Why we still go to church

Dear Hannah,

Somebody asked me this week why I plan to raise you in church when I've publicly left the Christian religion.  And since it might seem insincere for me to leave a religion while being a part of it, even telling the pastor and others that I'm an apostate, I suppose somebody deserves some kind of an explanation.

A church is a lot like a person.  Each and every one of them, despite their frequent and pathetic attempts at spiritual unity with one another, has a certain flavor and a definable trajectory.  In nearly everyone we like there's something worth disliking; and the way we choose to associate has less to do with their "perfection" than an overall presentation. We enjoy some things enough to ignore others; and when we find the picture agreeable enough, we call them our friends or we try to make them our lovers.

I've felt for a long time that the same is true of churches.  The Christian way of thinking about churches -- and I mean Christian as in the way Christ taught us to think about the church -- is very different.  He taught, essentially, that wherever people acknowledged Him as Lord and Savior, we were under very strict obligations to treat them as our brothers*.  This of course is an idealistic method, but not a very practical one.  There's probably no easier way to be disappointed or conned than by treating everyone who calls himself a Christian like your brother.  And at some point somebody has to choose where they'll go to church; and since so many churches are very obviously less agreeable than others, picking them by proximity is oftentimes a romantic idea, but rarely a very helpful one**.

In short, I like to pick churches like I pick my friends: I ask myself what I want in life, and then if anyone is offering it, I make myself close to them -- by offering my celebrations when they're happy, my comfort when they're sad, some stimulating conversation, and occasionally some money.  And this, I think, is where I most usually confuse everyone.  I'm not looking for spiritual guidance, and I (most usually) hate the singing.  But if I'm tired of many aspects of Christianity, I'm not tired of Christians; and if some of the teachings of Christianity are repulsive, I think that many of them are exceptional.  I never expect perfection, but I'm always looking for a good impression.

I add to this that I'd never learned to be a man until I became a Christian.  Around the age of 24, some hard sermons from some hard preachers crushed my self-esteem and got me growing; and while I was learning the Bible, I began to read people like C.S. Lewis.  You could even say that I never learned to be an intellectual until I became a Christian.  Forced to accept the Bible as the word of God, I began trying desperately hard to make sense of it; and because the Bible is such a large and complex book with many teachings that appear to contradict one another, I was forced to explain away the most complex and irreconcilable things.  Heresy after heresy, controversy after controversy, reformation after reformation led me to examine the most difficult metaphysical subjects seriously; which led me to reading books of greater and greater complexity.  Christian liberals today are fond of talking about the benefits of muticulturalism; but none of them, so far as I'm aware, has ever tried to reconcile the Laws of Moses with the teachings of Jesus.  To most of them, the Law is something embarrassing to be swept under the rug and acknowledged privately but never publicly -- and almost certainly never in totality.  I made it my mission to vindicate God Himself (as if He needed my help), and in the process of defending The Law ended up changing the way I lived my life.

I admit that I was nearly unbearable during this period; but only as unbearable as anyone going through an actual conversion.  If it was difficult to live around me, it was only because I took living so seriously.  Everything was up for discussion; nothing was beyond the realm of improvement; and as I grew in knowledge, I changed in lifestyle.  Our home became a little church.  Two Bible studies, between your mother and I, complete with hymns and prayer, began and ended our days.  You would sing along with us as best you could, babbling -- the whole of it was surreal.  I became less vain.  I began to be reliable.  Sermons played on the radio instead of music.  I became intellectually dangerous and emotionally brave -- challenging everything and anyone at any time to spiritual battle.  My debt had turned into savings; we began to represent Christ in everything we did; we threw our money away in the strangest causes and considered it to our benefit.  Everything was light in those days.  Every step was progress.   Looking back at it, it all feels like a dream; and if I remember how it felt -- how heavenly, how clean -- I have a very difficult time remembering why I was ever any other way before it.

When people ask me why I don't fear religion, this is my answer.  Because I not only know myself, but I know your grandfather, who also had a serious conversion. Christian fanatics may be obnoxious, but I understand them very well.  I know where they get their inspiration, what to expect from them, how to reason with them using the Bible.  The people I don't understand are the lukewarm; the cherry-pickers who go to church and couldn't give a damn about truth or the Second Coming so long as the music is good (and in church it almost never is, so we can add bad taste to insincerity).  In all things my perspective of the religion I left behind remains orthodox -- and if I'm going to be a non-Christian, I still think it's necessary to stand with the best of Christians.

And then there's you.  We've given a lot of thought to your education, since our spirituality has taken such a regrettable turn, and have decided that if we're going to raise you in any kind of environment, aside from being homeschooled, you're going to be in a church.  A child's most formidable emotional bonds are made in the earliest years; and the sight of healthy families, the enjoyment of obedient children, the smells of church banquets, and the sounds of solid preaching ought to be closely regarded.  And there's almost no more useful time for an emotional connection to the church than when it's time to pick a spouse.  Because your mother was raised a Mormon and I was raised a very serious Protestant, the connection between us, even though we were both irreligious at the time, was absolutely irrefutable.  Our subconscious interests, however much Protestants and Mormons try to deny it, were too similar to deny.  I had been with many women, but none of them (with the exception of maybe two) were anywhere near acceptable for marriage, and I knew it because I had been raised around many women who were.  To have an unusual interest in innocence and gentleness and structure and fidelity -- to not even see it with your eyes, but to sense it with your soul, is something that few children raised outside a church can ever really know. The rest of us are left blind, searching out our partners because they remind us of our parents, never experiencing an entire community of people who not only have their act together, but enjoy and constantly preach the rules that make them enjoy being together.  There's a light and a joy in the Christian community which, so long as the Bible is properly taught, will always be the pride of the Christian church -- and occasionally the mockery of her enemies.
This is why we go to church, aside from the fact that everyone will go through difficult times.  To give and be a part of a real community, where people are constantly helping one another improve, where parents and children gather weekly to grow spiritually and morally, where we can experience the joys of giving when we're strong and the consolation of receiving when we're weak -- these are all a benefit which is lost by being outside the church. As such, I've decided to remain inside; and if my honesty means a disagreement or two, I'll paint myself an object of pity, as a friend who wants salvation and wasn't able to find it, so that my family can grow old surrounded by the kindest and most upright people we could find anywhere in the city.  In short, we go to church because there is nowhere else to go.

Your father,

PS If this whole idea sounds a little strange to you, know that Benjamin Franklin, a self-proclaimed deist and enlightenment liberal, not only attended church and enjoyed the preaching of Whitefield during his disbelief, but personally gave tithes to a local congregation, and supported the building of public houses of worship.  Solomon was right: there is nothing new under the sun. 

*see Revelation chapter 3, in which even the most heretical churches were considered Christian; and note that a very rigid discipline, which could eventually involve excommunication, was reserved for only members of the body of Christ.  As Paul says what do I have to do with judging those outside the church?  This means I get a free pass.  Church for me is fun.

**The Mormons do things best, in my opinion, by assigning everyone a personal ward; which may deprive parishioners of an active choice, but forces them to love the brethren at large, instead of going where they feel the most comfortable.


  1. Thou shall not forsake the assembling of the Saints, even if we seem slow at times when the Spirit is moving the P.T. to do what the Spirit tells Him to teach! Christians will never be perfect until we have our Resurrection Body and then and only then will we be blessed with our ways and accomplishments, but no one will judge you or me there, we will see the blessing's but no jealousy in the Heavenly realm!

  2. Perhaps your residual attachment to a church is the manifestation of a hopeful longing of sorts? Oftentimes our intellect can prove to be a stumbling block in our relationship to God. He can only be apprehended through trust, much like the relationship of a parent to a small child. We have to learn not to lean on our own understanding so much. ;)

  3. "An honest inquirer asked me this week why I plan to raise you in church when I have very publicly left the Christian religion. And since it might seem insincere for me to leave a religion while being a part of it, even telling the pastor and others that I'm an apostate, I suppose somebody deserves some kind of an explanation."

    And I still don't understand it. I've read a couple of your past posts about your exit from Christianity, and I've read this one, and I have no idea/comprehension of the why of it.

    1. If you think of this all as a long, drawn-out breakup it makes a lot more sense. You know, the one where the woman has a difficult time telling her ex that they can't even be friends?


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