Surprised by Church: A Social Recluse's Journey

Posted by Matt McNeill, Contributing Writer, on Jul 31, 2022

Surprised by Church: A Social Recluse's Journey

I remember it vividly: sitting on the steps in front of the sanctuary with other 7-year-olds, bright lights hitting our faces as the priest dawdled through our First Communion. The ceremony was augmented by sudden bursts of singing which, to my relief, diverted the unwanted attention away from me. I looked down at my feet, gripping the bottom of a floor-standing candle in one hand and a single dollar bill (because the church sold donuts) in the other hand. With no end to the ceremony in sight, I began to doze off while still clutching the oversized candlestick. It waved around violently as I dreamt of faraway places—spilling hot wax all over myself, my dollar bill, and the poor souls next to me. This was the beginning of my relationship with church.

It was always important to my mother that I go to church. It didn’t matter which one; I just had to go. (After all, if she couldn’t save me, maybe God could!) So in my teenage years I dropped the Catholic tradition for whatever the cool kids were doing. I made it to a megachurch with all kinds of flashy amenities, including (but not limited to) basketball hoops and a skate park. The pastor once rappelled from the ceiling to the theme song from “Mission Impossible” and there seemed to be no limit to what the youth ministry could pull off.

“Yeah! Now that’s my kind of church!” I thought. That was also the place where I first fake-accepted Christ as my Savior and got baptized in front of 3,000 witnesses. The whole thing was so terrifying that I couldn’t speak and instead, only nodded when it was time to be submerged. Though I felt like I was doing the right thing under social pressure, Christ did not actually enter my life that day.

That church experience, combined with the mixed curse/blessing of my temperament, led to me being the recipient of a fair share of bullying in those years. It opened a wound that I can still feel today as an adult. At the same time, home life was getting chaotic and my mother gave up on policing my church attendance. So, with the exception of weddings and funerals, I stopped going and did not set foot in another church building for seven years.

God later revealed His sense of humor when, in my 20s, He crossed my path with a woman who happened to be a pastor. I became completely infatuated and pursued her. Though I still didn’t really dig the church all that much, she was there, so I participated in any way that I could—even if it meant touring the countryside in a choir robe.

“Are you a Christian yet?” she would ask from time to time, always with puppy-dog eyes. “Yuck. No,” I would respond. It was taboo for someone in her position to be dating a guy like me. But we continued to talk about Jesus and honestly, He fascinated me. He was so fearless and countercultural. He spent time with outcasts and the oppressed, and brought hope and healing wherever He went. He embodied everything I wanted to be. “Why isn’t the church more like that?” I thought. Maybe it was, or at least could be, and I had failed to see it.

She stuck with me through a few more years of hard lessons and growing up. I did finally come to accept and trust Jesus and his claims (for real this time). We got married, and to my utter surprise, my volunteerism in the church turned into a career. You might say I was an imposter in those early years, but I like to think that my outside perspective brought value to the teams on which I served. Through a more mature lens, I can see that this journey is all connected—past, present, future—and God put me in the right place each step of the way, with His perfect timing.

“Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” (Psalm 139:16)

Today my faith and work are a culmination of that story. I’m on the church staff as a video producer, and I can see how God uses all of my previous life experience, including the hard times, to carry out His work through me. I believe my job, rather than the “produced” work itself, is often the context in which God works in and through me. (That may seem like an obvious distinction to some, but for content-focused ministry workers like me, it can be a difficult one to make. It is so easy to glorify the “product” when actually, God’s purpose could be completely unrelated, indirect, or just plain beyond our own understanding.)

I give my path and my circumstances up to God. Those things are beyond my control anyway, so it’s not worth stressing about. Through this journey, I have been blessed to meet amazing people all over the world and have come to realize that my profession on its own, without these relationships and without Christ, has no meaning to me.

I’d like to say my relationship with the church has completely changed and I'm in the front row every Sunday with my hands raised, but that would neither be realistic nor true. On a human level, I’m still the same introverted guy who would rather stay home than navigate crowds, no matter how polished the services are. But the church is not a building, and not even really a worship service. It’s not something we “go to,” it’s something we are: a body of believers with Christ at the head who gather and minister to each other, minister to non-believers, and proclaim the gospel to make disciples of all nations. There is no greater purpose here on Earth.

"The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul. He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake." (Psalm 23: 1-3)

On a recent trip to the Holy Land, our guide Shmulik Eitan explained that the original Hebrew of “right paths” in Psalm 23 translates more specifically to winding or circular paths of righteousness. This was a profound moment of teaching for me as we drove through the Judean desert among hills that looked like they had been combed sideways with spiral patterns leading to the top of each one. These paths have been formed by the hooves of sheep and goats over thousands of years of grazing. It’s likely that David was using this very imagery in his writing.

Like these hills, our path to God, or righteousness, is never a straight line. (Furthermore, a straight line up the hill might be treacherous and cause us to tumble downwards.) There is beauty in your unique, spirally, absurd, ridiculous path, so embrace it and know that God is overseeing your journey as a good and loving Shepherd.

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