Forward: Bono once wrote a song called The Wanderer. He didn’t sing it on the record because he thought it would sound pretentious if he did. Instead, he had Johnny Cash sing it. No pretense there. I don’t have Johnny Cash to write this post and remove all the pretense. Forgive me, please, in advance, if this sounds pretentious.
I do not know Rachel Held Evans except that some of the other writers here frequent her blog. I don’t know how involved they are except that every now and again we will talk privately about one of her posts. I do want you understand, however, that I am not writing this as a personal attack on Ms. Evans. Maybe it is unsolicited advice. Maybe it’s a parable. Maybe I’m just thinking aloud. That said, I am going to write.
I am sure that Ms Evans has had a difficult experience in the church (with a little ‘c’). I can tell after reading her post 15 Reasons I Left the Church. She cites a few others who have also written about their own reasons for leaving the church including someone who wrote an entire book about why people 18-29 have left the church. 18-29 is a tough age for anyone, but I suppose it is especially so for church folk who are looking for just the right place to call church-home. (It seriously does not require a book to expound the reasons why.)
I do not for a minute doubt the sincerity of Ms Evans’ post, but I confess it is a terribly depressing lot of reasons she gives for rejecting the local body of believers. She wrote, with what I presume to be as much angst as a 30-something can muster up, the following:
I left the church when I was twenty-seven. I am now thirty, and after trying unsuccessfully to start a house church, my husband and I are struggling to find a faith community in which we feel we belong.
There’s a lot of first person pronouns in that explanation.
As I am now 41, not so far removed from 30-something angst, allow me to say: Good luck!
I’d like to tell a story. Nearly 3 solid years ago, I was unceremoniously removed from the congregation I had loved and served for nearly 10 years. I was finishing a week of church camp with my beloved Junior High students from several area churches. It was Friday night, parents were picking up children, I was waiting on everyone to leave so that I, too, could go home and prepare for the sermon I was to preach two days later. It was in the midst of all this that I received a call from, not one of the elders nor one of the deacons, but from one of the church trustees–a man whom I baptized into the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He informed me that I needed to be at a meeting the following day.
At the meeting the next day, I was given an ultimatum: stay and we will fire you, give you two weeks’ salary; leave and we will give you six weeks’ salary. Ah, congregations know the way to a preacher’s heart. Of course I took the money. I have regretted it every day since July 12, 2009.
After the meeting, that same trustee informed me: “It’s nothing personal.” Seriously.
Making the matter more compelling is that less than a year before all this happened in July 2009, my wife and I, after 17.5 years of marriage, and 10 years with the same congregation, bought our first house. That six week’s worth of salary was not going to go far. Ah, churches, blessing upon blessing. (I will spare the details of what this episode did for the faith of my sons and my wife.)
Don’t get me wrong. Of the 15 reasons that Ms Evans gives in her post, I actually believe that six of them are solid complaints–serious problems that need to be addressed in the american version of the church, complaints that I, too, would have no problem echoing. Not least among them is her complaint about churches being involved in the politics of the world. I cannot tell you how sick to death I am of hearing preachers and christians staking the course of the christian faith upon the outcome of some god forsaken election. It makes me think that most christians put more faith in the election of conservative politicians than they do in the Lord Jesus. We christians place so much faith in the democratic way of electing leaders that Jesus could no longer say to Pilate, “You would have no power if not given to you from above.”
OK, I’m off track…my point is that churches, in general, are full of nasty people. I have met them up close and personal–I can give you names, addresses, birthdays–the church is full of ugly things, ugly thoughts, ugly words, and ugly sinners. It’s a nightmare and when a preacher calls them on the fact that it has been so for the better part of their 40 year existence, he is summarily dismissed without so much as a farewell tea or carry-in dinner.
That is, churches are full of people like me. I know that.
For all the bitterness I have masticated the past three years, I also know that for the better part of 10 years I loved and was loved (at least by most). I don’t think we should fly by Ms Evans reason #10 too quickly.
Oh, there was this one time, when I was still in college, that I was filling the pulpit in a church somewhere in the Northwestern part of the state of Ohio. It took probably 4 hours to get there from Lansing, MI, and when I was done preaching, I was given a whopping $30 honorarium. Another time while doing pulpit supply in a church near Detroit, my wife accidentally sat in some old woman’s pew seat. You would have thought we killed her kittens and burned them before her eyes while feeding live bunnies to wolves. I’m serious. In my first church after college, I served for about a year and a half before the church decided that the money given to them by the atheist next door neighbor was more important than hearing the truth on Sundays.
And since I am on the preacher side of things, I could tell you about the ministries of several other preacher friends who have suffered the same or worse at the hands of power hungry elders (or their wives), tool-like trustees, or unhappy people who simply enjoyed eating preachers and their families for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and second dinner.You think it’s tough being a parishioner? Trying being a preacher. Try listening to the reasons why church members leave churches.
Yet I still belong to the church (with a little c). The church we worship with is anything but perfect. The people are sometimes as unfriendly to me as I am to them. Sometimes there is an air of conservative politics pervading the worship and overwhelming the presence of the Spirit. And worst of all, the pastor is a man! (Gasp!) I hold fast to the thought that american christians really have no clue how to define suffering. But, for all my complaints, I believe Jesus is among those people. I can tell because while they were losing their building to the Episcopal church, they were giving themselves away in ministry to local people. They could have took; instead they gave.
What I have learned is that no church is perfect and that, really, it takes faith to belong to the church with a little ‘c.’ It takes a lot of humility–something I confess I lack. It takes a lot of courage–especially when that church doesn’t always line up with your theological or political or biological expectations. It takes a lot of love–especially for gossipy old ladies whose favorite pastime is running down the preacher while getting their hair done and gossipy old men who do the same at McDonalds over coffee. It takes a lot of grace–after all, Jesus showed us that same grace when he welcomed us into his church, the church of which he is the charter member and the head. It’s not just that Jesus has something to do with the church, it’s that Jesus has never left the church. All these years. All that sin. All this ugliness. All the politics and compromise with the culture. Jesus is still here. With us. With the church.
Sometimes I think God allows the church to be as imperfect as it is precisely because there are people like me who have so many problems with the church, who have been mercilessly crushed time and time again by the church, who have been spoon fed to the devils and sifted in the wind, people like me who need to be humbled, and taught what grace really is. In other words, old ladies will always be old ladies, and never mothers, until I humble myself, forgive them, and love them as Jesus has loved me.
I’m not saying church is perfect.* I’m not saying there are never reasons to leave the church. I’m not saying I have it all figured out all the time. I’m not saying I haven’t been the reason other people have left the church. I’m certainly not saying that I am any better than Ms Evans; our lists are just different. I’m just saying that I am still there and that is so for one reason: Jesus is still there.
And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands, and among the lampstands was someone ‘like a son of man…’ (Revelation 1:12-13a).
*Thanks to JM and BWW for crushing me one day with the problem I wasn’t seeing: I.