I’ve lived in Columbus for ten years. And in those ten years (but mostly in the seven since I became a mom), I have visited or attended 20 different churches. Yep, 20. I counted. I’ve also thoroughly combed the websites of at least a dozen more. My husband could probably joke that besides walking and joining too many committees, it’s my one true hobby. In fact every year at tax time, he half laughs, half sighs at the number of different churches I’ve made “offerings” to over the past 12 months. No, I’m not mentally ill (at least I don’t think so, and please don’t tell me if you think I am). I’m just extremely picky when it comes to church.
I blame my mom. But in a good way. Because my most clear and formative spiritual memory is of her telling me that God is Love, and that’s the important thing to know. The absolute freedom I was given by my parents to contemplate and explore faith within that one guiding principle was a marvelous (and probably rare) thing. But it also set a rather lofty standard for the type of church I’m willing to attend, and more importantly, immerse my children in.
And it’s not to say that my parents were irreligious or were church hoppers themselves. No, I grew up regularly attending the same ELCA Lutheran church in San Antonio that my extended family attended. I have vivid memories of squishing into uncomfortable pews each Sunday with my cousins, grandparents, aunts and uncles, mostly ignoring the sermon and readings in favor of playing hangman on the back of the program, but still managing to absorb the beautiful rhythms of the liturgy (and always stopping long enough to let out a knee-jerk “And also with you”).
It was a good church. Probably a great church. In a Texas-sized sea of Bible thumpers, promise ring peddlers, and Hellfire preachers, this was a church that played us “The Never Ending Story” in Sunday School, gave the teen youth group a sex talk amounting to “respect yourself and others and be safe,” and once led a confirmation camp class on the topic of near-death experiences. It was a church with male pastors and female pastors on equal footing; a church that believed in the importance of ritual and tradition but never dogmatism or exclusion; a church which taught me that frequently (at least in Protestant Land) the fancier the pastor’s robe, the more open-minded and welcoming the denomination.
So am I searching for a church like that? You bet I am. And the funny thing is, I have found many, many churches like that here in Columbus. But my quest is complicated by a few things. For one thing, my husband is not a churchgoer. He shirks easy labels like “atheist” or “agnostic.” He’s simply uninterested in the entire concept, which is totally understandable. He is from a country that is almost rabidly secular these days. And he’s just not much of an existentialist. That said, he supports (or at least does not openly mock) my own spiritual quest and my desire to have our kids grow up witnessing what I like to think of as open-hearted, progressive Christianity. But I’ll be the first to admit that not having any accountability to a spouse to stick with a particular congregation allows me to flit to and fro perhaps too freely. Not having a spouse present at church also meant that for a long time, I absolutely had to find a church that had adequate child care/kids’ classes during the service, because there was no way I could wrangle those two on my own. Unfortunately, a lot of the churches which share my progressive values are smaller and don’t always have the support that parents of young kids need. Finally, attending some churches sans husband quickly and decisively proved to me that they were not places I could feel at ease because of pastors’ questions as to the whereabouts of my husband or the reticence of other young families to approach what appeared to be an “incomplete” family unit.
We’ve also attended some truly lovely churches in the past which are now too far away to be practical choices given our move to the suburbs a couple of years ago.
But the most complicating factor of all is my kids. I want them to have the kind of spiritual freedom I had, while still being grounded in some basic knowledge of the Christian tradition. They already know God, because they come from God and they know Love. But as a quintessential 21st-century helicopter mom, I have to make sure that whatever church we attend does not speak of God’s love out of one mouth while sewing guilt, fear or intolerance through another.
Ultimately, it will be my kids who make me finally choose a church and stick with it. My daughter is getting older and more opinionated and has recently asked if she can stay with me during the service instead of going to children’s church. I love having her with me, watching her hum along to hymns whose complicated lyrics she can’t yet read. And now that she has an opinion about all this, it’s time to value it and listen to how she feels about a church. If it’s good enough for her, it should probably be good enough for me. I’m optimistic we’ll find our place.