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.