I was homeschooled beginning in forth grade until my senior year, when I enrolled in the local public high school. I went to classes there in the morning and took courses at community college in the afternoon. During that one year in public high school, I shared a table in study hall with two exchange students, Andre' and Maria. I know what you’re thinking and yes, that does tell you everything you need to know about how well I fit in that year. Lucky for me, Maria and Andre' are fun, friendly, welcoming people and became some of my dearest friends that year.
Andre' was from Brazil and spoke Portuguese and Maria was from Spain and spoke Spanish. I am not a linguist, so forgive me if I don’t explain this well, but apparently the more Cuban dialect of Spanish that Maria spoke was enough similar to the Portuguese Andre' spoke, that they could have conversations with each other in their own native languages and almost completely understand each other. They weren't speaking the same language, but their own knowledge of words and phrases, along with context and possibly some English thrown in from time to time, allowed them to communicate with each other more effectively that way than in English. It was fascinating to observe their interactions when they did this.
Several weeks ago, while discussing my new church with a friend, he asked me why I feel it is so important to go to church when I can clearly maintain my faith without attending church (as I have been doing for almost a year), through reading and personal study. He then admitted that it has always surprised him that I identify as “Christian,” because I don’t put off a “Christian vibe.”
Back in my youth group days, a comment like that (especially from a "non-Christian") would have sent me into some sort of existential crisis, but I knew exactly what he meant. He and I have always been able to communicate well and discuss various topics even though we have some fundamental differences on faith and politics and social issues.
Something about this reminded me of Maria and Andre'.
I realized that the most meaningful conversations I have about my faith tend to be with people who do not share it. I think the reason I connect so well with my non-faith friends when we talk belief is that these friends care about the process by which we arrive at our beliefs in the same way I do. We may not have arrived at the same conclusions or share the same faith, but we understand each other because my sick-soul, messy, uncertain faith-process quite similarly mirrors the journey that led them to choose not to believe. Parallel journeys with different conclusions, similar enough that we can understand each other even if we haven't arrived at the same place.
Different languages, but with dialects that allow for connection and understanding and community. It is beautiful, and I would argue, holy, even if they would not use that same word.
I know. None of that explains why I need church.
As much as I care about and need my Atheist/Agnostic/Other friends, I've come to see that I also need to be part of a community where I can discuss my faith without the necessity of translating our dialects back-and-forth between faith and non-faith language. I have found a few of these people via blogging and social media and I don't mean to downplay how much I appreciate those connections, but I need some of those in-person connections as well.
I do have people in my life with whom I have Christianity in common. I have my family and I have friends from previous church communities. Yet even though we share the language of faith, our dialects are so drastically different it can be difficult to communicate without misunderstanding each other. We may try to have discussions, but we’re often left gazing at each other over a seemingly untraversable chasm of theological differences. I may have a close enough relationship with some of them that we can talk to each other without shouting angrily over the chasm, but our attempts can leave us exhausted from the effort required to make sure we are questioning thoughts and belief rather than attacking each other. It is often easier to find a common, non-faith-related topic to discuss to avoid making too much of our differences.
I need to be in community with people of faith who speak the same faith language and dialect that I speak. This is not to say that I do not love those who speak their faith differently or will stop trying to connect with them over our differences This is not to say that I no longer need my non-faith friends, because I do need them, and I love and appreciate them more than they could know. Yet I am also longing to sit at a table and hold hands in prayer and break bread and make eye contact with at least a few people who speak faith with the same dialect, accent, and syntax I use. I know we won't agree on everything, but we will be able to speak freely without translation required.
And that is why I need church.