As a child, I spent a great deal of time in church. With services on Sunday mornings, Sunday nights, and Wednesday nights, plus Friday evening and/or Saturday morning church projects, in addition to attending a Christian school until the eighth grade, I spent most of my childhood participating in religiously centered activities. It wasn’t until my first year of college that I came to realize that all this devotion to church was a little excessive and for awhile, I quit attending altogether. My husband, on the other hand, grew up attending church once per week, on Sunday mornings, and he too stopped going for awhile in college.
After we married, my husband and I decided to attend a one hour church service once a week, and when our children were born, I also began attending a biweekly church sponsored mommy group. We were much more relaxed about going to church than my parents had been. If we happened to miss a service, it wasn’t any big deal. We’d go back the following week or the week after.
Things weren’t perfect, but we were more or less content until my oldest son had the audacity to turn three and I was expected to “volunteer” to teach my son’s Sunday School class once a month. At first I didn’t think this would be any big deal until I attended my first class and discovered that Sunday School in a big church held little resemblance to the small town church of my childhood.
Small town Sunday School was fairly simple–story, question and answer time, coloring page, snack, and if there was any time left, puzzles, games or play time. One teacher taught the entire class and it was the same teacher every week. Parents substituted if the regular teacher couldn’t make it. Working in Sunday School was completely voluntary and we usually had people who wanted to be there.
In the big church Sunday School, class is an elaborate affair with three teachers per age/grade, a short story, a video, and then 45 minutes of arts and crafts activities. I also noticed that only moms are asked to teach Sunday School and while it is “voluntary,” it’s expected you will be there once per month.
These are things that some people might find mildly annoying, but assisting in my son’s Sunday School class tied me in knots and gave me headaches. After spending 16 waking hours with two noisy boys seven days per week, I felt a little bitter being asked to “volunteer” to spend my one hour of quiet time one Sunday per month to watch a dozen kids create chaos. The fact that I detest arts and crafts activities and cringe every time someone offers my son a pair of scissors, glue stick, glitter, bells, markers, or similar tool of mass destruction just added to the tension.
Another problem we ran into was the difference in attitude towards childhood colds. Growing up, a snotty nose, little cough, and a temperature under 100 were pretty standard childhood ailments, and while inconvenient, didn’t interfere with our daily activities. So I was completely surprised when my youngest son was sent home because he had a snotty nose and a “fever” of 99 degrees. I took him to the doctor who simply shrugged it off saying it was a standard cold and would pass in a week or so. Unfortunately, my kids catch multiple colds every season, and our church attendance dropped by half.
We continued to attend church, but between teaching Sunday School and staying home every time one of our kids had a minor cold, we weren’t getting much out of it. In fact, we sat on the cusp of attending or not attending every week. Then two things made me decide not to return. The first is my youngest son’s impending third birthday and the expectation that I will teach Sunday School two Sundays per month (once for each child’s class). The second is a new Sunday School system that includes work stations with a different classroom, different lesson, and different teacher every week. Since the burden falls on my shoulders to manage our children through this new Sunday School system (you know, because I’m the mom), I made the call. We will not be going back.
I feel guilty about this decision, but it brings me back to the question I have struggled with many times since college: Why do I feel the need to attend church in the first place? Paul Fussell, in his book, Class: A Guide Through the American Status System, claims that religious fervor and church attendance is an attribute of the lower middle classes and below. Karl Marx blasphemed by calling religion the opiate of the masses. Simone de Beauvoir believed religion to be a balm for those who could not achieve much in the present life allowing them to believe that everything would be made right in the afterlife (this is why so many women are so zealously religious). On a more personal level, most of my friends don’t attend church because of issues with the exclusionary practices and the perceived closed-mindedness of church members.
These are all valid points and I have no way to refute them. At the same time, I want to pass down a spiritual tradition to my children–a spiritual tradition that has been passed down to us from generation after generation of faithful Christian ancestors. Plus, there is a great deal of comfort in the traditional rituals. No, we don’t take all the rules and regulations too seriously, and yes, the exclusionary practices bother us. We don’t have any friends in the church. We just can’t seem to find enough common ground to establish friendships while our secular friendships are easier to build and maintain. Still there is a strong longing for the familiar customs and a desire to practice a modified approach to our inherited spiritual tradition.
I am not sure what direction our spiritual and religious faith will take. I do know that if we choose to leave, we are not alone. According to 7 Startling Facts: An Up Close Look at Church Attendance, an article on churchleaders.com, fewer than 20 percent of Americans attend church (according to an article on religioustolerance.org, How many North Americans attend religious services (and how many lie about going)?, the number is closer to 41 percent) and that number is steadily declining. An article by Brian D. McLaren in the Huffington Post, Why We’re Leaving Church: A Report From the Nones, speaks about how the exclusivity of the church–the idea that there must be one faith, one sexuality, one spiritual ideal and all others are damned–is driving many away from the church. A book by Adam Hamilton, When Christians Get It Wrong, summed up many of the complaints (judgmental attitudes, exclusive of other faiths, demonizing homosexuals, Creationists, don’t believe in scientifically verified facts or strongly supported theories, corrupted by politics, etc.) I had with the church.
Still these things, while irritating and most likely the reason why I never made church friends, didn’t keep me from attending church. After all, I didn’t have become small-minded and dogmatic just because I attended church–right? I have a responsibility to my children to pass on the Christian faith and tradition, don’t I? Studies show that those associated with a church community are happier and better adjusted than those who are not. My children are still young and need a spiritual base. I can protect them from the fanatical ideas for a time. Shouldn’t they know about Jesus, and Joshua, and David?
I can see all my secular friends rolling their eyes, now. Still, I would feel negligent in my duties as a mother if I didn’t pass on to my children some of the basic knowledge of the Christian faith. I expect we will continue to try to find a church home that is a better fit for us–one whose members support an open-minded approach and make it easy to attend. In the meantime, I’m developing our own Sunday School curriculum that exposes my children to the stories of the Bible without all the scary dogma attached.