“You may be seated.”
No, I’m going to run out the front door, screaming!
Oh, how many times I wanted to do that when visiting a new church. You see, my dad was a minister. I grew up in the church. If there was a non-church sanctioned Sunday morning activity I wasn’t allowed to attend it.
The only Sundays I missed church for the first 16 years of my life were because I was sick, and even then my mom popped in the VHS Bible cartoons.
It also meant that when we went on vacation, any vacation, if it crossed over onto Sunday we absolutely had to go to Sunday morning service.
Nothing breaks up the family trip to Disney World like sitting in an AC-lacking Kissimmee church, fanning myself with a program, being told of how I could never ever, ever, be good enough.
Good thing to hammer home with a 10-year-old.
Think that church’s motto was “break them early.”
But I digress. Anyway, what I’m getting at is I’ve been to a ton of churches over the years. At least while my father was alive. It’s been a bit touchy in recent years, but that’s a different topic and a different story.
Instead, I wanted to focus on how you know you’re at the wrong church. For any regular or even semi-regular church-goer, you know there is an important connection you make with certain congregations, and others are cold, sterile, and maybe even downright creepy (dare I say, cultist?).
Perhaps you don’t even realize you’re experiencing some of these red flags. I know I didn’t until I stepped away from regular church attendance. Once I did and began digesting my church-going excrescence the signs became much more pronounced.
1. You’re Being Back-Handed Judged
Here’s the thing. Far too many people in church are probably judging you.
Despite there being that, “you’ll be judged in the same way you judge others” portion of the Bible, people tend to skip over that part (it’s not the only part that’s skipped over).
There will be those who judge you on your clothes, on if you show up late, on if you’re showing off too much skin, on how much you tithe. Everything.
That stuff is going to happen. In ways, it is human nature and you can’t prevent it. But when it becomes a direct line of conversation, that’s when it becomes a problem and a warning sign.
I grew up in the same church. I knew many of the same people for longer than I did my friends.
After I became engaged it, naturally, was proudly announced by my father at the end of service.
One man, someone I’d known for my entire life, had watched Super Bowl’s at his house and had worked on projects around his property, came up to me and said, “That’s a relief. We were all worried about you.”
I wasn’t sure what he meant by that. I asked someone else.
“Oh, we all thought you were gay and that we’d have to sit you down for a talk.”
That right there was one of the first big mudslides in the erosion of my church attendance. Not the part about being gay. If I was I would have been very open about that. But that apparently they had open discussions about it and were scheming up contingency plans just in case.
Perhaps I was too young to see earlier ones.
2. You Feel Cold
And no, it has nothing to do with a busted thermostat.
It’s a strange feeling. You’re sitting in this building that is supposed to be all about love, and yet you feel cold. There’s a chill in your body and nothing warms it up.
Maybe it’s the sermon. Perhaps it’s the glances from people. Maybe it’s the creaky floorboards and the window overlooking that 200-year-old cemetery down yonder. Could be all of the above.
You just know something feels cold. Something feels off. And if you can’t trust the feeling inside you (soul intuition perhaps?) what else can you trust?
3. The Church Feels More Like A High School Click
Have you ever walked into a church and it felt more like a country club than a place of worship?
The church doesn’t even need to be all that fancy to have that kind of a feeling. People arrive and they sit in their selected clicks. They show off new earrings or watches. They make sure they’re seen by all and heard singing by even more.
If you’re new they glare at you. As if how dare you walk into their church and listen to their sermon.
I wasn’t privy to this kind of a situation growing up. I played with the other kids. Later I played on the adult’s softball team.
But the older I got the more apparent this became. The groups become more defined. You knew if you told something to one person they would leak that information to others within their group.
It’s just how it went.
I learned who I could trust and who I couldn’t.
I learned who would judge externally and who, at the very least, would keep it internal.
Some automatically assumed they were better than you, not financially but spiritually.
People floating on their imagined spiritual pulpit is a problem.
If you want to tell someone, “Good job on intentionally singing over everyone else at church, you’re still an ass hole in real life,” you might be in the wrong church.
4. It’s Not You, It’s Me
“No, no that’s not right.”
Sitting there in the church I was testing out, the words of the pastor failed to resonate. What he said felt more opinion than religious dogma.
It was a nice building. I do love a well-put-together religious building (although I might contradict that statement a little later). The people were more or less friendly. They said hello to me without trying to pry out my life story.
But I couldn’t get on board with what was being said. It was very anti-open mindedness. It was in the mold of, “you need to blindly follow and never ask any questions.”
I’m not about that. Why should I follow you because you say I should follow you? I can think of a few instances in history where that turned out poorly. If I have a question I need to be able to ask it, and you need to be able to answer it. Because if you’re telling me one thing you better be able to back it up.
Now, I wouldn’t suggest going up to the minster after every single sermon and nitpick. That can get old. It happened to my dad all the time. He’d regularly get performance notes from some members of the church, saying anything from one topic making them feel uncomfortable to another portion lagging too long.
That was one of the most common suggestions: can you make the sermon shorter?
While my father never said it (at least I don’t believe he did), I’m pretty sure he wanted to ask if people were interested in going to church and listening to a sermon, or were they filling time before their lunch reservation?
However, if you have a legitimate question concerning the context of the sermon, by all means, ask. You absolutely should. And if they are not willing to discuss it, or answer your question, the church isn’t right for you.
Because ultimately isn’t that really why everyone is at church? Or at least should be? To ask important ethical and spiritual questions and have them answered?
If they won’t answer your questions, find a church that does.
5. It’s All About The Show
Here’s where I’m going to contradict myself.
I said earlier I love a well put together religious building. And it’s true. I love religious architecture.
Gothic cathedrals are a personal love of mine. Drawing them and designing my own was how I got into an art university and landed some scholarships.
I love the beautiful mosaics and tile work of mosques. The design of temples and of synagogues. It’s all exquisite to me (just don’t get me started on religious paintings because that stuff creeps me out).
With all that said, far too many locations make it all about showing off and not about the message.
Not to crash on the entire Crystal Cathedral parade, because building wise it’s neat, but if I could speak for Jesus for a moment, I’m pretty sure if someone wanted to build him a giant building like that he says “na, I’m cool with that hill over there. Give that money to the poor or the hungry or something.”
I don’t have a problem with mega-churches necessarily, but when the members become nothing more than numbers and it’s all about the show and less about the substance than you’re probably at the wrong church.
6. You’re Leaving Without Gaining Anything
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve left a church and just didn’t feel any different about myself.
The preacher gave the same uplifting sermon that he had a month earlier, only with a slightly different real-world example.
Some pastors want to be crowd-pleasers. They want to give that click-bait sermon that generates the most cash.
They don’t want to give a downer sermon, or they don’t want to give a thought-provoking talk in fear of those who won’t understand.
Maybe that works for most churchgoers. They received their 90 minutes of good vibes for the week and they’re off.
If that works for you then great.
I’d rather be left thinking.
There are a handful of sermons that have stuck with me over the years. Even though I don’t regularly go to church now, there are still some points I will think about from time to time.
I don’t always remember the context of the sermon or what the overall purpose of it was, but I do remember a few bullet points. I can picture the minster saying the words. They can still drive me to tears or force me to think.
For me, that’s what I want. Not tears as in “ah, shoot, I am totally screwed with this life. Can I start over?” but tears as in eye-opening.
For me, I’ve simply left too many churches and felt like I did walking in.
If you feel the same leaving as you did entering why are you going?
Above all else, find a church that speaks to you, that you’re comfortable in and yet challenges your way of thinking.
And try to find that one spot that is willing to walk with you as you search for answers. Even if they don’t have them, being there on your own spiritual journey is sometimes all you really need. Because it can be a lonely one.
I’m currently on my own journey, an empty boat, out at sea. I hope you can find a church that helps you populate that boat. It’s much easier to get where you need to be with help.