The Dilemma of the Unchurched Believer

I must have started this post about three times before I committed to penning this. Normally, when it comes to hot button issues, I don’t hesitate. Y’all know how I get down. But this, is a little different. Religion has been a delicate issue for me since I was eleven years old. With a strict Baptist upbringing, Christian beliefs are not something that I readily criticize in the open. Even now, I have a number of good friends with close ties to the church, who may be offended by this post. While I hesitated to put this out there for months, I think now is a good time to talk about what it means to be an un-churched believer.

First off,  this post is not going to be used to jump all over the recent shocking revelations of Bishop Eddie Long. There is plenty of that going on elsewhere. There are several reasons why I take issue with the church as it is. I gotta take y’all back to the early 90’s when my mother and father attended a certain church in Harlem on the east side. I wont call them out by name, because its been two decades since I set foot over there, and things have changed long since. (I hope) It was one of those small churches, ones that are particularly good for folks to get all up in your business.

The church, just like any body of people, is going to have people of different social stratas amongst their membership.  Most of us had to go to church, we had no choice in the matter whatsoever. Because my parents were regular old working class folks, they didn’t quite fit in with the upwardly mobile congregants of this house of worship. I remember seeing mom and dad trying to “keep up” with the outfits, the chit chat, the various networks, etc etc. Spending Saturday afternoons looking for just that right outfit to one-up the person who dressed the flyest the Sunday before.  Remembering stuff like that, I accepted it as the way it had to be back then, but now, it irritates me.  In my experiences at this church, it seemed to be more about getting in a certain circle than about studying the word and self improvement. This was my first introduction to the wonderful world of classism within the Black community.

Also a major issue was the tithes and offerings. This church had an embarassing practice of making the congregants walk up in the front,  even if the person had no money to drop in the basket. The humiliation of that, along with the shame that came with everyone knowing that we did not have is something that stayed with me long term. I can honestly say that church was the first place that I realized that I was a have not. I mean, it’s one thing when you are in a house of worship and are giving what you can. But it’s another thing altogether when you got folks chattering about “Oh, they are on public assistance” or “they only have but so much” and using that as a reason to look down their nose at you. Not to mention the cold stares you got should you step in there 10 minutes late.  I sensed that just as I didn’t want to be there, my parents eventually got tired of keeping up appearances for these folk, and eventually we all stopped going. It was not easy, because remember this was the place I was baptized, and my father ushered there for a time as well. As a result of the mistreatment, we left, and never looked back. Even after all of that, my experience with religious institutions was far from over: My next experience would be Catholic high school.

This did nothing but further reinforced what had been drilled into me since grade school. I was so acutely aware of the denominational divides within Christianity, that on my interview for entry into high school, I hesitated when the Brother asked me if I was a Catholic or a Protestant. Deep, isn’t it?

I need to keep it 100 and say that I have had times in my life where I doubted that God existed. It was especially when I got to college that I started to see myself as an atheist, and held to that belief for years, against what I was brought up to believe. I embraced secular humanism, and it was basically a vehicle for rebellion. known  For years, I thought I could rationalize how I felt by understanding the world materially, and doing away with all things spiritual? Who needs spirituality when you can understand the world and how people behave using charts, graphs, and hard data?A cold analytical, and dogmatic rationale replaced myth, superstition, and Sunday school indoctrination. I would continue on this trip, until I began to find my own way, and I started to open up my spirit to the idea of a caring, supreme being.

I haven’t joined a church since.  The thing is, in between that time and now, I have had a rather limited and spotty involvement with being a part of any congregation.  The last time I was involved with a group of worshippers was the early years of undergrad, but even then it wasn’t purely about learning the scriptures. Lets just say that, it was more about me getting next to a certain someone than being spiritual at that point in my life.#Justbeingreal

I nearly joined my grand uncle’s church up in the Bronx late last year, but I couldn’t go through with the Christian Experience. Even with the whole back history of Reverend James A. Polite, it still wasn’t enough to get me back into the fold. It was more about me learning the history of the Polite family, than actually finding a church home. I can admit that now, and I do apologize to the folks there for making them think I would join them, but with all that I have been through, my heart is not in the church. I know, that is the past, but it’s alot to ask to put all that behind me.

I am willing to visit churches, but I don’t know about joining anything. Ultimately, because of my past experiences, I am somewhat apprehensive about joining. Even though I know on the most basic level that in order to change something, you have to be a part of it, but at this time in my life, I don’t know if I have the patience to deal with all of the contradictions I see in the Lord’s House. I remember from my studies that we are not supposed to “forsake the fellowship” but I am dubious about immersing myself back into that world, especially considering my progressive views that often don’t jibe well with doctrinaire and antiquated stances.

In a era when you have so many people calling themselves Christians that turn around and spew venom at those of Islamic faith, that is a big issue to me. I can’t be part of that. At a time when people are rushing to cover up wrongdoings and make excuses for people just because they are in leadership positions in church, I can’t partake. After going through what I did, and being a part of church community first under parental compulsion and later under other motivations, where I go from here has to be real. Part of the reason I haven’t joined  any church is because I haven’t seen anywhere that I feel like I can get that spiritual guidance I seek out. We all have our inward spiritual battles to fight, there is no such thing as a living template for human perfection.

Even though I feel some type of way staying out of church so long, guilty even at times, but not quite ready to go back. Maybe it’s because, I don’t want to be part of anybody’s “flock” Maybe it’s because I balk a little at how some pastor’s live lavish while their congregations often struggle. Or perhaps it is because I still harbor reservations from that earlier, formative period of my life. Either way, I know for certain today that I am a believer, that has yet to find a place for himself in the churches of today. Because of my experiences, I refer to myself as “An Educated Fool Under God’s Protection” Hope I didn’t offend too many of my readers with this one. If I did, then I will know why if I log on the next day and have about 7 or 8 less folks on my list. LOL!  Let the chips fall where they may. Because whether in church or out of it, we all are trying to “get right”

Marc W. Polite

Un-churched Believer

23 thoughts on “The Dilemma of the Unchurched Believer

  1. shura

    My Brother,

    Bravo and well done. Your piece(peace) spoke from a place of honesty,a seat of authenticity. If there is one offended,it will be because they have forgotten that we are a nation and a people of discourse,entitled to our own voice. As you said, at the end of the day,its about getting it right;no matter your school of thought or brand of religion. Inshallah, this will provoke others and get a well-deserved conversation started.

    Peace and Blessings

    1. Thank you Shura. I had to speak frankly, and without regard for holding back the most hurtful details for the sake of sparing my ego.

  2. Now, you knew I would be one of those who responded to this. First let me say, I respect your opinion on the church and understand it completely. I am still one of your biggest fans. I don’t take offense at all to your article because I know it comes from a place of honesty and sincerety.

    Now with that being said, I am probably one of the biggest church goers out of all of your followers. I pay my tithes and offerings and I tithe my time to the church as well. (Future blog about tithing coming soon, I promise). One of the biggest issues in the church IS cliques. Now I’m not saying that people shouldn’t hang together or whatever because some people are more compatible with some than others. And we all need people we can talk to and confide in. But it becomes a problem when one group of folks IN CHURCH can’t talk or associate with others because of social standings. That’s ridiculous.

    I’m sorry for what happened to you and your family in that old church. And unfortunately, I have to say it happens more often than not. But that is still not a reason to NEVER join again. There are real churches out there where the Pastor is doing what he’s suppose to do. Is he perfect, HECK NO!!! But we as a people need to learn to worship the Creator and not the man that was created.

    As my Pastor says, when we find Christ and become in a relationship with HIM, we no longer have religion or denominations. Yes, our church is a “Pentecostal” church but not because of the “Religion” or “Denomination” but because we believe in the Pentecostal experience of Jesus day in the New Testament. (Another blog for another day).

    But I think this blog expresses the feelings of many “Unchurched Believers” around the world. My prayer is only that hopefully all of you will experience TRUTH and REALNESS in a church soon. As I always say, you’re going to find issues in every church because NO MAN is perfect. But there are churches where the people are really just trying to live right and have real relationships with Christ.

    Temple of Faith, E. P. C. Altamonte Springs, FL is one of them (but of course I’m biased.) 🙂

    Thanks for your honesty in this blog. And for not demoralizing the black church as a whole. This was very well written!!!

    1. Thank you Caramel. I felt like I really needed to explain what I went through in order for folks to really grasp why I have such deep apprehensions about the church as an institution. I guess a part of me is still too wounded to go back into it at this moment. I didn’t aim to demoralize the Black church in its entirety… there are plenty of others who
      will do that. I needn’t add to the cacophony of voices shouting it down for merely existing. You are so right, church is a very cliquish place. You can be in the congregation, yet be ostracized and otherized much like my family was. That experience hurt me so much, that it’s hard to go back.

  3. You’re related to Rev James Polite? I didn’t know that – he’s very well known (even I’ve heard of him, and I’m not a Christian!)

    GREGORY A. BUTLER

    1. Yes. He was my grand uncle. It’s not a direct line, but he was my grandfather’s brother. I heard that he did alot of good for the community of the South Bronx.

  4. This is a good blog because it’s a real blog. As a God fearing man, I deeply understand where you’re coming from and I don’t judge you for your actions based on your past experiences and I pray for anyone that would try to judge you. I’m writing a blog myself which will respond to most of what you’re saying and I hope you’ll read it.

    1. Thank you. I will definitely read it.

  5. Robin Pugh-Perry

    I was about 10 or 11 when I experienced something similar. Back when there were still white folks living in Brownsville, BK, one of the neighborhood regulars was a white man who several decades later you could have described as homeless looking. I think his name was Harry. Whenever my father would see him he would stop and speak so I didn’t see him as a threat. One Sunday, he came into the church and sat down on the pew in front of me towards the center. Everybody got up and moved to another pew. He didn’t smell – he never did. He was just a little rough around the edges. None of the ushers said anything. The pastor said nothing. My parents didn’t come that Sunday and couldn’t explain it to my satisfaction. Since I was not going to tolerate the hypocrisy I figured I must be an atheist. My grandfather was a preacher who relocated the family from Tennessee to Cleveland as my cousins are now so I heard it from my family all my life as I watched them be unChristian like in many ways.

    Long story short, when I was about 18 or so, when Keep Your Head to the Sky by EWF came out, it clicked for me. God lives inside me and I don’t have to attend a church for this to be the case. I take what I can use from the sermons that hear and leave the rest. And I find that nondenominational churches are a better fit for me. Through my studies, I have found that the “golden rule” exists across religions.

    I commend you in your courage and commitment to truth to make such a post.

    Peace

  6. I’ve been an atheist since I was 9, and even before then religion wasn’t a part of my life (my dad was a secular Christian Socialist and my mom was more or less Buddhist, and neither participated in any kind of religious organization) so I’ve looked upon organized religion as an outsider since then.

    I have older siblings who were raised by my grandmother (who used to send money to Reverend Ike out of her little social security check every month), so I saw the church second hand through them. I never particularly liked what I saw.

    What always struck me about organized religion in general and organized Christianity in particular was just how money oriented it is. Which is truly odd, if you actually look at the beliefs of the religion’s founder!

    Again, I’m looking at it as an outsider, but seeing all the expensive clothing on Sunday morning and all the emphasis on giving money to the church (do you really have to give 10% of your pre tax income?), and the de facto racial segregation (don’t Blacks and Whites worship the same God? So why do you have churches divided by color? I’m sorry, but I just can’t get with that, it seems hypocritical to me and contrary to what Jesus taught! Don’t all of you go to the same heaven?), it just really gave me pause (and made me glad that organized religion was never part of my life).

    I have seen churches that aren’t like that – I had a fundamentalist Christian coworker and friend who insisted on bringing me to her church on Sunday.

    I liked that her church was multiracial, folks wore regular weekend attire (jeans, casual tops and sneakers) and that they weren’t all about collecting money (you could give what you wanted to the collection plate – I saw a lot of dollar bills, which, considering this was a church in a poor neighborhood in the Bronx, was appropriate).

    They were in a storefront, and what little money they had was concentrated on building a new church in a nearby abandoned synagogue they’d purchased that they were renovating with the volunteer labor of the pastor and church members.

    I really respected that – this wasn’t a church that was all about money and showing off financially.

    But they preached a very conservative doctrine (pro war, anti reproductive rights and they don’t even believe in the scientific FACT of evolution!) and I just couldn’t get behind any of that reactionary nonsense.

    Plus, of course, I don’t believe in God anyway, being an atheist and all (my friend is still worried about me going to hell after I die because of that!)

    However, they seemed a lot closer to Jesus, at least in terms of the spirit in which they treated each other as people than the pretty clothes and give 10% of your money to the pastor so he can buy a new Cadillac congregations.

    Frankly, if I ever were to adopt a religious outlook on the world (which is pretty unlikely, quite frankly), I’d rather be with folks like the people at my friend’s church than with the people who collect a 10% tax and wear a $ 2,000 suit to go to praise God (in racially segregated congregations).

    GREGORY A. BUTLER

    1. Damn. Interesting story Greg. I wish I could find a “come as you are”, non-stunting church to belong to. The Sunday morning fashion show aspect of it at times really lets me know its about impressing the people, and has nothing to do with praising God.

  7. Marissa D. McGill

    Very good post, Marc. And it all makes so much sense. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: Spirituality and beliefs in a higher being is one thing, the Church itself is a BUSINESS. Plain and simple.

    1. Thank you Marissa. I believe this to be the case as well. At the end of the day, the church is a business.

  8. Marissa D. McGill

    P.S. – The Church is business AND POLITICS. Remember when Pope John Paul passed on? It was a HUGE deal who the next Pope would be for POLITICAL & BUSINESS PURPOSES. The Catholic Church, for one, plays a major role in that all over the world. That’s why it was on every channel what color smoke was coming out of the Vatican, who the finalists were and their points of view, who knows who, etc. Do we want a more conservative leader since we just had a more liberal one? Why did the Pope make a trip to Cuba, a communist country? All of these things play a part in religion and the Church. Just my POV.

    1. As much as people like to pretend that religion does not intersect with politics, very often the two are inseparable. Think of how politicians come and visit churches speaking to congregations and seeking the endorsement of of the pastor.

      1. fausto412

        damn politicians milk religious people for all they are worth. and their faith is so strong that often it blinds them to what is right there in front of them.

  9. annoy

    I am not articulate and can’t really express my feeling the way I want to but I will say that it grieves me the way “church” has tainted so many by the gimmick and schemes it has possed down through the years. I have been in “church” all my life and have seen alot of things come and go; however, I stay because my focus is not on the man, the shcemes, etc. but God and the ultimate goal of saving souls. I don’t pay my tithes because the preacher said so, I pay because it is in scripture and if I want the promises of God, I must be a tither. Things that are not scripture, I don’t participate in…period. I don’t care what the next person says or thinks because that is not what I am here for. People need to start reading the Bible for themselves to get an understanding. I have a wonderful pastor that tells us all the time “don’t take my word for it, read it yourself” that is why Bible study is more important to me that Sunday morning. Sunday morning you get the fasion shows, the emotion, etc. but Bible study you can ask questions and get clarity of the scripture. I hope one day you find a church that can feed you the way you need to be fed and return to the fold. If you have accepted Jesus as your personal saviour, you are saved, period. When you find the right place, the holy spirit will speak to you…(I am going to stop because I will start babbling)….Be blessed my brother and remember Paul when he said, forgetting those things which are behind, I press toward the mark…..(paraphrase….read it yourself!)

    1. So, the Bible says you have to pay a 10% tax on your gross income to the church or you won’t go to heaven?

      Are you sure that God said that?

      What does He need money for?

      He’s in heaven, what’s he going to buy up there?

      Or was that part about tithing put in by the men who wrote the Bible – men who were priests who’s income depended on contributions from the faithful?

      Remember, the Bible was written – and repeatedly rewritten – by men, not by God.

      1. In the original, it was supposed to mean 10 percent of your harvest. Crops. Now it’s flipped today to mean 10 percent of your income.

    2. @Annoy- I appreciate your comment, but in my opinion, when you tithe, you are not giving it to “God” you are giving to the church.

  10. I’m very late to this party, but just wanted to let you know there are many other unchurched believers out here. I love churches, the love and passion they have for God and (hopefully) people, but couldn’t join one now. It’s not because I think they all should be perfect and my decision not to join reflects my attitude that they should be. Rather, while most churches encompass the same belief that I have – that God is the creator, and that He loves us and we are to love, too – they heap on so many other requirements or doctrines or rules that, to me, have little to do with God and His love. I’m very comfortable as a “church of one,” though until recently have had a difficult time admitting my views. Churched folks don’t always seem happy to have someone – someone who believes, especially – outside their gates. They want to save us or bring us into the fold. Yet I believe we’re all in the fold…the churched believers the unchurched believers, the non-believers alike. Thanks for your blog.

    1. Good evening Elizabeth. It is good to know that there are other people that struggle with the issue of church, but believe in God. Wow. A “church of one” I like that. I don’t believe that one has to go to a church in order to have a spiritual connection with God. We all are in the fold. Thank you for your comments.

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