Leaving Church [Mindfulness]

When we blindly follow routines or unwittingly carry out senseless orders, we are acting like automatons, with potentially grave consequences for ourselves & others. ~Ellen J. Langer

Baptized in the ELCA at 5 months old, I can’t remember life without the Lutheran church. Several times throughout my life I’ve tried to leave it for one reason or another, but something keeps bringing me back. Over and over again.

In high school I didn’t think my church had a big enough youth group. My solution: going to the Lutheran church on Sunday morning and the Baptist church on Sunday & Wednesday evenings. When the Baptist youth pastor questioned me about whether I would be re-baptized, I came face-to-face with my first inner wrestling with theological matters. I politely responded, No thank you. I have already been baptized and I don’t need to be baptized again. And I never went back, returning to my Lutheran church with more energy and excitement than ever before.

During my first two years of college, it was the church politics and disagreements between the ELCA and LCMS that made me question whether the Lutheran church was really the place for me. Although I was at a Lutheran college that offered many worship opportunities, I distanced myself as much as possible in an attempt to find God in other places.

Later in college, I became passionate about the issue of human sexuality and took a bold stand against the ELCA’s policies. This was what I thought would be my last effort at making a change in the church I so dearly loved.

As I graduated college and moved on to law school, I found a Lutheran church to call home. For the first time in many years, I felt God’s presence as I walked into the building. It was an almost instant feeling. As I joined the church staff, I began to see the inner workings of the church. Many times it felt less about Jesus and more about what the people wanted. About a year later I left once again, unsure that I would ever be able to find my place in the Lutheran church.

Upon graduation from law school, I moved back to where my family was – a very small town in the mountains. Despite many attempts over the years, my family never felt welcome at the local Lutheran congregation. I soon became ecstatic to discover a new mission congregation was being started in the very town I was living in. However, after many months of slow movement, I decided I needed an active congregation and sought out the local Episcopal church. Predominately made up of people who had relocated to the mountains post-retirement, I was unsure about whether I would fit in. To my surprise, I was greeted with open arms and welcomed with genuine acceptance. It was within that tiny Episcopal congregation that I found the strength to follow where God was calling me.

Out of my comfort zone and into the wilderness.

Back to the Lutheran church.

That was a little over four years ago. I’ve wrestled with the worship and the theology. The tradition and the rituals. And I know now what I didn’t know so many years ago …

I love the Lutheran church.

The grace-filled theology calls us to an abundant life of selfless giving and service. A life of risk-taking in the name of the Gospel. It calls us to question our traditions to make sure that we are relevant to the community around us. To change our worship styles to make the ritual more meaningful and powerful. This theology that I hold so dear … it calls us all to step outside of our comfort zones. To put God before self.

Today, I find myself in a place where my family has to find a new congregation to call home. After we visited two different congregations yesterday, we sat down last night and began to question how we would ever find our new home. We looked up all the local ELCA congregations and researched their ministries. The questions kept coming …

Do they have an active children’s ministry?
Is it a place we want to baptize our child?
Is the pastor transparent and authentic?
Involved in the life of the congregation?
How involved are they in outreach projects?
Are there opportunities for us to experience spiritual growth?
Will we be able to serve in the two areas that we love so dearly – youth and music?
What are we willing to compromise?

After screaming a few obscenities at God for putting us in the position in the first place and shedding lots of tears, that old question came to us both …

Do we explore other denominations?

And for the first time in both of our lives we realized that it is incredibly painful to think about leaving the Lutheran church.

As I read the first three chapters of Mindfulness, I couldn’t help but think about my love-hate relationship with the Lutheran church. How often have we followed traditions and rituals with little-to-no thought behind them? The calendar looks quite similar to the year before – we have the same events with the same activities on the same weekends. We rarely stop to think about what we’re doing or why we’re doing it because thinking about it slows us down and hinders our growth (or so we think.) We fail to equip new leaders because we’ve discovered that teaching takes more time and effort than doing.

It is this mindlessness that has frustrated me over and over again about the Lutheran church. Simply going through the motions does nothing for me. Rather than filling me up like it is meant to, it empties me. It leaves me wanting something different. Something deeper. Something more.

Lutheran theology and worship is so rich and abundant that we do it a disservice by blindly going through the motions like we’ve always done. How might our churches be different if we no longer followed the same order of worship week after week but we began to think about the parts and what they mean? What if we began to wonder whether there are different ways to do the old rituals and traditions? What might our communities look like if we pushed people to create new ways of thinking about time-old things such as scripture, prayer, communion, baptism, confirmation?

There are glimpses of this happening in Lutheran churches all over the nation. In fact, I’ve helped make it happen in some places. I saw it at Churchwide Assembly. I saw it yesterday morning. And yesterday evening. I see it in the faces of teenagers and young adults. I see it in the faces of parents and retirees.

So I hold out hope … resting in these wise words from Hebrews:

Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.

Praying unceasingly that we can find a church home that is intentional about being mindful.

This post is part of the High Calling book club discussion on Mindfulness by Ellen J. Langer. Check out more posts on chapters 1, 2, & 3!

Crystal Rowe

wife to D, mama to A & E, sister, daughter, niece, aunt, follower of Christ, writer, book lover, beloved child of God

  • I was baptized in the LCMS when I was a month old. I didn’t really know anything else until I started going to a youth group at a Baptist church in my junior year of high school – for the same reason you did. Our Lutheran church had hit a demographic valley and there were only three of us in high school. Then it was nothing for my college years, until the very end when I officially became a christian, at least in my own head and heart. I’ve been baptized as an infant and as an adult, so I figured I’m covered. After long years with non-denominational and small denomination churches, we landed with the (conservative) Presbyterians. It’s close to what I knew growing up in the LCMS. When I visit my mother, I’ll attend my old LCMS church with her — and it is very different from what I knew. But those early years “growing up Lutheran” were formative for me, in many ways.

    Good post, Crystal. (And I enjoy your posts for @bibledude, too.)

    • Glynn – thanks so much for stopping by! Church is a funny thing isn’t it? Maybe we’re always meant to be searching for something more …

  • Wow. I relate so well to what you’re saying, except from inside a different denomination. I was born and raised in the Church of Christ in the deep south. It helped me come to faith in Christ, brought me my spouse, loved on my family, etc. All good things.

    But it has also been a source of major frustration because of the extreme silence it legislates on women. I have debated leaving for another denomination also, even though I love the fellowship in this one.

    It’s a hard choice. The more mindful I’ve become of my church’s practices through the years, the more I also see ways we could change. Although I’ve done what I can and put many hours of prayer in it, my church hasn’t budged. 

    Waiting…a little longer anyway.

    • I think there are many people that share these same struggles – no matter what denomination they are in. Sometimes I feel like the “church” gets stuck in being what it’s always been rather than a community of believers actively following where God is calling them. You, and your wait, will be in my prayers. 

      Thanks for stopping by!

  • I think we are all guilty of becoming mindless in our worship, Crystal. Finding a way to appreciate traditions after years of the same ‘ol, same ‘ol is a very real challenge. I love the way you have shared your journey and the ups and downs. I think this is what keeps faith fresh: always seeking to grow. So glad you are joining us in this book club journey!

    • Thanks @f245004650ca15509ad137749822c789:disqus ! I have found that when we really seek to understand the tradition and the reasoning behind why we do it, we gain new appreciation and begin to really “get” our faith in new and exciting ways. I’m looking forward to the rest of the book!

  • As a lover of Lutheran theology, I hope you can find a healthy Lutheran Church in your area.