An odd thing happened to me on my way to settling into life in Toronto. I found myself avoiding church.
Now, this may not seem such an odd statement to most people. In Canada, church attendance has been on the decline since the 1950s. In those days, 70 per cent of the population went to church on Sunday. Now, it’s less than 20 per cent.
I’ve always been a faithful and comfortable part of that 20 per cent. I grew up going to church, the daughter of parents who placed faith in God and commitment to church as high on the family values chart as one could reach.
For the most part, even in my teenage years, I didn’t rebel against the expectation that I’d go to church on Sunday, sometimes even twice. There were, as I reflect back now, several important reasons why I grew up liking church so much that it became part of my routine without me really even noticing.
My father and mother lived their faith. By this I mean they enjoyed it. My dad, in particular was a student of the Bible and theology, filling our house with big thick books he read for pleasure and interest. He wasn’t a pastor – he sold cars for a living. But he loved to ponder and discuss Christianity and encouraged questions.
As a teenager, I liked church because I had friends there. We’d sit in the back row on Sunday evenings, passing notes (no text messaging in those days. Who am I kidding? There weren’t even cell phones!!). We had an uber cool young minister who liked the fact that we called him Ed the Rev., even to his face.
I was part of a youth group that spent summer weekends hiking and canoeing. We learned to be leaders and were given lots of freedom when it came to what we wanted to talk about in weekly youth group meetings.
That early foundation of church has never really shifted significantly for me, although I’ve been part of a generation that has witnessed huge cracks emerge through recent decades.
I know that the Church – that Big C institution referenced in creeds – has major failings and has been responsible for terrible sins throughout it’s history.
I don’t have to go back as far back as the Crusades, the Salem witch-hunts, slavery or Apartheid when cataloguing the Church’s faults. I simply look at the ugliness that’s surfaced in my own lifetime: powerful priests abusing children; televangelists stealing money from trusting seniors; congregations that have purposely shut their doors against the marginalized of society – the ones they were actually meant to welcome.
I see all these faults and I despise the failings of the Church, big C. But I also remain committed to the church, small c. Each time I’ve moved to a new community in my adult years, I’ve looked for, found and settled into a church.
I’ve done this because, in my experience, the small c church has been a place of friendship and community. It’s been a place where I can join a group of people in learning about God, serving the needs of a city, supporting each other in tough times, and celebrating with each other in the good.
I know church. And when I visit new ones, as I have been doing on and off since arriving in Toronto, there’s a familiarity that helps me spend an hour among people I don’t know. I can sing the songs and find my way around a Bible; I understand the prayers and liturgies.
But even so, it’s not easy to find my way in. The thought of making myself known (and getting to know) all the other people in the pews is exhausting, and a little terrifying even for an extrovert like me.
And so, for many Sunday mornings these past three months, I’ve avoided church. Some mornings I’ve worshipped God by walking along Lake Ontario; on others I’ve slept; and sometimes I’ve given the 11 o’clock hour over to reading the newspaper.
But gradually, I find myself going back. I’ve been to four churches in Toronto and have felt like a stranger in every one, even when I’ve bumped into friends in a few of them.
I’ll eventually find myself choosing one church, settling in, persevering through the hard months that are part of any new relationship. I’ll do this because, for all its flaws, church has this going for it: People. Churches are full of ordinary people, who together are intent on figuring out what belief in God means.
I need people like that in my life. And so, as uncomfortable as it is, I’ll go to church. And eventually, as past experience has taught me, this will enrich my life.
Lynda MacGibbon is a transplanted Maritimer living in Toronto. Her column appears each Friday in the Moncton Times & Transcript. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @lyndamacgibbon.