The room was filled with people. And the room was huge, so it was a lot of people. Hundreds of us were crammed in the black box room that had a stage and big screens in one corner. Lights in various colors flared. Upbeat music played. The crowd of people became a sea of heads and arms under the clouds of light and music.
It was my first time visiting this church. My best friend invited my husband and I along. He and I had been on an unfortunate streak of non-attendance, not because we didn’t think church was something we should do, and not because we had given up our faith or anything. The reason was simple: we hadn’t found a good church near school. The reason was also complicated: my heart was numb and suspicious.
Around the time Alex and I got married, the church I had grown up in for almost a decade turned its back on my family when we needed it most. This wasn’t the first time this had happened to us. Our exit from my childhood church was similar, though under different circumstances. This time, although I personally wasn’t involved in the details of this episode, I was still more affected than I initially thought. Months after the earthquake, the aftershocks hit me over and over again, when I least expected it.
The community of people I’d spent my teenage years with was now gone, and even worse, some of them were hostile. I was a new wife, and I craved some kind of support and advice, but the pool of people I felt I could trust was dry. The counsel I’d once relied on now seemed compromised with bitterness and hurt. I couldn’t even trust myself; everything I knew about my identity as a Christian was steeped in teachings that I now knew were false, in mindsets that were heretical, in motives that were misguided. For me, identity is so important, and I felt it swept away in a matter of months.
But I knew one thing: I could trust God. I just had to figure out who He really was. So in many ways, the first year of my marriage was like coming to God all over again. I couldn’t trust other people to guide me. I pretty much sat down with the Holy Spirit and said, “You’re gonna have to show me the right way to live. I don’t know a damn thing, and I don’t trust anyone to tell me the truth.”
I had always thought living a life pleasing to God was a clear-cut path: do these things, live this way, and you’re pleasing in the eyes of God. Little by little, He stripped away that comforting illusion. He gave me glimpses of the vast, terrifying freedom we have in Christ. My path became more rough-hewn, more wild, more like cutting out a path in the woods than following a well-worn road.
I learned not to be afraid of changing or evolving, of outgrowing who I used to be in favor of who God was making me now. My approach to my personhood and my marriage became different. And I clung to God because I really didn’t have the luxury of clinging to anyone else. I wasn’t just trying to find the way to Him; I was making my way with Him. It was a sucky time, yet it was when my faith truly became my own.
Except there was one catch: I couldn’t go to church. I did, physically, but my heart and mind felt like the skin had been ripped off. I was raw. Every time I went to church I was no more than a body in a room. I didn’t sing. I didn’t close my eyes to pray. I spent the sermon doodling in my journal. It’s not that I didn’t want to participate. I really did. I’d spend every church service on the verge of tears, because I wanted my heart to be there. I wanted to be invested. But it wasn’t. I didn’t trust any church not to make the same mistakes of the churches I had grown up with.
I realized this was a common mistake: to assume all churches are hypocritical because a handful are. I knew that there are no perfect churches; they’re made up of human beings, and human beings are stupid. That’s why we need God in the first place. But my brain knowing these things didn’t help the deep bruising in my soul. Our church had prided itself in being true, welcoming, and understanding, a place where the Spirit of God worked. A place that really had the answers. And it was all a sham, and now I couldn’t trust any church that claimed to be the same things.
For a time, I couldn’t go to church at all. It’s like when you have an injury. You know that in order to fully heal you have to eventually start exercising, which will be painful. You’ll have to start doing all the things you did before you got hurt, but with timid weakness. But before you do that, before you start to face the pain and build up strength, there’s a space of time where it’s okay not to expect anything of your injured body. It’s better, even, to rest and wait while the worst of the pain passes. For a season, that’s what I did with church.
And then my best friend invited me and Alex to the church she attended at school. It was one of those big, trendy churches you find in the suburbs of a city. And right away, I was suspicious. There were too many lights. There were two huge screens. They said things like “We’re a different kind of church” and the speaker that first week wore running clothes (it figured into his sermon, but still). The church had all the red flags on my list: it claimed I was welcome, it claimed it brought everything back to the basics of loving Jesus, it claimed it was “a church for people who’ve given up on church.”
Yeah, it was too perfect.
Also, there’s a weird stigma I noticed in myself and that I’ve since noticed in the church: to automatically discount bigger churches or megachurches. Perhaps this is only a phenomenon in small towns where there are small churches, but the prevailing attitude seems to be that if a church has more than a hundred people who regularly attend, its theology is automatically shot. As if Jesus didn’t speak to ten thousand people at a time, and as if Peter didn’t bring three thousand people to the Lord in one day. But I digress.
I was numb as ever, and I’d gotten to a place where I accepted the numbness. I couldn’t will it away; I couldn’t make myself feel comfortable or safe in a church. I could only accept where I was and hope that someday, maybe in ten years or so, I’d actually feel at home. In the meantime, I kept going to church, and I gave myself the space to dislike it if I wished.
It was a funny time, because while I felt deep spiritual growth in my person, none of it took place as a result of church. I can’t recall one message that spoke to me, or one time I felt church connecting with the things God was teaching me. When I went to church, it felt like looking at fish in an aquarium: I watched and admired (and was occasionally horrified), but I didn’t get in and swim.
This was painful, especially as someone who grew up learning that church attendance is essential for the Christian life. But it was important, because it taught me something: while church is truly vital for the Christian life, because without a body we do eventually die, God’s work is not dependent on other people. The Holy Spirit can change and transform when we are most raw, most isolated, most fearful. In fact, I would venture to say He does His best work in those times.
Little by little, month by month, I felt feeling return to the numbness. I remember being at church one Sunday morning, in that same storm of heads and arms and music and light, standing in my favorite spot between my husband and best friend, and singing to a worship song for the first time in months. I remember my voice cracking a little. I remember starting to cry.
And little by little, month by month, my guard went down. I began to trust this trendy suburban church, because I realized that the Spirit of God was at work there, and the word of God was held in the highest esteem, and that those are the only things we should ever worry about. Little by little, month by month, I began to feel belonging in church again.
There’s a lot of talk about the modern church. Many people are worried, because the church of the new millennium has an increased focus on accessibility and acceptance, simplicity and diversity. Many people see this as a departure from the true faith. But I no longer see it that way. To me, the modern church is a return to the roots of the faith. The church is starting to strip itself of its once-shiny trappings that made it more of an institution than a family. We are rediscovering the spirit of the law as we throw away its wretched letters one by one.
So when I hear some Christians lament about the new generation, my generation, and how we’re compromising the faith with our laziness and lack of piety, I have to disagree. Anyone who thinks the church is on the decline hasn’t been paying attention. I’m truly looking forward to where the church will be in thirty years, because the heart of modern Christianity is one of earnestness, of a deep desire to connect with God. And let us not forget that the faith needs very little upkeep to stay true, because Christianity isn’t dependent on us to keep it alive. Its life force, its soul, is in God, and he’s really good at sustaining truth. The Holy Spirit is alive and well.
Now when I go to church, I stand in the sea of heads and arms under clouds of light and music, and I remember that this is what heaven will be like. And unlike in the past, when I felt detached, set apart, observing, I now feel at home. I am part of the sea and part of the clouds, no longer raw, but strong.
And I feel sometimes, in those little scraps of moments, that heaven has come early.