On becoming a lapsed churchgoer

During the pandemic I've essentially stopped attending church. It's been a process.

Note: this was originally published on Medium. I wanted to put here as well for posterity’s sake.

Let’s just skip the usual preamble and agree that Covid-19 sucks, OK? It sucks and life has changed for everyone and if I don’t get to see Dune in theaters then I might end up losing it. Good enough?

Last year my church, like most churches in the US, stopped in person services for a few months. It was a pretty big shock to my system. I’ve been a regular attender of church services my entire life. I was born into the church and I can’t think of a time I’ve ever not gone. In the past 41 years I’ve moved around several countries, locations in the United States, theological and political positions, but I’ve never stopped “going to church”. There have been times when I wanted to quit, like when we were involved in a abusive church that nearly destroyed my spirit. But I’ve never not gone.

And I’ve always enjoyed going to church. I have a lot of social anxieties that keep me from having a normal social life, but church is perfect for me. It’s structured and rarely deviates into things that make me uncomfortable. I go every week and see the same people, shake the same hands, have the same small talk, and follow the same liturgy. Spiritual benefits aside, the structure is comforting to me.

But in just a few weeks, something unexpected grew inside of me. Rather than waking up early to take a shower, getting the kids up and ready, and rushing off to teach a bunch of first graders in Sunday school, I could now relax. I got to sleep in until like 8am. I could make a whole pot of tea and enjoy every sip. At 9 I would open up YouTube and watch the church’s live stream. For the first time in my life, Sunday mornings were relaxing. And I enjoyed it.

For about twelve weeks I could say that I had no choice in the matter. In-person services were canceled, I had to stay home. But eventually people were allowed back into the building. Again, I said I had no choice. It would be irresponsible to go to an indoor gathering, putting me and my family at risk of getting sick. But was that true? I mean, I was going to work every day at a hospital. At one point in the fall, nearly 1/2 of my immediate work group was out with Covid but I still went in. I never worked from home.

Truth be told, I just didn’t want to go back to church. I had grown used to my leisurely Sunday mornings and I didn’t feel the need to do it any more. At the beginning of the pandemic we would stay in contact with other church members, checking in to see how everyone was doing. If someone was sick and needed food, we would take it to them. Eventually, that kind of contact stopped. I didn’t call anyone, I didn’t check up on anyone. I floated away, my only tether being a 60 minute live stream.

My wife has stayed more connected than me. She has gone back several times and stays in touch with her friends. My son still meets with the youth group for a Bible study. I think that for me, the pandemic has almost severed my last connections to the church. I don’t have anything against the people or the elders, I’m not bitter about anything that happened, and I don’t feel any anger towards anyone. I just realized that without attending church my life is essentially the same. Nothing has changed, for better or worse.

When I was younger we were always told that if you stopped going to church you would end up a drug addict or in jail or something. Meeting with your church was the only thing holding you back from living like a heathen. But it turns out I sin in exactly the same ways as before. I haven’t killed anyone and I haven’t started smoking meth, I’m the same person I’ve always been. I haven’t fallen in such a spectacular fashion that I’ll be the subject of Sunday school lessons for the next fifty years.

For me, the pandemic has revealed what’s important to me and what I can do without. I love the time I spend with my family on Sunday mornings. I treasure the moments we worship together, just our little family all in our pajamas. It’s renewed an interest in spirituality that I haven’t had for years because it doesn’t feel like an obligation. It’s not something I have to do, it’s something I want to do.

Looking into the future, I have a hard time seeing myself going back to church every week. I think I’ll stay in my “lapsed” state a while longer, if only to recover from years of holding up appearances. Because at home I don’t have to pretend I’m something I’m not. I don’t have to just bear it when Republican politics are preached from the pulpit. I can have doubts, I can not believe something everyone else holds as true, I can point at the sacred cow and ask why it’s sacred. I can be myself. And that’s something I don’t think I’ve been in a very long time.