This is the story of my journey back to church after a 15-year hiatus.
We’ll start during the middle of my 7th-grade year. The priest at my parish pulled me out into the hall during the middle of class.
“Are you sure that you don’t want to be a server anymore?”
“I’m sure,” I said.
At the time, this was a huge deal. A server is the equivalent of an altar boy/girl. Everyone else in my class served in the church in some capacity. Finally, however, I decided that enough was enough without telling my parents.
Nothing bad ever happened in my 12 years of Catholic school. The school was excellent, and I have a lot of memories from attending Catholic school. However, a combination of lousy religion teachers, creepy priests, being scolded for not following silly rules, and the overall boringness of Catholic masses had utterly turned me off to the church aspect. My religion teacher would tell us we were going to hell anyway for petty sins, so by age 13, I figured why even bother with church or God?
High school at a private Catholic high school came and went. The teachers and curriculum were much better, but by that point, I was so far gone with organized religion that it didn’t matter. Why would I want to believe in a God that makes me feel guilty and shameful for every little thing I do wrong? At least, that’s what I had learned in school.
Off to Community College
During my second year of community college, I took an ethics class. The teacher taught this ethics class with a strong emphasis on God. I’ll never forget that he started the class by saying, “I know this is a community college, but if you stick with this class, it will be the most important class you ever take.”
Looking back, he may have been right.
For some reason, he was allowed to teach this ethics class with a strong emphasis on biblical teachings. I’m not sure how he was allowed to since this was far from a religious community college, but he did.
Still to this day, I say that I learned more in that class about God than in 12 years of Catholic school. He taught about how our God was forgiving and loving, yet just. He provided evidence that the Bible could be accurate and not just a collection of stories. But, most importantly, he opened my eyes to what an honest Christian should be—someone who loves God and loves other people above all.
The Journey Back to Church
While this class got me thinking about God again, it was still a while before stepping foot in a church. I’d say that community college class moved me from a full-fledged atheist to a lukewarm believer. However, my experiences in a Catholic church and school were rooted deep, and I wasn’t yet interested in getting involved in a church again.
Fifteen years went by before deciding to give the church a try again. I felt that I could have a relationship with God without a church. To complicate things even more, I also had terrible taste in my mouth about Christians in general.
If you want to know how I felt, I thought that many Christians used the Bible to make them feel better than others. In addition, I believed that some Christians used the Bible to justify their closet racism and beliefs that I disagreed with in more extreme cases.
Since returning to the church, I’ve found that this primarily applies to a small minority, yet a small minority is often enough to overshadow an entire group. I’ve found personally since returning to the church that Jesus’s message in the gospels is one of love, inclusiveness, and second chances.
To demonstrate how anti-church my wife and I were only a few years ago, on Mother’s Day, my mother-in-law asked us to go to church with her. She had recently started attending a new church, and at the time, it seemed to be their new flavor of the month. So her only ask on Mother’s Day was attending one church service with her.
We still said no.
We All Have a Spiritual Side
I believe we all have a spiritual side to us. There is a need for us to connect with a higher power or other enlightenment. Christians would say that’s because God designed us that way. Believers in other religions would likely have similar reasoning.
Almost four years ago, my wife and I had a conversation about church. Things in our lives were great, but something seemed to be missing. After that discussion, I decided to run an experiment. For the next two months, I would attend church every Sunday. Unfortunately, my wife wasn’t entirely on board yet, so I went solo.
First up was the church my in-laws had invited us to the previous year on Mother’s Day.
Immediately I could tell this church was different than anything I experienced growing up. It is a non-denominational church, which means they believe in the Bible and not all of the man-made rules that have been created over the years. For example, not eating meat on Fridays during Lent or not allowing pastors to marry.
The first message from the pastor was, “Why I Hate Religion.” The emphasis was on having a relationship with Jesus, not worrying about the rules of a religion. Talk about the right place at the right time. This message put into words the issue I had with Christianity for 20 plus years. Some religions worry more about not eating meat on Fridays during Lent than treating people with love and respect.
After two months, I found that the messages were relatable to everyday life. The music was modern and energizing. And most intriguing was the diversity of the attendees. There was a genuine passion for God from kids and adults of all backgrounds.
This was different from my Catholic upbringing, but it felt like what church should be. The preachers focused on the love of Jesus while still acknowledging that we are all sinners. The keyword is ALL of us are sinners. And while God is just, he is also forgiving.
How has Going Back to Church Changed My Life?
Going to church has made me a better husband, father, colleague, and friend. But, let’s face it, we are all messed up. Most of us battle with some level of depression or anxiety or have things we’ve done in the past that haunt us.
Helps Us to Forgive
Finding a good church helps us forgive ourselves, accept our imperfections, and love others better. I can honestly say that church has made me a better person. That doesn’t mean it’s made me a better person than you or anyone else, but it has given me a sense of peace that I didn’t know was possible.
Teaches Personal Finance
Since this is a personal finance blog, I feel the need to talk about money. Money is one of the most talked-about topics in the Bible. So many of the beliefs we carry in the personal finance community about debt and investing are covered often in the Bible. The more I read the Bible, the more I’m impressed with how relevant it is today. A few key themes related to personal finance include not worshiping money, not going into debt, giving generously, and investing excess.
Allows Us to Let Go
More than anything, what the church has allowed me to do is let go and put control into the hands of a higher power. I can be a bit of a control freak. And if you aren’t one, let me tell you that being a control freak can create quite a bit of stress and anxiety. Letting go and trusting that God has me on the right path has changed my life in ways that are tough to explain.
Living Life with More Purpose
After my two-month experiment, my wife agreed to start attending with me. We were both still unsure but wanted to give this new church a try. Nearly four years later, we are still at the same church and more involved than ever. We both serve on Sundays, have been part of small groups during the week, and tear up a bit when we hear our four-year-old singing “church” songs from the back seat.
I feel that being away from the church for so long allows me to understand better the issues that some people have with Christians. We all know the type. Those vile people on Twitter are so hateful yet have “I love Jesus” in their profiles. The media also likes to get people riled up by focusing on these individuals.
Right now, I’m taking things one step at a time in my faith—both in my spiritual journey and in my interactions with others. Going to church has helped me with both. I’m thankful to have found a place that speaks to me.
This post is not meant to bash the Catholic church (just the church I grew up in). Instead, we should all try to find a place that speaks to us and makes us better people. While I would love for everyone to join team Jesus, I am just as happy when people find something else that fills their spiritual void. After all, my job isn’t to judge. It’s to love others no matter what they believe, who they love, or what they’ve done.
Mark is the founder of Financial Pilgrimage, a blog dedicated to helping young families pay down debt and live financially free. Mark has a Bachelor’s degree in financial management and a Master’s degree in economics and finance. He is a husband of one and father of two and calls St. Louis, MO, home. He also loves playing in old man baseball leagues, working out, and being anywhere near the water. Mark has been featured in Yahoo! Finance, NerdWallet, and the Plutus Awards Showcase.