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July 26 2013

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Last weekend, a baby started crying in church, like, right in the middle of the sermon.

After about 4 seconds, I turned back to peer over my shoulder, so the baby’s Mom would know that I could hear her baby crying. I gave her a look that said, “Um. Your baby is kind of a jerk.”

Finally, she got up and left, and the sermon continued in pin drop silence. Thank goodness. I was able to really take it in… (I can’t remember what it was about, but give me a minute. I’ll think of it! Maybe.)

Sorry if I sound judgmental, but I’m so tired of people messing up my church experience. It’s just that I used to live in Central America where they almost always do church wrong.

My family and I sometimes went to a little church in the city, built in what I believe was an old mechanic shop. The walls were cinderblock and the roof was corrugated steel. So when it rained, which it quite often did, the noise was unbearably loud. I really shouldn’t complain, because it did drown out the singing and the fact that 1/3 of the room would clap on 1 and 3, and the rest on 2 and 4, except for a few rogue old people who just clapped all over the place.

The children’s program was for younger kids, held in an open loft above the back of the room. The chatter and stomping of grade schoolers was only a mild annoyance in comparison to the match box cars and broken crayons flying over the balcony’s half wall to ping church goers in the head. Parents with babies or teenagers were forced to sit with them during the service, though the toddlers were allowed to free range, like wild turkeys, in and out and around the rows of seats, up onto the stage, under the communion table; eating, babbling, pooping their pants. Just whatever.

Often, the pastor would arrive well after the announcements had been made and the music started. Every once in awhile, he’d come running up the aisle as the last song was wrapping up, tossing his keys onto a metal folding chair with a crash, and scooping up the mic, out of breath, tie twisted, hair tussled – but showered, always showered.

Oh. And they would break for coffee in the middle, like, the part where you’re just supposed to “say hello to your neighbor”? They would actually make us leave our seats and mingle with coffee and little cookies or dry cake. Pshhh, like we actually want to get to know the people we go to church with, or something.

Don’t even get me started on the sermons. Long. That’s the best word for them. Our pastor would have random people read passages of scripture out loud. Can’t read good? No teeth? Teeny tiny voice? No problemo! Go ahead and read anyway!! He also asked non-rhetorical questions and let people answer them. Crazy. This one time? He brought in a camp stove and propane tank and started cooking a big fat steak right there in an enclosed space! The grease from the steak caught fire, and for once I was glad I had to sit with my kids because I could grab them if we needed to run to escape the deathtrap of smoke and flame building in front of the stage. He had to turn the propane off before the steak was anywhere near safely cooked. The sermon illustration was supposed to be right out of 1st Corinthians 3, where Paul admonishes the church of Corinth to quit acting like a bunch of milk drunk babies, bickering and bad mouthing, and grow the heck up. The pastor’s plan was to cook and cut the steak and offer it up, asking the congregation, “Hey, are we ready for meat, or are we still babies? What does our behavior say about us as a church?” But no one really wanted to eat the meat because the meat was… bleeding. So the whole illustration backfired. He asked some lady, “Are you ready for meat?” and she was like, “Uh…No, thank you.”, and the whole place roared with laughter!

Ok. It was actually a pretty great message. I’ll probably never forget it.

But, I’m telling you, they did it so wrong.

They did it so wrong, it felt more like a big, whacky family than a church. They did it so wrong, they treated their pastor like a human being. They did it so wrong, they let everyone (and I mean everyone) participate. They did it so wrong, they left room for error and chaos and laughter and silliness. They did is so wrong that sometimes it actually went wrong, and when it did, well, then they just rolled with it until it felt… right.



  1. Funny how so wrong can later seem so right. Our current assembly is SO right, it doesn’t feel like a family anymore. Of course, it is probably just me.
    I enjoyed your thought.

  2. Don

    Oh, Jamie, you delicious subversive you. I love this, the whole persona thing of being judgmental and critical and…yet…we ALL are…at least sometimes! And God breaks in, right there in the midst of the flying matchbox cars and the pastor racing in…and in the midst of our timed to the second, carefully rehearsed, oh so professionally planned services…even there. It reminds me of a church with about 25 people there on most Sundays that was dominated by three sisters…none of them could hold a tune…and all of them loved Jesus and loved “singing” OK, making a joyful noise…and God met us there too.
    I still seek to meet God rather than see church structures built. I recognize that John Wesley was at the heart of a great move of God AND one of his many points of genius was to set up structures to best conserve and help grow the “fruit” (Aside: Does it seem right somehow that John 15 basically says we are fruit? Yes to the peanut gallery, it actually says we are the vine…but go with me on this, K?) As a modern Christian “fruit” I hope to see and feel and sense and hear and know the “still, small voice” again.
    Order is still important in the church…but life, the life of God in His people is more central to what we need to be about.

  3. This. is. brilliant. And having experienced many church services in Mexico that are sooo similar to what you described, it made me all homesick this morning. Thank you. <3

  4. Brooke

    I was in a church in Diriamba, Nicaragua last week and they asked for my pastor to speak for at least an hour. He’s response was “Wrong. I can’t do that.” So he drug it out to 40 minutes – 20 minutes in English, 20 minutes of translating. And then I barely spoke for 10 minutes, and it rained on the tin roof…and the cold wind was blowing water in…and then their pastor spoke at the end. Yet, everyone was very engaged, and it is beautiful that they just meet between two cinder block walls under a tin roof.

  5. Give me wrong and messy any day. Those are the places I usually find Jesus, sitting in a chair with His feet kicked up, getting real around the table. Yup, at home there.

    • john

      I love that mental picture of Jesus with His feet up laughing with the family

  6. I had to laugh at the crayons and cars being launched on to unsuspecting church-goers’ heads. I can totally picture my kids being the guilty ones.

    I loved this. Absolutely perfect. I mean, wrong.

  7. Oh so very messy and so very real and so very honest and so very refreshing!! Awesomeness….

  8. ha ha classic, i’m from vineyard church background and one of the greatest lessons i learnt there was an appreciation for messy church… bring it on!

  9. Love it. Thank you.

  10. Just read this blog this morning and thought she and you might have some things to talk about. I have lived in Africa and loved the 3 hour hot messy church services where the music transports me to heavenly places. As always, thanks for you.

  11. Our church has rotating worship teams and a different group setting up and tearing down every Sunday. This creates a lot of glitches and mess ups on a weekly basis.

    (This is nothing compared to tin roofs and flying cars, but a tiny slice of relatable…ness?)

    I used to be so annoyed that the worship wouldn’t be spot on every Sunday, or that – because we meet in a school gym that has an A/C that sounds like a freight train – we have to turn it off and it gets “insufferably” hot during the service.

    Now, I’m so grateful that if I wake up late on a Sunday morning and my 13 month old is screaming and my husband and I just got in a fight, not only can we roll in to our church as a collective hot mess, but we want to – because it’s a safe place and having a polished, perfect service or being polished and perfect yourself isn’t what it’s about.

    I’ve followed your blog for awhile now, excited that you’re on Deeper Story! :)

  12. Mr. Alvin Rocks

    You’re a pretty good writer Jamie.
    You should start a blog or something …

  13. Hmmmm…crazy.

    Wrong is the new right.


  14. Andy

    Funny Yes, negative, for sure. moral, got it. It’s not about fancy programs or performance but of family,sharing the word, admonishing, worship of the Lord in word and song.

  15. This is why you totally are the worst, Jamie. Because ouch and awesome and also, ouch.

  16. I love this post Jamie. You continually grab me and show me the barebones truth whether I am ready for it or not. That is what I love about your writing, keep it up!
    aka The Recovering Church Lady

  17. Bruce

    It’s like the hokey-pokey – that’s what it’s all about!!

  18. Now THAT is a church I’d leave the safety of my home to attend. A church family that’s a hot mess? Perfect for this anxiety ridden hot mess.

  19. sheri

    “like wild turkeys”…ahahhahhhaa….I loved that

  20. this was my take on it a while back actually, or some extent of my take cos having said i like messy i do still think there needs to be some kind of line [on occasion] – – so somewhere between absolute silence and absolute chaos – so control your kids to some extent but don’t feel shunned if one of them cries out or makes and awkward statement, especially if it makes me laugh out loud cos that’s instant forgiveness right there… but somewhere in between… after all, church is the people or something…

  21. Amanda

    It’s interesting but growing up I didn’t even appreciate this problem. My pastor always encouraged parents to stay in the sanctuary with babies (esp crying ones), infants, toddlers running around, etc. And this was a mainline Presbyterian church so we are inherently orderly people. But then in college I went to a church near school and there were NO infants. It was freaky – no babies, no toddlers. Where are the kids? I kept wondering. Then one day I discovered there was a basement where the parents of young kids sat and watched church on TV, so they wouldn’t create ‘disturbance’. I found a new church.

  22. My favorite line is the one in your bio about your creepy cat. Knives really is.

    I guess I’m shallow like that.

  23. They did it so wrong I felt like I belonged. I loved this – thank you for writing it and reminding us what we really need.

  24. they did it so wrong I felt like I belonged.

    my eyes welled up with tears reading this. my husband and I changed churches in 2010, four months into our marriage, from a place that did it “right” to a place that did it so….so wrong.

    and we found our home there.

  25. Erin

    One of my favorite things about my current church is the whole free-range toddler thing! There’s a “nursery” for 2-4 year olds, but they kind of wander in and out as needed, and the tinies are in with the rest of us, babbling and crying and all. Somehow it’s never disruptive, though. It’s just big and messy and fun and inclusive.

  26. Kid’s sit in windows in a tribal church I used to attend in SE Asia. Just crazy stuff all the time.

  27. You are a wonder, you know that? Fearless, funny and so damn smart. This is just terrific. Thank you.

  28. Koko

    Loved this. And I would also love to find a church that does it wrong like this. Most of the time, I feel like the church is so right, and the people are looking out the corners of their eyes at us while my family is doing it wrong.

  29. Willie

    I have read through this and am honestly troubled. It is rather easy to poke fun at the scenario at the beginning and elevate the one at the end. After all, one sounds stuffy and rigid while the other sounds flexible and open. The fourth paragraph states (I think, with sarcasm) that you are “so tired of people messing up my church experience”. Then the rest of the article kind of implies that if you don’t do church “wrong” then your church experience, seemingly, is “messed up”. In all kinds of worship experiences – whether the kind you describe at the beginning or the kind at the end – things are “messed up”. Perhaps the problem does not lie in the “experience” as much as in the heart.


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