Imagining a different kind of church…

When we moved to Atlanta, we tried several churches and went to a few briefly. We even joined a small, mostly African American congregation because we felt the sermons were deeper and more serious than what we were getting in what I call the “hipster churches,” predominantly white, young, affluent and trying very hard to be cool. You know the type; they have a coffee bar and a pastor in skinny jeans.

The hipster churches are usually “seeker friendly,” meaning that they don’t talk about anything unpleasant from the pulpit and keep it focused on how much God loves us and wants us to be happy. I got the impression that they were more focused on selling Christianity as a product that can help you live your best life than teaching you how to live in conformity to the scriptures. One of those types of churches in my area boasts of the numbers of salvations and baptisms, but in my time there I didn’t see much of an emphasis on discipleship. What happens after baptism? Who teaches the newly converted how to live like Christians?

I should mention that I have a Master’s in theology and I have high standards when it comes to sermons and church management as a whole. I did my Master’s at Duke Divinity School, a Methodist seminary, so I’m familiar with traditional liturgical church. I also spent a lot of time in less formal evangelical churches. I guess I’m a pretty well rounded Protestant.

Pre-Covid my husband and I were attending a Sunday school class at a very traditional Presbyterian church. We never stayed for church, mostly because it was a feel good sermon about pleasant topics given to an audience of church-goers, mostly elderly, who wanted church to end promptly so that they could be at Applebee’s before the Baptists.

The Sunday school class was composed of all ages, from college aged to seniors, with no formal curriculum or even format. We just met for an hour every week and talked about politics to marriage and everything in between. We got to know the people in our class pretty well and looked forward to seeing them each week. The class was interactive, engaging, and allowed us to get to know each other on a deeper level than the superficiality of a normal church service. When the older people spoke up in class, everybody listened. When millennials were home from college, they answered our questions about what they were experiencing as Christians in a post-Christian culture. There was no star of the show. Some churches become personality cults surrounding the pastor or the worship leader. In our class, everybody could talk and contribute. There were debates and disagreements, but all in good fun.

That class felt more like what church should be, more like what it was in the 1st century, when believers met in each other’s homes and had small fellowships. I’m not saying that big, organized churches are bad; I’m just saying that historically church has been more than one thing.

In my opinion, many churches in America have been co-opted by American consumer culture. Christianity has become another lifestyle product like essential oils or Cross Fit, just another tool to help you live a good life. I’d like something deeper than that, something that encourages true discipleship, something that functions more like a monastery than a country club.

When we move to the island, I’m hoping my mom and I can have a little house church, even if it’s just my mom and dad and my family of 4. We can share a meal, say parts of the liturgy (Doxology, Lord’s Prayer, etc…) and maybe work our way through the church calendar. Other than Advent and Easter, most evangelical churches aren’t very connected to the church calendar. That’s something I’d like to do more of; I think it gives a framework to the year that naturally focuses our attention on God. Instead of looking forward to the consumer holidays and celebrating by spending money, we could focus more on the church calendar.

Last year I read a book called “The Benedict Option “ that affected me deeply. It echoed a lot of what I said above about the American church failing to give its congregants meat, offering only milk instead. The book talks about how our culture is moving further and further left, becoming more “woke” with every passing day. The book predicts that we are approaching a point in our society when being a confessing Christian is going to cost you something. You will be ridiculed at best and fired at worst for confessing belief in Christ and refusing to become sufficiently “woke.” The book suggests forming alternative communities for believers to support each other, not only emotionally but financially as well. It’s a fantastic book and if you are a serious Christian who is distressed by the turning tide in our culture, you need to read it.

I’m looking forward to moving to the island, in part because I know I can form a Benedict Option style community there, even if it’s just my own family. If you’ve read the book, or if you are also frustrated by church and would like something deeper, I’d love to hear from you. What have you done as an alternative to or in addition to regular church to feed yourself spiritually?

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