Church Is Where They Tell You What To Do


First Reformed, Pella, IA (my great-grandfather was pastor here)

“Why would you want to go somewhere where they just want to tell you what to do?” A friend of a friend’s husband asked this, when his wife was thinking about attending church with their children.

My friend, a churchgoer with a rebel soul, happened to be there. She came back with: “Mark, you know me. Do you really think I’d be part of a place that just told me what to do?”

Of course, some churches do tell people what to do. Or try to.

Sometimes even the architecture of churches seems to say, “Your Boss Sits Up Here” or “Stay Quiet In Your Pew And Listen To The Speaker” or “You Are Small. The Church Is Big.” (See photos, above and below:)

St. Benedict, Easter 2010

Rockefeller Chapel, special event

But, growing up, I felt at peace in Church in a way I didn’t in other places. People, time, and space seemed different there – kinder, more mindful, part of something bigger. But not everyone’s experience is like that. My brother and I grew up in the same church and when he was about eight years old, he told my mother, “Everyone bosses me. You boss me! Teachers boss me! God bosses me!” A friend of mine, who grew up in a relatively liberal church, has said church made her feel that she was never enough, that she could never live up to what being a Christian meant. To say nothing of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people, who may have been made to feel much, much worse.

It breaks my heart when I hear someone’s story of having been hurt by a church since I’ve found great meaning being part of Church communities, worship, and friendships for most of my life. But through almost four decades of being in love with God and Church, I’ve had to come to terms with the possibility that Church – even in all its forms and variety – may never be a place where everyone can find a home. At the same time, I’ve seen churches welcome in a way few other groups of people do — the disabled, the widowed, young children, people who may be a bit dirtier or messier than others, and even gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people.

I have very strong convictions about what Church should be like for those who do come. One is that Church should be a place where people are seen for who they are – precious in God’s sight and with gifts to give to this world and their neighbor.

I wish there were more stories out there of the ways Church can do that. I wish I could tell some of those stories, but as a priest, those stories aren’t really mine to tell  – I see them happen, but telling them on a blog is tough to do without trespassing on the person who the story belongs to.

Having said all that, I can’t deny that God does Tell Us What To Do: Love one another. Live honestly. Forgive and get forgiven. Take care of the poor, sick, stranger, and imprisoned. Read the Bible. Do This To Remember Me.

By becoming a priest, in a way, I’ve also chosen to Tell People What To Do. I preach a sermon almost every week and people sit and listen to me. (You can read or listen to some here, if you like.) But I hope what I’m really doing is telling people what God Tells Us To Do, in a way that makes their lives, the lives of those they love, and the whole world, better.

Here’s hoping!


  1. Thank you, Vicar. It was a blessing to read this today. Love the photos, too.

  2. Church is absolutely where Christians learn and discern what to do, and sometimes the clergy are called upon to tell people directly. Happened again for me (a priest) today. Q: What to do about a hungry neighborhood kid? A: Feed him. Simple? No. What God wants us to do? Absolutely.