I am annoyed and irritated and bored at church. My husband loves it, but to me, our church feels like a big show: entertainment, choir performance, giveaways, and a superficial sermon. How do I look past the trappings and experience a deeper relationship with God? If other people love church so much am I “in sin” and insensitive to God?
Sad about superficial silliness
The day I realized had to stop going to church, I was on a train chugging up the spine of Buenos Aires. Someone had removed all of the seats in my car, so I braced myself against the wall.
I was dreading and resenting the meeting I travelled towards. A friend of mine, a lovely, brilliant woman, had organized it to instruct all Sunday school volunteers, including me.
I couldn’t understand my dread given the lovely people and goals involved.
The worst part was that I’d felt the same annoyance, irritation, and boredom at my church in the US just months before. I’d just assumed it was the church’s fault.
But now I was halfway around the world in a different church, and I still felt like a petulant teenager.
On that train, I realized I was the common denominator.
As we slowed for a stop, I lifted up a psalm I’d read recently to God: “Show me the road that I must walk, for I lift up my soul to you.”
Tell me what to do, I said to God, and I will do it. I just don’t want to feel bitter and jaded anymore.
God released me in that hollowed-out train. As I prayed, I realized that when we returned to the US a few months later, I’d stop going to church. In the meantime, I would rest and try to figure out what was bothering me. And hopefully, someday, I’d attend services again.
The idea of not going to church made me nervous because in the past, the church has saved me. I like being a church-goer, and honestly, I was afraid of what people would say.
But I was so desperate to stop feeling petulant that I stayed home anyway.
It saved my faith. I discovered the roots of my bitterness, and healed them. I no longer feel cynical sitting in a pew.
I’m telling you this very long story because I think the idea that we’re insensitive to God because we experience negative emotions about His church is a crock of sheep.
“Insensitive” means unable to feel. It means numbness. Acknowledging to yourself that you have negative feelings is the very opposite of insensitive.
Here’s what makes me most afraid for American Christian culture. We celebrate a leprosy of the heart. We select only our polite, happy, cheerful feelings while we numb, ignore, spiritualize, or explain away everything else.
Negative emotions don’t feel great. They’re not perfectly accurate guides (anger, for instance, can easily lead us astray). They make us, and the people around us uncomfortable.
But ignoring them wholesale is dangerous. Without them, we do injury to ourselves and others because we no longer feel pain.
It’s probably clear to you by now that I don’t think you’re insensitive to God. But I’ve barely scratched the surface of your original question, which is multifaceted.
Let me say one thing first. It’s important to be charitable about your church. When we judge others harshly, we judge ourselves harshly. It’s automatic and reciprocal. So having grace with your church will give YOU more grace with yourself.
Your church feels like a show to you, but very likely it is saving others’ lives (your husband may be one of them). Also, this is the best church your pastors can lead given their gifts, tastes, and theology.
That it doesn’t reach you simply means God is telling you need to change how you engage with church. It’s probably an awesome church for other Christians. When at all possible, celebrate the things your church does right, even if you ultimately leave. (If you’d said it was abusive, we’d have a different discussion.)
With that out of the way, let me ask a few questions about your actual dilemma.
Is this church the only option for you in your town, or does it feel like the only option because of your husband’s love for it?
Does your husband know about your boredom and irritation? How did that conversation go?
Do you know and enjoy people in the congregation? Do you respect the leaders? Or does sitting in a pew alienate you more every week?
How long have you attended? Decades, or months?
Has there ever been a time you liked this church? What changed?
It’s impossible to separate your husband from your decisions about church, because even though “my husband loves it” is only four words out of your sixty-word question, it’s the center of your dilemma. If he didn’t like it, I’d just tell you to leave.
But given his love for this church, I think your choice is harder.
If the church irritates you, but doesn’t harm your faith overall, I’d go when you can to honor your husband.
Focus on charitable but honest engagement. In each service, focus on whatever is good, lovely, praiseworthy (for me, it’s almost always worship music) and for everything else, do your own thing.
For instance, rather than listening to the sermon, get a sketchbook and doodle the scripture portion; you’ll encounter the Word in a fresh way. Or go hang out outside and meditate on God for twenty or thirty minutes. (If any of this would raise eyebrows, stay home. Church shouldn’t have hall monitors.)
In other words, stay, but give yourself permission to avoid what you dislike. Guard against snarkiness and cynicism; those negative emotions will make your heart insensitive.
If attending this church embitters you or cuts your heart somehow, stay home or, preferably, find a different fellowship. Much as I hate platitudes about solo Christians being an oxymoron, I do think connections with other believers are, in the long-term, essential. But those connections don’t have to look like a traditional church.
If your husband won’t look for a new church/fellowship with you, do it on your own.
This will likely initiate a whole series of uncomfortable conversations with him. It will get even more complicated if you have kids.
When you’re talking to your husband, talk about how you feel and what you need rather than blaming him. Celebrate what he loves about the church while being firm and kind about how it’s hurting you.
For instance: “When I attend First Hipster United, I feel discouraged about my faith, and alienated from you and others. It grieves me, because I wish I liked it as much as you do. Do you have any suggestions for how we can handle this problem as a couple?”
If he tells you are “’in sin’ and insensitive to God,” tell him you’re going to have to agree to disagree. Don’t engage with spiritual abuse masquerading as accountability. I’d also seek marital counseling.
It’s okay for you and your husband to disagree on church, and to attend separate ones. It’s messy and inconvenient, but pretty darn normal.
The point is to face disagreements together, figuring out how to navigate them as a team.
I’ll leave you with this: there’s such relentless pressure to be cheerful as a Christian that your honesty is a mark of great bravery and wisdom. It’s hard to be the lone voice crying out in the wilderness, but it is by no means a sign that you’ve gone astray.
You asked how to develop a deeper relationship with God. Your inconvenient, unpopular, and dangerous honesty is the answer. When you seek that kind of truth-telling with God—the kind that makes you desperate enough to take action even when you’re afraid—you will burrow deeper into fellowship with Him.
Stay sensitive, continue seeking counsel, and know that God will work through both your negative and positive emotions to bind you to His heart.
Want to ask Dear Portia a question for May, on our theme Mental Illness, Awareness, Stigma? Fill out the form below. I may edit questions for length and clarity.