take me to church.

This is the question I’ve been asking recently: Is it possible that we hold the church experience too high? Was the last one SO GOOD that all the rest don’t hold up?  Do we really compare and contrast the Church Experience to the degree that one is the baseline and nothing else stands up? That’s what girls are supposed to say about boys, right? “He’ll never be what _______ was.” Or, maybe that’s what we say when we compare professors within a department, or managers within a company or artists singing the same tune? Probably though, not what a Christian is supposed to say about church.

If we are honest, isn’t this exactly what happens?

When I was growing up church was quiet. Sitting still and staying awake were required. Attendance was definitely not optional. Collared shirts and a skirt, also not optional. Old world hymns – songs with too many verses and a stale air of holiness filled in the gaps between scripture readings and sermons. (Sorry, Aunts that sing and treasure the ancient musical genius of these songs. Bare with me, I think I have a point to make.) Church was not high school kid friendly and it was downright boring. Now, Church isn’t about being entertained, but stay with me…

One Sunday it all changed. Church was loud. There were drums, guitars, keyboards and there was no choir. Jeans were welcomed, and there was laughter and celebration and noise. And, it was incredible.

Oh, and there was Rob Bell.

Rob Bell used the Bible in a Sermon in a way that I’d never seen before. The first time I went to this church, I literally couldn’t turn the pages fast enough to keep up with the pace of the message. Now, I am a Christian school kid that won multiple Bible drills throughout the years. If you aren’t familiar with this game, it starts with the one and only Mr. Brian Houston’s Bible class. He stood with a room full of high school students seated at their desks with a closed Bible in front of them. Mr. Houston said a random Bible verse, and the first student to pick up the Bible and locate the verse won. Fun game, one-of-a-kind teacher! But, I digress…The structure and style of a Rob Bell sermon was unlike anything I’d experienced before. He started with one verse and quickly covered 3-8 more during one sermon. He tied them all together and he explained what the metaphors meant in Bible time culture. This gave us a reference point and allowed us to more accurately understand what the point was and why the emphasis meant what it did. This type of sermon required serious Bible Drill skills. It was a history, geography, philosophy and theology lesson all neatly wrapped up and delivered as one message. I loved it! Alternatively, sermons growing up had always been based around one verse, and that one verse was read from Scripture at the very beginning of the message and then the Bible was put away. Two distinct Sermon styles, indeed. I can only wonder what it  would have been about grandpa’s sermon style that stuck out in memories…

Church with Rob Bell was an invigorating learning experience that bore no resemblance to the Church experience I had growing up. And, recently, I’ve wondered if those experiences are the reason that I haven’t found a church home in the years since. Okay, let’s be honest, I’ve worked nearly every Sunday for the last 5 years and that seriously puts a damper on finding a church.

If Church is about worship and growing closer to God, does the dress code matter? If spending time in a community of believers to dive deeper into a relationship with Christ is the purpose, does the style of music matter? If learning more about scripture is a reason to attend a weekly service, does the number of verses covered each week matter?

There is one other difference between the church of my childhood and Mars Hill Bible Church, and that is where they were located. Growing up we had a fancy sanctuary and the building was well cared for and remodeled every few years. It was nice! Mars Hill was in a rundown, abandoned shopping mall. Was church about the building or the people inside? Which building in the community will stand the test of time? Which one will the next generation see as the Best in Town – a bank? a school? a business? a church?(Thanks to my Aunt Ruth for this thought/comparison!) So much more about this specific topic later.

Churches vary as much as the faces of the community in which they stand and I think there is a church for everyone. I miss everything about Mars Hill Bible Church with Rob Bell (and, Aaron Niequist, the worship leader, but that’s a different post!) Maybe I haven’t found a new church because I haven’t looked or because I worked every Sunday. But, honestly, I think it’s because I compare every single one to my experiences at that other church.


Why is she writing about this now, you ask??

I found Drops Like Stars on youtube. It’s a two and a half hour live film of Rob talking about one of his new books. It was … awesome. Below is the quote that keeps coming to mind, and what my next post will likely try to wrestle with.

“What is it about suffering that creates a sort of solidarity that wealth, health and abundance..doesn’t?”


Thanks for reading today’s rambling thoughts and journeys through memory lane!


One thought on “take me to church.

  1. Hi Florie, I’ll apologize in advance that this response is so long! If it’s any comfort, I had a similar experience at a similar age, and eventually found a series of church homes. Here’s a bit of my backstory, which you can skim if you want to ‘jump to the conclusions’ halfway down. My first ten years of church consisted of listening to Grandpa preach an hour-long sermon in Japanese, in which I was not fluent. Then the next five years was, for me, the stupefying boredom of Fuller Avenue. Uncle Dave rescued me from this by taking me to the renegade underground church then called The Church of The Acts, which later became Church of the Servant. That church was for me everything that Mars Hill was for you: people came in jeans, nobody dyed their hair or wore jewelry, COS wrote its own music and liturgies, based on 4th-century models in some cases; artists in the congregation made liturgical art, and the sermons were far deeper and more challenging than anything I’d heard before. By the time I left college, though, both the Fuller Ave minister and the COS minister had run off with younger women in the congregation and both were deposed. Fortunately, I’d had enough varied church experiences by then not to lose my own faith even as a series of ministers broke theirs. Church in California was so awful that I eventually hired myself out as an alto section leader in a rich Episcopal church that sat literally in the shadow of the leading venture capital firm in Silicon Valley. Music was the best that money could buy, but the congregation was so frigid that nobody ever even said hi to Keith, who came along so that we could at least be at the same service together. That lasted a year. Then we lived in the Netherlands and went to church (in Dutch) sort of like anthropologists investigating a strange new tribe. Then we moved to Philly, and later Williamsburg, and now Beulah, where in all three places we found old established Presbyterian churches that have had ministers ranging from good to off-the-charts superb. The music ranged from ok to superb. And in Germany we went to a Lutheran church and sometimes the Catholic cathedral, and amazingly both places sang Lutheran chorales! (They’re not considered ‘Protestant’ any more, just ‘German’, we figure). We knew them all from the music of Bach, so we were very happy. Sermon quality didn’t matter, because just trying to follow a German sermon was so difficult that it took all our energy just to keep up. When Hannah and Luke went to Calvin, the kid-oriented pop music of Loft and Mars Hill turned them off, and the increasingly world-music style at COS eventually drove them away; they found their home at LaGrave, with organ music and traditional hymns. Now in Lansing, Hannah goes to an Episcopalian church (she loves the high liturgy and dignified music, and it’s a very social-justice-conscious congregation), and Luke and Rachel go to a community church. To each their own, and none of them mind the Presbyterian church up here, which is a step down culturally for Hannah and a step up culturally for Luke & Rachel. So a nice happy medium. Some conclusions: Keith and I are pushing 60, and a few years ago the outstanding minister of our church in Williamsburg, the best I’d ever heard, retired after 15 glorious years with us. He’s the one to whom I compare all others, as you do with Rob Bell. But here’s what can happen when you’re as old as we are: we look back very fondly at all the ministers (and musicians and teachers, etc) who have so helped us worship God and understand God better, and we just give thanks for that, and figure we’ve been lucky enough to have more than our share of great ministers. So we don’t need every Sunday to be a knock-it-out-of-the-park spiritual experience any more. You may say that’s ‘settling’ or you can look at it as a matured faith that’s strong enough not to need to be jump-started by an outside jolt every Sunday. So I don’t know whether you find that possible prospect comforting or depressing! One observation about pop music in church. It’s a well-known phenomenon that most people’s taste in popular music peaks at music you heard before you turn about 26 years old (I just read the umpteenth article about this phenomenon here:) https://aeon.co/essays/why-do-your-musical-tastes-get-frozen-over-in-your-twenties (If you google ‘at what age do people grow out of pop music’ you’ll find lots more, with a strong hint that the magic taste-forming age is…..14.) When churches try to ‘stay hip with the young’ by using pop styles, they run the risk of either becoming swiftly irrelevant or moving in an eternal present; I’ve always sardonically called it not Christian Contemporary Music but instead Christian Temporary Music. Judging by how Christian pop music of the 60s and 70s has not aged well (Kumbayah, anyone?), my guess as a music historian is that very very little of this repertoire will have lasting value. And a healthy church isn’t all 20 year olds, who like different music than those in their 40s or 60s or 80s. The music in church has to transcend *everybody’s* inner 14-year-old. But I am a historian, and I look for lasting effects that churches have. The entire world, Christian or not, is still in stupefied awe of cathedrals built in the 12th century, and Bach’s music written in the 18th. Churches that sing those hymns that you found boring are singing music that is still alive in many cases five hundred years after it was first written. We learn from theology handed down over millennia, not (just) the latest Christian self-help book, which will get pulped in ten years when discarded copies pile up at the thrift stores unsold. I am thrilled to repeat words in church liturgies that have been said by Christians for two thousand years—or by Jews for three thousand years before that—and that are being said all around the world in a hundred different languages, and to sing hymns that Christians have been singing for centuries. It’s a peculiarly American thing to want church to be as exciting as a TV game show with sparkly pop music and heartbeating drums. For nearly all of Christian history all around the world, the church has been, instead, a refuge from the evanescent noise of the culture around it. So I hope you’ll keep looking, and listening for whatever God is whispering to you. Maybe God will lead you to a church home with cowboys and country music, or maybe it’ll be a small fellowship of young people on their knees, or maybe it’ll be a megachurch with some new firebrand preacher. But eventually you’ll find a church, or a church will find you, and as you get older, the incidentals like music and worship and dress and architecture styles, and even whether the preaching is brilliant or ordinary, will matter less and less, because you’ll simply find yourself drawn to be with other people who know life revolves around God instead of around money or power or fashion or whatever else everyone else is running after. And by the way, if you didn’t already know, Grandpa VB came later on in his life to the same conclusion as Rob Bell does in Love Wins: that God’s stupendous love will not be satisfied until *every* one of his creatures is redeemed. But wait, there’s more! I forgot to answer your questions: no, the dress code doesn’t matter, but you would dress to impress anywhere else, why show up sloppy for God? The music doesn’t matter, but see above (we do owe a real debt to John Calvin, and what he said was that music for public worship should have ‘weight and majesty.’ My personal standard is the Oscar Mayer Weiner test: if the music you are singing in church sounds just as convincing when you put the words of an ad jingle to them (such as “Oh I wish I were an Oscar Mayer Wei-ner…..”) then consider that the musical style is insufficiently respectful of its subject matter. Hannah refers to most Christian pop music as “Jesus is My Boyfriend” music—submit a secular boyfriend for “Jesus” and the song doesn’t change AT ALL). And as for how many verses are covered, I’m sure you know that it’s the depth and challenge of the coverage, not the number of verses. I’ve heard stupendous sermons on one verse, or on whole books; I’ve heard terrible sermons covering either of those amounts of ground. As for the building, no, that doesn’t matter either, but in your lifetime that former mall where Mars Hill meets will collapse and have to be bulldozed, or the church will build its own place; I’ve seen COS go through the same thing, from school gyms to a lovely home of its own. Humans have a way of putting their money where their heart is, so I don’t necessarily think it’s a virtue for a church to worship in shacks while the very same people go to work in towering skyscrapers, live in big gorgeous houses, vacation at luxurious hotels, and gamble at eyepopping casinos. But then, Jesus worshipped on hillsides and nobody dressed up….but they did sing thousand-year-old music! ~Aunt Ruth



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