If any group of people has a long and convoluted history with evangelical church traditions, it’s missionary kids. Like pastor’s kids, the emotional baggage around church is piled higher than the lost luggage corner at the Johannesburg airport. We tend to camp out either around the “wounded/bitter/cynical” baggage claim belt, or the one labeled “guilt-ridden/never question anything/just be good.”
But then, of course, since we were missionary kids, we carry more cultural baggage as well. Because unlike our pastor’s kid peers, we were always hyper-aware of the cultural trappings of the “Industrial Church Complex” (as author Sarah Bessey calls it). The difference is while we were “outside” the church enough to criticize it; we weren’t “inside” enough to be a part of making any changes. And besides, the churches paid our bills. Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.
When people ask me to talk about my church tradition, I have a hard time answering. My “church-culture” story has its foundation in the Zulu church we attended in South Africa, but also has strong threads of the American evangelical Christian sub-culture that came through from my parents, other missionaries, and our trips back to the States.
I grew up going to a Zulu-speaking church where we were the only white people. I could understand most of the songs and smatterings of Zulu, but services were long, hot meetings that ran from morning to well past lunchtime. The world’s best singing and the world’s longest sermons. My friends would whisper translations of the sermon (or whatever they wanted) to me. We met in an old, dusty school building, and our Sunday School curriculum was flannel-graph from 19-something left behind by some other missionaries. My mother spent hours re-coloring Jesus so he wasn’t white. As I got older, I saw church as a place you went to serve not a place you went to ‘get fed.’
When I read things written by people a generation or two ahead of me about their evangelical upbringing, I can relate to so much of it. The time-capsule of life overseas means culture gets preserved. Through hand-me-downs from retiring missionary garage sales I absorbed a lot of pre-1970’s Christian culture. Missionary biographies, books about angelic kids who invite other children to Sunday school, and a handbook on being a good Christian woman (that involved diagrams on how to walk, appropriate hair-styles, and the contents of a good Christian girl’s purse). Our home-world was early 1980’s American Christian culture. Because, you know, that’s when my parents left the States, so that’s what was in our time-capsule. We sang choruses as a family from my parents’ grass-roots “getting back to Acts” church they left behind in Austin, Texas, along Dennis Jernigan, Amy Grant and Second Chapter of Acts (all on tape, of course).
Then every four years we’d go to the States and encounter the American Industrial Church Complex. Our furloughs home were like snapshots of the changes American church culture has gone through in the past two decades:
Fourth grade: Love it. Love it, love it. Anywhere where I can get animal crackers, walk into a brightly colored room smelling of whiteboard markers, earn badges for memorizing Bible verses, and be done in 45 minutes is my kind of church! Dad, why can’t we move to America and go to this church always?
Seventh grade: Hate it. Who invented middle-school Sunday School classes? Torture chambers. Oh, and all our supporting churches are having church splits over music now. What’s their problem–who cares if it’s hymns or a rock band, it’s all in English right? Can’t they all just sing along? And everybody is canning their old sanctuaries for convention centers in the name of seeker sensitivity.
Eleventh grade: Why are these churches building more and more buildings but only sending the youth group on short-term missions trips, and cutting funding for long-term missionaries? Why are there graphic designers employed by churches to make glossy bulletins that everyone just throws away? The high school group serves coffee and bagels, and they go to Florida for Spring break missions-trip-vacations. I call them all “cookie-cutter churches” this year. I enjoy making cutting critiques of it all with my siblings (while smiling and talking about God’s work in South Africa to everyone else, of course).
College: I’m in rural Indiana at a Christian college, and I stumble into an African-American church. Best of all possible worlds. It’s English, but they know how to sing, and they don’t have a massive building fund campaign. It’s long enough that I feel like I’ve “been churched”, but not so long that I’m fainting from hunger. My soul has room to breathe again. For the first time, I go to church not to serve, or because I have to, but because I want to.
When my husband and I move back to South Africa, we attend an English speaking church. All my friends have moved on from the Zulu church I grew up in—and besides, my husband knows less Zulu than I do. The people are very friendly. But the disjunction of going to an English church that caters to white, upper-class families when we’re working in an impoverished community just minutes away sometimes feels as painful as peeling off my skin with a cheese grater. I find myself getting more and more frustrated by so many of the ways we “do church” in western culture, but again I don’t feel like enough of an insider to voice what I think.
We hike El Caminio del Santiago in the north of Spain for a month on our way back to the States for my husband to start a two-year masters program. No church, no responsibility, no commitments, wandering in and out of Catholic mass in Spanish. I don’t even speak Spanish. But we memorize the Lord’s Prayer, and follow along with the Gospel readings in our Bibles. Spring-time in the Basque country. I could live like this.
Now we’re in small-town Texas, where there are 33 Baptist churches in a seven-mile radius, and we’re church hunting once more. And once again I’m asking myself, “Why do we do this?! We’re not missionaries. We don’t have to get these people to like us so they’ll send us money. Can we just opt-out for the next two years? I like Jesus, it’s just churches that drive me nuts.” (Yes, I know these thoughts are dysfunctional, but this is the way I think sometimes).
And then, my husband reminds me that we’re the church. As a TCK, I like wandering, I like putting myself on a pedestal and looking down my nose. I like opting-out. I like sarcasm. That’s easy. That’s my default.
In her chapter on church in her book Out of Sorts, Sarah Bessey says she came to realize that, “I didn’t need to pretend allegiance to everything, but I did need to be part of a community…I practiced the radical spiritual art of staying put.”
That’s what we’re focusing on right now. Community. Staying put. We haven’t been in here that long, and knowing we’re on our way out in a few years sometimes makes me question the effort of trying. Small-town Texas is probably the biggest cultural adjustment we’ve ever faced, and church in this context feels just plain crazy at times. I can’t pledge allegiance to the cowboy boots and the gospel of evangelical-political-power that’s preached on Sundays. But maybe I don’t have to. That’s some baggage I don’t need to carry.
But I do still need community. I need the body of Christ no matter how weird I think it is. So we’re attending a Sunday school class but skipping the country music worship service for an online Tim Keller sermon. It’s not perfect, but it’s something. That’s what we’re trying to figure out with church right now: how to give ourselves permission to sort through and let go some of the baggage (after all, we don’t need to pledge allegiance to everything) so that we can practice the radical spiritual art of staying put.
Stephanie Ebert is a TCK from South Africa and America. Married to a Minnesotan, she and her husband David have spent the past three years working in South Africa for the non-profit iThemba Projects. Right now they are experiencing the cultural shock of moving to a small Texas town for David to complete his masters degree. Steph continues to work for iThemba Projects online. She blogs about social justice, missions, race, and finding hope at bridginghope.wordpress.com