What is Church? Why Church? Part V

This week I’m featuring three early-thirty-somethings who will share some wide-ranging reflections on their church experiences growing up, comparing them with what they experience now.



Joanna Carroll Griffith, a Ph.D, architect, loves to create and advocate for community-enhancing, sustainable design. An example would be a green house that she designed and built with a few of her friends. She is currently living in Hawaii with her husband, Nick and their cat.


“I’ve spent some time thinking about your questions, ‘What is church?’ and ‘Why church?’


Growing up in a small town where I was the 5th generation of my family to attend the same Catholic Church, I still always felt like an outsider. We didn’t go to mass every Sunday so the priest was not happy with us and even refused to baptize my sister because of it. When we did go, it was like I was in the middle of a play but didn’t know any of the words or choreography. By the time I was 7 or 8 we stopped going at all except for weddings, baptisms, or funerals, and that’s still pretty much the extent of my current church attendance.


Through elementary and middle school I tried attending friends’ churches of various denominations. Though they were less opulent than the Catholic Church, I still felt profoundly like I was on the outside looking in. For some reason there’s always been something that I didn’t quite trust about the experience. Maybe it’s because I never found the right church, the right message, the right leader… who knows. I do know that from a young age I would feel God’s presence when I was immersed in the woods. I’ve always instinctively gone to nature to heal, pray, and meditate.


I’ve also had powerful experiences when I’ve gone into churches (when there is no service happening) in order to sit in a pew and feel the sacredness around me. Maybe my issue is with the “middle man”; I have a hard time trusting the guidance of a third party who is between me and God.


I know my attitude towards church can and likely will evolve over time. There have been times, especially recently, when I’ve wished that I had a stronger faith to rely on. But I’m open, and writing this is helping to move me forward.”



Melissa Wells is our second writer. She is a Touch for Health practitioner who knows how the body moves and the responses it gives when it is being stressed by emotional, physical, mental and/or spiritual experiences both past and present. She is also a yoga instructor, an artist and a mother of three. She grew up in what she would call a strict church and has left it, along with several friends, to search out for herself where she most finds God.


“I recently attended a conference called “Pilgrimage for Change” put on by a non profit called Heartbeat. At this conference a group of 40 strangers met to hear from a Celtic Author and priest, a Mohican community leader and sacred sites tour guide, and a female Jewish Rabbi.


For me the weekend was summed up in the symbol of a circle. The Celtic cross and its symbolism of the meeting of feminine and the masculine (left/right) as well as heaven and earth (top/bottom) at the heart of the cross. The Native’s have many circular symbols from the medicine wheel to their sacred meeting formations. As the Mohican leader expressed to us their tradition assumes there are no opposites, male/female, East/West, human/divine. It is all a completion of itself, whole, circular. And finally the Jewish prayer Shema Yisrael, which states “the Eternal is our God, the Eternal is One.” The understanding is that One is not a numerical statement, exclusive or narrow. Rather One is everything and everything is God.


Church has become like this symbol of a circle for me. When I was young and growing up in the church my circle was small to fit my theology and experience. As I grew my circle gently expanded. And when I was ready (or not), my circle was blown wide open by circumstance and change.


Now, rather than my circle being neat and pretty with everything in its place it’s wild, creative and natural. I no longer have to try to “fit” new experiences, people or insights in…or out. Church has become an evolving experience, a reoccurring homecoming. Coming home to the true self, the companionship of others and the Greatness of God.


For some this happens inside a church building governed by an organized body. For others, church is hiking to the top of a mountain at sunrise accompanied by (wo)man’s best friend. It could be an AA or Alanon meeting, an hour on the yoga mat or tea with a friend. It could be experienced in places or with people that are difficult. Wherever there is a sense of circling back home to a sacred place of oneness that is church.


So, why church? Because this kind of oneness is what I believe our greatest prophets, teachers, healers, artists and mystics have been calling us to. A sacred place within that in its truest form, is meant to be shared. Like the center of the Celtic cross, the Native gathering traditions and the Jewish concept of One it is circular and inclusive, ever evolving in experience yet anciently relational and deep with understanding. The more we experience this kind of church within ourselves the more we find we come back home to where God is. The more we experience the security and wholeness of God the more we are compelled to live from this place. This place is Love.



The third writer is Ben Lindwall who was the person who coordinated the wonderful conference that Melissa speaks of in her piece. Ben is the Executive Director of Heartbeat, working with author John Philip Newell to bring the spiritual practice of pilgrimage to the next generation. Ben lives in Minneapolis MN, along with his wife and two young children.


How to Keep the Faith by Ben Lindwall


How to keep the faith

after fundamentalism was revealed a power structure designed to subjugate,

raise money

raise structures

raise men

All in the name of Jesus

In the spirit of greed, shame, and tyranny.

To this day, it is no longer natural to say, “I believe in God” without wondering if that means I believe in

Systems of exclusion

Prayer for the purpose of imperialism

Worship of drawn boundaries

Spirituality of capitalism

Politicking pastors and priests

But faith must be deeper than the skin of religion or propositional truths of the West



Do I believe in God?

Ask me while my wife is in labor, at the first breath of a new life

Ask me when my grandfather lay dying, pleading the words “I love you”

Ask me as I put a wooden paddle into the quiet waters of Cedar Lake

Ask me at the twilight call of a loon

Ask me when the homeless man tells me he prays every day, and he’ll pray for me



I believe in the spark that lit this soul

In the very first seed

In whatever it is that binds me to you

In the mystery of prayer

In systems of inclusion

In a spirituality of wholeness, nourishment, and equality

In worship as action on behalf of the oppressed and suffering

which welcomes my own story of oppression and suffering

which will beat every gun into a garden shovel

which will turn every corporation into a co-operative

which will transform every church into a neighborhood pub

which will make fellow Pilgrims out of politicians and corporate executives, religious radicals and heretics, rich and poor,

you and me.

This is the place where I can quietly, contentedly say that, yes

I believe in God.