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.