Saturday, April 22, 2017

WELCOME TO THE CHURCH EXPERIMENT

Let me begin by apologizing for the title of this book. I realize that “church” is the wrong word for many of the religious gatherings I visited. When I began the experiment, I didn’t realize I would choose such a diverse collection of experiences, so “church” felt like the right word. Once my visits expanded, the branding was already too cemented to pivot. So, yes, I know a mosque is a mosque, not a church. And the atheists would shudder at me calling their meeting “church,” but here we are.
In 2009, I visited 52 different religious gathering in 52 weeks. Once a week, every week, beginning January 4 and ending December 26. That’s a lot of religion.
It may seem like a crazy idea, so in order for this experiment to make more sense, I want to give you a little bit of my spiritual background.
I grew up without religion, mostly visiting church on Easter and a handful of other times before the age of 22. I was generally a good kid, but college has a way of bringing out the worst in many people. College Steve was trapped in a downward spiral for a few years, until graduate school, when I finally hit rock bottom—drinking too much, using women to dull the pain, constantly questioning my life choices. I was a mess. By that time, my spiritual mentor had been meeting with me for almost two years. He shared the Good News and I mostly ignored him. But his patience eventually paid off. After realizing I had no hope of making my life work on my own dysfunctional terms, I began attending Vineyard Community Church in a northern Cincinnati suburb. The next eight years were a whirlwind.
I became a Christian at age 23, started working at the Vineyard after I turned 26, left to help plant a church before turning 28, and shortly after my 31st birthday in March of 2008, I decided to stop attending church for a variety of reasons. Mostly, I was burnt out, but I also began to seriously consider the purpose of church.
In other words, I went from no church, to attending church, to working at a church, to starting a church, to leaving the church in less than ten years. Whew!
When I first announced my decision to leave the church, most of my Christian friends had the same response: You have to go to church! What are you going to do without church? How are you going to learn, grow, serve, and get accountability? But I was skeptical of their feedback. Most of them sounded like they were reading the questions off of a script, as though they didn’t really believe what they were saying, but they knew it was proper etiquette to ask the questions. After all, if you are a Christian, you have to go to church, right? It’s on the Christian checklist, isn’t it?
Don’t curse, don’t get drunk, read your Bible, don’t have sex, get engaged after dating for three months so you can have sex, pray, tithe, and go to church. It’s all there in black and white.
And I agreed with them. I kept reiterating that I was only taking a short break because I was burnt out. I thought I would eventually end up somewhere. And I believed that. But then something happened without church. My life was pretty much the exact same. In fact, my life was actually better. I had never been happier. I seriously considered permanently walking away from the church.
But that didn’t seem like the right answer either. I had seen too much good in the context of spiritual community to completely dismiss the discipline.
There was a problem. Admittedly, I had a very limited view of church (through my experiences at the Vineyard) and God (because I am a skeptic), so I found myself criticizing a system I knew very little about.
I don’t know if God has ever audibly spoken to me. In fact, I can’t recall a time I actually heard his voice. But I do believe God nudges us. I do believe he can place words and images in our minds that become divinely-inspired thoughts. I am fully convinced I was nudged by God in December of 2008. I felt like God wanted me to make myself available, see what is out there, and then write about what happened.
My goal was to attend a different religious gathering every week of 2009 (that’s 52 gatherings) and write about the variety of experiences—good, bad, and ugly. I tried my best to keep an open mind as I took part in the unique customs of each specific denomination. I had a few places in mind, but I tried to stay open to reader suggestions and God’s promptings.
I had no idea what I would encounter. From an Anglican Church in Savannah, Georgia, to the Church of Scientology in Cincinnati, Ohio. From a Muslim Mosque to a Hindu Temple. Catholic, Methodist, Baptist, and non-denominational. I was the only white person in an all-black church, and one of twenty people in a Church of God. I had a pastor try to knock me to the ground with prayer, and a pastor who probably wanted to knock me to the ground with a swift right cross. Each week, I waded into uncharted waters, but I always looked forward to the adventure. Well, almost always.
I could have never been prepared for what happened. I invite you to travel the long path with me in this book. I am certain God has something to teach all of us along the way.
As you read, you’ll discover three parts that make up the whole:
First, each chapter includes my original reflection written the same day I attended the church. Those reflections have been edited to better fit the format of this book, but the critical content remains the same.
Second, each chapter includes new commentary as I did my final edits eight years later. Anything in brackets [like this] was written in 2017. Some chapters have more modern-day reflections, some have less, and some have none at all, but I felt like updates were necessary in certain spots.
Third, the final chapter summarizes my lasting impressions from the experiment (written in 2017). Did I learn anything? Did the experience change my views of church? Did I choose a new church home? Do I feel like God actually showed up? Has my faith been redefined? Am I still a Christian eight years later?
A couple of disclaimers before we begin. First, my original mission for this experiment was to broaden my horizons by experiencing new and diverse churches, religions, and denominations. If God is everywhere, then he’s also in a Muslim Mosque, right? He’s in the Church of Scientology, right? I wanted to experience God all over the spiritual spectrum and maybe learn a few things along the way.
I wasn’t church-shopping. I repeat, I wasn’t church-shopping. I walked into this experiment as a Christian, and I was pretty confident I would walk out as one. The odds were slim that I would begin attending a Hindu Temple. If I found a church home along the way, great, but it wasn’t part of the original mission.
Second, the decision I received the most criticism for throughout the experiment was my lack of research. I intentionally tried to walk blindly into each new gathering. I didn’t want to know everything about the Hindu service before I walked through their doors. That criticism seemed a little silly to me. I wanted to experience exactly what an average first-time visitor would experience. If some ritual was confusing to an outsider, I wanted to be able to write about that. I believe strong leaders want to know how to strengthen their churches, and an outsider’s view is one way to get valuable information. Plus, it would have been exceptionally boring to spend hours on the internet researching (anyone could do that from the comfort of their own home) when I had the opportunity to conduct real-life experiments every week.
Luckily, something pretty amazing happened along the way. Pastors found my blog. Church members found my blog. Hindus, Muslims, and Mormons found my blog. I asked questions and they provided answers. The conversation was tense at times (no one likes criticism), but usually, it was respectful and educational. Dialogue is a beautiful thing. Please be sure to visit churchexperiment.blogspot.com to read comments and join the conversation.
Third, I tried my best to be honest. If a ritual was great, I wrote about it. If a message was meaningful, I wrote about it. If I met nice people, I wrote about it. But if my experience was uncomfortable or unfulfilling, I wrote about that too. I wasn’t out to get anyone, but all I could offer during this experiment was my honesty.
Of course I was biased. We all are. Churches that closely resembled my previous experiences were rated well. Churches that were way out of my comfort zone took some punches. I tried my best to be fair, but I am a flawed human being. For that, I apologize.
Finally, I want to thank all 52 religious organizations. I met so many kind people along the way. Hospitality was the rule, not the exception. More than anything else, I was influenced on this journey by people, not buildings or religions.
One last thing. Before I ever stepped foot in church number one, a reader referenced the possibility of turning the Church Experiment into a book. Someone else said that would be a bad idea. I look back and laugh at my response:
Yeah, I agree Mike. I’m not really looking to write a book out of this. I have been around churches long enough to know you experience very little by only attending a weekly service. As I said (I think I said it), I just think my experience of God and church has been very limited over the past eight years, so I wanted to step outside my comfort zone and see what is out there. Hopefully God shows up even if I am only attending one service. And if not, it’s better than spending that hour sitting in my apartment watching some lame movie on TBS.
Sorry, TBS. I actually think you have some pretty good movies.

To read all 52 reflections from my 52 visits (including a brand new Conclusion that updates my spiritual journey), please purchase the full book here.