Too cool for Sunday school?

Let me be frank. I am not a very cool person.

“Pshaw!” you say. No, really. I kid you not. Point of fact, I am so un-cool that I assume people in my blog’s target audience use the word “pshaw”.

This is you, right?

If coolness were money, I would be one of those clowns that looks like an “old timey” hobo with the painted-on frown, pulling out his empty pockets and looking forlorn. Although I have no idea how much dough those clowns pull in a year, so maybe that image is less than accurate. I’m not very cool, is what I’m saying. So you can imagine that, as I explore what a life of following Christ can look like, I try to avoid any semblance of being lame.

Disclaimer – Anyone who reads WTFaith.com is automatically excluded from any kind of lameness based on beliefs, creeds, daily bath rituals, fashion, music choice, use or non-use of current slang, or watching Gossip Girl. Here’s your free pass. Everyone gets one. 

Take it. . . before I change my mind. . .

That being said, I used to think that Christians were super lame. And from a secular perspective, that’s not a hard conclusion to jump to. After all, Christians seemed to spend a whole lot of time focusing on what they can’t do instead of what they can do, and it appeared to me for a long time that the list of can’ts was a lot longer than the list of cans. They dressed up in geeky little dress shirts and wore geeky little ties and not a bit of it was ironic. Every Sunday they would stand and sing and hold up their hands, as if they were all listening to a live cover of “Free Bird” but forgot to bring their lighters with them.

Like Gollem with his ring, I have always hoarded whatever coolness I could lay claim to. Even today, I protect it and nurture it because, let’s face it, it’s not exactly raining “awesome” on me day in and day out. So when I was searching for churches in my community, I did so with a certain amount of trepidation. I wondered how much of my precious, precious cool I was going to have to leave at the door.

Then I came across my current church’s website, and I saw a picture of this guy:

He's so metal he poops iron ingots.

This is Aaron Boothe. Aaron runs the worship service at Hillside Church in Duluth, MN. He plays the guitar like I wish I could. He sings and does a little dance like Dave Matthews when he’s rocking out. He plays songs about Jesus Christ every week, he declares the glory of God without a trace of irony, and he is way cooler than I am. Aaron Boothe and lameness are like oil and water, Whigs and Tories, nature and a vacuum . . . they abhor each other.

How anyone can have beef with this little guy, I have no idea.

Seeing Aaron on the website’s staff page was pretty darn reassuring. If it’s possible for someone on church staff to be awesome, it must open up a door for me, right? Maybe I could sneak my way in. At least, it seemed like it was worth a more in-depth look.

So I snuck my way in. And even there, at this awesome little church in the heart of downtown Duluth, I suffered a little bit of culture shock. Let me elaborate – at the time of this post, I’ve been attending church for maybe seven weeks. Here’s a little something I started a few weeks ago – I made lists of things that I was uncomfortable doing in a church context, and a list of things I was completely comfortable with. I wanted to keep track of my faith journey, and my thought was that I could maybe watch items move from one list to the other. Some of the things I was uncomfortable with were “singing,” “saying ‘Jesus’ instead of ‘Yeshua’”, and “crying in front of people.” Now, I am gaining a certain amount of comfort with singing along during worship service, and “Jesus” is just more recognizable than “Yeshua,” but I still haven’t gotten to a place where I would want to be seen crying in church. To be fair, I haven’t felt any urge to cry in church, but I’ve seen people doing it.

Why am I worried about crying in church? I don’t know. Is it because I’m a man? Or is it because my background is so strongly secular? Again, I don’t know. But it’s clear to me that there are still some things that people do in church that I feel, rightly or wrongly, aren’t something that I, myself, can do. Maybe I’m focusing too much on cool. I mean, I don’t know what passed for “cool” in biblical-era Nazareth– indoor plumbing? chrome camel shoes? a kick-ass burkha? jamming out on the harp? – but I am pretty sure people didn’t follow Jesus because of how trendy he was. Although he did throw wicked parties (John 2:1-11, check check-it), which just goes to show that some things are always rad.

"I got 99 problems, but a sin ain't one."

So why bother worrying about cool? Lately I’ve been joking about it. Anytime Brandi or myself does something that is so saccharine, so positive, so enthusiastically uplifting that we can’t help but comment on it, I’ll joke and pray out loud for God to anesthetize me to feeling as lame as I surely must be becoming. I mean, the other day I actually said the words, “Man, this day is killing me. I just want to go home, make a cup of tea, and read my Bible, you know?” I mean, I said that. In the past two months, I seem to have squandered away what little cool I started with and have morphed into the Church Lady.

Why yes, actually. It IS special.

But that’s alright. I don’t feel lame, even though I logically assume I must be. I feel great, actually. If my average, every-day happiness before finding Hillside Church was a four on a scale of one to ten, I’d say that I’m now cruising at a six. Which isn’t hugely dramatic, but it’s real. Coolness is ultimately about perception, and reality is something that exists regardless of perception. But this all has me wondering, and I’d like to get some chatter going on this blog.

So chatter, will you? Here is what I would like to know from you, the 1.4 people reading “What the Faith”  – is there something that people do at church that you can’t bring yourself to do? Was there ever such a thing? If so, how did you get over it (assuming you did)? I would love to hear from you guys, and I promise that any comment that does not reference genitalia will be approved. (I’ll approve maybe half of those referencing genitalia, but only in medical terms – and certainly not if it’s done for laughs. Jesus ain’t no joke, son.)

Srsly!!one!

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About Daniel Mitchell

50% of "What the Faith?!?!", a blog about two skeptics who turned to God for no apparent reason. View all posts by Daniel Mitchell

16 responses to “Too cool for Sunday school?

  • Veronica M. Surges (@jurisdoctorette)

    I’m a transplanted Hillside’er living in D.C. now and I pretty much love your blog posts – even if I feel a bit stalkerish since I don’t actually know you guys.

    I think one of my favorite Hillside moments was when I was working downtown and Aaron walked past the window. I told someone that Aaron was the worship leader at my church and this poor little old lady said, “How can he be a worship leader with that HAIR?”

    As far as anything churchy that I can’t bring myself to do – I don’t like “churchy” things in general because they feel unnatural, but hey, sometimes you just gotta yell “hallelujah” and cry on the floor if that’s what’s happening in your spirit that day.

    • Daniel Mitchell

      Nice to meetcha, Veronica. :)

      So you’re saying that churchy things are an exception for you, instead of a rule. Which makes sense. Now, since you’ve stuck your neck out and you were the first commentator, let me reward you by prying. Assuming that you have had an occasion where the spirit led you to do something that you wouldn’t normally do, how did you feel about that afterward? Were you completely comfortable with it, or did the moment pass and leave you feeling, “Oh man, did I just DO that?”

      PS – Aaron’s hair is half of HC’s appeal. ;)

  • Sara

    First, I have to say that I’m loving the blog! I can totally here the two of you in everything you write :)
    Honestly I think it might be shorter to list the things that I was willing to do than not… I was willing to come to church, willing to pray (although not outloud), and willing to sing. I was unwilling to raise my hands in worship (although I did eventually raise ONE hand, and feel ridiculous doing so), unwilling to close my eyes during the altar call, unwilling to give up my knife hidden away in the waistband of my skirt, and absolutely unwilling to cry… at all… under any circumstances. Like I mentioned before, I gradually began to raise my hands, and now no longer feel ridiculous at all. Like most of the things I had been unwilling to doj before, there just came a moment when I stopped caring about what I thought everyone else might be thinking about me. I stopped worrying about who might see my knife – and now sport a gun right alongside it :P I stopped staring down Pastor Warner during the altar calls, and I’ve had some moments when I’ve cried. The first time was pretty involuntarily (when I got filled with the Holy Spirit, I started speaking in tongues and then what felt like every cry I’d ever repressed came flooding out). I still can’t figure out those guys who blubber from the first song until the final “Amen”, or the ladies doing their best impression of La Llorona during the altar call… I think they might be a little off…
    Well, I’ve been doing all this from my phone, so it’s taken me about an hour (hello fat fingers), and i’m going cross-eyed. I know there’s tons more I could add to the list, but we’ll just leave it at this for now.
    P.S. Sorry for the inevitable typos.

    • Daniel Mitchell

      What I find encouraging about your comment is that you started off in a place similar to where I am now. I think it’s really hard for people who are not raised in church to let down their guard, especially when God has this funny habit of touching their hearts when they’re surrounded by people. Funny thing is, I used to believe (for that reason) that I would never attend a church, even if I came to believe in all this “Jesus” claptrap. But now I’m coming to the conclusion that not only is surrounding yourself with other people OKAY, it’s actually a BIG part of the whole point.

  • Veronica M. Surges (@jurisdoctorette)

    In the beginning, it was a “what did I just DO!” feeling for the most part. It wasn’t terrible, because I knew that something good came from it (i.e., being up in the front of church crying and praying and working through some really deep things led to some great emotional healing, even if I would’ve preferred to do it in private). For the past year, though, I’ve been more and more convicted that if the Spirit moves you (wooo chuchy language!), then you shouldn’t feel silly or embarrassed. We don’t need the approval of others, only God. Not that this is a license to act insane, but the realization is freeing.

    • Daniel Mitchell

      You know, I love how you pointed out that “the Spirit” was churchy language. . . because I’ve been pondering that myself. Like Brandi said, some words have become so “churchy” that maybe they’ve lost their punch.

      On the other hand, I wonder if there is something that MEANS THE SAME as “the Spirit” that can be used in its place? For the life of me I can’t think of anything. Maybe the problem isn’t that some language is overly churchy. . . maybe it’s that “church” doesn’t mean what it should anymore. I know that I’m hesitant to tell people that I’m Christian, for fear of being lumped in with ignorant, hate-mongering people that seem to largely represent the followers of Christ – at least as far as the media is concerned.

      Anyway, I’m more-or-less musing out loud at the moment. Might be a subject of a future blog post, so keep your eyes peeled. :)

  • Brandi Mitchell

    Thought I’d chime in with my two cents on this. First, hello Veronica! Glad to have you among our 1.4 readers :). Second thanks for the comments to both of you who have commented and arent moderators of this blog. I have a couple of things I cant seem to quite get over. One of them is more common than the other, but the other is much more uncomfortable to me.

    The first one is church lingo. There are some really powerful words in church lingo that get thrown around like for free, and as such the potency of them has been diminished. For example “Saved” Its a good term to describe where we come from to where we end up, but its so casually tossed out in conversation that its hard to take seriously what that means. It loses its power and to say it makes you sound like every other church going person ever, leaving no room for the sincerity and depth of gratitude that comes along with having your life literally saved.

    The second is more uncomfortable to me, but doesnt come up as often and thats “Laying on of hands” which, dont get me wrong, I recognize is something powerful. Your hands seem to be some sort of conduit. I get that. But I dont like touching people/being touched, so youre much more likely to see me standing some distance off and pointing my hand at the “target” like a loaded prayer cannon. I rarely ask for prayer in a public setting because the idea of being surrounded by well meaning but scarily enthusiastic people who want to not only be around me on all sides but also -touch- me. . . very discomforting.

    Im sure Ill get over that, like Sara was mentioning. The more exposure to it the more your comfort level increases and maybe someday Ill be saying things like “saved” etc and laying on hands with the best of them. For right now, I just kind of trust that God doesnt care so much as long as we’re keeping the bottom line the bottom line.

    . . that of course being “faith in Jesus, praise of God, love for your bretheren”

    /end two cent insert.

  • Meg

    Hi Daniel & Brandi. Great blog; I laugh out loud every time I read it, which is embarrassing because I’m always reading it at work. I gotta say, I never knew Aaron pooped iron ingots; I’ll have to ask him about it at life group next week!
    It seems that I have ended up moving in the opposite direction from you two regarding the things I will and won’t do. I have been a “part of the church” my whole life (think Lutheran elementary school—that’s right, I’m more saved than all of you…) and as the years have passed my list of “won’t do” has grown much larger than my list of “will do.”
    Despite my time in Lutheran school, my mom raised my brother and I in the AG church, so I grew up with group prayer (out loud, hands-on), but now I can’t stand it. Being touched is weird (I don’t even like hugging my friends) and most of the time what is being prayed seems more like advice that the person praying thinks you should take, rather than what God really has to say to you.
    I used to be a big crier, but I came to a point where I realized I was only doing that because everyone else was too. I now refuse to cry, though every time a tear wells up in my eye the thought always enters my mind, “what if my NOT crying is holding back a breakthrough that God wants for me?” They say the thing you struggle with the most is often the thing you’re supposed to be doing (or maybe not doing, depending on the struggle)—after all, if it wasn’t a danger to Satan for you to be doing/not doing a certain thing, he wouldn’t bother messing with you about it, right?

    And finally, one of the biggest issues for me, the one I am the most jaded about: I’ve watched my friends and family volunteer for the church doing something they loved, but ended up burned out and hating it (by the way, if anyone tells me it’s because they didn’t spend enough time with God I will find you and punch you), so I do my damnedest to not volunteer for the church. It seems like the membership list is just a way for a church to find, use and abuse those who can’t say no. This is the only area out of the three that I’ve been making some progress in, rather than continuing to refuse it. A few weeks ago, after 2 years of attending Hillside, I found myself volunteering to help out with the coffee bar once a month. I don’t know why I did it. It just happened. So far so good, though! Progress!

    • Daniel Mitchell

      Heya Meg – thanks for chiming in!

      I TOTALLY dig where you’re coming from in this. Before I was attending church, but when I would occasionally VISIT a church, I used to be really put off by people acting in a way that seemed, to me, to be unnecessarily EXTRA “churchy.” I mean, I lifted my hand a song service a couple of times because I felt like I wanted to, but some people really take it an extra length. I think we’ve all agreed that the crying thing can get out of hand – and by the way, 100% awesome that I’m not the only one who thinks that.

      On the point of volunteering, I can see how that might get to be a little overwhelming. For myself, I kind of jumped into the volunteering angle early on, but mostly because I tend toward being lazy! That’s something I think I need help on, and since I haven’t yet managed to be less lazy on my own, I figured I might let God have a go at it. Volunteering just seemed like a way for me to whittle away at my bad habit. . . as I’ll be happy to tell you personally, as I stand at the Hillside Church door as a greeter next Sunday! See how I worked that in there?

      BTW, the idea that you are “more saved” than I am is bringing out my competitive side! By the time I see you on Sunday (come say hi, I’ll be a greeter! did I mention I’d be a greeter? Greet greet greet!) I swear I will have achieved the stigmata. See if I haven’t.

      It’s on, girl. Like Donkey Kong.

  • Lexi

    Hi there,

    I’m really far away, so I’m not sure if I should be commenting… but I really enjoyed the post! I just stumbled upon your blog via a link from Not the Religious Type, and found myself laughing aloud (whoops, I’m in the math lab…). Wonderful.

    As far as “churchy” things go, I think I was about split 50/50. I had grown up seeing my mom and people around me raise their hands to worship. I always wanted to do it because they seemed to me like they were reaching up for God, and I wanted to reach for God (or hold my hands out for God to pour something into them). But I was never brave enough to do it myself until a few years ago (and the first time I did it, I think I just waved very tentatively at the ceiling). Now I’m more likely to fling both arms up (while trying to remember not to hit the person sitting next to me in the face). At services or meetings where I feel free to do so, I’ve been known to dance.

    Crying in church was another thing that I adjusted to. I don’t know that I ever tried to stop it hugely, but I would very quietly sniffle and hope nobody noticed me. Now I don’t really care who sees, though I always hope that I’m not making anybody around me uncomfortable.
    For a few others, I think I’ve always been accustomed to someone touching me while they pray. Church language is something I’m still pretty uncomfortable with, with the exception of “laying on of hands”. The terms “saved” and “unsaved” tend to make me cringe a bit (and as someone pointed out here, they seem to have become so overused that their meaning is sometimes lost). Altar calls, literally, make me shrink back in my seat and want to disappear. (Despite my mental feeling that there’s nothing bad about them, they make me quite uncomfortable. I don’t know if that’s because it seems weird to me to make it such a public thing, or for some other reason.)

    Anyway, that’s my input, and I really enjoyed both your post and other people’s stories!

    Lexi from Boston

    • Daniel Mitchell

      Hi there, Lexi! Please don’t feel odd about commenting just because you’re far away – Al Gore invented the interwebs so that we could ALL be friends! I’m glad to hear from you. :)

      You know, I agree with you about altar calls. I think my discomfort with altar calls addresses two concerns I have.

      1) Some stuff should just be private. Maybe it’s just me. When my mom passed five years ago, I didn’t mourn publicly. I mourned in front of my wife, but at the funeral, I was in “business mode” because I was surrounded by people. I wonder if people judge you if you DON’T do an altar call every now and then (“Look at Dan, he thinks his business with the Lord is completely in order! Must be NICE!”).

      2) As some other people have commented, there seems to be something about very public worship that brings out the melodrama in others. I don’t judge – maybe God really does move you to wailing sobs two Sundays a month, I dunno – but I’m not someone who is comfortable witnessing that much spectacle. Although it’s possible that point one and point two are basically the same.

  • aaronboothe

    Hey everybody,
    This is my first blog post anywhere, so be patient if I get some of the blogging etiquette wrong.

    First off, Dan (and Vee) I truly appreciate your compliments. Second off, most of my friends would wholeheartedly disagree with your assumption of me being cool. Im actually really nerdy and my favorite TV show is Glee. And I proud of it. Let the mocking begin.

    It is so funny to me what we make into ‘cool’ or not. I shave designs into the side of my head and sport a mohawk with a varying amount of mullet mixed in and it means I’m cool. I beg to differ. That just means I don’t have a real job. Also the concept of playing a musical instrument as being cool has always amused me. A musician is someone who, instead of hanging out with people, went home and practiced an instrument. Essentially, the better you are, the less friends you have (I’m joking of course, and I’m actually very honored that people have given me the label of cool).

    How about an example? Joey Demiao is considered incredibly cool in the metal culture. The rest of us are confused by him, and where did he even get a skin tight pair of leather coveralls? If you’ve never see this you need to watch it.

    There is a point to all of this. Coolness has no relevance on reality. It is simply a construct of whoever else is around. For instance, my mom does NOT think I’m cool cause she doesn’t go for piercings and a mohawk (note: my dad has neither).

    As coolness is a construct, so is ‘normal’. It seems that we often try to make church and spiritual encounters as normal as possible, but that is a strange concept. For many people, something like worship is very alienating, and its something they feel they need to push through. But for me it never was, even before church, because music has always been a deeply moving for me. Many people sing from their hearts to the radio, about life and love and heartbreak or even last friday night. Why not to Jesus too? And yet if you don’t have that feeling about music, worship is bizarre. Its a bunch of people you’ve never met, singing love songs to an invisible old man. Thats creepy.

    I think that that everything in church boils down to one thing, IS THIS WORTH IT?? Take worship, from my point of view, it has absolutely revolutionized my life and many people I know. So yes, pushing through that is totally worth it in my mind. But to me, hand raising isn’t important. It doesn’t make any sense to me and although I have tried it, it doesn’t do anything powerful for me, so why would I keep doing it? But if you ask Joey Demiao’s fans (again watch the video) hand raising is very important. It shows how epic something is. And I’ll agree, epic music makes me want to raise my hands. So maybe God should too. I suppose he’s pretty epic…

    So I think that some amount of pushing through things is good, but I also think that pushing just for the sake of pushing isn’t healthy. If you don’t want to clap or shout or raise your hands, then don’t. Its possible that the person next to you would be more comfortable if you didn’t do those things. I have almost wet myself on several occasions from a surprise shouter in my row…

    All of this to say one thing: Do what you’re comfortable with. Would you do it if you were walking down the street? If you wouldn’t, can someone give you a reason (that you like) that it would be a good thing to do?

    Sorry my rant went really long. I hope something in this rambling monologue will at least be entertaining enough that you wont come to my house and demand these five minutes of your life back.

    • Daniel Mitchell

      Hey man. I’ll roshambo someone who insults Glee. It’s the best show on TV.

      I think that what I get from your response is that my issue with “coolness” in church really boils down to two things, for me. The first is how I feel in response to external pressure to do something that I wouldn’t normally do – like cry in church. The second thing is how I respond to INTERNAL pressure to do things that I WANT to do, but might not normally be inclined to do – which could, in theory, be crying in church. If I’m following you right, the correct response to pressure from outside of me is “ignore it,” and the response to pressure from inside of me is “power on through it, it’s worth it.”

      Also, side note – I NEED leather coveralls. I’ll rock them out the next time I’m a greeter.

      Kudos on the 100% perfect blog etiquette, btw. You may keep the five minutes, sir.

    • Shawn Michael Shoup (@ShawnMichael)

      I’ll out myself as a Glee fan, too! Love it! ;D

      Love the blog, Daniel and Brandi – especially the blog name. Ha! Perfect!

      I’ve got to say that I was so moved by your “testimony” (WARNING: church’ese word) a couple of weeks ago. Thanks so much for sharing. I love stories like that.

      I grew up in the church and a lot of “churchy” things – I suppose – are just natural for me. My family actually misses some of the expression in worship from our previous church. I think it’s funny, though, because my teens aren’t necessarily what you’d call exuberant worshippers. They love God and they love to worship, but they pretty much just stand and sing in the worship service.

      I, personally, love to see all the different “flavors” in the body of Christ. Hillside reaches a totally different crowd of people than the church I served the last ten years and I love it. We used to joke at Destiny, our previous church, that we must be the armpit of the body of Christ because we like to sweat with our worship! When you experience worship at Destiny, it was uncommon if you could hear yourself singing. The audience participation was just that loud! It was a great experience.

      I love worshipping at Hillside, too. Totally different crowd experience (the congregation is way subdued) but I think it fits the culture and the people that they are reaching. Aaron has so much authenticity when he leads – it’s easy to be led into worship. It’s also a great experience.

      As a district guy in my denomination now, I get to see all sorts of different church structures, philosophies, and theologies take shape in all sorts of different venues, cultures, and neighborhoods. I love that God is so big, so great, and so diverse in His creativity, that it all works for the good somehow. I can see Jesus in a lot of different styles and “flavors” of worship.

      I’m just thankful that at Hillside, I don’t have to offer up a “sacrifice of praise” – ha! It’s a pleasure to worship. We’ve got some great musicians and leaders who lead us humbly to the throne.

      Sorry… getting all churchy. Didn’t mean too. ;D

      You can check out my family blog at http://elevatingageneration.org and my NextGen blog (for children’s, youth, and young adult pastors) over at http://gatewaynextgen.com. I love your enthusiasm, wit, humor, and desire for the truth. Great blog!

      • Daniel Mitchell

        Thanks for commenting, Shawn! Since you put yourself out there with “churcy” words, let me explore that a bit. One word we have all be throwing around – that is 100% churchy – is “worship”. Now, the word “worship” has a standard meaning for secular and religious folks alike – it’s what you do to something. Everyone knows that you “worship the Almighty Dollar” or that you drink too much and you end up “worshiping the porcelain god”.

        So imagine my complete surprise when people started to talk to me about the “worship service” as something separate from the rest of the Sunday experience. My first thought was, “. . . . isn’t what we’re doing the whole time a worship service?” It took me a minute to realize that “worship” had a different meaning in this context. Now I understand that it’s about the songs, and singing together, but that’s not a given to secular types!

        With an earlier comment, I mused about another churchy term (“Spirit”) and wondered if there was a more secular-sounding term that could mean the same thing. I don’t think there is. Same with the phrase “body of Christ” to refer to the entirety of the church community. That sounds vaguely creepy on the outside. ;) But really, I can’t think of a phrase that sums up the situation better. In fact, when I was talking to someone I work with who identifies themselves as “Christian” but doesn’t want to find a church, I was able to say, “Well, part of the reason the church community is called the ‘Body of Christ’ is that no single part of the body can exist independently – it relies on the other parts to survive.” And since I believe that community is 150% necessary, the phrase really works for me.

        I’m going to check out your blogs today – thanks for linking them to me!

      • Daniel Mitchell

        P.S. – The armpit of the Body of Christ?!?! You guys are hilarious. That just sunk in. I also just now finished my coffee. COINCIDENCE???

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