This post was originally published in April 2021 on our therapist’s website, Love Relations at: https://loverelations.co.uk/my-big-sibling-the-church-by-joy-a-mead/
For some time now, I have debated sharing this post on my personal blog. Through waiting, wondering, and praying I have realised that my main reason for not sharing was my strong fear of being judged by others, specifically by other Christians. However, the Holy Spirit gave me a nudge earlier this week that perhaps it is time to let go of that worry and just share. The majority of the text is exactly the same as the original, with a few modified sentences in the last paragraphs to bring more clarity and understanding. Since then, I have been able to have positive conversations with my parents regarding the topics in this article, which have brought healing and understanding to me. As I share, I pray that each of us will have hearts of love and kindness for others. Each person and family’s relationship to church will look different and especially in various seasons of our lives. My goal in sharing my reflections below is that as Christians, we would look to be supportive of each other, and together seek God’s guidance in how we “do church” in the most healthy ways that bring glory to God.
Have you ever felt like there was a silent, yet invisible extra person influencing your family? Sometimes it might come in the form of voices from the extended family, like grandparents who may not be living nearby or have even passed away, yet their views and perspectives still live on and steer the family’s behavioural patterns. In my growing up years, this such person wasn’t literal, but it was rather the embodied pressures and needs whispered from the church we attended.
My dad had started going to this specific church when he landed his first job after university. And a few years later, my mom joined the church when she was hired on as the church pianist. My parents first met, dated, got married, raised me, and to this day, they have spent over forty years serving in my childhood church.
Although I wasn’t a pastor’s kid, I sure felt like one with often getting to church first thing on a Sunday morning so my mom could play music for the service and dad would help out in the sound booth. As a child, I learned that service in church was a way of life for my family and because I was just born into it, I thought this was all very normal. Christian volunteering was a natural extension of my family’s faith in Jesus and a way to praise God for sending Jesus to die and rise again for us. Even as a child, I could recognise a special response in trying to live towards God’s standards and serving in a church as one of the ways Christians ultimately worship and serve God. Yet as an adult, I have started to ask, is this our only way to give back to God? Do we have to give of ourselves at the huge time sacrifice of family life?
Fast-forwarding to my present day, I am now a wife and mother of two, trying to really think about church and its role in my life as well as my family’s. Until last year, my husband and I were following in my parents’ footsteps by both heavily serving God and people at our church. My husband spent hours giving of his time and musical talent through playing on the worship team, while I focussed on helping with kids’ work and could be involved with what our children were learning. We both experienced a sense of fulfilment through service at church, but equally, we often felt burnout from giving too much of ourselves without rest.
All our normal church patterns came to a grinding stop with last year’s coronavirus pandemic, not just for us but for Christians around the world. This has caused us and many alike to reflect upon the church: what it means, how do we value it, and what we want with it after life starts to look a bit more normal. Although at times, I have been uncomfortable in my own skin with not having all my church questions answered, I can still rest in the comfort of knowing God is with us amidst current wonderings, and it is okay to not have everything figured out yet. From time to time, it is good to evaluate what we give our time to and ask ourselves why.
Like many marriages during the lockdowns, ours was ruffled by the disruption of Covid-19 and it highlighted that we had some issues to address. Through working on our marriage intentionally, we were grateful to utilise outside help with a husband-and-wife psychotherapy team to aid in understanding ourselves and communicating better. It was in one of these sessions when I suddenly had a light bulb moment of understanding that for all these years, though an only child, I felt as if I had always had an older sibling which was the church! And because “she” was around before me, it often felt that as a figurative sibling, the church had priority over my family’s schedule. If the church was the sun, my parents were planets faithfully orbiting around, meanwhile I just didn’t have a choice being born into this intense level of Christian service. It felt as if our lives revolved around church, which had a lot of positive effects but put strain on our family unit.
Church, as the body of Christ, provided a community of likeminded people trying to follow God’s ways. It encouraged us to learn, grow, and love life based on God’s standards and to spread His love and hope into the wider towns and cities. It enabled a safe place for children to learn about morals, lessons from Bible characters and how to live out faith. All these things I have mentioned are good things that helped people to grow up grounded in truth, but with all these programmes and activities, came a great sacrifice of time by the dedicated volunteers and their families who made it all happen.
My mom’s pianist position was originally paid; however she always went above and beyond her paycheque with the hours of practise she put in each week. In recent years, her role has been continued as unpaid and my mother continues because of her love for God and to bless others through music. Between music, choir, sound, deacon board, committees and so forth throughout the years, my parents have dedicated their lives to service, blessing many others along the way. But all of this came at a cost to our family and what was left after all the church commitments.
Looking back on my childhood, I wish my parents would have said, “No,” to more ministries and instead put our family first. I remember Sunday afternoons after a long morning at church and Dad relaxing in front of the television, while Mom would nearly be taking a nap at the kitchen table. It is so clear looking back that they exhausted themselves with serving God through church and there wasn’t much energy or time left to do much together as a family afterward. I do respect my parents for showing their love for God through serving the church, but maybe it should have been more limited and flexible. Perhaps it would have been better to take more Sundays off throughout the year? That way, we could have done more to spend intentional time together through hikes, picnics, or trips to the beach.
Especially throughout this season of Covid-19 and our church being mostly online, God has awakened my whole soul to understand that my entire life and what I do, can be service to Him. Nowhere in the Bible does it say that all our love and service given needs to be done in a church building. Spending time with my children, making a meal for a friend, or having a warm conversation with a fellow parent at the school gate are just a few of the many other ways to fulfil Jesus’ greatest commandment to love God and love our neighbours as ourselves. (Mark 12:30-31) If I am living my life in relationship with God, then I believe that everything I do can be done as an offering to the King of kings. (Colossians 3:17)
Looking at my own daughter and son, what I value is that they will grow up to know who God is and hopefully continue growing their relationship with Jesus. They will be familiar with church and understand it to be a place where Christians gather for communal worship, but it isn’t the only place that they can give their time and energy to serve God. I want my children to healthily understand that God is everywhere, in their hearts, in nature, in their school, in their friendships, and they can grow in their spirituality with Him regardless of their record of church attendance. As they grow older and if they choose to attend church, even serve in a ministry, I hope it is because they really want to, instead of being led by false guilt.
One might ask, is there a need for church going forward in generations to come? I believe there absolutely is, but the church needs to be sensitive to welcome volunteering yet, not forcing pressured guilt on members to serve in order to be seen as a good Christian. Perhaps we should each lay down our own expectations of what church should be about. Dare I suggest, maybe the church could even look to simplify its ministries instead of always increasing them, so that members have more time to spend with their own families. Offering less variety of service could also help the church volunteers who are too involved in running what can be a massive Sunday operation, to slow down and focus on the other aspects of their lives which they have been neglecting.
I will always hold in high regards my ‘big sibling,’ the church. It is where I first learned to start my faith journey with God and time spent there has helped produce in me a moral wholesomeness. For the moment, I will be carrying on with my relationship to the church in a healthier distanced manner but keeping ever open to the Holy Spirit’s leading. For the first time since I was a teenager, I have let go of officially serving at church, and if I chose to resume in the future, I want to serve for the right reasons instead of holding on to false guilt that I am somehow a bad Christian if I am not overly serving at church. Laying down the disappointment and sadness with my own family’s relationship with church during childhood, I choose to see my new awakening as a chance for learning how to be healthier in the context of churchgoing, gaining greater perspective, and creatively living out my faith journey with the community around me.
Perhaps, you may have grown up in the church like me and some points I’ve made, echo your own experience? Let’s together, seek God with all our hearts, ask for His wisdom, and knock on His door with every expectation that Jesus can guide us all into the best ways to be His church.
“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.” Matthew 7:7-8