For me, it was the 40-something pastor who had for months been involved in a covert relationship with a 17-year-old in the worship group. For one friend, it was the married church founder who’d been having an affair with his PA for 20 years. For another friend, it was the older leader who felt threatened by the younger guy so brought about a power struggle which led to the church splitting.
For others it’s not a huge one-off event – it’s that church is just… boring. The music is awful, the sermons don’t teach you anything, the relationships are shallow and although you stay for a cup of tea at the end, you drink it quickly to end the stilted conversation (“How was your week?” “Yeah, fine, yours?” “Yeah, good.”) and get out of there.
These are all stories from my life in church, or from those close to me. Because this is church, right? This is church, where the couple who’ve been arguing all morning put their game faces on just before they walk through the door on a Sunday so they can respond to the welcomer’s “How are you?” with a “Great, thanks, how are you?”
This is church, where no one’s actually honest, no one’s actually genuine, and try as we might to use all the correct terminology like ‘accountability’, no one really tells the truth, they give just enough so it seems like they are, but hold back what’s really going on.
So you think about leaving, maybe going to another church, or going to the pub on a Thursday night to talk about theology, or maybe you just find other things to do on a Sunday morning some weeks, and you justify it to yourself because going every week is just tradition, you only do that because your parents did, and didn’t Jesus hate the Pharisees because they were overly religious, stuck in their ways, too legalistic and ritualistic?
But… this is church. Church is God’s great idea. Church, when it works, is a community of believers from all walks of life, all ages, sharing experiences and pulling together to achieve a common goal – dragging the kingdom of God into their local community through the renewal of each other. And we do it because we work best in community. That’s how we’re made. ‘Koinonia’, the word often translated in the Bible as ‘fellowship’ means ‘joint-owner’ and comes from the old practice of a farmer who couldn’t afford a cow putting money in with other farmers to buy one together – it demands commitment.
This isn’t to say that the Church has it all right. It’s fine to be critical of the Church, but what’s important is the heart behind it. Author Jonny Baker argues that dissent is positive, but that you can only constructively dissent out of love; it shouldn’t be angry, fractious or rebellious, but you need to love the church and drive right to the heart of it before you can dissent. Get this wrong and you end up embittered and on the outside; get it right and it can lead to some fantastic new expressions of God’s kingdom manifested in community.
Because there are other stories, different to the ones at the beginning. There’s a couple I know from my old church. I first met them when I was a student and they put on lunch for the young people in the church. They’ve now been part of my life for fifteen years. In that time my wife and I started dating, got engaged, got married and had a daughter. I graduated from university, got jobs, got made redundant, got better jobs, joined the leadership of that church, bought houses, rented out houses and moved away. And when we go back, they know us. They know the background behind the decisions we’re making, the years of conversations that have led us to each point. There’s no shortcut to that kind of relationship. And guess what? They still cook meals for the young people in the church.
Hebrews tells us to run with perseverance the race marked out for us. It’s easy to move onto another church when the one you’re currently going to fails to give you exactly what you want. But short-term gain rarely leads to long-term growth.
So, give it another go. Get there early. Turn your phone off when the service starts so you’re not checking Facebook in the boring bits of the sermon. Stick around afterwards and if someone asks how your week was, tell them. Volunteer for something. Go to small/cell/home/whatever you call it group
Because this is church. A haphazard all-age mix of failures, but for some reason that’s the way God wanted it. And the only way it’s going to get better is if we commit to finishing the race.