man-outside-churchTaking stock of the immense changes I faced after doing the Men’s Rites of Passage (MROP), I found the elements in my life fell into three categories:

Things either seemed almost new to me as I saw them now with a different set of eyes and heart, shifted in their importance depending on their relevance to me or my place in the world, or lost value as they were no longer essential to me as an initiated man.

Many dearly held beliefs and practices were casually set aside in the months and years after initiation.

The thing about MROP is that it doesn’t do anything to you.
It is merely an invitation to change.
Nothing more.
MROP provides a man with the space and safety to fully embrace himself, turn around and begin again as the man God intended him to be.
The key to initiation is your response to this invitation.
I responded and I changed.
That was me.

Returning home, things seemed both the same and completely different.
A living paradox.
Within me, I had a renewed energy and joy which gave me vigour to bring the good news to my fellow men at my church.
We had been attending the same church for many years.
My wife and I were involved closely with the fellowship in both leadership and ministry.
My children were all involved and we were very much part of the furniture.
Perhaps THAT was the problem.

As the months went by, I allowed myself time to digest and absorb the things I gained from MROP.
It was not an overnight process.
But I had clarity, vision and some answers.
I had to share this with those we knew in our fellowship.
I rejoiced when, very soon after my initiation, the church announced they were starting a very much-needed Men’s Ministry.
The first meeting was in two weeks.
I counted down the days.

When I arrived for the first meeting we were given name tags, even though we all knew each other.
We were handed a soft drink.
We spent the first hour talking and socializing – mostly about sport, work and current events – nothing about how we were, how we were travelling or what was happening in our lives.
They took a collection for the next meeting to fund the Barbecue.
We sat in rows.
Our speaker stood and spent twenty minutes discussing the new biblical role of men in a modern family, the history of men domineering females, the need to control our hormonal sin (his words) and ending in how we must go home tonight and apologise to our wives for our demeaning actions and attitudes to women.
Many men sat with bowed heads and looks of shame.
We said a quick prayer.
We bid each other goodbye.
We left in our cars.
I never went back.

It took me a while to work out what had happened that night.
The shift within me helped me see that I needed to sit with all of this for a time.
Listen to my heart and not condemn but to understand.
For months and months I went to church.
This was a difficult thing to do at the best of times due to my beautiful daughter and her special needs.
Week by week I would sit in the worship.
Initially I’d stand and sing and hold my hands up as before.
Slowly I stopped each one.
I ended up sitting and just enjoying the music.
Eventually I chose to come in after the worship was over.
Some weeks, I just sat in the car.

I was finding church an anomaly now.
It was essentially the same.
Each week I would be eager to fellowship and be part of the community.
And as the months went on, I found something quite unusual and profound.
I was feeling alone amongst the thousand or so people in the building.

I would be greeted at the door and be asked “How are you?”.
I would sense the need to start saying how I was only to be moved on politely. It was just a greeting.
They didn’t want to know.

I sat through many sermons.
But I began to feel bored with the message they were sending.
The words were fine.
The preachers skilled and Godly.
It was just the heart and depth of the sermons that made me feel alone.
I found myself reading scripture on my iPad during the message – much to my wife’s disgust – and got a lot more out of soaking in the word of God.

I began to notice things.
Our church would sing choruses two or three times over. Repeating themselves in a beautiful rhythm.
I couldn’t wait for it to end.
The people in Worship ministry were all ‘beautiful’ and ‘handsome’ and very much looked all the same.
It was trendy worship.
And it made me feel hollow.

I saw people.
I suddenly began to be interested in the fringe people of our church.
The ones that didn’t quite fit in.
The ones people overlooked.
The ones who were faithful in service;
who cleaned up at the end and directed the car parking.
The tired single mothers with overly-active kids.
The unlovely and the elderly.
I began seeking these people out and talked to them.
Some were so surprised that someone was actually interested in their story.
I was.
They were real people.
They had depth.
They were sincere.
They were flawed.
I began to love them.

Some days I would leave the service and end up sitting with the ‘smokers’ in the gutter around the back.
Their words began to be my sermon.
Their laughter, my chorus.

I made a lot of friends in that time.
The people no-one really knew.
I knew them.
I accepted them.
They slowly accepted me.

After a year or so, things began to get difficult for our family to go to church every week.
Some days, I would drive everyone there and my daughter and I would wait in the car park.
We would talk to the fringe-dwellers and they would make Sophie laugh.
She liked them.
They noticed her and spoke to her.
They knew how to relate to this precious child.
And I rejoiced in the fellowship I had found.

As months came and went, I lost interest in ‘doing church’.
I spoke to my elders and pastors many times about all of this.
They were worried and concerned but had no answers for me.
They had heard of my involvement with some of the outer-edge people of the church and suggested I form a ministry for the poor and disadvantaged.
I was mildly upset with this.
Not for their recognition of my involvement, but for their idea of trying to formalise what I was doing.
They almost seemed guilty.
I felt in my heart that Jesus would have been wanting to hang out with me rather than be in the services.
And He was.

After nearly two years of ‘struggling’ with the dynamics of church, combined with the added exhaustion of finding a place for our family in the fellowship, I decided one day to stop going.
Nothing dramatic.
We just stopped.
Well, I stopped.

I had found a new kind of church.
It was called living.
My family and I found a more settled existence in our own home.
We clung to real, and got tired of the performance.
My wife and kids still went to various things in our fellowship.
And that was OK.
We never really left.
Just stopped.

I became more committed to my small men’s group attached to Centre For Men.
It was there I had accountability.
I was listened to.
I was accepted.
Cared for.
Belonged.

THAT was church to me.
It still is.

Now please don’t get me wrong.
I am not anti-church.
Absolutely not.
It just stopped working for me.
I sought authentic people.
I didn’t want a parade.
I wanted connection.
I didn’t need entertaining.
I needed to be in a safe place.
I didn’t find that sitting in a pew.

I sometimes visit our old church.
I secretly like it when I get greeted at the door and am asked if “This is your first time visiting us?”.
I usually look them in the eye and politely say “Yes” and find some of my old friends.
I’m still remembered there.
That’s nice.
Some of them think I am this radical, off-the-rails, misguided soul.
A few recognize my journey and encourage me to keep moving forward.
I am.

Will I go back?
Perhaps.
Nothing’s certain.
Most likely you’ll find me at the back of the building with the other miscreants.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.