What do you look for in a church? Here’s my list, in no particular order.
1) Connection. Being a part of a church should enhance my awareness of the presence of God.
2) Community. I want to be committed to a group that’s committed to each other.
3) Friendliness. I want to greet and be greeted with warmth and honest affection.
4) Engagement. I value participation over passivity, and lively dialogue over sermons.
5) Insight. Attendance should motivate and empower me to be a better person.
6) Sanity. I prefer openness, thoughtfulness, and common sense to witch hunts and politics.
7) Service. Feeding, helping, teaching … neighbors making the neighborhood better, together.
8) Openness. Many people, many paths — but unified in spirit, freedom, and love.
9) Humility. Admitting that no one has a lock on perfection stamps out fundamentalism.
10) Independence. It’s my job — not anyone else's — to manage my relationship with God.
After months of searching for a place that embodies these values, I’ve found it. It’s the Couples’ Class at St. Mark United Methodist Church in Midtown Atlanta.
Yep. My church is a Sunday school class.
In saying that, I don’t mean in any way to cast aspersions on the church that happens to host that class. Saint Mark, as a congregation, can be welcoming and friendly, but I can’t be a member of St. Mark for two reasons:
1) I understand and appreciate that, for many people, the services there are touching and inspiring. But different people have different needs, and right now, my spiritual needs simply can’t be met by structured services with scripted prayers and affirmations and sermons. (I should also clarify that this is not intended as a commentary on the ministers there. This is about me and my own crazy spiritual path — not about a person in a pulpit.)
2) While the local church strives to be welcoming and accepting, the Mothership — the United Methodist Church — ultimately lacks the courage of its “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors” convictions. As long as The Methodist Church positions gay and lesbian people as second-class citizens in the Kingdom of God — as long as it holds Children of God at arm’s length by refusing to take a stand against bigotry and prejudice — I simply cannot be a Methodist.
When I made a decision to leave the Methodist Church about five months ago, I also — with a very heavy heart — left behind the Couples’ Class at St Mark. And while we’ve enjoyed attending services at the Spiritual Living Center of Atlanta (whose spiritual teachings, in many ways, parallel my own thoughts and conclusions), both Clyde and I have realized that we have, for many months, had a Couples’ Class-shaped hole in our hearts.
So last week, we came back — and, true to form, the people there once again embraced and accepted us. In many ways, it felt as though we had never left.
It felt like home.
And that prompted yet another realization: while some people see the Couples’ Class as “just a Sunday School,” for me, the Couples' Class is the church I’ve been looking for all along.
At the Couples’ Class, I feel that connection to the Divine. I feel that sense of community, that friendliness, that sense of engagement. I leave with teachings that challenge and support me. The people there are dedicated to thoughtfulness and reason and the spiritual quest … but they’re also open and humble and accepting of others. They're dedicated to service. They possess a level of spiritual sanity that allows different people to be in different places … and still get along.
In short: this class has all the qualities I need my church to have.
So I’m going to make it my church.
This will be hard for some folks to understand. How can a Sunday School Class be your church? How can you go around answering the question, “Where do you go to church?” by saying, “I go to the Couples’ Class?” How can you go to a Sunday School without going to the church that's wrapped around it?
My greatest concern is that some people will be angry with me — that they will insist on seeing this conclusion as a critique of them or of the larger church they enjoy and take pride in. I promise it isn’t that at all. Instead, for me, this is about listening to that still, small voice … about being open to my path and where it seems to be taking me … about being honest about what I need and where I’ve found it.
It’s about having the courage to define “church” in a way that works and makes sense for me.
What do you look for in a church? Once you know the answer to that question, you might find, as I did, that "church" may not be what you've always considered it to be … and that the right church for you may be found in an unexpected place.