Walker Hayes Hated Church
Church . . .
I hated the word. I hated how it made me feel. The word triggered guilt, shame, anger, and hurt. It reminded me of living in constant trouble as a child. It brought back the sting of dad’s belt when I couldn’t sit still enough. It reminded me of a youth pastor and pediatrician I had looked up to until I saw his profile in the local newspaper as a convicted pedophile. It brought back the faces of “godly” friends who tried to move in on Laney the minute she and I broke up. It walked me back through the tons of churches we had visited in the Nashville area that sounded and felt more like American Idol auditions. “Church” stood for the transformation I could never attain as a defiant teenager, the hypocrisy I’d since met inside it, and a god, who, I was sure, could not exist. To say the least, like many people, I suffered from church PTSD.
So, as you can imagine, I wasn’t a huge fan of the lady who invited my wife to her church. At this point in our marriage, our only massive disagreements were about drinking and Jesus. Sounds like a song title: “Drinking and Jesus.” We didn’t fight about money because we didn’t have any. I was pretty irritated when Laney mentioned she’d like to visit the church, Redeeming Grace.
I fought it hard, tried to convince Laney it was all a crock, and even tried to persuade her to relax and just kick it at home instead, but nothing worked. There were churches we’d attended in phases per Laney’s wishes, but we had never gotten past the “visitors” stage. After a while, she had become content with the fact that we would never find a place where we truly connected, and I was thrilled with her complacency. To put it mildly, I was really bummed when Laura pulled us back in the church market. I kind of thought we had finished that “church shopping” phase of life. I really just wished the “church monster” would leave our relationship alone. Like I said, drinking and Jesus, that’s all we fought about. Otherwise, we were cool.
We were late for the service. That’s just how we rolled. Just another reason I wasn’t a fan of visiting churches. When you have five kids (eight and under), you’re always late, and when you’re late, no matter what door you walk in, it’s always a grand entrance. Lots of head turning and awkward stares. My personal favorite is watching people count our kids in disbelief. With our family, there is no such thing as slipping in quietly.
In the middle of praise and worship, the pastor stood up on stage in front of maybe a quarter-full chapel and instructed everyone to stand and greet their neighbor. I thought to myself sarcastically, “Great, they greet each other.” I can’t say I remember exactly how it went down because I was a little tipsy and that was years ago, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say Craig’s hand was the first hand I shook. That’s just who he is. Dude would be the greatest Costco greeter of all time. No joke. I dare you to come to Redeeming Grace and try to meet a visitor before he does. You won’t do it. I’ll give you fifty bucks if you beat him.
But the difference in Craig, the Christ in Craig, that I met that night looked me dead in the eyes knowing I was drunk, knowing I was not a believer, knowing I was as uncomfortable in those creaky old wooden pews as I was in my own skin, knowing I thought his beliefs were as crazy as believing in Santa Claus, and said, “I’m glad you’re here.” He meant it. And by the grace of God, for the first time in my life, I believed it. Typing that makes me tear up a little bit. I know it might sound meaningless and like a non-event, but at that moment, something inside me began to soften.
Craig Reaching Out to Welcome a Guest
Like Walker, I understand feelings of apprehension walking into a church service. On a recent trip, I visited a church for the first time. In the parking lot, I debated whether to bring my coffee in with me. The early morning hours and a strong desire for caffeine won the battle, so I carried my steel tumbler in with one hand, my Bible and notebook in the other. After singing, the congregation was seated and the pastor stood up to address the church. At that exact moment, I reached for my notebook without looking and knocked my coffee mug to the ground with a noticeable thunk. I watched in embarrassment as all my coffee began to spill. It was my first time there, and I had already made a complete mess of my surroundings. Instinctively, I tried to cover the spill with my Bible and notebook so that no one would see it. Then I had the thought, “Yep, whenever I walk into a church, I bring my mess with me.”
I know what it’s like to feel guilt, shame, and hurt inside the four walls of a church. I’m all too familiar with the look in the eyes of someone thinking, “I don’t wanna be here right now.” I’ve seen that look staring back at me in the mirror.
If you feel like a mess, I can relate.
If you feel like a failure, I am one too.
That night when Walker, Laney, and their family stepped through the doors of our church, I had no idea who Walker was, but I immediately saw him as a new friend, and if I could do nothing else, I just wanted him to feel and experience the love and welcome of Jesus. Because through no merit of my own, it’s a welcome I, too, have received. Indeed, it’s a welcome that is available for all. For you.
We come to Jesus just as we are, or we don’t come to Him at all. The good news is He doesn’t care what kind of shoes you’re wearing, and He doesn’t mind if you spill your coffee.
Adapted from Glad You’re Here: Two Unlikely Friends Breaking Bread and Fences by Walker Hayes & Craig Allen Cooper (© 2022). Published by Moody Publishers. Used by permission.