Not going to church anymore

Here’s my Holland Sentinel column for June:

I don’t go to church much anymore, and haven’t attended regularly since 1980, when I stopped being a church member altogether.

I have mostly good memories of going to church, with my parents and my sisters, but for most of my adult life I have worked on Sundays.

So, over the years, when I was on vacation, I would wake up on a Sunday morning and think about going to church. This habit is deeply ingrained. But going to church these days sure seems to be a lot harder than it used to be. Also, not many people are doing it anymore. The statistics clearly show a downward trend—with young adults leading the way. Once it was just the liberal mainline churches who wondered about all the empty pews, but now even the evangelical Protestant ones are facing the same problem, a surprise given all of the comfortable seating in newer churches.

For one thing, going to church means getting up and getting out of the house on a day off, when I could simply read the paper and do the Sunday crossword puzzle. I had thought seriously about hiking one of western Michigan’s many scenic trails this morning with my brand-new hiking boots, which I’m really excited about, but instead I showered and got dressed. I even shaved. I was prepared to tell anyone who asked that I sometimes feel closer to God on the trail than in a church. But no one even asks the question anymore.

Next, there was deciding what to wear.

Really, what do people wear to church these days? I used to wear a coat and tie, which for years was my Sunday uniform, but I haven’t gone to church in such a long time that I didn’t know if anyone wore suits anymore. In the end I opted for shorts, because it was going to be a hot day, and I didn’t want to be uncomfortable, but almost immediately I felt uncomfortable anyway, even though most of the other men, even the ones my age, were also wearing shorts.

My mom and dad used to say that I should dress for church the way I would dress to go to the White House and meet the president. Now that I can make my own clothing choices, I find myself—maybe unconsciously—still trying to please them. And still failing.

Singing was also much harder than I expected. I love to sing, but I should point out that loving to sing is different from singing well. It would be more accurate to say that I love to sing when no one, except maybe God and my granddaughter, can hear me. They think I’m terrific.

I knew the first song—“Be Thou My Vision”—and started to sing it enthusiastically, as though for God’s and my granddaughter’s enjoyment, only to discover that no one around me was singing. Not a single person. No one’s lips were moving. For a couple of stanzas I tried to create some musical excitement around me, but finally gave up when a couple of people turned around to find out what the “American Idol” contestant looked like.

And then there was the message.

Now, I know a little about the degree of difficulty involved in public speaking, because I used to do a fair amount of it, so I was willing to give a lot of bonus points for sincerity and effort and conviction. But not even a lot of sincerity and effort and conviction can make listening to a sermon bearable for 25 minutes. It seemed like 30, but I was trying not to look at my watch.

I thought about leaving during the last song, but I noticed that a large group near me was already doing that, making quite a commotion, I must say, as they stood up to leave. Maybe they were late for their brunch reservations. Restaurants around here are always crowded on Sunday at noon. Instead, I decided—heroically I thought—to stay all the way through to the end.

Will I be going to church next Sunday? Yes, I think so. I have a whole new level of respect for those who do it, especially those who do it regularly. Maybe I can learn something from them.

Photo: Early morning, somewhere in northern Spain, way back in March.

About Doug

I have been a writer ever since fifth grade when I won second prize in a “prose and poetry” contest. I am also a Presbyterian pastor, and for several years toward the end of my career I lived and worked in Zürich, Switzerland. I am now retired and live just north of Holland, Michigan, along the lake.

5 Responses to Not going to church anymore

  1. Catrina Hamilton-Lanum June 7, 2019 at 9:35 am #

    It was so great to see you at First Pres. These days I do find it difficult to attend church but not for the reasons you mentioned. In this climate, I struggle with fellow congregants choosing something other than love and compassion for the marginalized, and being vocal about their choice. I know I can’t change others but I just chose not to be in toxic company. Currently, I’m vacillating between First Pres in Ann Arbor and Geneva in Canton. Geneva is the second time the church, and when I say church, I mean fellow members, have disappointed me and I can’t seem to restore my footing. Just sharing…

  2. Wendy Sweeney June 7, 2019 at 1:35 pm #

    Hi Doug,
    at the moment I am sitting in the Brisbane airport in Australia trying to make my way home only 2 more flights I hope since I fly stand by so here I am reading your blog.
    I went to Church with my parents here in Townsville and found what I have been looking for in a church and that is one where people are like family and live the love of the lord. They truly look after and Minister to each other’s needs and needs in the community . It is a place where being able to be honest and speak truth about yourself without worrying about judgement exist. It’s a place where if in the middle of a service you get bad news the congregation stops, gathers around you and prays. It is a true Church FAMILY!! Was wonderful to be in Church. again.

  3. Mary Ann Vanden Berg June 7, 2019 at 5:37 pm #

    I am disappointed that you no longer go to church. I love Westminster Presbyterian.
    You preached there two times. Oh MY!!! Reconsider going to a Presbyterian Church. You must know that Jesus Christ is going to return to earth to gather up believers. Will you be included in that gathering. Love, Mary Ann Vanden Berg

    • Doug June 7, 2019 at 6:04 pm #

      I go to church every Sunday, Mary Ann. This was an attempt at humor. Please read the last paragraph!

  4. Jo June 8, 2019 at 2:37 am #

    May I suggest going to an evening service? Then you don’t have to get up Sunday morning! 🙂

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