Going back to a previous post on losing faith. A common theme that all the leavers had in common was a bad church experience.
Yes every story will have two sides and we’re only hearing the disenchanted voices here. Yes, there were other factors in their leaving – not least perhaps a pretty thin grasp of Christian orthodoxy?
But let’s face it, what’s being said here is all too recognisable for anyone who has been involved in church life for any length of time. So what follows are a couple of posts sketching some basic perspectives that need to be kept in mind in order to ‘keep going’ as a Christian actively engaged within a church community.
Love to have your thoughts on this too. What would you add? What keeps you pressing on being part of what is a ‘volunteer activity’? Or have you been tempted, or have given up? Why? When is it right to leave a church?
Anyway – here’s the first one:
1. An understanding of the ambiguous nature of the church
Churches are ‘ambiguous communities’.
One the one hand (if there is spiritual life at all) there will be grace, care, friendship, sacrificial service, fun, worship, teaching, vulnerability, community – centred around the good news of the gospel and the love of God. There is nothing on earth like a Christian church functioning well – as a globalised, equal, diverse, self-giving, repentant and joyful community focused on taking its part within the redemptive mission of God.
Coming at this via pneumatology – to be in Christ is to have the Spirit. A Christian by definition is someone who has been baptised in the Spirit (1 Cor 12:13). It is the Spirit who unites believers across all social, ethnic and gender barriers within the one body of Christ. And the sign of the Spirit’s presence is his fruit so it is not unreasonable to expect that authentically Christian churches will be attractive communities of people marked by healthy relationships borne of the fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness etc).
If this vision isn’t grasped experientially through the Spirit, the church will be doomed to mere functionality, legalism and tradition. If such life isn’t at the heart of the community, flowing out from each individual’s own living faith in Christ, then over time it will probably (and rightly) die.
On the other hand, churches are full of people being people: personality clashes, disappointment, disagreements, power struggles, factionalism, small talk with strangers, different visions of what the church should be, conventionalism, conservatism, formalism, individualism etc. And then there are sins of pride and lust and envy and jealousy and adultery and greed and unforgiveness. You get the picture.
If ‘idealists’ and ‘reformers’ don’t get this, they will always be disillusioned, disappointed, frustrated and angry at other people’s failures to believe and behave in a way the idealist thinks they should. But such judgementalism can be a mask for spiritual arrogance and a lack of humility and awareness of our own brokenness. Jesus has a bit to say about beams and specks here.
I remember talking with a leader of a church that people routinely held up as a wonderful example of what church should be (for there was a lot of good stuff happening). He downplayed the hype, and said the church was just like any other group of Christians – a bunch of sinners in the process of being saved (and he listed, [without naming names!] a bunch of robust sins as examples).
Was he too negative? Is seeing the church and the Christian life this way too pessimistic? Or was he simply being realistic?
How you answer that will to a large degree depend on your anthropology. Are you with Luther’s Reformed realism of simul iustus et peccator (simultaneously justified and a sinner)? As beggars telling other beggars where to find bread?
Or a more optimistic anthropology – like Wesley’s doctrine of ‘perfection’ and the holiness movements that followed; leading into the modern Pentecostal and charismatic movements and their (usually) emphasis on victory, transformation and the power of God to enable the Christian to live a holy and pleasing life for God’s glory.
There’s the ambiguity of the church in a nutshell. For both are true.
To keep engaged in church for the long haul, without becoming either jaded or cynical, both sides of that ambiguity have to be held in tension.
Personal experience of the Spirit and a passionate vision of what the church is and can and should be.
Alongside a realistic understanding of self and others as imperfect people in need of tons of grace, forgiveness, ongoing repentance.
Comments, as ever, welcome