Thursday, April 14, 2016

Welcome? Undercover "Church Shopping" In Appalachia

Welcome to the blog. I wanted to take some time to introduce myself before and my project before getting started.
My name is Alex, I am a wife and stepmother, and I grew up in the Kanawha Valley of West Virginia. There's a joke about our area (and it applies to a lot of other communities in the Bible Belt) that my dad and I always used to tell (still do, actually) every time we passed a new construction site -- It's either going to be a bank or a church, and lord knows we don't need any more of either.

A little bit of backstory, shall we? Like I said, I grew up here, and, like most people around here, I grew up in church. I went to a Christian school from first to eighth grade, went to AWANA (like scouts, but more Bible and less practical skills) and/or youth group every Wednesday night for as long as I can remember. I went to church on the major holidays, and every other weekend, when I would be with my grandparents. My dad never believed any of that stuff, I don't think, but he never tried to stand in my way, either. I wanted, more than anything, to belong to something bigger than myself, and to understand my purpose and goal. I spent a lot of years hoping that organized religion would give me that.

A lot of bad things happened to me in churches (and that school) growing up. But a lot of really amazing things happened, too. I met people who genuinely loved me, and who I genuinely loved, too. Of course I also met people who were genuinely evil and destructive, and caused my already damaged mental health a lot of extra, unnecessary trauma. Over all, after all the years, I've learned a lot about what I think about organized religion and churches, particularly in our neck of the woods.

A group of people can have either positive or negative effects on the following 3 people(s): 1. The members as individuals. 2. The members as a collective. 3. Non-members/prospective members. Religion and faith-based endeavors in particular tend to be only positively affecting no more than two of those groups at any given time. Either the group is good for The Church and harmful to its members and neighbors, or it is good for strangers and harmful for The Church, or it is good to its individual members and harmful for strangers... Very rarely do you find a group of humans (because, even if they are supposedly led by God, they are all still human) who do not hold biases. It seems the best you can ask for is a group of humans so driven by universal love that they do not lash out or exclude individuals based on their own biases. This has proven difficult for many groups, mainly because their prime directive comes from an admittedly outdated book.

As for my own belief, I am not sure. I have settle for the term agnostic, however I don't think that the existence of a God (or multiple gods) is really relevant to the answers I'm currently seeking in life. What is truly relevant is living a life that is representative of what we want this world to look like after we're gone. And if there were a god, I would want it to be one of love and inclusiveness, like a parent, who, even though their children may stray, would still love them no matter what, and would learn to accept them for who they were, not push them into self-hatred and harm for the sake of appearances. If there is a god, and it does not match that description, I am honestly not interested.

Now, finally, for my goals with this experiment. When I was a member of a church, we would often get visitors, and for whatever reason, the first question they were asked was always "Do you have a home church?" (no doubt this was for recruiting or "outreach" purposes) and the answer was often, "No, we're just shopping." And, while I never got to do it since I was just a kid and I went where my grandparents took me, I always thought that was such a romantic idea.

And why shouldn't we "Just Shop" churches? What would be wrong with getting an idea of what all the communities are like, sampling them and taking what we like from each one to create our own network? No doubt, in every group there are the people you want to take home with you and the people you would rather just leave behind. With everything else, from banks to bars, you don't have to settle on the first one you find, or the one your friends or parents tell you is the best, or the one that's the closest to your doorstep.

So my goal is to create a sort of map of the churches in my area, do my best to describe them physically, characteristically, ethically, socially, and ideologically. It's one thing to say, "this is a methodist church, with predominately middle aged white folks" or "this is a catholic church with predominately young black folks." What I want to do is visit, and give a full description of what a person can expect to experience on an average day at these places. That's why I'm going without calling ahead, that's why I'll sit in the back, I won't draw attention to myself, and I won't tell anyone why I'm there. I just want to know what these people are like, and how it varies from one steeple to the next. And I'll write it all down and share it with you here.

We will begin on Sunday morning, at Gateway Christian Church, in Saint Albans, WV.

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