The next challenge for the newly married is one I think affects those who have been married a lot longer too, but the newly married face it in a fresh and shocking way. It is the challenge of finding and agreeing on a local church.
When I was unmarried I chose the church I wanted to go to, even moving to the opposite side of the United States to become part of The Village Church. I had immense flexibility in the choice, theology, worship style, size, and amount of involvement I wanted in a church. I considered each those things heavily, but the choice was mine. When I met Nate, I met him through my church community, in the foyer of my church building, and we were married surrounded by our church family. Even though we were about to move to Denver for my job at a new church, our local church, the local church, was very much a factor and part of our relationship.
Imagine my shock, then, when we moved across the country again, and it was taking us seemingly forever to settle on a church. I was blindsided by how difficult all of this would be. I think it’s partially because both Nate and I take God’s word very seriously and soberly in regard to membership, worship, community, discipline, eldership, etc., and we don’t treat any decision having to do with those components lightly, but what I didn’t expect, and was most surprised by, was how much we actually clashed in these areas. There was an illusion that because we met and married in the same church, we agreed on everything therein and would forevermore. But we didn’t.
One day, in the car on the way home from yet another church we were visiting in August, I wept bitterly and my sweet husband bore the brunt of my outburst. My case was this: If I was still single, even if it wasn’t ideal, and even if I had to drive 45 minutes, I would have settled on a church six months earlier. I would have just gone to the good-enough one instead of searching for the one one or both of us had in mind. I wouldn’t have squandered my time, I wouldn’t have grown stagnate in faith or community, and I would have just sacrificed whatever it took, just to hear the word among the same brothers and sisters every week. This conversation led to some more painful conversations about why I hadn’t said anything earlier. Which led to more conversations about why we both struggled to speak up on our own behalf about very much at all (which I’ll write about another day this week). What this conversation revealed was there were assumptions being made on both of our parts about what would be best for our family in regard to a local church, based on partial information from one or the other.
I wish I could say we’ve found victory in this area, but I think this will be an ongoing conversation for the rest of our marriage. Committing to one local church won’t lift the issue at hand, which is a communication one, but it also won’t solve each of our individual desires and beliefs when it comes to a local church. We both need to make sacrifices, sacrifices I in particular have never made before in regard to a church, and sacrifices he in particular will need to revise in our marriage, because they weren’t present in his previous one. In the meantime, here are some things we are learning:
1. Church baggage is real
We have each gone to many different churches, which means double the history. We have had great experiences and bad ones, good ones and hard ones. If you name a denomination, though, we have a bit of experience with it, and this informs our future direction. He might have had a great experience with one denominations or theology, and I might have had a terrible one, and we have to talk about that, without assuming the other understands or empathizes with it. I know this can sound very consumeristic in a sense and I don’t want in any way to communicate we are consumers of the local church, but there is a very real choice in the church we go to, and we all have very real reasons for those choices. My reasons are not the same as Nate’s and instead of assuming they are, I ought to assume they are not.
2. Understanding of Theology and Practice change and grow
With joy and confidence I can say what I believe now about God has changed from what I believed about him fifteen years ago, ten years ago, two years ago, and so on. God has not changed, but my understanding of him has. It has been informed by my circumstances, by deeper study of his word, by teaching from others, and by experiences. This is a beautiful thing, but it can be a difficult thing in marriage if one of you has changed and the other feels blindsided by it. We left Denver feeling very disillusioned with some things and those things in particular informed Nate’s desire to attend a very different kind of church when we moved, whereas I felt very afraid of any additional change at all. Until we talked about that, though, we were both operating with two different values and it caused me to feel terrified of any church and him to feel very powerless in leading our family. We had to hash through our fears and our sin, and mistrust of God’s sovereignty, for us to come at finding a church with open hands. Our understanding of theology hasn’t changed much in a year and a half, but our understanding of practice has, and this is what we’ve been blindsided by.
3. What we think we need and what we need are two different things
I was standing in the kitchen this week chopping garlic and a song came on from my playlist that threw me back to a moment of worship at my church in Texas. I knew exactly where I was standing, who was beside me, and what the Lord was teaching me in that moment of unhindered worship. It was a painful time in life for me and I felt so humbled by the Holy Spirit that He would gift me with an experience like that, just when I needed it. The last time I felt that was when I went back to Texas a year ago this month and wept through the entire service. It was profound in a way I cannot explain to others and happens rarely enough that I remember it when it does. I love my church family there, and I love my church there. I have felt the lack of her more deeply this year than I’ve felt the lack of anything else in my life. I am constantly tempted to believe that I need to be with her again to ever feel whole in church again.
If I’m not careful, I can begin to believe I need certain aspects of a local church, preferring my self and my own needs, over my husband’s, or over the local church herself. I need a particular kind of worship. I need a pastor of a certain age. I need a homegroup with a certain type of person. I need a church of a certain size. I need. I need. I need. But what if God doesn’t give?
If I believe that God gives us exactly what we need when we need it, and no more or less, then I can trust that what we have today is exactly what we need. God isn’t skimpy with his gifts. What I also have to realize, though, is within marriage, Nate and I have different needs, but God is meeting them in the same way. This can be a real challenge in marriage when it feels like in every scenario someone is the clear winner and someone the loser (I’ll talk more about that another day this week), but when I stop thinking of my needs needing to trump his needs, I’m able to see how God might be meeting both of our needs, or the needs of others—even in a local church that didn’t check any of the boxes we both desired when we moved here.
I promise you it doesn’t feel as glorious as that moment several years ago in the sanctuary of my church, tears streaming down my face, the rushing desire in me to give all to Him, but it is the result of that moment. Worship says, “I place all my needs at Your feet, because you’re better than all the things I think I need,” and then it gets up and actually does it.
. . . .
Finding a new local church as a newly married couple can be fuel for some very real fires, especially since you’re probably doing it without the safety of a church community around you. I used to be able to recommend ways of doing it, but think if there’s anything this year has taught me, it’s that there’s no prescription for this. It’s hard. And that hardness can actually lead to really good things in your marriage if you’ll let it. Communicate. Repent. Confess. Attempt.
And, be like my husband, who several times this year saw how the weekly searching for a church was actually hurting me more than helping me, and encouraged us to be at peace staying home for a day. It is not a good ongoing pattern, but I think Jesus was okay with hiding sometimes, with running away from the crowds. I think he’s okay with it and understands it, and it might be his good gift to a marriage that needs to remember that he alone is the source.