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... not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some,
but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
Over the last few weeks, in what would seem to be “coincidence,” I’ve had conversations with a number of people who are struggling with disillusionment with the church. Some have already decided that they simply will not go back to any church. Never. Ever. Ever. In another “coincidence,” somebody posted a link to a video on Facebook, which I just finished watching. The title: “Why I Won’t Go Back to Church.” So the subject has presented itself to me multiple times as I’ve sought inspiration for this week’s blog.
First, I do understand the pain of disillusionment; and it is not my intention to discount that pain. Second, I do not take the position that having a close relationship to God requires church attendance. Invariably, those who swear off of church insist that they are as close to God - or closer - having left the church. Okay. That may be. I don’t have the kind of information about anyone else’s relationship with God that would give me a basis to argue with that.
What I can say is that leaving the church is not the only response to being disillusioned by people there. And, for me, it was not the best response. In cases where relationships are extremely damaged, it may be that one would need to find another local church in which to worship. But disillusionment with human beings need not result in the complete loss of church community.
That kind of disillusionment can operate as a catalyst to shift our focus from wherever it was to Jesus. Long before I entered the ministry, and “doing church” became my job, I stayed in church for reasons having more to do with Jesus, and my relationship with God, than anything or anyone else. People are fallible, anywhere and everywhere you find us. Being disillusioned in church is the reason that my gaze is fixed on Jesus, through whatever might be going on with the “saints” and the “ain’ts.” Only Jesus never fails. So, given that church congregations consist of people, why wouldn’t we expect to see the full spectrum of both positive and negative human traits and behaviors there? I have seen things done - by church folk - that are shameful and inexcusable. But Jesus didn’t do any of them. Since being in the church is part of my service to him, the sins of church folk do not constitute a reason for me to leave the church. They give me reason to sharpen my focus on Jesus.
See, here’s the thing - I get it that people go to church for a variety of reasons; and I understand that, for many, some of those reasons are about having social needs met. I am suggesting, humbly and with respect for those needs, that the fact that going to church may meet social needs does not place church in the category of “social club.” The church is not a social club. It is the church. And just maybe our relationships with our churches would be more sustainable, over the long haul, if we did not treat church like a social club to be attended and supported when they are fun and left when things get rough. Again - I recognize that sometimes relationships are so damaged that it may be necessary to leave one congregation to find one that can be “home” to you. But that is not the same thing as writing off church altogether, because some person or people there behaved badly. Honestly, that kind of conditional faithfulness can only have one result - the eventual and inevitable walking away from it all. God’s faithfulness to us is unconditional. I hope God will find my faithfulness to the church to be the same.
I have been greatly assisted in maintaining my long-term relationship with the imperfect church by coming to understand that the dominant call on the Christian life is not to go to church; it is to be the church. I believe that Jesus cares about the church. “Upon this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18 KJV) “ He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything.” (Colossians 1:18 NRSV) “At the center of all this, Christ rules the church. The church, you see, is not peripheral to the world; the world is peripheral to the church. The church is Christ’s body, in which he speaks and acts, by which he fills everything with his presence.” (Ephesians 1:23, The Message).
There’s more - the Pauline scriptures about the church as Christ’s body, with each of us being members of the same, gifted with a variety of gifts for its sustenance and edification. (Ephesians 4; 1 Corinthians 12) And the familiar exhortation not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together. (Hebrews 10:25) I think the point is made that there is substantial scriptural evidence that Jesus cares about the church. It is not a social club; it is his body. Our mission is to do all we can to advance his mission. The church is not merely a religious organization; it is a live organism, with Jesus Christ as its head. The rest of the Body is woefully unable to measure up to his standards of excellence in faithfulness. Nonetheless, I am very clear that my call is to spend my life hanging in there with some church, somewhere, for as long as I live - trying to discern what it means to be the church that Jesus would have us to be.
We are not all hypocrites. It makes no difference how many hypocrites you’ve seen in churches. We are not all hypocrites. Many are doing their best to discern and do God’s will - by being the church; not just by going. So, as a friend said to me recently, to those who have decided to walk away from all churches because of disillusionment suffered in one: Feel free to change your mind. And if/when you do, please know that Imani MCC is waiting to embrace the missing parts of our Body. All I am saying is give church a chance.
That said, I still feel compelled to respond with an offering of a few thoughts:
1. All human beings are fallible. That’s not an excuse for any misconduct committed in church or anywhere else; it’s simply true. Why wouldn’t we expect to encounter the full spectrum of positive and negative human behavior in church?
2. Redemption is available and possible for everyone. A popular gospel song says, “We fall down, but we get up. For a saint is just a sinner who fell down - and got up.” Some of us fall farther than others. Some fall more often. But none of us is perfect.
3. For Christians, forgiveness is mandatory, not optional.
4. The Church is more than “organized religion.” It is the Body of Christ.
5. Ideally, we would have our attention focused on Jesus, not church folk. He didn’t get too righteous to hang out with ....
6. Church’s mission - to carry on with Jesus’ mission. We can do more in concert and community with others than alone.
7, Shift our focus from going to church to being the church
8. I have never heard an elder, who spent his or her life in church, express regret about that or feeling that their time had been wasted. Living in imperfect Christian community, with imperfect brothers and sisters in Christ, requires us to dig deep and bring forth the best within us. It requires us to grow up, and to grow in grace, and to grow into a deep and mature faith that is vested where it needs to be - in the infallibility of God’s faithfulness to all of us; and in that amazing grace that none of us have earned.