’m sure that is a bad thing.” meant to be “I’m not sure that is a bad thing”.

  14. One reason to stay that was not mentioned is sanctification. Learing to love people we don’t agree with, forgive people who have hurt us, help people who annoy us. I realize everybody’s experiences color how they view things, but the majority of church hopping I’ve seen was due to personal prefrences or hurt feelings instead of true heresy or abuse.

  15. I’ve moved a lot, but reluctantly. It started when i wanted to go to college and commute, but the Southern Baptist school closed first. I’ve bounced around the country just to stay employed. But, I admit, easily, that each move was better for me spiritually.

    I was also reluctant to leave Evangelicalism, but I was spiritually hungry and there was only baby food available and I wanted and needed something stronger. So, I found a home in Catholicism. There are challenges, especially since I discovered that the more orthodox theologically parishes are the worse for welcoming the newcomer; and the reverse is true. Having learned to feed myself spiritually, I have decided that I can get the theology on my own, but not the fellowship.

    Even now, being settled in what I hope is my final earthly location, I can’t just stick to one parish. Fortunately, we are in a 3 parish cluster, and I frequently go to Mass at two different ones each weekend. I am active at both, and see the problems with each one.

    Do I wish that my life had more outward stability? Yes, but for some stability is a kite in the hands of an expert, tied to the ground with a string, fighting the winds, rising because of the skill of the flier.

    (But I still consider, as a home, a monastery where one of the vows is stability)

    • “Having learned to feed myself spiritually, I have decided that I can get the theology on my own, but not the fellowship.” BINGO!!! THAT is the key! Most people are too lazy to do that for themselves. Sunday is for fellowship, corporate worship and inspiration. Getting “fed” is YOUR responsibility!

  16. Welps this one is certainly relevant in my life seeing as I’ve been thinking of leaving my current Church. My main issue is that for whatever reason the church officials have clung onto a certain ‘rabbi’s’ teachings. Which would be a non-issue in my book if said teachings weren’t so obviously historically wrong and unbiblical (For example there were only 13 apostles ever. Ignore all those other apostles like Barnabas and James!) it makes me want to smack whoever is quoting the man upside the head with a Bible…or at least a history book…Whichever is harder. And that’s certainly un-Christlike behavior on my part to say the least!

    So I certainly do have a lot still to learn about humility and loving my brothers and sisters in Christ! Especially since although the Church gets some baffling things incorrect (Seriously the 12 Disciples were not young teens. Matthew was even tax collector! Why would anyone even think that Rome would employee a kid to collect taxes?) it does keep the Gospel correct and Christ is the focus. And it certainly is an active Church when it comes to serving the community. I have much I need to learn about loving people that irritate me so staying in this Church might force me to grow up.

  17. Christiane says

    In my Church there is a chapel open for people to come in and pray throughout the week.

    Why a sanctuary ‘visit’ ?

    Being able to come into my Church and kneel down and pray, really pray . . .
    and if I do look around, I may see other people on their knees praying in silence . . . and there is a sense of shared peace in the sanctuary
    . . . ‘sanctuary’ is a good word for a place of Christ’s Peace set apart from the noise of the world
    . . . in quiet prayer,
    personal troubles and the upsets of the day are somehow gently brought into the wider perspective
    . . . and the ‘exchange’ is ALWAYS a good one

    I think if people walk away from a Church, maybe it wasn’t a sanctuary for them.
    A sanctuary welcomes you in, it doesn’t drive you away.

  18. Damaris,
    If you don’t mind me asking, when you were with the Friends, was it a liberal or evangelical meeting?

    • Both, Robert. On the East Coast I attended several liberal silent meetings, and in Indiana a Friends church, which was practically a mainline Protestant church.

  19. It seems to me that a felt sense of community is more likely to arise in a relatively intense church. On the other hand, these relatively intense churches are more likely to affect people in negative ways, like the various stories above. Is it better to settle for the dull anonymity of a mainline or Catholic church, or to join a more emotional one, with the idea of leaving it when things get too uncomfortable? A few churches manage to have both community and a relatively egalitarian, democratic structure, but they are mostly heretics like the Quakers and the UCC, and surely a healthy community life is not worth the cost of your immortal soul.

  20. Yet in some ways I’d rather see people leave their church than try to “reform” their church into something far afield.

    I keep thinking about the elderly people who grew up in a traditional Lutheran church and raised their kids in a relatively traditional Lutheran church and now, as they face their last years on earth, are left with a church where someone with gauges in his ears comes in and proclaims a gender-neutral “Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier” and uses the pulpit to rant about transgender rights and global warming.

    These people are faithful, but they have been abandoned. It’s not just the old people, either, it’s anyone who valued that particular stream. There used to be a church with that Lutheran tradition, now it’s gone. There’s something else, something less distinct, less aligned with the historical traditions and doctrines, in its place. It might be “nice” but it’s more like liberal politics with smells and bells than a church tradition. This isn’t like switching from organ to guitar, or Latin to English. It’s a complete obliteration of the core, leaving only the outer shell. How much better would it have been if the malcontents had just gone down the street to the UU and called it a day.

  21. Totally late to the conversation, but this:

    “True orthodoxy should, it seems to me, also involve some mystery and discomfort. If it doesn’t, then I’m probably worshiping a self-sized god.”

    For myself, I am realizing the need for mystery: if you have all the answers where is your faith? We are arrogant to think that God is so easily caught. Discomfort is a realization that I’m starting to embrace as well, but I am a very chicken-ish sort of lady and putting myself into discomfort is hard. (This is part of why I haven’t gone back to church yet, and I’m a little afraid of where I’m being drawn.)

    Anyway, good words.

  22. I really like a lot of the discussion which is going on above, and indeed that’s clearly one of the strong suits of this whole community.

    I attend a small nondenominational church in a college town which, over the past 5 years or so, a lot of people have left. About 5 years ago, our pastor had just moved away to be closer to family, and very shortly after hiring a replacement (who had only 1 more vote than the minimum required to even legally accept him), 2 of the 3 elders (two of whom were founding members of our church, and one of those had been the chairman of the board for the entire life of the church; I don’t know all that history, but I believe they split off from someone long ago as well), and then we brought on a whole new slate of elders (about 9 of them) and change our by-laws a bunch of times to get rid of eldership for life, etc. After that the elders asked the new pastor to step down because his preaching was very rusty and it was pretty clear that he wasn’t connecting well with the church. After THAT a few of the elders also left on bad terms with everyone else, largely because every Type-A elder that we had exasperated all the quieter elders (who then left or stepped down), before butting heads with the other Type-A elders so much that they all basically ran themselves out of the church, fighting the whole way out. THEN the associate pastor (who had that title for about 3 years without having a senior pastor besides) and the interim speaking pastor who commuted to preach for 3ish years both decided for different reasons to go other directions in their ministries, one to be closer to family, the other to go back to school and get more training. And in every step of the way, people followed the ones who left out the door. Some people left, went to other churches, came back, left again, etc. It was a ridiculously dramatic time. Even my wife was begging to leave and I seriously considered it. (Oh yeah we also had a fire and a flood within a month of each other. At that point even the few elders who remained, all of whom were very quiet personalities, considered the possibility that God was telling us just to call it quits).

    But then something weird happened. Everybody who wanted to run a church like a normal American church was gone. Nobody was a CEO type who wanted to project their “vision” on the church. We didn’t have any money left to hire a pastor and even if we could, nobody was really sure why we should. Our elders and a few others were preaching on a regular rotation, all discussing beforehand what the overall scope should be for a while (the life of Christ, preaching through 1st Peter, topically addressing our overall purpose as a local church (which is to Love God, and to show that love by loving and serving others, growing in faith, and engaging our body and community) etc.)

    All this to add one possibility why people leave. Sometimes we are poisonous, and I think God can just throw us away from the people we’re poisoning. Some of the people who left our church left on good terms with everyone (such as the “interim” speaking pastor and the worship pastor), but the result after they left was that a huge amount of cultural assumption went away with them, leaving room for God to move in a way that’s pretty unusual in our culture. i don’t claim that we have any genius view on church and we’re going to build up this “whole new way of doing church!” (which is proclaimed by many a celebrity pastor), but rather that in our local body, God gave strength to stay even when our church was horrible, and gave impatience to those who really needed to leave.

    And perhaps those poisonous personalities or just rigid assumptions in our body go on to become great tools for Christ elsewhere, as in the case of Paul and Barnabas disagreeing on the course of the ministry, but in the end all were effective.

    Anyway, this is getting too long. I’ll throw this out there and hope somebody responds so I can get back on track.

    • Fascinating story, Peter. It’s true that I just considered what people are doing in and between churches; what is it that God is doing? I hope your small congregation can use its freedom well.

  23. Brian Taylor says

    Having read the post several times now I can’t help but pick-up on a scintilla of angst that I am too familiar with in my own journey. This discomfort is like a sticker/burr in one’s sock while outside running around. It creates all this discomfort and for some reason or another the more you get at it the deeper it embeds in your sock. I can’t help but wonder if the unsettling nature presented in this post about finding a “Christian mold” (catholic, evangelical, protestant, orthodox, Baptist, antibaptist, Pentecostal, etc.) is really describing the ache in our heart for Eden. Not that I am settled with nor want to settle for or be satisfied with the version of Christianity we are all contending with today, but I can’t help but wonder if the challenges being “fully comfortable” with our versions of the faith is tantamount to building a utopia. The real wisdom here is that, like the burr that get’s stuck in our sock, the pointedness of this issue (being out of sync with perfection) will lessen over time WHEN we commit to wearing that sock (whether red or blue or green or polka dotted).

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