I quit the worship band at my lifelong church a little more than two years ago.
I typed the phrase “easily the most difficult and painful decision I’ve made” in that first sentence, and its sterility taunted me so I took it out. Likewise, the sentence, “Drumming in worship was the most important part of my life for approximately half of my life,” does not capture the poetry of a snare and tom in newly imagined combinations, nor the open hi-hat in the moment of precision that opens transport to another world like a meditating traveler in Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (or at least the TV series based on the novel). There is no sensation like curling my fingers around drumsticks, knowing the action simultaneously positions me as beggar and benefactress.
Beggar because regardless of how much I put into facilitating congregational worship, I come expecting to receive the biggest benefit from my playing, more fully and simply myself in communion with the One who created me this way. Benefactress for more than just the role of a drummer in worship. Growing up in the evangelical world (church, school, camps, conferences, etc) with an analyzer type of personality means I have long been aware of specific systemic practices and mindsets that lead to specific systemic un-Christ-like results. I have always done my best to chip away at these systemic deficiencies in my corner of the world with whatever gifts I have, learning from my mistakes along the way. It never crossed my mind that I would one day have to choose between contributing to the health of the church and drumming in the worship ministry. But when that day came, I stepped down.
I’ve ridden shotgun in a tow truck through an Arizona haboob, with eyesight blocked and motive power empty, surrounded by air full of everything that used to be on the ground. Deciding to step down from the band I had loved without measure for 15 years and navigating life after that decision was walking through a haboob. Trying to figure out my new direction and life structure, and then communicating that to others in a way that made some quantum of sense, is something I can look back on and laugh about. But even in a haboob, what’s immediately in front of your face is still perceptible, and without the endorphins of drumming, what pulled up two inches in front of my face was my perception of the futility of a church service. I gratefully played occasionally at another church, but the question kept gnawing at me no matter where I went.
What is the purpose of a church service, actually? Not “What should the purpose of church be?” But “What is the purpose of church the way we actually do it?” I know the knee-jerk response is “fellowship.” In fact, I’m pretty sure I’ve told people that before. And maybe there is fellowship that goes on before and after the service – I did consider showing up early and staying late like normal, and just reading a book or something outside during the service. If I had been in a healthier emotional place, I probably would have done exactly that. But once I was on the receiving end of that knee-jerk answer instead of the giving end, I realized it’s an improper burden to put on the parishioner if it does not accompany a serious re-examination of the service.
“Corporate worship” is another purpose I hear a lot, and I’m sure I’ve repeated it to others. My concern is that both the content and the structure of much of what I see in how churches worship increases our immaturity. I want to be very careful here, because I believe God can be (and is) praised even through the most immature offerings, and it is neither my place nor my desire to diminish any sincere “joyful noise,” including my own. If freedom from immaturity were required to worship, not a single one of us could ever do it. Nevertheless, there are specific unhealthy tendencies within the church that seem to me to be exacerbated by the leading of corporate worship as it most widely manifests itself today.
With contemporary worship songs below the 101-level and at best 5 minutes of “fellowship,” many church and church-like services I’ve attended boil down to a message aimed at newcomers. If this feeds anyone, I certainly do not begrudge them that. I have always been totally on board with the idea that I am here to serve the church, not the other way around. But again, without the endorphins of drumming, I began to wonder if we all had adopted this mindset. And if we had, what if no one was actually getting fed because no one had the mindset that church was a place for them to get fed? What if everyone had the mindset that they were there only to do the feeding? Is it possible this contributes to an environment where we really love telling each other what to do, and if we want a relationship with Christ with depth greater than the underbelly of a cruise ship, we have to seek that growth outside of the church?
So I elevated my hand into my metaphorical haboob and one of the scraps of paper I caught out of the dust said, “What feeds you?” I would really like to say that was the only scrap of paper I caught, and it provided direction and purpose on my new quest. But that’s not at all what happened. It was still a haboob.
But it was a haboob with Mother Teresa, at least for awhile. I listened to a book about her on audio so I could remove the hardcopy from my bookshelf (I’m allergic to dust). I listened to another book, and another, and another because I just wanted to be around her demonstrated love in whatever way was possible posthumously on another continent.
A friend recommended the podcast On Being, and I began to understand better the depths of what feeds me. I should pause here – I probably should have paused earlier – to say that to an extent, I already knew what fed me. Beyond playing music, I also love lying on the floor and letting my soul breathe in time with the Divine as I listen to a Jars of Clay, Margaret Becker, or Peter Bradley Adams album from start to finish. I love deep conversations filled with long silences with whoever will have these kinds of conversations with me. I know I am connected to Love and loved by Love in the mundane moments of life when I am alone. I am centered in Love when I participate in the focus of yoga. I love the new worlds that have opened to me by studying ancient Hebrew and reading the Hebrew Scriptures in their original language. Math has always been my language of prayer, and more recently, I had also found unparalleled worship in studying quantum physics. But I wanted more. (To be fair, I still want more.) In On Being, I found deep conversations with scientists, religious leaders, poets, and scholars who unearthed many new thoughts and ways of being wise that I had never been exposed to before, and I let the conversations change me as I drank them in. My favorite part of the podcast is when the guest says something beautiful and the hostess is silent, followed by a resonant “Mmm.”
I listen to everything by Brené Brown that I can get my hands on, and I have a new relationship with health, honesty, friendship, and vulnerability.
I also got back into creation care. I had never known environmentalism by that name, but when I was in elementary school, I cared a lot about recycling as a form of the doing the right thing. Very soon after leaving the church, I recognized that I had been selfish in the way I had harmed the earth for my own convenience, in part using disposable plastic like… well, disposable plastic. I set myself to putting my selfish ways behind me and instead work towards sustainability in its many facets.
And the rest is hard to describe. It frustrates me that the deepest aspects of life always seem to lie beyond linguistic explanation. I am just surrendering to the process.
I know what you’re thinking, or at least what I would be thinking if I were reading this three years ago: “You didn’t need to leave the church to do any of this.” And maybe that would be true for some. But I did need to leave. In order to see more of the fullness of Christ, I needed to stop being bombarded with the partialness of Christ. If that doesn’t make sense, here’s what’s going to make you even more nervous. I set aside the Bible for a time. I know, I must be becoming a heathen! In all honesty, I probably would have thought myself foolish if I had been on the outside looking in, but I didn’t want to read it with my old eyes. I knew I wanted to change and see God’s crush depth reality, not the church’s sea level reality. I knew that when I got deeper, I would want to pick up the Bible again and read it with new eyes that God had given me.
The journey is not what I would have previously labeled as beautiful. It has been lonely and unclear. I hate when things are unclear. But I am extremely fortunate that those I kept closest don’t think I’m crazy when I say, “I don’t really know why, but I think I’m supposed to be doing [fill in the blank].”
And finally after two years, I’m far enough into the journey that I can put some small amount of clarity on what has changed in me so far. I think I am starting to experience life more holistically. I have always seen the external world as integrated, and now I am starting to become integrated too.
I see creation care less as a battle of selfishness versus the right thing to do, and more as an extension of who I was made to be as a created being. I see bushes on the side of the freeway as joyful life made by One who loves them, and I lean more deeply and peacefully into what it means to be a joyful life made by One who loves me. By grocery shopping less and gardening more, by driving less and walking more, by making less trash and composting more, by taking other steps that some would consider “granola,” I am more grounded in the divinity of my own humanity.
I find myself looking more for the image of God in others. And simultaneously, perhaps ironically, I care less what others think. Probably that latter part would happen in my thirties anyway, but it still feels good. I still really suck at judging others – that’s a beast of a weakness.
And I hate that no matter how much I describe it, this all still sounds really shallow. And I have no way to wrap it in a nice, neat bow, as a blog post perhaps should be wrapped. I did try a church a couple weeks ago run by someone who earned a doctorate studying the connection between liturgy and spiritual formation, and I think I may attend for a season. Some would probably see that as a bow, but I don’t because it’s not a full circle type of journey. In all honesty, I can’t even say I’m excited for what’s ahead. But I do know I’m hungry for it. I must have it; there is no alternative for me. And maybe this reflection will provide resonance with those who feel similarly, and comfort to those whose loved ones have left the church. I have seen Christ outside church buildings even more than I have seen him inside, and wherever he is, he is loving. Perhaps instead of a bow, I’ll wrap it up with a poem:
All my socks are hanging to dry
I hate flip flops but I will wear them to yoga
Where I can take them off
I’d like to go barefoot
If it weren’t for germs
But to have feet that know the soil
One day I may dance
And my feet won’t be raw on the wood
Feet that build more layers of skin for the joy of expressing
And experiencing and existing
A walker in deeper dreams of reality
Undeterred by broken seashells or concrete in the desert
But the polite will say smooth
Is better for lovers, for company
For the fragile, sterile stock photo
That has become reality
But not mine
Come aware with me
You who walk in challenges
That build more layers of life
And more layers of life
And more layers of life