“Should we go to church this morning?”
My wife and I ask each other this question every week. We have for the last two years.
It didn’t used to be like this. We once considered our church a family. We knew all the staff personally. For two years I led the twenties and thirties age group. I taught the Sunday school lesson for children in kindergarten through third grade. My wife coordinated the church picnics. She was an integral part of planning a church plant in another country, and then sending the church planter and his family. She then became the liaison between the family and our church. We led a small group. We were involved.
But then the church grew larger and larger, and the ministry began to focus on buying a new building. At the same time, my wife developed back pain that eventually led to surgery. For months, she was unable to sit long enough to even attend church. We were unable to be involved.
No one asked how we were doing or seemed to care. Our small group served as a microcosm of the church as a whole: if we gave of ourselves, they cared. If we needed anything, they didn’t care. It seemed we were only as valuable as we were useful.
We felt as though we were outsiders at a family reunion.
We left to visit a smaller church, which we attended for close to six months. But we still missed our old church; we’d been a part of that church for seven years. Our boys had grown up in that church.
One Easter Sunday, we returned. No one had even noticed we hadn’t been there.
We gave the church another five months, but nothing changed. The loneliness I felt amid one thousand people was much worse than that of being alone.
We went back to looking for a new church home. I visited eight churches in two years. I attended Catholic mass for four months by myself. My youngest son and I visited a Greek Orthodox Church. My wife, both boys, and I went to a few services each at a Reformed church, a Lutheran church, and a non-denominational hipster church, among others.
But more often than not, we didn’t go to church. We made pancakes with our boys, read the Bible, and prayed the Lord’s Prayer.
I felt guilty for not going to church. As a kid, I was at church every time the doors were open. But during this time in my life, when I went to church, I felt disappointment at best and anger at worst.
Our story is not life-threatening. It doesn’t involve abuse, scandal, or exploitation. But it does hurt.
My wife and I saw Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk recently, a film portraying the evacuation of British troops from a French beach about six months into World War II. Four hundred thousand soldiers were trapped on the beach waiting to be rescued by civilian boats because the German Air Force had bombed the large British naval ships.
Near the close of the film, several of the rescued soldiers disembark a boat and are handed blankets by an older gentleman. As he gives away the blankets, he tells each soldier, “Well done. Well done, boys.” One of the soldiers replies to this, “All we did was survive.” To which the older gentleman says, “That’s enough.”
It is enough to survive.
While I’m not suggesting our church experience was the same as the experience of World War II survivors, my mind couldn’t escape some parallels. Church hurt my wife and me. That’s not the way it’s supposed to be, but it is the truth.
I think Jesus recognized this kind of pain. He often spoke out against religion and those who perpetuate religiosity. I think God sees the way some ministries and churches care more about their plans and programs than people. But Jesus spent most of his time face-to-face with people. Individuals always mattered more to Jesus than institutions.
“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly” (Matthew 11:28 MSG).
I believe Jesus cares and wants more for his followers. He says, “Well done.” “But all I did was survive.” “That’s enough,” he replies.
Dunkirk happened early in World War II. The soldiers who lived did so to fight another day. The evacuation allowed them to return to England, regroup, and continue the fight against the evil of Nazi Germany. Survival was enough because it granted them the ability to continue the fight. Not right away. But soon.
Similarly, for those hurt, broken, and wounded by a church, “Well done.” Take the time necessary to recover—but then get back out there. Don’t lose faith. Don’t give up hope. Jesus is still the way to life.
But how? I’m sure the answer is different for everyone, but a story from the Old Testament book of 1 Kings carved a path for me.
Elijah was a prophet who saw the corruption, politicization, and greed of his contemporary religious leaders, just as we see today. After a dramatic showcase of God’s presence and subsequent threat on his life from the most powerful person in Israel, Elijah fled, complaining to God that he was the only one who still followed him—and that he was done.
God reveals to him that seven thousand others were hidden away who served God fully. Not only that, but God sent him to a man named Elisha. Elisha would become a friend and brother to Elijah, someone he could count on to encourage him and strengthen him.
I’d not thought of this until now, but I also have an “Elisha”—someone who struggles with many of the same issues I do and is a regular source of encouragement to me. I have felt alone many times, but this friend reminds me that I am not alone. I see now that even when the church let me down, God sent a person to encourage, just as Jesus would have.
My wife and I have not found a church we want to attend regularly. But we have enough people around who care for us, challenge us, and encourage us that we accept that reality. I don’t think we are meant to be disciples of Jesus alone. But that doesn’t mean we’re part of a traditional-looking church.
Have you had a similar experience in church? Have you ever lost faith when you felt as though the church acted like a business and ignored people? How did you continue on?