I've seen a lot of articles floating around that talk about why hipsters leave the church or why teenagers leave the church or why families leave the church.
And it occured to me that part of why there is a culture of leaving the church might be because we talk so much about leaving the church!
This post is kind of hard to write. But if I'm one thing, I'm authentic, right? I try to be honest with anything I put out into the world.
I've been struggling in my church for a little while now. And it seems to get better and then it gets worse and up and down. I've done a lot of internal soul searching - seeking God inside myself, making sure I was doing my personal best in the circumstances. I've done a lot of praying - listening for God to help me see the path.
I think that some people see church kind of like choosing a restaurant. You try it out and you like it. The food is good, the service is good, the atmosphere is pleasant. You might even become a regular. But then you have a bad experience and you stop going. And we tend to do that with church - afterall, there is always some other church right around the corner or down the street to try instead. Churches are everywhere so it should be fairly easy to select one that meets your "wish list" for a church.
But unlike a restaurant, once you've joined a church, you've joined a family. Membership in a church isn't about priveleges - it's about commitments.
At least for me.
I'm not saying that any church should be forced into your life as The Church for you. It can take time to visit churches and find a place where you feel comfortable, where you learn from the preaching, where you enjoy walking in the door. But once you've found the place and you've committed yourself and you've become part of the congregation...
You can't just break a connection by walking out the door again.
For me, church isn't about showing up on Sunday morning, singing some songs, hearing a sermon, and going home.
Church, like my faith, is part of my life. Church family is a very real thing to me - I wouldn't walk away from my husband and kids to shop for a new ones. The people in the church I attend are important to me. I don't walk to my car after church on Sunday and then forget about those people that I just joined in worship. After years of supporting people through health problems, faith struggles, celebrating new babies, kids growing up, tragedies and joys... the people in that building become connected. We care about each other. We love each other. God brought us to that place and forms bonds between us.
I'm also not saying that you must stay in a church at all costs. If the preaching has changed and you disagree with what is being taught, time to go. If an area of ministry has changed so significantly that you feel it negatively impacts your overall church support, it might be time to go.
But I think there should be a strong suggestion that you never leave a church without talking to someone, most likely the lead pastor, about why you are leaving.
Needs change over time, too. But here's the thing - I know that as my needs change, God is going to work to change my church, to change me, or to use me as an instrument to bring about change.
In my recent struggles, there have been 3 things that have kept me firmly planted.
1. The People
I love the people of my church. I have friends there. But more than that, I have people who love me and my husband and my kids. I have people that I love and care about and pray for and want the best for. There are people there who have shared insights in a Bible study that profoundly deepen my faith. There are people there who have demonstrated incredible love and patience and faith that I know I can lean on and learn from.
2. I Made A Promise
I love the way we do baptism and affirmations of faith in our church. We don't do a big open call and invite anyone to come forward and be dunked or sprinkled. Baptism is a serious choice made by the individual or by a child's parents. Baptism is a promise being made to commit to God and to commit to the church. As a member of my church, when there is a baptism, the people sitting in the pews make promises to that person, to that family. We promise to be involved in our church and we promise to set the example for this person being baptized and we promise to raise them up in the church. I take the promises I have made at each of those baptisms and affirmations of faith very seriously.
3. I Got Over Myself
Part of the foundation of my current struggle, since I'm being honest, is my own hurt feelings. And when we get down to it, most any struggle comes down to our own personal hurts, doesn't it? Most of the time, people aren't leaving a church because they suddenly disagree with what is being preached. Most of the time, there isn't a deep philosophical or theological reason for leaving - it's because we're unhappy with something, our feelings have been hurt, or we feel like we aren't being served or appreciated or noticed or whatever. But I recently had a bit of a wake up call when listening to a sermon by Francis Chan on the subject of "Tired of Church." You should click over and at least listen to the first few minutes because me trying to tell you what he says won't have as much impact. But the bottom line is... if there is a possibility (and there is always this possibility) that this is my last breath and I am about to be face to face with the God that I have worked for and worshiped and praised and turned to and chased after and run to... if I might possibly be right in His presence in the next moment... do I really care what so-and-so says about me or thinks about me?
I'm not saying there aren't good reasons to leave a church or to shop around. I'm just saying that there are probably a lot more reasons to stay. I'm saying that leaving a church should be a heavy decision, shouldn't be made in an emotional state, and that you should talk out the concerns prior to actually walking out the door. You can always change your relationship within the church - cut back on involvement, ramp up your involvement, find a new group to study and learn with. Shake it up. But if there is something you don't like, something making you want to run away... maybe you need to step up and face it. Think about the reasons why you go to church and why you've stayed there so far.
Maybe that will be enough.