Most people who grow up in the church don’t question its existence in their lives. They went to church because their parents went to church; they became Christian because their parents were Christian; and they participated in subsequent Christian activities within the church just like their parents. I, however, was not such a person, at least because of one reason.
Before I go further it might be helpful for me to clarify a couple of things. First, when I use the word “church” I mean it in the institutional sense: the buildings you see around town varying in design from traditional steeples to modern architecture, and the people that make up the members of that congregation, including the doctrine they subscribe to in line with their convictions of who God is and how humankind might know him, the Sunday and midweek activities within the walls of the church, the activities outside the walls of the church to better the local community, and the defining practices rooted in a long and rich history of church tradition during Sunday worship such as the singing of songs, the preaching of Scripture, and the partaking of communion amongst all who call themselves believers. For this reason, I use a lowercase “c” as I’m referring to the universal—or, traditional—church across the world.
Second, what I don’t mean by church here is a group of people as an identity. People who have surrendered and chosen to place their belief and hope in Jesus and have therefore been adopted into the family of God. People of different heritage, color, sex, and culture who have been brought under one Name to be forever united with one another and God, and whose aim, through all of their brokenness, is to bring hope and healing to a hopeless and hurting world through the love of God. In this sense, as an identity, I find it the most appropriate to use a capital “C” to describe this Church.
Last, although I was originally a Christian because my parents were, and although I participated in all church activities I either attended gladly or felt dragged to, what made the difference in my own pilgrimage was this: I asked questions.
At times I think my questions were fueled by doubt, and at times I think my doubt was fueled by the questions, but neither was mutually exclusive. There was a dialectic relationship between the two.
To a fault I’ve always been a why person. Why are we doing this thing this way? Why are we doing it at all? This wasn’t always a welcome personality trait by my parents when they asked me to do something, but neither was their response to me of, “Because I said so,” when their patience wore thin.
As I grew into adulthood I realized my experience of church was not dissimilar. I found it increasingly difficult to fit in. Part of my difficulty, I’m sure, was due to my boredom and therefore disinterest. But even as I grew more interested throughout my late teens I felt like how that piece of a puzzle might, having almost the right shape and angles that would seem to fit, but upon trying reveals the piece has to be placed elsewhere. Social observations informed me that people were cliquey and though the message was that everyone was welcome, well, not everyone was. Not only did I not fit in, I didn’t belong.
Against all the odds, I found myself entering into my freshman year of college at a small Christian school in the Chicago, just as the summer waned. As my interest in God had grown, so did my desire to love and serve people. I traveled a thousand miles north to learn more about God and the Christian faith. To sit in classrooms with strangers and learn about not just a mutual interest, but a mutual conviction we wanted to give our lives to. Together we set out to learn how to integrate our faith with our lives.
To that end, the school’s professors and administrators exhorted us find a local church we could join and get involved with. How could I ever begin that process? I wondered. Church was something I attended based on where my parents went, because my parents went. In a new city I was clueless where to look. For the most part, especially in the beginning, I tagged along with classmates who knew of churches in the area.
“Try to settled into a congregation,” said the voices of wisdom and experience, “don’t church shop.” How, then, does one decide where to go to church? We all make those decisions based on whether we jive with the music or if we like the main speaker or pastor and think they’re engaging, right?
With neither answers nor a compass to show me the way, I stopped trying.
If I was just going to church with people I barely knew or connected with, to sing songs to God and listen to a sermon, why couldn’t I do that on my own from my dorm room?
So I tried that.
If finding a church was about music and a good sermon, there was no better place to find exactly what I wanted than the Internet.
Initial fulfillment turned hallow.
I clawed for answers but was left with nothing but a filed-down stamina.
What I made up for in doing things alone I lacked in community. This I knew too well too soon, if my underdeveloped character was any indication. Maybe this is what the writer of Hebrews was getting at when they wrote Christians should not neglect to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encourage one another toward love and good deeds (10:24—25). Certainly I was one of the some at fault for neglect. Being so, I also had no one to encourage and love or be encouraged or loved by.
No man or woman is meant to be an island. We were created for relationship and have an insatiable need to belong. Try though we might, we can never really white-knuckle our way through this. Eventually we either lash out or withdraw, both of which end in retreat.
After a year of this, I did just that. Following my departure from church, I planned my escape route to leave school.
My plan was nearly fully formed when I was introduced to a friend of a friend. You can never be too sure how such introductions will go over, but this one did something to my faith and personhood through which I’ll never be the same.
Because space is limited, so must my explanation be of what I experienced. What I can say here, though, is that all of my longing for friendship and community and belonging and love were met here. This friend of a friend quickly became my own friend and remains to this day one of my dearest. He taught me how to be a friend, how to love, how to follow Jesus. Sometimes I don’t think I really was following Jesus before I met him; and sometimes I wonder if I would be following Jesus today if it hadn’t been for him.
He and another friend of his moved to Chicago with one goal in mind: make disciples. This didn’t necessarily mean converting people to Christianity—if that happened, great. More so, it was about loving people who didn’t know Jesus in the hope that they would, and loving people who did know Jesus in the hope that they would know him better. That they would then build up other people to know and love and follow Jesus.
You will never meet two people better at friendship than they. And the fruit of their efforts was a small community of like-minded and like-hearted people. The 10 of us all came from different faith backgrounds and different church experiences. Looking back we were a group of misfits. Tired with previous experiences and weary from the baggage, we were searching for something fresh.
Because there didn’t seem to be anything inherently biblical about Christians gathering on Sundays as much as it seemed traditional, we met on Tuesdays. Practically speaking, it was also the only day during the week everyone was able to. During that time, we shared a meal together and enjoyed one another’s company; we studied the scriptures together and we prayed together; we served communion to one another and, because all good evenings end with something sweet, we had dessert together.
It’s necessary to point out that our success as a group together wasn’t because we met consistently every Tuesday, but also because we were involved in one another’s lives outside of that one night of the week. Both—the Tuesday nights and time spent outside them—informed the growth and health of the other.
Over the years the group would become a revolving door. Not because of anything negative, but because of life’s natural flow. People move. To new towns and cities and seasons they move. I was no exception.
In a word, the Chicago community gave us love. And because love was present and exchanged it gave us another word, belonging.
If people don’t feel loved they arguably don’t feel like they belong; and if they don’t feel like they belong they probably aren’t being loved. To me, the two are inseparable.
The search to belong is among the greatest problems churches face today. We talk about community, but struggle to know what it looks like. We love the idea of belonging, but we can’t quite figure out how to make people feel like they belong. We tell them they do, but we can’t measure how they actually feel.
So, we create programs. We want families to feel like they belong, so we create programs for their children; we want the adults to feel like they’re connecting with one another, so we create programmed small groups for them to attend and discuss topics. When a program fails we implement it again, but we package it differently so it looks like something new, something innovative, something that will work.
We program and then reprogram and then reprogram again. We have replaced relationships with programs. And this is why: church is not relational.
The one thing we want the most the church doesn’t know how to give us, relationships. So accustomed to things the way they are, we turn to the institution and its programs to give us what only people can. When it doesn’t deliver we stay around but exist disappointed at best, or leave church and become hurt and bitter and calloused at worst.
Part of what drew us to the Gospel was hearing that God is relational, that we were created to live in a loving relationship with him and his creation. As if it was almost instinctual, we knew that if this were true of God it must also be true of God’s people and reflected in them. Did we have unrealistic expectations? Did we place a burden on their shoulders too heavy to carry?
If we run our fingers through the layers of the Gospel, with all of its texture and depth and significance, we find the metaphor of adoption. This, laid out by the apostle Paul in Romans, reveals to us that since we have accepted Christ we have become sons and daughters of God, adopted into the family of God. Being accepted into a societal category like a group of friends or new workplace is one thing; being adopted into God’s family is quite another. With it comes the assurance that since we are his children we are also his heirs with Christ, and that nothing can separate us from his love and that inheritance.
The blessing is as rich as the responsibility is weighty. The apostle Paul made no mistake in the language he used. The familial metaphor gives us not just a glimpse into his idea of community, but a roadmap to work toward with one another.
If I sit around in church too long I get anxious, mostly because I’m beginning to feel stagnant. I go back and read the gospels and then look at my life and compare them and I realize they don’t add up, that my life doesn’t make sense in light of the Gospel.
Since I am a Christian, I practice wholeness by imitating Christ. This means even following him into the hard, dark places. But I’ll be the first to admit that I want to stop regularly before the day is done. What I’ve been left with, then, is the awareness that I haven’t offered to others the very things I felt I was left without, the very things that pushed me away.
Despite some reasons being of convenience and practicality, I’ve since returned to church in general, and a traditional model in particular. Not because I believe the Church is the answer to the world’s problems; in fact, I believe it’s God who will bring healing and the Church is meant to be an aid and means to that end. The Church is comprised of broken people, and broken people can’t fix one another. What they can do is be there for one another. Try though they might, they don’t always succeed. Sometimes failure is more familiar while we work out what success looks like. But I believe the more we try the closer we get. And the more we get it right the more it will become familiar and, I hope, second nature.
Still, although we get hurt and hurt others, and although programs and institutions frustrate us, nothing changes about Jesus and who he is. Let us remember this, lest we direct our hurt and frustration and anger at him, which unfortunately is so often the case.
That’s what ultimately drove me back: the need to be reminded of the God who is unchanging in character and unmoving in his love for me despite my ignorance and stupidity. I’m too helpless to stumble on this reminder on my own. Sure, the reminder might pop out in a book here and there or in a random conversation with someone, but here or there and randomness is not enough for my soul. This is something I need weekly.
Generally the reminder doesn’t come through a program or song—though I don’t think it an impossibility. More often the reminder comes when I approach the communion table, which is to approach the throne of grace. It reminds me of the unchanging God, of the sacrifice and triumph of Jesus, of being held by God and adopted into his family, of my brothers and sisters in the faith who are just like me but are trying. And it pushes me to try, also.