As an 8 year old, when I lost my nuclear family, I lost my sense of "church as family" too.
This is a letter I wrote to my 8 year old self, preparing him/me/we for the upcoming disruption of losing our church-as-family.
(The following letter I wrote—and then read—as part of our Lent series at Sojourn Grace Collective. During Lent we want to explore what it’s like to prepare for an upcoming death (and resurrection). So we are writing letters to past versions of ourselves to prepare ourselves for the ensuing ending of our religious ideas, hopes, and expectations. In this letter, I explored how the dissolution of my biological family ultimately led to the ending of the sense that church was family, too.)
Dear Eight year old Colby,
First off, sweet mullet.
I can still remember the sensation of when we’d tip our chin up, shake our head back and forth, and feel the back of our hair brushing against our neck.
Also magic? Wednesday nights. Because Wednesdays were choir practice, and choir practice meant Little Caesar’s pizza. Each week, while mom and dad practiced their songs with the choir at North Albany Baptist Church, you and our two brothers head straight for that little room they called the Library—the one with the big interior window where you could see straight through the foyer and into the sanctuary. You’d gather around the big white table in the center of the room, open up the pizza box, and fight over who gets the tiny plastic piece in the middle—the thing that looks like a miniature table but was used to keep the top of the box from merging with the melted cheese.
Then after the three of you eat a few slices—and I see you, little Colby, always going for the corner pieces… because back in those days it was all about the square pizzas from Little Caesars, and since you love pizza crust, corner pieces—which are, like, 50% crust—felt like winning every time. Anyway, after eating you guys would decide how to kill the next hour or so while the 20+ adults in the sanctuary learned their four parts of harmony in preparation for Sunday’s offertory.
Some weeks you stay in that little library, playing board games, or doing homework, or drawing—one of your favorite hobbies back then, that I kinda wish we would’ve stuck with. Other weeks you and your little brother would crawl around, under, and through the wooden pews—a kind of silent hide and go seek. Or, if you’re lucky, it’s the summer months, which means daylight until 8pm, which means baseball outside on the church lawn.
Now, eight year old Colby, I don’t recall a whole lot from your life up until that point. However, the feint memories I think I do have—or at least, memories of what I think must be memories—when they come, usually include a kind of hazy coloring where “family-meant-church,” and “church-meant-family.”
You knew they weren’t exactly the same thing, yet you also didn’t entirely see them as separate, either.
It wasn’t just Wednesday night choir practice. It was Easter cantatas, Christmas musicals, and Harvest festivals. The kind of rhythm where major holidays—the ones most people spend with families—we spent at and with church. It was Super Bowl parties at the home of your Sunday school teacher, it was cookies and punch in the gym when church ended, it was this feeling like your five person family was a part of a much bigger family of families.
But I guess what I want to say to you, little buddy, is this: Soak up those Wednesday nights because they’re about to end rather abruptly. And for reasons that you won’t entirely understand for another twenty years or so.
You see, right now your parents are still married. And, though it’s true that lately you’ve sensed things were a bit… off… they are at least still doing church and choir practice together. In fact, lately it seems like Wednesday nights and Sunday mornings are the only times where you kinda-sorta feel like a family anymore.
But over the next year all that is about to change. There will be months when one parent is staying at this one house for a while. Then other months where the other parent will be staying at this other house for a while. None of it will make any sense to you, I’m sorry about that. And even though all the adults in your life are telling you it’s only temporary, unfortunately it won’t be.
You’re about to experience the end of doing church together as a family.
You see… and buddy, I hate to the bearer of bad news here… but this thing with your parents is going to end in divorce. And maybe in some alternative version of reality that wouldn’t be the worst thing ever, but unfortunately your family was firmly established in the world of conservative Baptist Christianity, which might be one of the worst inventions of western civilization in terms of “dealing with divorce.”
For example, it’s going to start feeling really weird to show up to church with just your brothers and only one of your parents. And whether it’s your own internal sense of unfamiliarity, or it’s questions like “where’s mom today?” or “where’s your dad been,” or some combination of it all, you’re going to start feeling your presence in ways you never have before. Sort of like how normally you don’t really notice or feel that you have ten toes, they’re just there. But then when you stub your toe, suddenly you become hyper aware of that one big toe on your left foot.
Buddy, you’re about to start feeling like a swollen, aching, big toe.
There’s going to be one particular Sunday coming up soon that will especially stand out. On that day your family will be one of the last to leave, but you’re also kinda used to this. Because in the past your folks stuck around to help clean up the choir room or chat with friends. But lately you’ve been sticking around after service because one or both of your parent’s have gone to the very back of the Admin Wing, you know, to the ominous “pastor’s office,” for mysterious meetings that always seem to end up with mom, dad, or both being worse off than when they went in. But on this one particular Sunday, while you and your brothers are waiting, you’ll be playing outside in the grass with some of your church friends and one of them is going to make a comment to you that will make you feel all sorts of strange.
I’m sorry, Colby, I don’t remember exactly what was said, so I can’t prepare you entirely, but you’ll know it when it comes. It will be phrased in a way that strikes you more as the parroting of something their own parents probably uttered at home rather than the personal observation of a fellow eight year old. And even though the substance of their words won’t make any sense to you, you’re still going to feel shame. Embarrassed.
Your friend wasn’t trying to be cruel, of course, but their comment—something having to do with your mom and your dad and all these meetings with the pastors—it will just feel… wrong. It will make you feel like people outside your own family know more about what’s going on with your parents than you do. It’s not going to make you feel good, and I’m sorry about that. Later in life you’ll have words and concepts for this, such as “gossip” and “church drama,” but in the moment you’re just going to wish your friend would shut up and stop talking about your parents.
And it’s only going to get worse from there. The longer your parents stay in this “separated but not yet divorced” stage, the longer the leaders and the pastors in your church are going to make it their God-ordained mission to save and fix Mom and Dad’s marriage. But then, when ultimately their mission fails, they’re not gonna know what to do with you, your brothers, and your now single-mom when you all keep showing back up for church.
I guess what I’m saying is, at a time when your own nuclear family is dissolving, you’re also about to say goodbye to your sense of church as family.
even though I know that all you really want is a hug, and for your family to be a family again, I’d like to tell you something that I hope will be of some comfort in the years to come.
One day, in the future, you will once again come to see your church as family.
It’s going to take a while, and in fact you’ve arguably got even more challenging seasons ahead of you as the church continues to be a source of pain and division and disappointment and heartbreak.
But—for reasons I don’t always understand—you’re going to stick with it. You’re going to stick with church. You’re going to try, and try again, and try again. And eventually you’ll meet people who will restore in you a belief that a church community can be like a family. In all its glorious and messy ways. With all its triumphs and its losses, with all its laughter and tears.
You’ll be held when your life falls apart—multiple times.
You’ll be seen by people who love you for you, not just because you can do neat things for them.
You’ll meet people who will see your kids in ways you thought only you and your wife could ever see them (oh, spoiler alert: you get married to the most beautiful girl in the world and then you have four kids together. I know. I know. It’s going to be awesome. Oh what’s that? You want to know who the girl is? Just wait about five more years and you’ll meet her. But that’s a story for another day. Just trust me, it gets good… real good).
Anyway… as I was saying, even though you’re about to say goodbye to feeling like the church is a kind of family, I promise you that in the future that feeling will come back.
And you’ll discover that it’s at church where you find the people you can be most yourself around.
It’s at church where you can discover that you’re not any more weird or bizarre or broken than anyone else is.
It’s at church where you’ll help parent other people’s kids and other people will help parent yours.
It’s at church where you’ll be stretched to be a better person, a better man, a better leader and pastor (oh yeah, sorry, more spoiler alerts. You become a pastor yourself one day and… actually, you know what, forget I told you that… keep believing you’ll be a professional basketball player).
I’m so sorry for what’s about to come your way these next couple years. Losing this sense that the church is your family will break a few things in you, that’s true. Part of me wishes I could spare you from it. But then again, I really like who you become, so maybe I wouldn’t want to change a thing.
And if you can believe it, one day those broken parts will be healed and restored, and you’ll know a kind of church family better than you could ever imagine.
Someday, little Colby, you’ll be at a church called Sojourn Grace Collective where you’ll be surrounded by some of the finest humans in the world. You’ll be loved like never before, you’ll be cared for and provided for in ways that can only be called Grace. And you’ll be valued and held and seen in ways that might best be called, Family.
Here’s the video of me reading this letter, if you’d prefer seeing/hearing it.
TODAY ON THE ALTER
This week on The Alter, for our Makers in March series, I’ll be joined by my good friend, Matthew Lovegood.
During the pandemic, Matthew began a journey into Drag, which gave rise to Flamy Grant. And Flamy is getting ready to record her first studio album of original songs where she will tell the story of their spiritual reckoning with toxic religion. You can back the Kickstarter campaign here, and help bring this album to life.
Join us at 2pm PST as we talk about the process of doing Drag, becoming a Queen, making songs as a way to heal, and more!
Kate and I are back in the Studio
As you might recall, my wife (Kate) and I do a podcast called The Kate & Colby Show.
Recently we started a series we’re calling, Quote, unQuote, “Deconstruction.”
Episode one was about the ways in which Evangelical leaders are attempting to hijack this process for many of us and control the narrative.
Then… well… we took a bit longer than expected to put the next ones out…
But this week we were back in the studio recording more sessions.
So make sure (if you’re not already) that you subscribe on Apple Podcasts, or Spotify, or wherever you get your pods.
I was thrilled to learn from your Alter episode that you'll be discussing Bart Ehrman's "How Jesus Became God." I read it several years ago but didn't have anyone to discuss it with. I'll look forward to your perspective.
Thank you for sharing your experience. While I haven't had the same scenario, I've been in the similar situation of not "fitting the mold" because I didn't grow up in the denomination, or I dared to say I didn't understand a perspective on theology. My children have been neglected by friends because of what others considered to be my lack of conformity. All of which have taught us to be cautious. I'm praying we will find a church home again. Until then, your words are comforting. As the body of Christ, we must do better. I hope your post reaches those who need that reminder and I pray I will be the one doing better when I land where God intends me to serve. Blessings to you and yours.