It has become something of a trend lately to say things like, "I'm leaving the church to pursue a relationship with Jesus on my own." Typically, reasons given include, "People are mean," "Christians are hypocrites," or "You don't know how bad I've been hurt."
Adherents to the trend often have a well blended mixture of indignation over legitimate frustrations and a sheep-like compulsion to follow the Christian trend of the day. When I hear church people take up their latest offense and grumble about how church hurt them by not remembering the second anniversary of the time they were over-charged at Whole Foods, I quietly resit the urge to karate chop them in the ear lobe.
My frustration is kindled for two reasons:
- There are plenty Christians who really do suffer.
- The mentality often reflects a consumeristic view of the Body of Christ.
Of course, my heart is immediately grieved, because I know that in most cases there is real hurt involved, hurt that is directly related to some failure of someone somewhere to show unconditional love to the person in question. The hurt may or may not be directly related to the Church, but it is real.
My family and I have been hurt by people in the Church. It would be inappropriate to go into specifics, but in the context of Church we have experienced abuse, betrayal, financial ruin, and physical danger. Perhaps ironically, the most painful thing we have experienced is gossip. Once, a 6ft. 300lb. ape of a man made threats and then showed up in person to deliver on them. Still, the gossip and betrayal from physically benign Christians was far more traumatic that that incident.
Believe me when I say that I understand the hurt that is associated with words and tone in the context of Chruch. Wounds that we often call "small" are in fact very painful.
I would choose violent threats over personal attacks on most days.
What I am telling you is that your hurts are real; they just aren't a good reason to leave the Church.
Before offering up a litany of reasons why you should not forsake the church, I would like to share some information that might put things into perspective:
- Currently, a pastor named Saeed Abedini is being tortured in an Iranian prison, because He loves Jesus and refuses to renounce Him. He has been in prison for 3 years now. He has a wife and two young children. He is part of the Church. Read more.
- In Syria, ISIS is beheading, torturing, and otherwise executing Christians who choose Jesus over their very lives. They are part of the Church. Read more.
- In China, followers of Jesus meet secretly in quiet, low-lit meeting spaces, knowing that at any moment they could be caught and prosecuted. They are part of the Church.
- In Cleveland, OH, church planters are threatened with eviction for holding small gatherings with other Christians in their home. The are part of the Church.
- Converts to Christianity in Saudi Arabia face death and abuse from their own families for trusting in Jesus. They are part of the Church Read more.
- Christians who share their faith in Morocco risk losing their jobs and severe punishments. Read more. They are part of the Church.
I'm sharing these stories to give us all a sense of perspective and solidarity. I don't want to walk away from a body of believers that is suffering so severely for their love of Jesus. Suffering like this makes my hurts seem insignificant. I don't want to leave the Church when my brothers and sisters need me most. You shouldn't either.
Your Involvement Matters
It is easy to look at the plight of Christians in Syria and China and think that your attendance at a local assembly of Christians matters little. But, you would be wrong. I have had the rare honor of conversing with missionaries that spend time in closed countries. They never ask for sympathy and they never "play the martyr" (ironically). There are a few things they always need, though:
They need to know that there are groups of Christians meeting together freely, praising Jesus and lifting them up in prayer. The more Christians gathering to pray for them and lift up Jesus, the more their hope is kindled and God moves. Financial support is pretty important too, but most of them will tell you that they need prayers more than anything.
The best example I have is family. Imagine your brother was somehow kept from being with the family for a really special holiday. There is great comfort in knowing that the family is still gathering around the table together, that they are laughing, telling stories, and making memories. Even in his absence, there is great encouragement in knowing that home still exists, that there are people somewhere who love and support him even if he is far away. Yes, uncle Jonathan farts at the table and tells offensive jokes and Aunt Ava is still crazy as a loon...not to mention the fact that Sarah hurt you more deeply with her remark about your kids last year than you ever thought possible...but your brother is calling in during Thanksgiving dinner. He is homesick and afraid, and he desperately needs to see that home in all it's disfunction is still there...and he would weep tears of joy be there, even with all of it's drama. Make sure you are there when he calls.
The writer of Hebrews says, "not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near" (Hebrews 10:25). He notes that the closer we get to the return of Jesus, the more important congregating becomes.
Let's also consider the fact that the Church is the Bride of Christ. Jesus cares deeply about the Church and doesn't take kindly to those who would berate or abandon her. He knows she has flaws, but she is His. Be careful how you treat her.
Beyond that, the church is you! You can't leave yourself. You are a living stone fit together with the rest of the stones in this grand temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Peter 2:5). This in addition to the fact, that your individual body is a temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19).
Still further, you are the sinew and bone of the Body of Christ, of which Christ is the head (1 Corinthians12:27). You could no sooner choose to leave the Church than your knuckle could choose to leave your hand.
You are a part of this body (1 Corinthians 12:27), a stone in this temple (1 Peter 2:5), a member of this family (Matthew 12:49-50). You could leave, but you would still be a part.
Legitimate Frustrations and Helpful Truths
Let us face some realities with that may be causing us some frustrations:
- Many church settings fail to fulfill the Great Commission.
- Churches are made up of broken people in the process of sanctification, not the completion of it. These who are on the continuum of growth harm one another on the path.
- Many churches both large and small are driven by programs rather than relationship. This can be both stifling and lonely.
- The absence of biblical ecclesiology (church) has led to traditions that waste time and limit community.
- The presence of Jesus and power of the Spirit is often neglected in favor of the talents and resources of men.
Let us also employ some helpful truths.
- Staying in the Church doesn't necessarily mean staying where you are.
- God is working. You can go where you see Him moving.
- The Church is wherever God's people are gathering (though there are some key ingredients).
- Jesus will build His church, and nothing can stop Him (Matthew 16:18).
- Jesus has plenty of disciples that are a joy to be around (John 13:35).
Find a Church
My advice is to find a church where Jesus is honored as King and making disciples is the first priority. Most people seem to have an idealized view of this, but taking part in a Church like this (as it is described in the First Century) isn't all fun and games.
- Reaching the lost means forsaking your preferences.
- Being relationally committed means dealing with your deepest insecurities, often in the midst of conflict with people that you don't always like.
- Church means increasing your dependence on Jesus.
- Sometimes you are the problem. Jesus wants to sanctify you. Sometimes you need to change.