Last weekend I had a friend spend the weekend with me. She mentioned she wasn’t sure about Sunday morning plans because she had read my last blog, Valentine's Day Lies in Church and didn’t know where I "stood with church" at the moment.
Another cue that I need to do some clarifying came a couple of weeks ago when I was dropping my kids off at our homeschool co-op play practice, giving me a rare opportunity to interact with some of the other mothers I don’t see very often. One gal I hadn’t seen in a while hugged me, and then we sat and chatted while our kids figured out where to stand on the stage.
“I just love seeing everything you post on Facebook. Except the stuff about church, that just breaks my heart.”
So, yeah, need to clarify. Here’s the bottom line (as of today). Church is hard. I still go. I’m a Christian (trying). It’s what I (mostly) do. I have yet to ditch church attendance for any length of time since I was carried in as a baby. Probably has mostly to do with my long history/habit of being and doing everything in church that one possibly can do.
As a brief clarification, Biblically and theologically the Church (with a capital C) is people, not a building. Biblically, church is supposed to be Jesus followers, doing life together, and showing and telling everyone else around them the good news of Jesus. But they/we don’t do that very well. That simple concept of church is as messed up as anything else is in our messed up broken world. And so, as part of the brokenness, when most people speak of “going to church” (with a small c) they are referring to a specific group or sub-division of Christians that meet in a building or place, under the signboard of a denomination or name.
As far as my involvement with the Church, I’ve pretty much done it all- from full time ministry/missions overseas for six continuous years where I did everything from teaching in indigenous Bible schools, to evangelizing unreached areas, to smuggling Bibles to the underground church, to discipling new believers to helping plant churches, to preaching on Sunday, to organizing conferences, to participating in giant crusades, to writing newsletters, to itinerating and fund raising – and, I must not forget to mention, that I was pregnant and delivering and raising my kids during this time. This isn’t counting various stateside church roles I’ve filled both before and since then: home group leader, lead children’s church teacher, VBS volunteer, mission director, altar prayer team member, women’s conference speaker, and church janitor. I’ve done everything from preaching behind the pulpit to vacuuming under it. And I’m really familiar with church toilets.
(You could definitely say I know all about the Church excrement, both literal and figurative kinds.)
As a child and a teenager raised in Church, I was taught to expect that the greatest attacks on my faith and the hardest things that would come my way in life would come from “the world”- the secular community outside of the church. However, this was not where any of my hardest trials of life actually came from. The greatest temptation to “quit” my faith did not come from the evil government, from the secular community, or from non-Christians from any sector.
My greatest trials and personal attacks have all very much come from within and from the place that was supposed to be safe and where I was supposed to find support. The church. Christians. People who say they follow Jesus. And especially the leaders of this group of folks, and those in ministry.
While I have found and kept many good and loyal friends within the Church who have stood by me through thick and thin (including pastors), I have found that the Church as a group doesn’t handle certain things very well, nor do many of its individual members.
The Church doesn’t handle marriage problems between its members well. Church leaders are not trained to know how to discern the difference between a couple needing counselling, and an abusive or unsafe situation, nor what to do about it when they do figure it out. The Church doesn’t know what to do when its leaders start sinning or getting out of line. The Church often doesn’t know what to do with singles, either before marriage or after a divorce. The Church clings desperately to rules and legalism, no matter how much they profess grace and freedom in Christ, and often default to applying these arbitrarily to anyone and everyone. The Church gets really hung up on external appearances and behavior and status and has trouble valuing everyone equally. The Church has big issues with both race and gender. The Church does not understand grief nor is it comfortable with brokenness, messy circumstances, pain or depression- therefore it often minimizes, rejects or ignores its members who have these things. The Church is more comfortable with a “top down” business model of organization than servant leadership and relationships.
And sadly, the Church is not exempt from corruption. Some people are attracted to church leadership and Christian ministry precisely because they have narcissism and control issues, and the church is a good place to act those out. In other situations when sincere church leaders gain status and influence and fame, they are just as likely to be corrupted by them as their secular counterparts in business, entertainment and politics.
And, as a Jesus-follower who has drunk of many bitter waters of life, I found my church tribe as a whole hasn’t always done so well by me. In some cases they flat out abandoned me and failed me. In other cases they were just at a loss. In other cases I got in the way of their carefully planned agendas. In a few situations, they totally screwed me, and, I have also been burned.
But at other times, at so many other times, the Church has been my place of comfort. It is where I have gone- and still go- to find strength to face the coming week. It is where I go to worship corporately. It is where I go to take communion. It is where I go to hear the Word of God taught and proclaimed publicly. It is where I go because I have freedom of religion and I can, at a time when many Christians in other countries do not have that privilege.
And it is where I take my kids to do all these things too. You see, it isn’t just about me and how I struggle with feeling jaded about church as I approach half a century of life on the twisted planet. It is about my teenagers who are only at the beginning of their journey. There have been times I “got nothing” out of a church service and one of my kids might say, “That was the best sermon I ever heard.” And I would think, okay, that’s why I went today.
Because, I am the church, my kids are the church, and in participating and attending, we are also a part of making it better. My blogging about my negative experiences and frustrations with church are nothing more than a chapter in my own journey of short-comings and pain, and how sometimes that intersected with the short-comings of the body of Christ as a whole. It is not a deserter’s diatribe, nor the railings of a bitter backslider.
It is me telling the truth about how we - us- the church- need to change. It is me saying, hey, how about we stop hurting broken people, because that is actually most of us. It is me saying, how about we admit most of the people here are struggling with everything everyone else in the world struggles with, and start helping them instead of ignoring it. It is me saying, how about we be less about programs and doctrines and politics and more about support and love and honesty and relationships?
So as we say on Facebook, yes, I’m "in a relationship" with a local church. Yes, I “attend” a specific sub-group of the body of Christ. No, I am not always happy with things that are said and done there- sometimes they are hurtful and damaging to me and many others. And so, yes, I will speak up, for how else will there be change?
And is it only the church I attend or the church at large that needs to change? Of course not. And that’s another reason I keep going. I know I need to be there for me, for my own spiritual growth.
Yes. It’s complicated.
But most relationships are- at least, ones worth having.