When I Can’t Find Jesus At Church

This whole going to church thing isn’t what it is cracked up to be.

I grew up in Sunday School and fell in love with the Jesus who was taught there, but it didn’t take long for me to realize that my Sunday School world was different from the rest of my life. I didn’t feel the “joy of Jesus” when I was sitting on the margins of my elementary school, wearing a Christian t-shirt and K-Mart jeans.

My Sunday School teacher had an answer for those terrible feelings.

“We aren’t supposed to be of this world.” She said.

That made sense in my young mind. If we weren’t supposed to be of this world, I must be doing something right. I was not apart of any world, outside of that Sunday School room.

We constructed our own little world in that Sunday School room. We all sang the same songs, wore the same clothes, and watched the same McGee and Me movies.

Our parents protested things like Halloween, cable television and Disney movies, because they supported sinful things like witchcraft, sex and homosexuality.

I didn’t watch the television shows my schoolmates watched —didn’t say the things they said, because I was better than that (damnit). I was called to a higher standard. I was Christ’s chosen, and if I wanted to make it to heaven some day, I better sanctify myself  from the ways of the world.

It was us versus them, or at best us and then them. And somewhere along the way I was made to believe it was true — that real joy was found in Jesus and his Sunday School club.

My segmented world began in that Sunday School room, but it didn’t end there.

I went to Christian school, went to Christian skate night, and Christian book stores. Our church hosted a “Harvest Party”, so we didn’t have to partake in Halloween. And our Christian version of Halloween was pretty cool because we got to dress up in costumes and eat candy all without the Christian guilt of living in a sinful world.

And that guilt was the fuel of this whole Sunday School club. And boy did it work. I think I “got saved” 15 times before it was all said and done.

Then in high school I went to public school again, and everything changed. I wasn’t on the outside looking in anymore. I was confronted with the realities of the “world”. I learned that sex was fun, even outside of marriage. That drinking wasn’t just for alcoholics and dead-beats, but when you had a couple beers some things became a lot more fun.

The pillars of my constructed church reality were beginning to shake. What I was experiencing flew directly in the face of the “sin isn’t fun” and “being a Christian is” mindset that had been drilled into me as a kid.

The older I grew, the more angry I became about this constructed reality.

I felt like I was tricked into believing that Jesus lived in a Sunday School room, but he doesn’t. He lives in my small one bedroom apartment and in the cold pour at Pat’s Tap and in taco shops and in the midst of conversations at work.

He lives in the homeless shelter I used to visit after college, because it was a free meal and the church job I had didn’t pay me enough to buy groceries. It was a chance to have good conversation with men who were nothing like the people I met in church, and knew a lot more about the Jesus that I knew.

And if I’m being honest, I find it hard to find God in a building where we sing all the same songs, and recite a list of what we believe (just incase we forget it later), and where Jesus looks like my Sunday School teacher.

I want to experience the God of wonder beyond all constructed realities.

I want to meet the God of majesty.

Have you met God? Where have you found him?

[photo: pellesten, Creative Commons]

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Katherine-Harms/602268732 Katherine Harms

    I found your story quite interesting. I went through a time in my life when I was a church hobo. I had become disconnected from the church of my childhood, and I wandered in and out of churches looking for a home. I had some of the same eye-openers you experienced, but then one morning I visited a church in which I reconnected with Christ himself.
    That experience suggests to me that you will find Christ in a church again. I travel all the time, so I visit a lot of different churches. They are not all alike. I meet Christ in most of them, not as if he isn’t with me all the time, but in a church there is a difference.
    I wound up joining a liturgical church, the one where I first re-connected, and I remain a member of that church. I visit all sorts of churches, but it is in liturgical churches that I experience worship most intensely. For one thing, worship in a liturgical church truly is worship. Nobody stands up and announces who will speak or sing or pray next. The worship proceeds with full focus on God, not on the people who are performing worship leadership. Praying, singing, reading, listening — we are enjoined by all these elements to pay attention to God and give to him the worship that he deserves. He is worthy, and the form of worship keeps saying that over and over.
    One of the things I notice that is quite special about this worship experience is that the text of hymns, and even the text of the biblical readings, speak to me powerfully during worship. I see things in the hymns and the texts that had not occurred to me during private reading and prayer. God speaks to me as I worship him.
    Another thing about liturgical worship is the greater emphasis on the Lord’s Supper. In my church, it is celebrated at every worship except Good Friday. Jesus said that we were to “do this, to remember me” and remembering Christ is something we Christians certainly want to do.
    Every person is unique, so I would not claim that every person ought to belong to a liturgical church, but it is the right sort of church for me. Each congregation, of course, is unique, and liturgical churches fall on a spectrum of formality and focus, just as non-liturgical churches do. I have attended liturgical churches where I did not experience what one contemporary writer calls “vertical church.” Still, it is among those congregations that I have the greatest success in meeting God in worship.
    When I read your story, I am led to conclude that you are trying to help us look for ways to meet Christ outside of a church building. I agree with you that if Christ is locked up in the sanctuary, then that is a bad thing. I meet Christ in lots of experiences. I believe Christ’s promise to be with me always, because that is what I experience. At midnight, one hundred miles from the nearest shore, in a boat tossing on big waves and battered by big winds, Christ is there. In the blossom of a flower so tiny I almost didn’t see it there among the weeds, an even tinier insect creeps across the petals, and Christ is there. In the face of a child who can barely speak English, but knows how to sing, “Si, Jesu mi amo,”
    I see Christ. Christ is everywhere I go, but there is something quite unique, humbling and enriching, about the worship experience that lifts God up and calls me to my knees.
    Thank you for a thought-provoking, even prayer-provoking aticle.

    • http://darrellvesterfelt.com/ Darrell Vesterfelt

      I am glad you have found Jesus in church. For many people my age it is just not happening. That is why the majority of millennials are leaving the church after they are adults.

      I believe you can find Jesus in church, but my experience has been that it is harder there than other places.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=159101445 Joey Cottle


    You’ve written my life story, here, and I think you are absolutely correct. We might not be of the world, but we are certainly in it, and that’s ok. I’m happy here, to drink from the tap at Schuberg’s with my “heathen” friends who don’t mind me telling them about my church and the God I serve. In fact, they’re curious.

    They like me because I love them like Christ would have (at least, I try to). Jesus didn’t mind working with roughneck, cussing fishermen or hanging out at drunken wedding ceremonies (something evangelicals NEVER do), and neither do I.

    I’m glad I left the Sunday School Club.

    • http://darrellvesterfelt.com/ Darrell Vesterfelt

      I am glad you left too Joey!

  • Emily Wierenga

    oh man, yes. i want to meet the God of majesty too. LOVE this.

    • http://darrellvesterfelt.com/ Darrell Vesterfelt

      Thanks friend.

  • http://www.facebook.com/cindy.way Cindy Wheeler Way

    amen. some churches miss Jesus in all the legalism. i meet him in mountains–my church in the woods. i also meet Him in lovely broken people (like me) whom he guides me to-who need my help in some way. when he uses me to be his hands, when we work together, i get to know Him better.

    • http://darrellvesterfelt.com/ Darrell Vesterfelt

      That is incredible Cindy.

  • http://twitter.com/findmattcox Matt Cox

    Maybe you guys should move to Lawrence. :) I know of a place you could “go.”

    I understand the crushing disappointment from being raised by an irrelevant subculture. What I have a hard time with is so many of our generation that is passionate about Jesus settling for leaving the church instead of using that passionate discontent to change the archetype.

    Without pointing to or fostering a discussion for a solution or any next step for us, this comes across more permissive to those leaving the church rather than pointing to a hope that we have the power and ability to completely change the dynamic of what church is. Of course, I’m relatively new to Prodigal so I’m not sure if you’ve written about that part before.

    One of the broader reasons we started EastLake is to do our part in re-framing the church by destroying its harmful subculture the best we know how – which one of the ways is by being our Monday – Saturday selves on Sunday and in our smaller groups.

    What do you feel is the solution or a next step?

    • http://darrellvesterfelt.com/ Darrell Vesterfelt

      Thanks for these thoughts Matt.

      I think that part of “leaving the church” is apart of changing the archetype. Many people don’t feel the need to be apart of a structured Sunday service to be apart of a church. I can’t speak for everyone but that movement away from the American constructs of church might be an exploration in new church structures. I have been apart of two churches who have wanted to be “different” but all they did was put new language on the same harmful structures.

      I am not saying that is what you are doing, I am sure you guys are exploring some new structures that shake down the old harmful models, but from what I have seen the “emerging”, “progressive” church structures are just old church with new paint.

      I don’t want to shame people leaving the church, I want to give them hope that church and Jesus can be found outside of church buildings and Sunday morning worship.

      Hope that makes sense.

      • http://twitter.com/findmattcox Matt Cox

        Thanks Darrell! I appreciate the good discussion! Yeah I get what you’re trying to say. And I see the old church-new paint thing everywhere. Modern mottos, but same unsafe environment.

        Yet the need to gather together and connect is built into all of us. The structure – be it large sunday gathering + weeknight smaller group or meeting in homes or meeting in bars, coffee shops, lofts, movie sets, via online? etc. – should never be the point since meeting space is value neutral.

        Changing a church meeting structure as the way to fix or evolve things may give a breath of fresh air temporarily, but if that group of people still have the “subculture heart,” it won’t matter. In those “harvest party” environments, people will still feel worthless because of lack of virginity. People will still feel excluded by judgmental idiots who have “modest” dress issues. People will still shame others first and forgive never.

        That will happen in churches with structure or without.

        While our structure is in place, our structure is not the point. We view our “official” gatherings as tools, not as the point. It should equip us to be Jesus to our city, work, roommates, neighbors, etc. in the culture we exist. You could have perfect attendance at church “things” and never be good news for the culture around you. (We only have two “things” we do. We hate programs for the sake of programs. We let the church go be the church in the city and minimize scheduled gatherings as much as possible.)

        But it wasn’t that there was a scheduled “Sunday School” structure that burned you – it was the darkened heart of your subculture that trained you to “be against” culture instead of loving it.

        I am all for changing structure if it will help (we evaluate what we do constantly), but I don’t believe that’s where the true problem is. Structure isn’t burning people – people are.

        • http://darrellvesterfelt.com/ Darrell Vesterfelt

          I am actually not for changing structure. I am for dismantling it, and my generation gets that, even if for right now it is with anger and hurt.

          I don’t want to clutter the comments with my thoughts, I will write again about it soon.

          Thanks for your thoughts.

          • Emily_Maynard

            Anger can be a powerful force for good. When we get to the breaking point, things change.

          • http://twitter.com/tom_wells Tom Wells

            I’ve used the same “dismantling” call in my story as well. thanks Darrell for your transparency.

        • Emily_Maynard

          Matt, I want to affirm your ability to follow the call of Jesus in this way. Your life matters and your interaction and leadership with this church sounds really healthy and I’m glad for that! I’m not trying to get everyone to leave formal church structures or locations, and I don’t think Darrell is either.

          I don’t speak for him, but I know that the goal of sharing my story is to offer hope to those who are in a similar place AND those trying to understand why Millennials (and many other ages of people) are leaving church structures. The most common things I hear is that Millennials can’t commit, that we’re shallow, that we are not interesting in being challenged, that we aren’t capable of spiritual depth, that we’re . However, in my own story and many others I have heard, those are all the things we see in church, not ourselves. We see church structures being more committed to preserving sexism and privilege than to the move of God among people, unwilling to allow our deep questions, and stunting of spiritual growth when it threatens “the system.”

          Also, I know for me, structure is absolutely the cause of my hurt. I haven’t gone through a church split, I haven’t been shunned or mistreated by people. But the flaws inherent in the structure of church systems? It is sucking the life out of me mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.

          Some may be called to reinvent or hold steady. But some of us are being called by the Holy Spirit to expand the boundaries of “church,” to follow God boldly even if it takes us outside of the places where we grew up, to wrestle with how to stay connected to our brothers and sisters in churches, even when they accuse us of spiritual or personal lack.

          Not everyone needs to leave, but not everyone needs to stay. I hope Darrell’s story builds bridges and breaks down the walls of God’s Kingdom. It did for me.

          • http://twitter.com/findmattcox Matt Cox

            Thanks Emily! I resonate with so much of what you said, especially the part of churches worshiping the system therefore dampening the very move of God. I am a Millennial as well who hears the similar criticisms of how I’m actually leading my church. We want to remove all the roadblocks of God moving as much as possible and I hope to keep changing our “system” to watch Him do it. Thanks again for your comments!

      • Jay Joy

        Well said Darrell…It’s true what you’re saying…all the “new ” attempts at changing church always ends up as “The same old door painted a different colour” :) It was way kool to realise ..We are the church wherever we go and to whoever we meet up with in our everyday lives!! :)

    • Jay Joy

      Matt….I spent many years in the religious system, thinking that we could “change” it…And after I’d left it, I watched many come after me trying to change it…When it’s all said and done, this “churchianity” we’ve become a custom to, isn’t even God’s system, it’s man made, so it cannot flourish without,manipulation, misinterpretations of scripture,formulas and fear based theologies to control people…I happily left behind the “god made in mans image”, and all the hard work that goes with trying to please him and began living Loved by God on the outside It has been a crazy Freedom journey for me full of unlearning and finding out who God really is and just how much He Loves us All, No matter what!!! yeeehhaa!!! :) It’s not worth trying to prop up what isn’t His…enjoy life in Him 24/7 wherever you are…

  • http://jasonandkelliwoodford.blogspot.com/ kelli woodford

    I really identify with this, Darrell.

    And I’ve spent much of my faith journey confined by walls of self-righteousness (which, I think, is what that us-them mentality translates into). You’ve called forth here what is essentially the scariest thing for those who cling to the box for comfort — freedom. The risk of following a Living God when it’s so much “safer” inside the confines of performance to a standard.

    The trouble is that the security provided by that narrow view of a small God eventually constricts around the neck. It chokes off authenticity and removes the fodder for any true growth to take place. Or so has been my experience, anyway.

    Thank you for this topic. Your words are poignant and powerful. They challenge and confront. I love it all.

    • http://darrellvesterfelt.com/ Darrell Vesterfelt

      Thanks Kelli.

      I was choked out for most of my life. I am starting to breathe again. I hope you are as well.

  • http://www.carisadel.com/ Caris Adel

    Yes to this whole thing. I can’t even think of anything else to say. Just that you’ve nailed it.

    • http://darrellvesterfelt.com/ Darrell Vesterfelt

      Thanks Caris.

  • Bill Clarkson

    Wow Darrell, as one of the people that both built you up with a faith you could defend and then tried to get you to live your faith walk OUTSIDE of the walls of the church while you were growing up, I am sad that we failed you so miserably. For those kids and parents that are “stuck in the current paradigm” of church today, what suggestions do you have? Especially for teachers, parents, leaders and pastors of youth and children…how do those of us in the church actually do what you want?

    • http://darrellvesterfelt.com/ Darrell Vesterfelt


      I want to be clear about something. I was not failed by anyone. I believe that the culture of evangelical church we are all apart of fails us more often than we think. As you know, through many conversations we have had in the past, I am a huge proponent of seeing people meet the Jesus that I have encountered. I think often our church and evangelical cultures (which I argue are often socially constructed realities, not Biblically constructed realities) do as much to hinder people’s reception to Jesus.

      All I am asking is that we begin to have honest conversations about what is happening, what has happened — and the fruit of it all. If the evangelical church stands by its structures for the past 20 years, it has a lot of explaining to do with the mass exodus of millennial (and others).

      Unfortunately, most of those who have left the church have felt shame for doing so. I want to remove that shame and start asking some serious questions. I hope that people don’t think we are lying, or making it up, or sensationalizing our experiences. This is us, a Christian generation who love Jesus and want to talk about change.

      • DocSpotts

        Dvest, This whole thread (along with your article) has been fascinating to read. You and I have talked some about this in the past and I hope to more in the future so I won’t say much here. But having now lived through at least a couple of generational “reinventions” of church I wonder if you think millennials will have any better success at “change” than boomers or those that preceded us.

        Since “ecclesia” essentially means a gathering of “called out” ones, “doing” church requires us to figure out how best to live out being called out. I’m watching with great interest and prayers for your generation’s success.

        It also occurs to me that “wherever we go, there we are” so any gathering of believers inevitably includes all of our emotional and spiritual immaturities, our brokenness, and a powerful, clever enemy who is absolutely committed to thwarting our efforts to know and worship Jesus or expand His kingdom…wherever and however that is being lived out.

  • Brandi

    Thanks for sharing a great article Darrell. My husband and I are now planting our second church to break some of the subcultures within the Church at large.

    Somehow the Church has lost a main focus of it’s mission – to get people into a deeper relationship with Christ. Church should be where you can go to both learn how to experience God on your own and experience Him while in fellowship with others. The Moses model of coming to church to receive from an “anointed person” isn’t why Christ died.

    I’m sorry if your church experience has been about anything other than an intimate relationship with Jesus. Not all churches are at the same place but you might want to consider trying some churches outside of the stream you are most familiar with to see if something different pops up.

  • Aaron Ross

    Honestly, I loved the end of this article the most because it’s so hard to try and connect to everyone’s story of religious disillusionment, because there are so many, but how you pointed to wonder at the end that really gets me stoked:

    “I want to experience the God of wonder beyond all constructed realities.
    I want to meet the God of majesty.”

    Your ending is reminiscent of one of my new favorite theologians:

    “I did not ask for success; I asked for wonder. And you gave it to me.”

    -Abraham Joshua Heschel

    Another great book that has been enlightening me on this subject in particular is: Beauty Will Save the World, by Brian Zahnd


  • http://lightovercomesdarkness.com/ Rev Wendy Wolf

    Really appreciate your sharing, Darrell.
    I enjoyed the pictures you painted of your life, with such detail, I could feel them.

    I find:
    It is a joy to have culture, songs, and experiences in common.
    And it is a joy to hang with folks who are different.

    Although I know lots of folks who read their bibles, sing worship songs, call themselves Christian. go to church; and are disciples of Christ.
    At this point in life, I know even more people who are post-Christian or never were in the modern Christian paradigm (they don’t read the bible, know any worship songs, or call themselves Christian) who have a beautiful, direct Love relationship with Jesus, are picking up their own cross and following Jesus; they are disciples of Christ.

    That is cool I think, beautiful. There is value in both paths, and everywhere in between. I appreciate that God leads us each uniquely. Thanks for catalyzing this interesting discussion.

    Blessings, wendy

  • Julia

    I think Rob Bell said this, and I find it so applicable here. ‘Christian’ is a great noun and a horrible adjective. As an adjective, the word Christian is often used to exclude people. Thanks for writing this! I feel this, too. I have seen God so much in the places where some people seem to think He would never go.

  • Robin E

    I’ve been on a similar journey lately, some call it “unchurching.” I haven’t been in weeks. OK, that’s partially due to getting married about a month ago and gearing up for a project defense so I can graduate in May. The point is, I haven’t missed it. I’ve found God in my project, when I’m resting, when I’m painting, when I’m cleaning, when I’m making dinner with or for my husband. And by found God, I mean I’ve encountered Him, in big and small ways, from an intense new revelation of Him to a quiet side conversation to a frustrated cry of “I really need help understanding this probit model. I really want to graduate.”
    Because I was raised in church, this journey has been both exciting and terrifying. I’ve read the bible more in the past few months than the past two years. I noticed that when people found Jesus, they found him on the streets or in people’s homes. And I have yet to find him talking about the “church” of the day (the Synagogues) in a way that isn’t negative.
    If I were really honest with myself, I’d say that the majority of the times I’ve found Jesus have been outside of a church.