It is the season of Advent, a time when we enter the season of waiting. Waiting for the birth of the baby Jesus. Waiting for Christmas Day. This year, the season of waiting feels even more prominent. We are waiting for a vaccine to be distributed. We are waiting for a new presidential administration to take office and begin fixing the things that the previous administration broke. Some of us may be waiting for our COVID test results to come back. Almost all of us are waiting for a return to some sort of normalcy, to a return to the life we had before the pandemic upended everything.
For many of us, the weirdest part of the pandemic has been the fact that we have been unable to gather with our friends and our families. We have been forced to see them over Zoom and Facetime and those have had to substitute for hugs, for kisses, for affection. For those of us who are churchgoers, we have been forced to do church online, singing hymns and reading scripture in our own homes rather than in the church pews. And that is likely to continue through the remainder of the holiday season, meaning that many of us will be forced to attend Christmas Eve Services online which will certainly be a different experience for us.
I’m entering my second Advent season without being a part of a church. For full context, I grew up a devout church goer. My family went to church every Sunday, a tradition that I continued after I became an adult and moved away from home. Church was always my happy place and I still consider many of my church folks to be my family. I even went to seminary and had every intention of getting ordained as a minister and working in the church world for the rest of my life.
And…well, instead, I find myself without a church community anymore. I’m still officially in the ordination process but not actively pursuing a call and don’t know if I ever will pursue one. I’m not even working in the church world anymore, instead opting for a secular job. To be honest, I’m not even sure that I still consider myself a Christian. I’ve started referring to myself as an agnostic Christian, a term a friend coined that basically means that I’m comfortable not having all the answers and live in the uncertainty of never really knowing what the answers are or if there are any answers.
So, what happened exactly? How does a person go from active, devout Church goer to seminary graduate who hasn’t set foot in a church in over a year? And what does the Advent and Christmas season look like for me now?
It’s funny, I get asked the “what happened” question quite a bit actually. I mean, if you had told me two years ago that I would no longer be a part of a church or actively going to church, I would have not believed you either. So, trust me, it surprises even me that I’m no longer active in church. The short answer is that nothing really happened. I decided to take a break from church because I was burned out after being so actively involved for so long. I hadn’t intended for the break to be this long. But while I was away from church, I had time to pursue other opportunities and other activities that I hadn’t had the time to pursue before because of church.
I live in San Francisco, a very unchurched part of the country. As such, there is lots of things to do on a Sunday morning if you don’t want to or can’t go to church for some reason. And taking a break from church allowed me to pursue those opportunities. I was able to go to my knitting group’s Sunday morning meetups so that I could have even more opportunities to improve my knitting. I’m a runner and so took advantage of Sunday mornings for a long run on the beach. I went hiking. I joined a softball team and made lots of new friends. I was able to sleep in on Sundays and not feel so worn down from having to wake up early. And a funny thing happened while I was pursuing those opportunities. I realized that I honestly liked them more than I liked going to church. I found them more spiritually fulfilling and rewarding and honestly found myself better able to commune with God while doing them.
I think for me, I just lost the ability to find God or the Holy Spirit in church. I think church politics got in the way. Or I got tired of seeing how people who profess to follow Christ treat each other. Or I got tired of the hypocrisy. Or, as a gay man, I just couldn’t get over the ways in which the church has continued to openly oppress and harm my community. Something broke for me at some point in the last few years and I just couldn’t find God through all the noise.
So, my Sundays look radically different now for me than they used to. And to be honest, I’m fine with that. I haven’t really missed church that much. Will I ever go back? I don’t know to be honest. I’d like to say that I will but I can’t say that yet. I have tried a few zoom worship services during this pandemic time but it just isn’t for me.
What do I miss though? The celebration of Advent oddly enough. I don’t know if you realize this but the secular world doesn’t really recognize Advent and most folks who didn’t grow up in church probably don’t even know what Advent is. I actually keep forgetting that it is the season of Advent. Our secular culture goes straight to Christmas and I mean I love Christmas but there’s something special about the season of Advent. That season of waiting is important. Yes, we all want to get to Christmas and the birth of Jesus just like we all want to get to a return to normalcy. But we have to endure the waiting. And there’s something powerful about that season of waiting. It forces us to reexamine ourselves and our lives. Are our values and our ways of living in line with the Christmas message? Are we living the kinds of lives that we would be proud to tell baby Jesus (or adult Jesus) about? How have we welcomed or befriended the marginalized or oppressed in our communities?
Advent is the season for us to reflect on those things and to re-evaluate. And not being a part of a church means that we lose out on that valuable time. It means that we have to be more intentional about cultivating it in our own lives. That’s something I have missed out on for two years now. And it’s a loss that I feel very acutely. Our secular culture really loses out on something when we skip over Advent and go straight to Christmas. We miss out on that season of waiting, on that season of re-evaluation, on that season of change and of turning toward the good.
So, while I don’t see myself going back to church anytime soon, even after they reopen, I do find myself needing to observe a season of Advent, a time of waiting. Advent is something that the church does well and something that the secular world doesn’t. I don’t really know what the season of Advent looks like outside of the church. But I do know that it is an important season for me personally. So, I am having to figure out ways to incorporate it into my everyday, non-church going life. But I do miss that communal aspect of it. All of us waiting. I miss that element of it. But what would that look like for me by myself? I don’t have the answer yet. But I trust that I will figure it out, someday.
Tad Hopp currently lives and works in San Francisco, CA. Born and raised in Texas, he is a lifelong Presbyterian having been ordained as a ruling elder in 2008. He graduated from Austin College with his BA in English in 2007 and served in the Presbyterian Church USA’s Young Adult Volunteer Program, living and working in Chicago. He got his Master of Divinity from San Francisco Theological Seminary in Northern California in 2015. His hobbies include reading, knitting, running, watching movies and seeing live theatre (pre-COVID). He is also a singing member of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus and he does the occasional drag performance under the name of Dolly Faith McEntire.