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Regathering: How Family Reunions Remind Me Of Church

  • Payton Armstrong Contributing Writer
  • Published Aug 12, 2004
Regathering: How Family Reunions Remind Me Of Church

Are you starved by the church, but hungry for God? Our new “Regathering” series, featuring several authors, including AJ Kiesling, will examine the journeys of burned out churchgoers and how they are communing with God and The Body in fresh ways.

Tennessee enjoys distinct seasonal changes, unlike Florida or Alaska. With the exception of summers – long, hot, and humid –each season comes and goes with standard fanfare: vibrant colors of autumn draping rolling hillsides, just enough snow in winter for the annual snowball fight, and spring’s April showers that “bring May flowers.”

I favor autumn over the other three seasons. Something magical occurs as Creation busily prepares for hibernation. Fall colors cap off an eventful summer in a grand finale fireworks display while clean, crisp air reminds us that the concept of air conditioning didn’t originate with man.

Now, though, the summer days swelter with an intensity that even tall shade trees with dense foliage can’t beat. Fried chicken and deviled eggs adorn red and white checkered table cloths as crazy Uncle Eddie and kooky Aunt Flo grace everyone with their obnoxious presence at the annual family reunion. “They’re different and a little strange, but they’re family,” we say while biting our tongues before we start a game of horseshoes. “We love them anyway,”

Funny thing, this concept of extended families getting together all at one time.

Despite a blood-is-thicker-than-water commonality where similarities, mutual understanding, and unity would seemingly abound, family reunions often make it painfully obvious that birds who flock together aren’t always of the same feather.

That’s how I feel at a typical church service. At first, people greet each other with assuming sincerity. Then they go through shallow conversational rituals.

“Hi, how are you?”

“Fine, how are you?”

“Fine, thanks.”


Or, “Hey, get a load of that hair!” (or lack thereof) snickered to a friend.

Or, “Hey, you kids, no running!”

Or, my favorite I-don’t-really-care-enough-to-use-the-phone-to-call-you question of “Wow, has it been that long since we’ve seen each other?”

Going to church reminds me of going to a family reunion. Especially large mega-churches where form and fashion have superseded substance and sincerity. It’s just not appealing anymore. I don’t want to do it.

Having spent over two-thirds of my life going to church, I confess that at various stages of maturity, I’ve been guilty of these same shallow conversational rituals. That’s how I know they exist. I’ve been there. I’ve lived in the bubble.

And I imagine that if you know what I mean by “bubble” you’ve been there too. Maybe you still are.

Pop Goes The Bubble

That bubble burst a few weeks after I married my lovely bride several years ago, whom I fell in love with at a mega-church…stage curtain and all. Our friendship developed while spending an enormous amount of time (translated: chronically overcommitted) volunteering with the church’s youth group and artistic ministries.

In one month’s time, we went from one of the church’s “golden couples” to one of the church’s back door believers. We still believed, but we slipped out the back door of the church, like Tennessee’s seasonal transition, with little or no fanfare.

By all accounts, I was a cultural Christian. My parents took us kids to church each Sunday and Wednesday. I even decided to continue attending the same church after Mom was asked to step down from teaching Sunday School as news of my parents’ separation and subsequent divorce spread like wildfire among the church.

I attended a Christian college affiliated with a mainline denomination. I attended the compulsory chapel services regularly…and enjoyed it. I studied diligently for the requisite Bible classes that accompanied my business degree.

Upon finding a church home in a new city after college, I immediately plugged in and began my chronically overcommitted existence. Christianity…or rather “churchianity”…was a big deal to me.

My new bride, on the other hand, didn’t come from all that stuff. She began attending that church with a stage curtain after moving to town with her mom. She too decided to stay after her mother slipped out the back door from disgust over power-hungry leaders and spotlight-oriented singers. As a teenager, she valued her peer friendships, so she stayed.

She knew the importance of worshipping corporately with fellow believers, but she could see through the petty shallowness so rampant among the Sunday morning crowd. For years, she was required to go to church because she signed a commitment pledge (don’t get me started) to use her time and talents in dutiful Christian service to the church. She attended because she had to, not because she wanted to.

As a newly married couple we stood at the church’s back door, looked over our shoulder for one last glance at the Sunday morning scene, and crossed quietly and intentionally over the threshold to a world of less-is-more.

Less drudgery of required attendance, more joy in building a new marriage.

Less fatigue from early-service call times, more rest from sleeping in or taking a walk or drinking coffee on the patio each Sunday morning.

And sadly, less time spent with friends and more time spent wondering how long it would take for people to notice we weren’t there anymore. We still haven’t heard from many of our friends at that church.

At the Wilderness’ Edge

That was six years ago. Last summer, my wife and I began longing for solid Bible study with like-minded believers. I say “like-minded” because we didn’t want to spend precious time debating the non-essentials that so easily divide the Church. We wanted to study the essentials. We wanted to know not only what we believed but why we believed it and how to explain it in the public forum. We’d heard enough about the non-essentials or a snappy speaker’s take on the “essentials,” and we longed for something deeper.

I longed to sit in a family room again with Brother Dave as he taught directly from the Sacred Text, which sat gently in his lap. No notes. No three-point sermon. Just simple clothes, dirty finger nails, a warm smile, and knowledge of Biblical proportions explained by a precious man eager to share the truth of Jehovah God as recorded in the Holy Scriptures.

My bride…yes, I still call her my bride…longed to deepen her faith beyond this is what I’ve always been told. She wanted to “know the One in whom [she has] believed” with the confidence and surety modeled by the Apostle formerly known as Saul. She read The Jesus I Never Knew by Philip Yancey and A Case For Faith by Lee Strobel. This was a serious step, folks, because she does not enjoy reading “informational or teaching” books. She’s a dreamer. Artistic and creative. She prefers to read a novel or short story. Anything but data, whether autobiographical or propositional.

With this, I knew we were approaching the wilderness’ edge. We spent years wandering the desolate wilderness, but we reverted toward its outer boundaries, anxious to begin building relationships with fellow believers again…as long as it wasn’t churchy.

We stepped closer to the edge after coming across another Yancey work, this one titled Soul Survivor: How My Faith Survived the Church. Three months later, a friend gave me a copy of Jaded: Hope For Believers Who Have Given Up On Church But Not On God by A.J. Kiesling. Even more steps forward. Could it be that other people have experienced similar disillusionment with churchianity? Evidently so.

At long last, we’re eager to explore the idea of meeting regularly with members of the faith family. A family reunion, if you will. This time, though, we’re concerned with being the Church more so than going to or having church. No dog and pony show. No fashion show. No Sunday morning concert. Just solid Bible study in harmony with fellow believers, hungry to learn how to put skin on our faith.

Postcards From The Edge

This column chronicles our journey of faith in hopes that our path can have a greater meaning to you who read this. As with any journey, our destination lies before us with history behind. We’re not “there” yet, but we’re on the way. These ruminations are postcards from the wilderness’ edge. We recently “found” a body of like-minded believers with whom we can worship and walk, and future columns will chronicle the landmarks we cross along the way.

We’re well aware that a “perfect church” does not exist in this space/time continuum. For us, though, we hope to grow in our faith as we learn the Sacred Text with this family. Suddenly, family reunions have become intriguing again. Pass the baked beans.

Payton Armstrong is a freelance writer, perpetual thinker and native Midwestern. He welcomes your thoughts and comments. Feel free to write him at paytonarmstrong@comcast.net .

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