Adventures in Church Shopping

Searching for the Perfect Church, Finding an Imperfect Home

Stephanie Phillips / 6.29.21

Six years ago, I wrote about our family’s then-sabbatical from church. Said break was ostensibly due to the birth of our second son, but also? We were just tired. My husband and I had met at a church we loved in New York City. We had both become members there and, when we moved to Atlanta, had a hard time finding a replacement. Once we did, that church became beleaguered by infighting and ultimately ended up splitting. So we took six months off from active church attendance, tending to our newly-minted family of four and considering our next steps. Through a divinely-ordained chain of events, those next steps included a Mockingbird conference that introduced us to one of the pastors of our next church, which we joined and attended until we were shipped off — in another set of divinely-ordained circumstances — to Sydney.

And here we remain. We’ve tried several churches here, but none have seemed to fit as well as the one we left behind — either due to location or, more often … deeper issues. 

A bit of background: Mockingbird has been my mothership for awhile now because of the antidote it’s been to the brand of religion on which I was raised in the Deep South. I grew up going to church every Sunday and Wednesday. I was a participant of youth choir, lock-ins, “covenant” groups, and youth group, and was a missionary to Mexico and Liverpool and a few places between. There was a steady diet of purity rings, quiet times, and altar calls with their (musically-accompanied) decisions for Jesus. All of this gave me a sex- and drugs- and rock ‘n’ roll-free place to experience my teenage years. But they left me confused about what it meant to be a Christian. Was it supposed to be this much work

Then, long story short, I failed at everything, had an identity crisis, moved to New York, and found out that God still loved me and — even better news! — that his love had never depended on what I did. Thus began my conversion from the shallow and safe waters of the baptismal pool to the less predictable but more beautiful ocean of grace and its one-way love. And let me tell you — one does not reverse that trajectory willingly.

I know, because we’ve had the opportunity to do so a few times since arriving here.

I’ve sat through a small group in which someone surmised that Jesus’ pronouncement from the cross, “It is finished,” meant that it’s now time for us to get started. I left a Bible study after the leader told a new mom that her postpartum depression sounded like the work of the devil (she, of course, went elsewhere with her troubles). But perhaps the most egregious violation to my conscience came by way of an online sermon from a church we’d recently visited; the pastor told the congregation that Christianity really is actually all about rules.

At that point, I uttered a few choice words that were definitely not part of the WWJD Starter Kit. 

I can’t tell you why God has moved us to a region that seems so devoid of a grace-centered theology of the cross (but trust me when I tell you it’s been a consistent topic for my therapist and me).

What I can tell you is how many times I’ve identified, and had in-depth conversations, with people who don’t believe what I do. I can tell you how I’ve been put in touch with people across the world who have been through something similar, and I’ve found empathy to which I never would have had access, were it not for our shared experience. I’ve talked to Jesus in dog parks and on beaches on Sunday mornings and been reminded that he is, in fact, everywhere — which is comforting for a girl so far from her original home. I have sought out wisdom in books I might never have been motivated (desperate) enough to read otherwise. And the text chains with friends who see God the way I do? I’ve never felt less alone or laughed so hard — and as Martin Luther said, we have as much laughter as we have faith.

At some point in this journey, my husband and I realized we were looking for a type of church that would replace what we’d left, and that this was simply not going to happen. Perhaps we were even looking for a home, as though a faith that features an entire people who wandered a desert for forty years (and, later in the narrative, focuses a chapter on all those who never found a home) would guarantee such a thing this side of heaven. So we gave up.

And what did that look like? Well … surrender, I guess. My husband and I shrugged at each other and decided to stay where we are, in the church we are in, and preach ourselves the Gospel every time we didn’t hear it from the pulpit. We decided to listen to our children’s (well-warranted) cries that they were tired of all the rules in kids’ church and, some Sundays, to read from the Jesus Storybook Bible and walk the dog instead, because we do not live in San Francisco and cannot attend the church where Anne Lamott teaches Sunday school: a place where chaos reigns and the kids know Jesus loves them. I go to the women’s group (most of the time) and embrace my role as contrarian and grace-dispenser (“But you know you’ll never stop doing that, right? And that God loves you anyway?”) — a role I wish someone in my own church growing up would have played.

I feel, almost always, like an outsider. And Jesus so meets me there. Which feels, strangely and for now, like home.