A Taboo Subject among Missionaries

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OK, it’s time to get brutally honest.  Today I’m going to blog about a taboo subject.  It’s something that most missionaries experience at some point in their careers and yet NO ONE wants to talk about.  It sounds sinful.  At some point in their lives, most missionaries say to themselves, “I don’t want to go to church.”

Now before I pick that scab off, let me clarify, I USED TO LOVE going to church.  I grew up in a ministry family and we were in church every time the doors were opened.  The overwhelming majority of my childhood church memories are wonderful, so I’m not processing repressed emotions here.  Then I grew up and had my own family.  We became a ministry family too.  As an adult, I saw the good, the bad and the ugly of ministry… but I still loved going to church.  Even though Sunday was the longest work day of the week for us, I still loved going to church.  It was all about Jesus!  Yeah for Jesus!

I loved going to church, until I became a missionary.

With one change of location, church became something completely foreign to me. Church became the source of so much culture shock.  The minute I set foot outside of my house in Latin America, a tidal wave of Spanish washes over me.  I am swept out to sea.  For two and a half hours (five in Mexico), I tread water every Sunday in church just waiting for someone to pull the plug and drain the ocean.

Let me describe my cultural shock, I mean my church experience, through the eyes of a Minnesotan transplanted to Latin America.

Because we’re missionaries, we feel obligated to put ourselves through this practice for Hell every single Sunday.  We crowd into a VERY HOT room where everyone sits shoulder to shoulder, uncomfortably close.  (We’re so close that by the end of the service I am wearing the perfume of the lady sitting next to me.)  The music starts.  Somewhere in the rules of the cosmos it is ordained that if you give a Latino a microphone they will wrap their lips around it and sing at the top of their lungs.  I don’t know why, but it is true.  For an hour and a half, the singers howl like banshees into the hottest sound system in a 10 block radius because the neighbors who don’t go to church just might get saved if they can hear the service in their living rooms.  It’s hard to remember that this is about Jesus.

It does not matter if the drummer can keep a beat, he will pound the life out of those drums.  The audience does not clap on 2 and 4, they clap on 1 and 3.  (At each church we visit, my children always ask, “Mom, do we clap in English or in Spanish?)  If there’s not a tambourine in the room, then you’re not in an Evangelical church.  For the first year, my children would cry that their ears were hurting.  I stuffed cotton balls in their ears every week.  I think we’ve all lost a percentage of our hearing, because no one cries anymore.  I can’t hear myself sing, but I think sound is coming out of my mouth.  I guess I went deaf for Jesus.

The preaching… 90 minutes or more.  Remember that I have about a 20 minute attention span on a Good Spanish Day.  On the positive side, that’s a solid hour of Bible reading for me if my kids are behaving.  Jesus likes Bible reading, right?

But my children are another trial.  Every Sunday they become tormented by demons.  There is more screaming and crying and fighting in our house on a Sunday morning than in all the rest of the week combined.  By the time we get to church… I want to sell my kids to gypsies.  IF there are classes for them, I can guarantee that they won’t want to go to them.  I let them bring Polly Pockets and coloring books to service.  They still whine and wiggle and annoy each other and basically drive me nuts for two and a half hours.  I’m having a really hard time focusing on Jesus.

When Lucy was a baby I tried to acclimate her to going to the nursery, but each week I found myself sitting on the floor of the nursery picking up thumb tacks and staples from the carpet and taking batteries out of other babies’ mouths.  Diapers were changed on a filthy twin mattress that took up most of the floor space.  In the corner was a broken play pen.  The corner of the play pen was held together with a rusty wire.  Sometimes the toys were stored in the play pen, and sometimes children were stored there.  Every toy in the room was broken and dirty. There were broken balloons mixed in the heap, and one time I found a tangle of an old telephone cord that someone thought the babies might like to chew on.  There was no way I was leaving my child in here!  I’m sure this has nothing to do with Jesus.

When we get in the car to go home, I congratulate myself on making it through another service.  We won’t have to do this for a whole ‘nother week.

So this is what you won’t hear from the missionaries that are visiting your church to raise their budgets:  Going to church?  We dread it.

Sure there are things we learn to appreciate about it along the way, but for most missionary families, going to church is the most stressful thing we do all week long.  I can tolerate the difficult shopping challenges, waiting in line until Jesus comes back, crazy drivers who break the law left and right, filth and poverty everywhere, the heat, the smell, the prehistoric sized bugs, beans and rice with every meal, punching through the language barrier.  But when you take away my familiar church experience and replace it with THAT it’s like the cloud that can’t contain one more drop.  The cloud bursts and an ocean rains down on me.  I’m drowning in cultural differences.

I know I’m not alone in feeling this way.  I’m not the only missionary that has said to herself, “I hate going to church.”  Sometime when you have a missionary all alone in a quiet booth at Denny’s, ask them how they feel about church and let them be brutally honest with you.  It’s a relief to be able to admit it.  I don’t want to go to church.

16 responses »

    • Oh I’m glad you liked it. I’ve been super nervous all week knowing this post was coming up. I wasn’t sure if it would should too harsh or cynical. I was “in a mood” when I wrote it and had to go back several times to edit and refine… and take out swear words (just kidding) hehehe.

  1. I’m trying to picture Taylor playing with Polly Pockets.

    Great article. I’m sure God finds joy in the worship of all His people. But we aren’t Him. Sometimes stuff just gets under our skin.

    • Poor Taylor. Polly Pockets aren’t his favorites, but I force him to play every Sunday. I figure if I’m miserable, then everyone should be miserable too. Just kidding. He catches up on Bible reading too. 🙂

  2. April, you did it again! Made me cry. I experienced everything you talked about from birth till now. Being born in Africa that kind of happens. But now, with us pastoring overseas, it has been a whole other experience. I appreciate your heart and reality.

  3. Wow. Thanks for being so real. Being on staff at our church I sometimes find myself thinking about going to church as going to work instead of going to church. NEVER will I look at that in the same way. And I have to admit that church days on our missions trips have never been my favorite day because I feel so lost because I cannot communicate and understand what is going on. Thanks for doing what you do – even when you don’t want to. I appreciate it!

    • That’s easy to do, think of church as work when you DO work there. That’s normal. Be sure to break away and say “MY TIME” sometimes so you can get refreshed with Jesus too.

  4. Thanks April. Finally someone said it. I feel like I haven’t actually been to church (been spiritually refreshed on a Sunday) for 6 years. I feel like I HAVE to go home just to meet God. Even when I understand things, I’m just so infuriated about what they actually SAY from the pulpit. I think every missionary in every country struggles through church. If its not the language (which of course is a struggle the first couple of years-or forever if its Amharic) then its the totally different way of doing church and the different cultural way of thinking about… well everything. This is never more apparent then at church because people think you’re un-spiritual if you don’t agree or if you don’t like hearing the bad keyboard playing for 5 hours. Its hard to explain that you LOVE God but not this music or preaching style.
    Being part of the church community and ministry in the church is also traumatic because there is always so much spiritual, well, abuse and infighting. I experienced this in just about every country I’ve been in. The developing world is just so authoritarian, especially in churches. And for me the worst part is not going to church, the worst part is that I don’t ever get spiritually refreshed- so how can I GIVE? Anyways, I guess missionaries need to have their own Bible Studies and home groups to supplement church services if there are enough of them in the same town. This subject requires a lot MORE discussion among missionaries, not LESS. So thanks for the blog.

    • Tamara, I totally agree with you! You hit the nail on the head! I hope you get some refreshment when you get back home.

      I remember one time being back home for a short time and when it was time to leave again my Dad called the family to a circle for prayer as we always do when someone is leaving. The minute he said, “Heavenly Father…” I felt the Holy Spirit wash over us and I started weeping. I thought “it’s just so EASY to feel the Spirit here in America! This is why I’m so spiritually dry, because I have to WORK to find Him overseas.”

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  6. I hope pastors, worship leaders, janitors, nursery workers, and secretaries are reading this. My immediate thought is if people who are in love with Jesus are thinking/ feeling this… Imagine what people think who are teetering on entering church buildings! It’s tough for me when I’ve been I similar situations to your Sunday’s, April. I can’t imagine fighting to elbow and shoulder and pass my way through the suffocating chaos just to see a moment with peaceful Jesus as a missionary. What is it like for pre-Christians? Sensory overload and claustrophobia, no doubt. Love you, friend. Lorie chance

    • Love you too Lorie!

      Your comment makes me think of a missions trip we took with our youth kids once. We spent the day cleaning the church nursery and kitchen. While we cleaned, our students asked me, “who cleans our nursery and kitchen at our church?” I told them. Later in the year when the woman who bleached the nursery toys was ready to let that job go, one of the girls from that trip stepped up and volunteered to do the job. She faithfully cleaned the baby toys every week without fanfare or recognition for about 4 years! Faithful in the little things. But she learned that kind of service on a missions trip. It makes me thankful for all the people who DO make church nice with their quiet, behind the scenes service.

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