On Sunday, I went back to church for the first time since early March. My husband had been attending for several weeks now, along with whichever of our kids wanted to go. I stayed back with whoever did not want to go.
In truth, I did not want to go to church.
Maybe it’s because I’m a highly sensitive person, but the idea of gathering together again, wearing a face mask for safety and the comfort level of other attendees, practice social distancing all the while, feels to me like an exercise in futility. After all, the messages have been made available on social media and we have been watching regularly as a family.
It actually turned into a fun Sunday tradition: watching the Sunday School message at 10:00 am, making a special brunch at 10:30, and eating while tuning into the 11:00 message.
In all honesty, the last few months have been totally my “worship style.”
As an HSP, tuning into inspirational podcasts at my leisure while working out or tidying up, listening to contemporary Christian bands on YouTube when organizing, and watching sermons online are simply easier for me.
I find it more natural to connect with God and to receive from the song or the message or the text when I can focus on it completely. And I can more completely focus when I am not surrounded by people.
At church, I automatically tune into people’s actions or reactions … or the noises they’re making … or their interactions with others. Or I tune more into my children and trying to make sure they’re not disturbing anyone.
These months of staying at home due to the coronavirus pandemic have been challenging for many; they have been challenging for me, too. But church from home has been a blessing in disguise.
Obligation and Depth of Processing Information
Then, our church started gathering again: face masks and social distancing in place, but still there at church. And although I skipped a few times, I have simultaneously felt obligated to attend because of my family.
And at the same time, I have felt guilty because attending church feels like an obligation rather than a joy. What is wrong with me? I wondered.
As a highly sensitive person, I have a different makeup … different ways of processing information. I get overwhelmed easily, and even a small church can cause those overwhelming feelings. I can’t deal with crowds. Feel anxiety rising if I don’t immediately see a place for myself and my family to sit. Hate walking through what I have dubbed “the gauntlet” — a group of people standing around outside waiting to “greet” people as they walk into church.
The Power of Introverts, The Tension of Introverts
Not long ago, I read Susan Cain’s book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking , where she discusses this very problem. The book provides amazing insight and helped me understand myself as an introvert far better than ever before.
It also helped me feel a little less guilty about my ambivalence regarding going to church as an HSP with a strong depth of processing. Of course, that’s not what the whole book is about; she only discusses churchgoing and evangelicals briefly, but that part had stood out to me because it spoke to that part of me that has always struggled on Sunday mornings. One quote states:
“Evangelicalism has taken the Extrovert Ideal to its logical extreme…If you don’t love Jesus out loud, then it must not be real love. It’s not enough to forge your own spiritual connection to the divine; it must be displayed publicly.”
Now, I support the idea that fellowship and gathering with other people of the same faith can be a positive experience. (I also believe that respectfully connecting and gathering with people who have very different beliefs and walk different paths is a hugely important aspect of growth and empathy … but that’s for another post.)
The Inner Tension of Church Attendance
But what I mean by the above comment about attending church seeming like an exercise in futility is that in some ways, for some people or groups of people, the idea of attending church during COVID-19 has become yet another politically-charged event. It has turned into a “freedom” cry … and the kind of freedom being cried out does not feel much like the message Jesus gave when he walked the earth.
Of course, that’s getting into a whole ‘nother topic … and I don’t really want to go there. What I do want to do is get to the heart of this tension within myself – my desire to go along with my family and simply enjoy gathering together with others at church, against the all-too-frequent reality that I don’t usually enjoy it.
I get so much more out of a Bible passage or message I listen to on headphones from my phone while I’m out walking our two dogs.
And I don’t think I’ll figure this out any time soon. In the meantime, I will get up and get dressed and smile and greet others; I will chat and those who see me doing so will never guess how much of a struggle it is, as a highly sensitive person, to do this week after week.
Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps
Maybe there’s a special blessing in store for HSPs who make that extra effort to gather with people.
Maybe it is nothing more than an exercise in futility.
I hope that, if nothing else, I am providing for my children a place where they learn to call home and feel comfortable with people they know and love … which is the main reason I return to church week after week.
I did not have that “place of belonging” when I was growing up … and I feel that it is far better to feel a place of belonging, even though it comes with awkwardness and discomfort, than to have no such place.