When I transferred to the University of North Texas and moved away from home in 1990, I quit going to church.
While I have some wonderful recollections of my childhood/teenage church years, I also have a lot of bad ones. I grew up in a church that judged people. I grew up in a church that closed its Mother’s Day Out program because the “wrong people” were enrolling in it.
Only once did a black family attend Sunday services. And that’s the day a member up front said something racist.
My childhood church liked white people. It liked middle-class or affluent people. It reveled in sameness.
It had no pity for the poor. No compassion for those who struggled. No desire to throw open its doors and let anyone “different” enter.
I thank God for parents who DID care about those less fortunate. And who DIDN’T fear change or diversity. If not for them, that church might have tainted more than my memories.
Speaking of memories, my last recollection of that church is spring semester of my senior year in high school. Five of us were graduating. We’d grown up together. Four of us were going to the “appropriate” college — a private one associated with our denomination.
Me? I was headed to a public, state university. Oh yeah. I was totally a heathen.
For weeks, the young adults in our church told me I was wrong in my college choice. I remember sitting up late, sobbing, and asking my mom why a state school was so “wrong” or “bad.” I wanted to be a journalist. Shouldn’t I pick a university that would help me become one?
I will never, ever forget the Sunday that the pastor called my four friends up to the front of the church and gave them scholarships.
Me? I didn’t matter, even though I’d grown up in that church. I had chosen differently, and therefore, I was undeserving of a scholarship. A loving and non-judgmental church doesn’t make an 18-year-old kid feel worthless about going to college. I mean, really? It hurt my mom even more than me. After all, she’d been the church pianist there since I was a toddler.
Anyway, once I left home, I was done. No more church. No more judgements. No more haters.
Once I had kids, I tried out a few places. But none seemed to fit. Or rather, I didn’t fit in.
And then four years ago, I decided to become a Girl Scout troop leader. I found a co-leader. I had girls already assigned to my brand-new troop.
But we had no meeting place.
My co-leader, who lives in Argenta, suggested that I call First Presbyterian, which is located in Argenta.
I called. Left a message. And the pastor called me back and said, “Sure! We’d love to host you. When do you want to have your meetings?”
And just like that, I had a place for my girls.
Over time, I met the pastor, Anne Russ, in person. I met members of the church. I walked by their bulletin board every other week. I eavesdropped on congregants who showed up at odd hours and chatted just outside our meeting room.
I met the people who rented space from the church. Artists. The community booster club. The guy who ran a recording studio there. We talked.
I liked what I heard. And what I saw. This church welcomed everyone.
I also noticed that this church did a lot in the community. It wasn’t afraid of poor people or black people or gay people or transgendered or “different” people.
It just was. It was itself. It didn’t care about who walked in or what their “Christian qualifications” were. It was there and it accepted. Period.
Intrigued, I started going to the occasional service. I mentioned to the pastor that I might be kind of sort of interested in hearing more about First Pres.
I went to Wednesday-night Bible study — which was and still is held at Crush Wine Bar.
I made stealth appearances at a couple of church functions.
And then, in December 2012, my husband, children and I became members of First Presbyterian in Argenta.
There, we found acceptance. We made new friends. We could just go to church and just … be.
No judgements. No questions. No chastising.
I love that my church isn’t afraid to open its doors to the community. I love that it welcomes EVERYONE. I love that couples and families of all types are welcome. Divorced? Gay? Poor? Struggling? Doubtful? Agnostic? Atheist? Doesn’t matter.
I was 42 when we joined First Pres. So yeah. I quit church at age 20. And then I randomly stumbled across a church and liked it. Why? Because I spent three years watching from the wings. I spent three years watching members of this congregation and their pastor. I spent three years quietly assessing what I saw and heard.
These poor souls had no idea they were being watched. But what they did and said unknowingly is what made me want to become one of them.
A lot of churches out there are worrying about attracting new members or retaining current ones.
I can tell you — it doesn’t matter what your services are like. I don’t care about your in-house coffee shop or way-cool Kid Zone. It doesn’t matter how many members you have. It doesn’t matter what is said from the pulpit.
What matters to people like me is how you live. I don’t want to hear about your Christianity. I want to SEE it. I want to see you continue your sponsorship of Boy Scouts — because, I’m sorry, but what church casts out CHILDREN?
Only a church full of haters.
People like me, those who teetered on the brink for years — we want a church that is nice to people. We want a church that welcomes those who live in the area. We want a church that doesn’t judge us. We want a church that represents Jesus — one that isn’t afraid of those who are different.
So there you go. I’ve given you the blueprint for salvaging your congregation and attracting new members.
Stop judging people. Stop hating them. Stop condemning them and pointing fingers.
Jesus accepted people — lepers, prostitutes and thieves — as they were. And so should we.