Why I Go to Church

I don’t particularly like going to church.

In college, I loved my InterVarsity Christian Fellowship large-group meetings on Friday nights, which included lots of praise songs accompanied by guitar. But church? Not so much. My college church was a nondenominational community fellowship with a cavernous mauve-tinted sanctuary that resembled nothing more than a Holiday Inn conference room. Rather than preaching, the pastor engaged in 40-minute “teachings” in which he unpacked some Scripture passage. It was bland. It was boring.

In my 20s in D.C., I loved the intimacy of my little coffee-house church, especially because I could count on seeing most of my closest friends there, including the man I eventually married. I loved the idea of worshipping in a space designed not as a church, but as a restaurant and bookstore—the mundane made sacred. I loved that after the sermon, we would share bread, cheese, and fruit around the table and talk about what the preacher said. But I also dreaded our contentious members’ meetings, resented being a detail-oriented worker bee in a congregation of wide-eyed dreamers who would rather talk poetically about servant leadership than help clean up after the service, and rolled my eyes at our own peculiar brand of Christianese.

When we moved from D.C. to Connecticut, we returned to my roots in the Episcopal Church, and our church experience became wrapped up in our experience as parents. I have found being a parent at church to be a miserable experience much of the time. We left one church after spending years helping to shore up a struggling, understaffed church school program. Now we attend a church with a vibrant children’s ministry and a high-quality children’s choir run by one of the nicest people on the planet. But though our girls love choir (our son isn’t old enough to sing yet), the kids still complain about going to church. I spend much of our worship time fielding complaints and questions, often with one or two children draping their antsy little bodies all over my resentful self. I do not look forward to Sunday mornings.

So why do I go to church?

Well, first, I go because I think you can’t really be a Christian if you don’t go to church. Proclaiming Christian faith without committing to a Christian community is, to me, like being a vegetarian who doesn’t eat any fruits or vegetables. Technically, one could profess Christian faith without ever joining a church, just as technically, one could be a vegetarian who subsists on cereal and bread and milk and eggs. But a vegetarian who eats no produce is neglecting a fundamental quality of vegetarianism (an emphasis on eating healthy plant-based foods), just as a Christian who doesn’t go to church is neglecting a fundamental quality of Christianity—commitment to a community engaging in corporate acts of worship, service, and fellowship.

But there’s something else too. It has to do with the way that other people in my church change the way I see things.

When I’m sitting through a service—my back and arms aching from holding onto a squirmy six-year-old; my teeth clenched because this week, again, the kids failed to eat a decent breakfast and then started whining halfway through the service that they are absolutely starving; my cheeks reddening when Ben insists on standing (quite bouncily) instead of kneeling at the communion rail and then dunks not only his wafer but half of his hand into the chalice of wine—in those moments, I am convinced that the people sitting behind us are making a mental note not to sit near those Dollar kids next week. I am convinced that the clergy and chalice bearers are dismayed by my irreverent children. I am convinced that I am the lamest mom in the world to the most obnoxious, self-absorbed, whiny children in the world.

But you know what? The people who sit behind us don’t avoid us in subsequent weeks. In fact, nearly every week, someone sitting nearby says something like, “I love seeing your son’s smile,” or “Your two younger kids really seem to have fun together,” or even, “I really like watching your kids during the service.”

Then last week, on the occasion of my son’s sixth birthday, the assistant minister at my church told me that giving Ben communion is a highlight of her week. She said (and this is an actual quote), “His exuberance is contagious.”

Are these people lying? Delusional? Trying to improve their own attitudes by seeing joyful exuberance instead of obnoxious fidgets? I don’t think so, although I don’t really know.

I do know that such comments change my vision. They change the way I see my children, and myself. And even, a little bit, how I see other people.

My fundamental problem with church is that I am easily annoyed—by boring sermons; bad interior design; and most of all, people who don’t behave in ways I think they should. If an unwashed homeless person sat next to me in church, I wouldn’t be the least bit bothered. I’d probably hand him or her my leaflet and Hymnal, open to the correct page.

But if my pew neighbor is the perfectly coiffed young mom with her perfectly coiffed children in matching Sunday outfits, the one who sits at coffee hour en masse with a self-selected group of equally well-coiffed families? The one who, that time I approached her to ask a question based on a conversation we had once had, looked at me and was clearly trying to figure out if she knew me from somewhere and why on earth I was talking to her?

Or if my pew neighbors are that family who are always the first to drop their kids at Sunday school and the last to pick them up, but who never, ever volunteer to help in any way?

Or if my pew neighbors are my own squirmy, impatient, loud, hungry children?

Then I get annoyed—indignant really—at these people who don’t know how to behave in church. Who are ruining church for me, by forcing me to spend my Sunday mornings dealing with annoying people instead of basking in the light of a transcendent worship experience. Who are making me feel bad about myself, because neither I nor my children are ever perfectly coiffed, and I teach Sunday school even though I really don’t like it, and my kids are brats.

And then someone says that my squirmy kid is exuberant, a highlight of her week. And my vision shifts. I see that my children’s energy and restlessness can be a gift. That they are a gift. And that worship doesn’t have to be hushed and decorous to be worship.

Of course, it’s not such a big leap for a mother’s vision to shift so that she sees her beloved children as gifts. It’s harder for me to change how I see those other annoying people at church—to see that the perfectly coiffed mom clings to her coffee-hour group because she feels a little lost; to see that the family that never helps with Sunday school may be serving in other ways. Or perhaps they are just overwhelmed and what they most need right now is to be welcomed in a place where no one expects anything of them.

My favorite hymn is Be Thou My Vision, a plea for God to help us see as he sees. God responds to that plea every time the person in the pew behind mine, or in clerical vestments at the altar rail, tells me that they see my children not as spoiled, undisciplined brats, but as vessels for the pulsing, passionate spirit of God.

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About Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer focusing on faith, parenting, family, disability, and ethics. She is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Faith, and Parenthood in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Visit her web site at http://ellenpainterdollar.com for more on her writing and speaking, and to sign up for a (very) occasional email newsletter.

  • Mary Caler

    I am so guilty of finding my fellow pew-sitters annoying. Particularly on Christmas Eve, Easter, etc. when they all come out of the woodwork in their fancy clothes and jewels.

    I only find children annoying in church when their parents make zero attempt at controlling them. Most of the time, I find children delightful in church. Last week, this adorable boy was sitting in front of me. I’d guess he was about 8. During the peace, he turned around, looked straight into my eyes, reached out his hand and said: “Peace of Christ be with you.” It was probably the best thing that happened to me all week. I also find it the greatest thing when children run to the communion rail. They probably don’t quite know what they are doing up there and they might just be excited because it’s something different than sitting in the pew, but it’s maybe also a little bit of the Holy Spirit, drawing them to Christ. How amazing would it be if we all ran to the rail with exuberance??

    • http://www.ellenpainterdollar.com Ellen Painter Dollar

      “I only find children annoying in church when their parents make zero attempt at controlling them.” – I have a real fear that others will perceive me as not trying hard enough to keep the kids in check. It’s really hard as a parent to figure out how much to intervene, because sometimes my strained whispers telling them to be quiet are probably just as intrusive to our neighbors as the kids’ antics. I am always grateful when a pew neighbor sees me getting upset with the kids and says to me, “It’s okay. They aren’t bothering us.” That is grace!

  • Mary Caler

    See? I am often an unintentionally judgmental jerk! Your gentle chastisement is well-received. I guess I was thinking of the (albeit) rare times you see parents who are literally ignoring their children.

    I seem to remember once hearing a story of Stanley Hauerwas saying that he loves it when kids are bad in church because it is a reminder to all of us that we serve a disruptive God. That’s a good perspective.

    • http://www.ellenpainterdollar.com Ellen Painter Dollar

      Ack! Did not at ALL mean that as even a gentle chastisement. More as a comment on how the fear of being seen as an ineffective parent plays into the dynamics of a Sunday morning with the kids. For the record, I also get annoyed with other parents who are clearly just ignoring what’s going on with their kids. For example, I have no problem hearing a very young child who cries out or babbles during church. I do have a problem, however, if the parent doesn’t take the child out of the sanctuary for a few minutes when the crying or babbling goes on for a while.