Why, as an agnostic, I go to church

I‘m the sort of person who posts a lot on Facebook, so every once in a while I’ll mention my church: Germantown Mennonite.  This invariably leads to my secular friends asking (sometimes very worried) what happened to me.  Have I gone full fundy? Can I no longer think rationally? Why would I go to church?


I’ve had no fewer than three interventions from friends trying to talk me out of my church-going ways (one involving an hour-long, in-person conversation), worrying that I was becoming a completely different person. It’s hard not to laugh at this. Do you not also read my status updates about my volunteering for the Obama campaign? Or my support for LGBT rights? Or my love of science? It’s insanely sad to me that just one word: church, could somehow counteract all the rest of who I am in people’s minds and make them think I’m now some sort of unthinking, dogmatic, closed-minded Christian. Of course not! That’s silly.

So, as an agnostic, why do I go to church?  Well, here’s the list.

(1) Being Mennonite is an important part of my heritage and my identity. I have a lot of Jewish friends who go to synagogue and no one bats an eyelash at them or thinks they’ve gone off the deep end. That’s because for some reason people get that you can have a cultural attachment to your Jewish faith without being some sort of fundamentalist.  Well, the same can be true for Christianity! My mom’s side of the family is Mennonite, and that’s the faith I grew up in even though my dad is Jewish. There are a lot of aspects of my heritage I cherish. For instance, Mennonites sing in perfect four part harmony. (Listen to this recording, for instance.  That’s *not* a choir. That’s the congregation singing.) And so continuing that musical tradition is important to me. Plus, Mennonites are pacifists. I’m not a complete pacifist myself (I believe in protecting my family in the case of an intruder, for instance), but I like that there are Christian pacifists out there and I think they have a lot to add to the wider conversation about war.  I could go on, but first and foremost I go to church to retain a connection to my ancestry. My grandfather’s first language was Pennsylvania Dutch; my mom grew up wearing a covering. The idea of me turning my back and not even going to church makes me sad.


From the left: my grandfather, aunt, grandmother, mom, uncle.

(2) I like going to a place weekly (okay, let’s be honest, I make it once a month at most) where the purpose is to remind you to be a good person.  It’s like meditation, yoga, or anything else that refreshes you. Listening to the sermon and just being around other people who have committed themselves to devote their lives to some higher purpose (in smaller or larger ways) reminds me of what’s important and it helps me see the bigger picture.

(3) I like having an intergenerational group of people to count on. Most of my family has scattered across the country, and so it’s nice to have a new family. Sure I have plenty of friends and they’re wonderful, but sometimes it’s helpful to talk to someone in their 40s, 50s or 60s to get a different perspective. It’s difficult to find that outside of a church. Plus, it’s nice having a group of people you know you can depend on. House burns down? Someone at the church will be able to find you a place to stay. Have cancer? The church will set up meals to be brought to your house nightly. Have a new baby? The church will chip in to get you a quilt from the Mennonite Relief Sale. (These are all things that really happen at my church.) When I was 15 my mom had cancer, and it was my grandmother’s Mennonite church that made sure we had food to eat when she was too tired after chemo to make dinner. Having a community like that to depend on is priceless.

(4) I go to a church that’s non-judgmental. Notwithstanding all of the above, there’s no way I could go to church every week feeling like a hypocrite. I go to a church that follows what we believe to be the good news of Jesus: radical love and inclusivity. That means, LGBTQ members: welcome. (In fact, we got kicked out of our Mennonite conference in the 80s for that stance.) Not sure where you stand on Jesus being the literal embodiment of God? You’re welcome. Don’t believe in a personal God (I certainly don’t)? You’re welcome. Everyone is welcome to their own beliefs and no one would be angry at you for having them. The church is a place of love and community. Just as it should be.

To me, that’s as opened-minded as it gets, so I think I’ll keep going. Honestly, people’s worries are entirely misplaced.


  1. Dawn
    Mar 6, 2014

    I was baptized into the Lutheran Church and confirmed as a Methodist (my mother’s wishes). I was always curious about religion, though. My two best friends are, respectively, agnostic and atheist. Both, however, highly respect religious institutions for their sense of community, as do I. Currently, I do not have a home church (I’ve been living in Indianapolis for a year, but haven’t found a place I’m comfortable at yet), but I’m looking forward to finding a place that is welcoming and communal. I often think of that Lutheran congregation when I think of church; everyone knows everyone, everyone is eager to help everyone out.

  2. Vanessa
    Mar 23, 2014

    I identify very much with the sentiment here. I’m also a Mennonite by heritage, but over the last five or six years I’ve become more and more agnostic, and I also want to keep going to church for all the reasons you’ve listed. Community, four-part harmony, people reminding each other to love. It’s so good to find like-minded people. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Raymond
    Jun 7, 2014

    I sometimes struggle with this. I am as full blown agnostic as it gets, yet I often accompany my parents and my sister to church. Unfortunately, sometimes the opinions bother me but it is something cultural from my homeland and through our congregation we keep many of our customs, traditional music and foods.

  4. Chris Neufeld
    Jun 8, 2014

    Hi Katherine Ernst, I feel very deeply this! Enough said :)

    I describe myself as agnostic theist and culturally deaf. mennonite heritage and on my dad’s side of Ashkenazis Jew. My parents were a bit sadden by recently coming out as agnostic, but they recognized me that I have morality belief and adult ADHD like Howie Mandel. Yes, Mennonite are pacifistic but various political beleifs e.g. socially conservative, socially moderate or socially liberal.

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