Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Why I'm Not Leaving the Church

I saw yet another one today. Another article, or blog, or commentary from a maturing, committed Christian announcing that she is "leaving the church" and promising in the title to explain why. Facebook connects me about once a week to another Generation Xer announcing that she or he is "leaving the church."  Somebody else who has discovered that Jesus is > the church, that what they heard (or think they remember having heard) from the church as a youth was not in fact what they now understand Christianity to be, that (oh, no, you're kidding) the church includes all sorts of people who do not practice what they preach.

The reasons tend to repeat themselves: the writer grew up in the church and did not really understand/ connect with/ grasp the intricacies of the love of Jesus while attending children's Sunday School or singing in youth choir, so the church is obviously not the place to be now that the writer has matured to a point that agape is finally real; or there are way too many hypocrites in the church (and yes, I love the Facebook post going around that says that staying away from church because of the hypocrites is like staying out of the gym because of the fat people); or that the writer feels that the church has failed in so many ways that the writer can no longer be a part.

I am not here to fight with any of those people, but those reasons do not - to me - justify leaving the church.

The fact that we, as youngsters, did not grasp from the church all of the depth of the forgiveness of God, the power of the Holy Spirit, the wisdom of the prophets, or the purity of Christ that demands our constant obedience may have been the fault of our church or our youth group ... but it may not have been. It may have been a result of our own immaturity, our own inability as young Christians to grasp yet how high and how deep is the love of God. I don't think many of us blame our third grade teacher for our failure to grasp calculus at the age of 9. That analogy is not exact, of course, but it bears thinking about. And even if your adult church has not shown you Jesus as you think He deserves to be shown, it strikes me as dangerous to throw out "the church" with the bathwater of particular failings in teaching or worship or evangelism or fellowship.

The fact that you are in church with people whose religion seems false to you, or who do not act like you believe Christians should act, or who have hurt you personally is tragic. I wish every one of our churches was made up of nothing but repentant sinners who were constantly striving to do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with God. My experience of (now over forty) years as a church member teaches me differently. What I have grown to see is that even the best of churches (and I have been a member of some great churches) includes many, maybe mostly, struggling selfish people who often miss the mark and may even go days without thinking much about the mark. And, truth be told, that description applies to me far too often. Do I think people should leave the church because I am such a failure at this thing called a Christian walk and yet I still darken the door?  I hope not.  I hope people don't blame the whole church for my brand of error.  I can't handle that pressure.

I have friends who have not published blogs or articles on the subject but have nonetheless left the church for one of these reasons and/or because they have been personally hurt by the church. These friends include ordained ministers. Their hurt is real, and the perpetrators of the hurt should be ashamed of themselves.

But I am not leaving the church. Here's why.

First, I take seriously the scripture about the church's being the body of Christ. I know that can apply to the church universal, and those who "do church" in their "daily life" and who do not "need a 9:00 service in order to go to church" may be able to function as a part of the body of Christ... but I cannot. I need the formal church. I am woefully poor at being the arms of Christ to hug everyone who needs to be hugged on my own. I am a miserable failure at being the eyes of Christ to see every need that must be met by myself. I stink at being the feet of Christ, going where the gospel needs to be taken, alone. But as a part of my church, I can help the body of Christ accomplish all of those things.

Second, I think the Charles Wesley was onto something when he penned the hymn "O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing."  I need to stay in church because corporate worship is critical to my well-being. I think God likes it too, but I need it. I need to find so many others who have experienced the grace of God and desperately seek more of it, and I need to join with them in confession and praise and adoration and song and prayer. I need to see the symbol of baptism again and again. I need to share communion with brothers and sisters, who hand me the bread and the cup and say "This is the body of Christ, the bread of life.  This is the blood of Christ, the cup of grace.  Thanks be to God."

Third, I know - because I am there multiple times a week - that the church is getting a bad rap. Without denying any individual story of hypocrisy or abuse or failure or hurt, I can nonetheless point to example after example after example of good that is done in the world only by the church. Even the worst church I have been in (and I have been a member of some not-so-great churches) has consciously reached out to help its community, to tell about the love of God, to share the gospel. Even churches going through splits (been there) still find a way to look beyond their own problems to seek the face of the Creator. To leave the church would be, for me, to leave the best vehicle I know to affect the world for good.

Fourth, I don't think the church exists to make me happy. (I wrote about this at some length in my book In the Court of the Master, and you can buy a copy to read my views on this in more detail.) I think the church exists to make God happy and to reach the world, and if my church is not tickling my particular fancy right now, then so be it.

Fifth, the best way to fix a broken church is to stay a part of it, to influence it from within as a caring and participating and giving member, not to walk away and announce with superiority that "the church" has it wrong and is no longer worth my time.  Some churches move so far from the gospel, or are led by individuals who have moved so far from their calling, that serious church members may well need to leave those particular churches.  That is a far cry from leaving "the church" period.

I do not for a minute think that any church in particular, or the institutional church as a whole (a) is perfect; (b) has a corner on God; (c) is doing even most things right; or (d) does not repeatedly fail to be what God calls us to be. I do not judge those who do not believe they can continue to be a Christian in the church and thus have left or must leave.

But I cannot leave the church. It is where I met God, and it is where I meet God, and it is where God continues to speak to me.


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