The Return of the Holiday Prodigal: It’s Complicated…

This time of year marks the return of the “C&E” crowd to churches—the folks who appear at Christmas and Easter. I imagine that lots of clergy and regular congregants have mixed feelings about these seasonal prodigals. On the one hand, it’s pretty magical to have a packed house at holiday services with extra voices ringing out the holiday hymns. On the other, these folks disappear again until Easter, and most likely they’re not sharing the load of keeping church communities vital and vibrant by pledging, serving on committees, or offering their prayers in common worship. I can understand why church regulars might be a tiny bit resentful (though Saturday Night Live certainly had a good time with it recently).

But, as someone who has been away from church for a while, I also know that returning to church can be more complicated than it first appears. For many C&E Christians, I bet that the glitter and glory of holiday services mask complex, confusing feelings about believing, belonging, and how both of these change over time.

The truth of the matter for me is this: I’m afraid to return to my previous church.

This feels remarkably silly to write. I wouldn’t dare utter this aloud. But, fear is what I feel when I think about returning for a visit. My nerves get the best of me, and I’m unsure whether I actually want to return or not. This is not the fault of the lovely United Church of Christ congregation that nurtured me for several years through graduate school and a few family crises. They listened to me. They prayed with me. They embraced me. When I moved away, they sent me off with songs, joy, and tears. I imagine they would welcome me back. Their website assures me: No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here

Yet, I’m still afraid to go back.

As someone who has been away from church for a while, I know that returning to church can be more complicated that it first appears. For many “C&E Christians,” the glitter and glory of holiday services mask complex, confusing feelings about belonging, believing, and how both of these change over time.

I’ve attempted to return a few times. When I first moved back to Florida over a year and a half ago, I planned to go to a service with my daughter in tow. I wanted to introduce her to the church that bolstered me through much of my twenties and offered solace when I found myself lacking it. When Sunday appeared, as it does every week, I couldn’t bring myself to go. I usually managed to plan something else. Often, I’d simply forgotten about my earlier plans. Sunday came and went, and I avoided my previous church home more than once. After many failed attempts at returning, I stopped planning. Then I had my son. This demanding infant took over my life. Sleep deprivation, juggling two children, and part-time writing winnowed my life to getting through the day. Church was not on the forefront of my mind. I’d gotten out of the habit of attending church after an eight-year sabbatical. Other churches didn’t measure up to my previous one. My dissatisfaction transformed into inaction and malaise. How had my church changed in the intervening years was a question I was unsure I wanted answered. I was stuck with a memory that I didn’t want tarnished.

I still want to return.

The impulse to return has grown stronger now that my cuddly infant has emerged as sweet, chubby toddler. I have checked the service times on the website. They’re still the same. My beloved choir practice is no longer before the service, but rather has been shuttled to Wednesday. The choir director, who improved my singing voice, is no longer there. Now, there’s an official coffee hour with bagels, which seems nice. There’s a new pastor, who’s been in residence since 2010. She seems nice too. The doors of the church are now a bright red. Otherwise, the building looks pretty much the same with long windows and a wooden cross gracing the front. It has probably been repainted in the eight years since I’ve been gone, but I can’t seem to remember its original color. Trees and bushes still surround the space and encroach on the parking lot. I hope the stained glass panels still hang in the windows. When the sun hit them during the service, they had a warm glow. The sanctuary was open. We had plastic chairs that we moved in and out, which could be rearranged at a moment’s notice.

20141219_KB_red_doors_by_rich_carstensen_2014_cropped

Despite the cross and the stained glass, this church felt decidedly unchurchy, which made it unlike all the other churches I had ever attended. I’d tended toward brief stints rather than long commitments. I stayed long enough to be offended by a theological quirk that I already knew existed. Before the UCC church, I attended a church in a different denomination at the forceful cajoling of a grandmother. At this small, conservative church, there were fixed pews that directed your attention to the pulpit. Dressed-up churchgoers shuffled in and out of the short rows. Moral judgment hung in the air pressing upon me. The pastor’s rambling sermons focused more on what you shouldn’t do than what you should. I couldn’t breathe there. I couldn’t grow. I left.

When I found the church that became mine, I realized that it was a space to breathe and grow. People in the congregation cared about one another. They cared about the community we lived in. The community ministered to one another, but assisted those outside the walls. Church-cooked meals arrived at the homeless shelter. Lunches were delivered to the elderly. Congregational organizing with other religious organizations led to awareness about the importance of pre-Kindergarten and the need for better bus routes. Their care went beyond the local and national to encompass the international. Everyone was considered a minister; anyone could help.

I was in awe. It seemed too good to possibly be true. I watched warily for the moment in which the goodness would be revealed as sham. That moment didn’t come to pass. I came back Sunday after Sunday waiting to see what would send me away, carrying all of my prior spiritual disappointments along with me each week.

Sure, there were tense moments. There were flaws because people are flawed. I didn’t like the fluffy sermons that sought to comfort us with laughter, but the weighty sermons about the fickle nature of life, the ruminations on doubt, and the reflections on suffering resonated. Certainly such things wear on me, but in this congregation, I found people like me who resided more comfortably in the discomforts of doubt than in blind certainty.

In time, this congregation became my community. They attended to what I needed. They ministered to me. I hope I managed to minister to them. I kept returning.

Years have passed. I’m no longer who I once was. The congregation is no longer the same either. I’m now “religiously unaffiliated,” a phrase that has always bothered me, as if the lack of institutional membership is an accurate barometer of my faith, or lack thereof. I bristle at its use, maybe because the label has an element of truth that makes me uncomfortable.

How can I bring both my memories and my new self into a church that will surely be both familiar and alien to me?

Still, I’m afraid to return to this church because I’m afraid of their transition and of mine. What if the congregation is different than I remember? (And of course it will be.) What if this is no longer a space for me and my doubts? (Though I suspect that probably won’t be the case.) What if I return and the church home that attended to me no longer exists? (This certainly will be so.) What will I do if my memories are just that? How can I bring both my memories and my new self into a church that will surely be both familiar and alien to me?

I realize the cowardice of my avoidance. I do. But, I also wonder if this is the church for me any longer. How have my expectations changed now that I’m a parent? Will the ministry that this congregation offered that brash and hurting young woman still work for the slightly older, still hurting mother that I now am? I don’t know.

I glance at their website one more time. I admire the red door. I linger on their tagline a bit longer. No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here. These words make me want to return. Maybe I will soon. Maybe I want my memories to be untarnished a bit longer. Or maybe the bells of Christmas will sound a safe moment to return, to blend—as much as anyone can with two energetic kids in tow—into the holiday crowd. Maybe then I’ll start to get my bearings back, to begin my return, even if, for now, I can’t promise I’ll stay.

Photo credits:
From the Bottom,” by Giandomenico Ricci, 2008. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 / Desaturated and cropped from original.
Red Doors,” by Rich Carstensen. Licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0 / Cropped from original.

Kelly J. Baker

Kelly J. Baker is a freelance writer with a religious studies PhD who covers higher education, gender, labor, motherhood, American religions, and popular culture. She has regular columns at the Chronicle for Higher Education’s Vitae project, Women in Higher Education, Killing the Buddha, and Sacred Matters. She’s written for The Atlantic, The Rumpus, The Manifest-Station, The Washington Post’s “Faith Street”, and Brain, Child. She is the author of the award-winning book The Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930 and The Zombies Are Coming!: The Realities of the Zombie Apocalypse in American Culture. When she’s not writing essays or wrangling two children, two dogs, and a seriously mean cat, she’s hacking away at a collection of essays on apocalypses in America tentatively titled The End of Us. You can find her on TwitterFacebook, or her blog.

 

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