My recent post, 85 million unchurched Christians. Is that good?, received some 225 comments. They were extremely informing. I learned so much about why and how people do or don’t go to church. I want to thank everyone who took the time to share your story relative to church.
I don’t suppose there was ever much doubt as to why Christians—and perhaps maybe especially these days—might be inclined to stay home on Sunday mornings.
You know what? Before moving on to think about and discuss church generally, let me share with you my very first experience with church. Talk about … bad first impressions.
I was nine years old when one Sunday morning my dad announced that after we finished eating breakfast our family was going to church. I had no idea what he was talking about. We’d never been to church before.
The first thing I learned about church was that going there meant dressing really uncomfortably.
“Oh, come on,” I said. “Not these shoes. They’re so stiff they make me walk like Frankenstein.”
“Hush,” said my mother. Then she had me look at the ceiling so she could jam my dreaded clip-on tie in between my buttoned collar and my neck.
I already hated church so much.
As we sat in our usual seats in the back of the family car, I said to my sister Nancy, “I can’t breathe.” She didn’t care.
“Can you believe we’re going to church?” I whispered.
“You’re not going to church,” she said. She drew a circle in the air to indicate the three people in the car who weren’t me. “We’re going to church. You’re going to Sunday school.”
“What are you talking about? There’s no school on Sunday.”
“There is for you now.”
Her barely contained glee struck terror in my heart.
“Are you kidding?”
“Mom, Dad?” she called. “Is John going to Sunday school today?”
Over her shoulder my mom said, “You are, honey. That’s where you’ll be while your dad and me and Nancy are in the big church.”
Nancy stuck out her tongue at me. “See? Told ya.”
I was so shocked I fell back limp in my seat.
Was it actually possible that somewhere, somehow, some mentally deranged adult had decided that the one thing kids need more of in their lives is school?
I looked with maximum moroseness out the car window.
Of course it was possible. I should have seen this coming. Of course adults weren’t going to keep letting kids take two whole days a week off school. That would allow for way too much freedom and fun.
With the right side of my face pressed hard against the window, I murmured to no one, “When’s Saturday school start?”
Bending to straighten my faux-tie, my mother said, “When we’re done at the big church we’ll come to pick you up right here. Okay? Now you be a good boy.” She kissed me on the forehead before turning away and leaving me in the first Sunday school class I’d ever seen.
It looked just like a classroom at my regular school. Student desks in neat rows, chalkboard and teacher’s desk up front, colorful cut-outs tacked all over the walls, cabinets galore. All the same.
I found that pretty comforting. If there’s one place I knew my way around, it was a classroom. Not for nothing had I made it all the way to third grade.
I chose a desk near the middle of the room, and sat.
Other kids trickled in, took their seats. Pretty soon the teacher came in. A youngish woman, she was a formidable presence in her belted blue dress covered with bright flowers, and her blonde hair set hard into two swooping curls on either side of her head, the way Southern women did in the mid-1960’s. She was pretty. She looked like she smelled good.
Instead of the excruciatingly boring math or history lesson I was expecting, though, this teacher started talking about God. I’d heard of God before, sure. But I’d never learned about him in school.
She told us that God, who lived up in heaven, was all-knowing, all-powerful, had created everything, and controlled everything.
By far the most powerful person that I was aware of was Superman, who could do anything. But from what I could tell, God dwarfed Superman in the super-powers department.
Pretty exciting! This was actually something worth learning about!
The teacher told us that God absolutely, one hundred percent loves each and every one of us.
Great! I love it when people love me.
Then the teacher said, “Now, there are some people who don’t believe in God. They just don’t want to believe that he’s real. After they die, people like that are sent by God to a terrible place where they are forced to suffer the most agonizing punishment you can imagine, for all of time.”Then she started talking about some huge flood.
I was stuck on the other thing, though. Agonizing punishment for all of time? The absolute worst I’d ever been punished was being grounded for two days. That was awful, yes—but I wouldn’t call it agonizing, and it was still only two days. I tentatively raised my hand.
“I was wondering about the thing with the punishment that lasts forever?”
The teacher smiled a little too broadly and did one blink of her big pretty eyes. “What about it?”
“Well,” I said, “I mean, what does that … I mean, how … where … where does that happen?” I thought maybe the place where all those people were sent to suffer forever was close enough to my house that I could bicycle to it, look through a window, and see what exactly was going on in there.
“It’s in a place called hell,” she said.
Instantly an electric current ripped through the room and froze every kid in place.
She’d just said a swear word. We’d all heard it. That had really happened.
When the buzz in the room slightly subsided, I ventured to ask, “What happens there?”
“I just told you, sweety. It’s a place where people who don’t believe in God find out how wrong they were about that, and so have to suffer terrible punishment forever.”
“But what … how … ?”
A kid a couple of rows to my right suddenly belted out, “Fire!”
I looked over at him. He looked insane. “People in hell burn!” he said.
I snapped my head back toward the teacher.
“That’s right, Paul,” she said. “People who don’t believe in God go to hell and burn there forever.”
Then she started in again talking about the “terrible, terrible flood”—which I imagined would not be so terrible to the people burning in hell.
I raised my hand again.
“You know what?” said the teacher. “You’re new here. And I think you’ve asked enough questions for today, don’t you?”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “Just one more, please?”
With an expression intended to show that her patience had become as thin as a knife blade, she said, “Fine. One more.”
“When you say fire, are we talking, like, fire fire?” Not too long before I had seen a movie where a cowboy was tortured by being tied spread-eagle onto a big wagon wheel which was then spun atop a fire, so that first his head was burning, and then his feet, and then either of his arms. After his first full turn on the wheel the camera had panned away to show the side of a barn, but the cowboy’s blood-curdling screams went on and on. I had nightmares for a week.
“That’s right,” said the teacher. “It’s like fire fire.”
“Yeah!” said Pyro Paul.
“Now that’s the last question I want you to ask,” said the teacher.
And I really, really tried to make that the last question I asked. I did. But now I was genuinely frightened. Up until then I had barely even heard of God. And the idea of my dying wasn’t exactly far-fetched. Not a week before I had climbed up onto the roof of our house carrying the top sheet from my bed. My idea was that if I jumped from the roof while holding the sheet over my head, the sheet would form a parachute that would float me gently down to earth, the same as had happened in practically every cartoon I’d ever seen.
It’d be just like flying! That’s the dream!
That dream became a nightmare the moment I realized that all I was doing was falling. Frantic, I released the useless sheet. If I hadn’t hedged my bet by dragging my twin bed mattress out onto the lawn below me, I’d have been one dead, grass-stained pancake.
And I did stuff like that all the time. My whole life was basically one long flirtation with death.
What if I died before I was officially registered, or whatever, as believing in God? I didn’t even know what believing in God actually meant. But whatever it was I definitely wanted to do it before the worst happened.
I raised my hand again. I had to. My only other choice was to probably for sure spend eternity burning like a marshmallow dropped off a stick. Or like that poor cowboy.
“I want you to put your hand down right now,” said the teacher.
“But I only want to—”
“I do not care what you want, young man. I very clearly told you not to ask any more questions. Now you put your hand down on your desk where it belongs, and you just mind your business.”
“Well, that’s not fair,” I said, dropping my hand.
And then, whoa: here she comes. She had looked like a pretty big woman when she was up in front of the class; when she was barreling down the aisle straight toward me she looked like a locomotive wearing blonde hair and lipstick.
With a grip like Sasquatch she grabbed my arm and yanked me from my desk.
“Oh no!” I said, an admittedly weird choice.
At maximum velocity she hauled me to the front of the room. As she was dragging me toward the classroom door, I did not do what I have often since imagined myself doing at that moment, which is wildly waving my free arm and yelling to the class, “Never ask questions!”