To some extent, I get why my generation as a whole is leaving institutionalized Christianity. They’re coming to see the missional call of God as something that is better expressed outside the church, because in many cases, the church has failed to live up to its own missional calling. It has turned inward rather than outward, becoming exclusive and judgmental and self-centered. There are plenty of things wrong with the church. Like Adam and Eve, like Hosea’s wife, like Israel, she has prostituted herself to the gods of American culture.
I get it.
But Jesus still loves His unfaithful bride.
I’ve had to come a long way to understand this. I empathize with my generation; I’m part of it. Having spiritual gifts that I believed were worthless in my church tradition, having a restless heart, a progressive mind, and a revolutionary spirit, I went through my own phase of bitterness and criticism.
My story is similar to the stories of my peers, but with one big difference. I understand the frustration and the temptation to give up on the church. I have experienced the pain that the church has caused. I’ve been judged for my appearance, been told I’ve overstepped my bounds as a woman, and even been accused of heresy.
I’ve waded through misinformed doctrine, bad theology, judgmental attitudes, and all manner of distorted truth and confusion and contradiction, stripped away the layers of tradition and preconceptions, and torn off the ribbons and adornments of centuries of religious assumption built upon religious assumption, until my naked hope found a beautifully simple and uncluttered Jesus.
And now I find myself in a unique position. I was raised in a conservative church tradition, broke the mold, rethought and reshaped practically all of my beliefs…and came back.
I came back to the tradition I swore I never would, because I believe that God has a unique role for me to fill. My role is not to run away and be some individualistic rebel without a cause. My role as a broken, messed-up person is to be in community with the broken, messed-up body of Christ. My role, as one who has experienced and empathized with both sides, is to bridge the gap between them.
Here’s what I’ve learned on this journey.
1. Unity doesn’t mean uniformity. I don’t have to agree with your views on predestination or premillennialism to accept you, love you, answer your phone calls at 2am, or call you my best friend. I believe that God calls us to a unity that transcends uniformity. Jesus said, “If you love only those who love you, what are you doing more than others?” By the same token, if we only consider those who share the exact same beliefs on every minute detail to be part of our community, how will we look any different to the world? All these denominations who “took their toys and went home” just look like a bunch of squabbling children. Again, Jesus said we would be known by our love, not by our exclusivity.
2. It’s a misconception that one can just “read the Bible” and find the one solid, absolute truth on any topic with no trouble. There are a lot of things the Bible is unclear about, and just about any position can be argued either way — and it’s been that way for centuries. There’s a reason that much of our theology is widely debated. Just because your brother or sister comes to a different conclusion, doesn’t mean that he or she hates God and is trying to destroy the church.
3. You can discuss differences without debating them. But the moment the Bible becomes a weapon, the moment it becomes about winning rather than about shared discernment and community, you need to backtrack quickly, repent of your divisive attitude, and reconcile with your brother or sister — who, by the way, is still your brother or sister.
4. Community is hard, but God intended for us to live in community. If you peace out because you’re tired of the uphill battle, you’re telling our Triune God that His greatest gift, indeed His very nature, isn’t worth fighting for. Jesus said that he who seeks will find. If, as I did, you hang on with dogged determination to what you know must be underneath the layers of confusion, you will find community there.
5. Leaders don’t leave behind. Think about it. If you turn around and there’s nobody following you, you’re not a leader. You’re just a loner. God has given me a passion for leadership and the strength to blaze trails, but if I become bitter or impatient and strike out on my own, I’ve forfeited my gift and have a lot of wandering sheep to answer for. What good is a scout who explores uncharted territory but doesn’t go back to tell those with him that there are green pastures ahead?
6. If you dislike the church as an institution, then love the church because of the people. If you dislike Christianity for the negative connotation often carried by religion, then love Christianity because of Christ, and love the church because He loves it.
7. It’s a little ironic, isn’t it, to be intolerant of intolerant people? Truthfully, I can’t stand them. I still struggle with it. I find it so much easier to have compassion on truly horrible people of the world than on members of the church who are bound by self-righteous legalism. And although Christ did tend to call these people out more so than “sinners,” it was not out of a spirit of hatred but of love. His righteous anger was for the self-made chains that bound those whose knowledge should have made them the most liberated. But have compassion on the intolerant, and pray for them to awaken to freedom.
8. As I said in another recent post, for every reason to leave a church, there are a million ones to stay. Every smile, every hug, every moment of fellowship, is like an anchor that pulls at my heartstrings and tethers me to the church. I can leave because of pride…or I can stay because of people. Broken, imperfect, irritating, beautiful people…just like me.
Do I still have growing pains? Absolutely. Do I still call out the church for its blunders? Yes, or I wouldn’t be true to my calling. But now it is in an entirely different spirit — one not of bitterness and one-up-man-ship, but of a loving leadership that desires the church to find its full expression of life and freedom in Christ.
And these lessons, beloved brothers and sisters, each one learned along a difficult journey with blood and sweat and tears, are how an angry critic of the church came to love it passionately, learning to make sacrifices and serve in humility. Because in the end, we’re all just trying to be like Jesus — but since the beginning, Jesus just wanted us to be together.