“She’s given up on church,” the woman said to me about another person. She paused, and I sat silent for a few minutes.
I know that feeling, I thought to myself as I processed this information. I know a lot of people who feel that way. They have given up on church: not necessarily on God, or Jesus, or prayer. Just church.
They used to be as active as anybody in the congregation: worship once or twice a week, prayer meetings, dinners, programs, and Bible studies, plus sweeping stairs, cooking food, and calling that stranger who showed up for the first time.
And the committees, of course. As often as not, it was the committees that drove a wedge between a love for Jesus and a commitment to the church. Committees can be good, but they can be bad: drawn out, focused on small stuff, and a perfect occasion for some needy or neurotic person to assert himself at the expense of getting things done in a timely manner.
Other things can get in the way of our enthusiasm for congregational life. Things like, well, congregational life, especially when decisions are to be made or people are to be received—or not. Termination of employees has been an exit rationale for people in every church I’ve ever attended.
Some combination of these drove one veteran minister out of the pulpit and away from God entirely. He wrote a book entitled Goodbye Jesus and I interviewed him in TheMeetingHouse.
Not all exits are so dramatic, so book-worthy!
Many people just slowly loose interest, and when opportunity comes—like a move, or a loss, or a pandemic—we take it as a sign. Enough is enough. I think I’ll read the Sunday paper today at the coffee shop down the street.
Yes, we disconnect with lots of things this way: clubs, teams, causes, even spouses. Life has many seasons and moving from one to the other without drama is a good thing, a necessary thing, sometimes an urgent thing. Church, like anything else, is susceptible to the human virus and can become sick, distorted, toxic. We need to get away from it.
I watched a TikTok video this week about a person’s journey out of the repressive environment of a church. “I never felt so free,” she said about her departure. “For too many years, I tried to follow all their rules about money, time, emotions, even sex. I’m glad to be out.”
After that, I read an autobiography. He wrote about his church: “I love singing the hymns of the church, and having Scripture read to me in a church setting, and hearing sermons that are truthful and thoughtful and helpful, and perhaps most of all, engaging in Holy Communion with the Lord and with my fellow church members.”
There are a lot of people who feel this week, just not as many as there used to be; but maybe as many as there needs to be. Not everybody needs to be in church every week; there are other ways of being human and knowing God, of living with purpose and making a difference; or as we say in my little church, singing for joy and living with hope. The spirit of God is not confirmed to a sanctuary, regardless of its size or significance. God is everywhere, pulling hope out of despair and anointing people to lead and serve, sing and dance, and envision a future that delights all the senses.
Years ago, while a student summer missionary (we called them then) I bought a plaque that appealed to me. It hung on my wall for many years and may still be around somewhere, packed in one of the twenty-something boxes that clutter our attic. It reads: “One is nearer God’s heart in a garden than anywhere else on earth.”
God started with a garden, you remember, and the Bible ends with a scene of a garden, with a river of life nourishing the trees of life, whose leaves, the text says, are for the healing of the nations.
A sanctuary full of pews that forces us to stare at the back of somebody’s head is not the only place where that river flows, where those trees grow, where the leaves are hanging for the healing we need. It may be one place, and it is a place I continue to love; but it is not the only place, thank God.
I have lots of places where I experience that grace, and one of them is the church, even sitting in a pew with a bunch of cantankerous people.
I hope you find your place, in church or out, in season and out, a place that helps you be the person you want to be, the person God created you to be.