Of all of the questions that I faced as a sheltered Christian entering the unknown Oz that was my secular university, I surprisingly did not anticipate what proved to be one of the most profound: What should I do with my Sunday mornings?
For the first 18 years of my life, this was never a question because there was only one possible answer. I went to church. Sunday School. Evening service. The total Sabbath experience. My father was a Baptist missionary to New York City, meaning we would go early to a rented space on Jamaica Avenue and stay late until all of the folding chairs, Dunkin’ Donuts, and second-hand hymnals were put away. Simply said, Sunday was the Lord’s day.
Like a good and faithful servant, I never missed a service. I never questioned why I would always miss watching the 1st quarters of New York Football Giants games. I never protested when I had to miss Little League Baseball games scheduled by godless league organizers. It was more than assumed – it was divinely ordained. Sunday was the Lord’s Day and I could not have imagined Sundays any other way.
So when I waved goodbye to my parents at Elon University, nothing prepared me for a Sunday morning without having to be showered with pressed pants by 9am. To some, the opportunities would have seemed worth embracing.
One of the best qualities of Christianity is that, no matter where you are, there is a bond that is shared between people of similar faith. At this Southern Baptist church, it didn’t matter that I was a Black Yankee who wore skinny jeans to services. I spoke their language. I knew their hymns and choruses. It was my language. Those were my songs. I needed church. While everything else about being a naive freshman in college loomed over my head, the drinking, the living alone, church was one of the few experiences I knew.
But like thousands of others, I stopped going to church. As I assimilated into college, the necessity of church dwindled. And more than that. My motivations to go to church dwindled.
Christian authors, ministers, and parents warn for years the perils of a secular college. But it wasn’t from the liberal minded, socialist sympathizers Christian radio had taught me to fear growing up that made church no longer a priority. It was having other options. It was the option of opening the Word or opening a bag of Bojangles after a night of partying. It was the option that perhaps I wanted to watch the 1st quarters of football games.
In Genesis, one of the God’s earliest commands to Adam was “six days you shall do all of your work”. Suddenly, I cheated the system. In college, I had seven. I did not attend church for the last two years of college. At my campus job, I signed up to work Sundays 9-1am instead. It logistically made sense. The Student Center would be empty, I’d have a computer to do my school work on, and I’d have an excuse to tell my parents I was busy on Sundays. While I forsook the assembly I congregating with the stragglers on their walk back to their dorms after riotous Saturday nights.
There was something rebellious about sleeping in on Sundays. Of course, I felt guilty. To atone for breaking the 4th commandment, I honored the Sabbath digitally, under the inspirational tutelage of Joel Osteen’s television broadcasts.
When my parents came to get me one last time from college, they asked to meet my pastor in North Carolina. I had no easy way of saying, “What pastor?” I didn’t lie though. I had work. Not going to church had become routine. I had not lost my sense of being a Christian. But I had lost that sense of priority it once had. And I admitted to myself that I didn’t mind it anymore. But I didn’t consider the consequences of having to go back.
Parents spend a lot of time worrying about their children’s spiritual lives while they are away. But less often they think of the times when they come back. How their faith could be different. How they’re relationship to God is different.
Every summer, and now, four years later, I faced the return home. No more Sunday mornings of political talk shows. Or sleeping late. I was back up by 9am. With nonironed pants. With the thought of every deed I regret, and then came not to regret, I find myself spending Sundays just as I did before, in the front rows of my church. I sit as a hypocrite, knowing the expectations the church has for me, with no way. But not going to church is no longer an option. I am home, and that routine that defined me as two and twelve now returns as I’m twenty-two.
I grew up in the “God said it, I believe it” school of Christianity. College is the antithesis of this approach to life. And if college’s main purpose is to challenge your assumptions of our personal versions of life, church doesn’t work nearly as well when you’re questioning everything that’s said.
Thankfully, things weren’t very different from what I had grown up with. Great is Thy Faithfulness has not gone out of rotation just quite yet, despite CCM’s best efforts. Communion is still served with a wafer and grape juice. I remember the shed blood of Jesus as I quickly suck down Welch’s finest like a fraternity brother doing shots during happy hour.
So the elements of church have not changed. Yet my connection to them changed. Sometimes I cringe when I hear concepts of truth spoken with unquestioned belief. Sometimes I wish Christian rock would give up. But sometimes I’m reminded of why certain stories or verses resonated in my mind to begin with. I hear the verses of Christianity in new ways now. I approach my faith differently. Not dogmatically. I know every principle that is taught, I can reject. But I also now that this faith has endured the scrutiny of scholars and skeptics and prodigals. Because church matters. And can’t be replaced.
Despite the coldness I’ve battled with my personal Christianity, I find a peace returning back to the pew. There is a comfort knowing that while life is changing in so many ways that I can’t fully understand, there is a continuity in the songs and verses that defined who I was as a child, and that perhaps will carry with me as I define myself as a man.
College was about making choices. And I look forward to the day when I can approach church in the same way. When I can choose to embrace it, and my faith, as my own.