Disclaimer (again): As I continue this series on “Why Not to Go To Church,” please remember that I’m not pointing fingers at any specific congregations. These are general musings about churches. Also, I have changed names and some details to protect confidentiality.
I walked into the gift shop, but I wasn’t buying a gift.
Patsy was a church member whose relative had died a few months earlier. The last time she’d been in church was for the funeral. I hugged her. As we pulled away from each other, she took my thin, cold hands in her bony, colder hands.
“I want to come back to church.”
We stood in silence as she sighed and looked me in the eye.
“But I’m afraid I’ll cry.”
Patsy was not the first person to offer this reason for not going to church. I’m sad to say that she was also not the last. I hear these words often, especially from people grieving a recent loss. Depending on the relationship I have with each person, I offer different responses.
Come back when you’re ready.
We’ll be so glad to see you when you return.
It’s okay to cry in church….
As I’ve shared previously on this blog, I grew up in charismatic churches where emotionalism was as routine as the Lord’s Prayer in a more traditional service. One of the distinguishing features of the Pentecostal movement was the expression of emotion that had been largely absent from worship services. To witness tears in church was not an oddity. It was a routine part of the order of worship. It was a natural response to the movement of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes the emotions overtook the service as people walked forward for the laying on of hands.
In some of our churches, we’ve mistaken stoicism for reverence. We’ve come to believe that we worship God by not expressing emotion. We’re hesitant to laugh as much as we are to cry. We feel like we’re honoring God by withholding our tears and laughter. We feel like we have to avoid any characteristics of contemporary worship in order to remain a traditional church.
Of course, we’re also concerned about what people will think if they see us crying.
A couple of months ago, I attended a conference at The Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas. On our last day together, the worship team led 2,500 pastors and church leaders in song. When we began to sing Matt Maher’s contemporary worship song, “I Need You,” I was overcome with emotion. Tears rolled down my face. As soon as I wiped them away, more would come.
My immediate reaction was to ask questions.
Why am I crying?
Is anyone watching me?
Are these tears of joy from seeing friends this week?
Do I need to let go of a weariness that I didn’t know I was carrying?
I soon realized that this was not the time for questioning. This was a time for being.
The tears flowed simply from being in the presence of God. The tears were not about me. They were a response to God’s love felt in the words of a song, in the community of believers, and in the power of music. The tears were a natural part of worship.
If I had to guess from what I knew about her, Patsy’s greatest fears were the same as mine. How would people respond to her crying in church, and how would she would handle their responses?
With such a spectrum of unknowns, it seems easier not to go to church.
Then Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all of the people answered, “Amen! Amen!” while raising their hands. Then they bowed down and worshipped the Lord with their faces to the ground...
All the people wept when they heard the words of the Instruction…*
After years of destruction, exile, rebuilding, and restoration, the Israelites worship in their rebuilt “church.” The priest, Ezra, steps forward to read God’s Instruction, and emotion overwhelms the people. In this beautifully detailed chapter, emotions run from joy to tears. No one is afraid to express their feelings—because of what they endured together.
Our communities of faith are strong because of what we’ve endured together, too. When Patsy hurts, we can reach out to her but also give her space. We can encourage her to return to church without showing up at her door on Sunday morning to offer a ride. We can remind her that she’s not alone—that many of us have endured the same pain. We can let her cry when she needs to cry—in church.
A few weeks after I saw Patsy, she walked into church with her brother. They took their seat. I shook their hands. Friends hugged them. Fellow members told them how glad they were to see them. An usher discreetly placed a box of tissue on the ends of a few pews, including where they sat. During the service, I glanced frequently at Patsy. She and her brother did cry throughout the service, but no one stared at them. No one made a big deal out of the emotional expression—because many of them were crying, too.
Let us not be afraid to express how we feel. Let us also not be afraid to feel God’s expression of love for us in worship. Let us not be afraid…
all good things to each of you,
* Ezra 8:6, 9 (Common English Bible)
Here is a recording of Matt Maher’s “I Need You.”