Like many churchgoing couples who become parents, we stopped attending services after the birth of our first daughter. We couldn’t figure out how to make it work while our infant was taking four naps a day; and any time we did go, I ended up listening to the service through a speaker in some back room as I nursed my baby.
Once she was 6 months old, we decided to try again. Our outgoing daughter loved the nursery, and my stay-at-home mom self loved the break to sit with grown-ups for an hour and a half and let my mind wander. But when I started working shortly after her first birthday, church started to feel impossible and pointless once again.
After a long week apart and away from home, the last thing my family wanted to do was schlep across town to frantically find parking (at our church the parking situation was worse than Trader Joe’s), wait in line to check our kid into the nursery, then spend 90 minutes singing and listening to a sermon I could have just heard in podcast form during my daily commute to work. We never had a chance to mingle after service because a “PICK UP YOUR KIDS IMMEDIATELY” slide would flash onto the projector screens.
Why were we spending basically a quarter of our precious weekend time on this seemingly pointless practice? Can’t we just play worship music at home? We already listened to plenty of sermons on podcast. Maybe it simply wasn’t our season to attend church.
So we started attending “The Church of the Huntington Gardens,” as I liked to call it. Only 10 minutes away from our home was a world-class botanical garden, with acres of open space, trees and blooms. We spent idyllic Sunday mornings there, feeling closer as a family and soaking in the peace nature offers.
At some point, though, our sacred mornings at the gardens gave way to viewing Sunday as another Saturday – a day off work we could fill with chores, errands or meetups with friends. Our weekends started to run together with very little rest or rhythm built in. Once we started packing up our apartment to move to a nearby town, our Sundays filled up with moving-related tasks.
Which is how, on the second Sunday in our new home, we found ourselves deciding whether to try out a local church or head to IKEA for some essentials.
Driving into the IKEA parking structure, a thrill of anticipation ran through me. Our new house was much bigger than our old apartment, and featured a large yard where we hoped to host plenty of outdoor gatherings. Visions of patio furniture, oversized wall art and sheepskin throws danced in my head. My family of three made our way up the escalators with what seemed like people of every tribe, nation and tongue (this is Los Angeles, after all). Everyone seemed happy and excited; giddy, even, as we walked through the first well-appointed showrooms offering visions of the life we always wanted.
Our daughter played peekaboo around an ottoman with another toddler, and we laughed as she tried to push our shopping cart. We flopped onto various armchairs, testing them out, comparing them, acting like we were made of money.
But as we moved through the labyrinth that is IKEA, our energy flagged. By the time we made it to the cafeteria in the middle, we shuffled through the line and stared with glazed eyes at the strangers around us. The IKEA magic had worn off for everyone, but as we chewed our Swedish meatballs, we knew we still had a long way to go. I lost my patience as my daughter pushed the cart into yet another innocent shopper. I felt overstimulated and like we may never reach the end. An hour later, after making it through the marketplace and the warehouse, my husband and I loaded up the car with our purchases and drove home, feeling grouchy and drained.
“I guess we should have gone to church,” he said, staring straight ahead at the road.
I sighed. How did we become people who worshipped at the Church of IKEA on a Sunday morning?
The next week, we made the effort and showed up at a nearby church we’d heard about over the past few years. It’s known for being purposefully intergenerational and multiethnic, and as we settled into our seats, I looked around at my fellow parishioners. There truly was so much diversity in age and ethnicity. As the music started, I loved seeing an older, white-haired woman bopping around on stage with the other singers. Every pastor or elder who hopped up to make announcements or introductions seemed to be from a different background or generation.
As we sang familiar worship songs together, the energy of the congregation soared. My heart soared, too, as I remembered why I love going to church. I once heard a worship leader say, “Worship is a vacation from yourself,” and I desperately needed such a vacation as we sang about God’s faithfulness, power and character. And, as a person who longs to feel connected to something larger than herself, I was also keenly aware and appreciative of the bonds that tied me to every stranger in that room. We all came from different backgrounds and with different stories. We’ve all known suffering that would make your hair stand on end if we had the chance to tell it.
But we all still show up, forget ourselves and say – even sing – out loud that we believe there is something bigger than our suffering, someone who welcomes our stories and our differences and breathes into them reconciliation, redemption and unspeakable joy.