Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The Church is a Messy, Turbulent, and Sometimes Nasty Place: Why I joined a Church When it Sometimes Sucks

We weren’t allowed to go back to the church. We’d essentially been excommunicated. It was real. And there was something slightly exciting about being kicked out of something based on our personal convictions. There was something about it that made you feel martyr-worthy righteous, even if there was a subtle sense of embarrassment. But for my family, our embarrassment was for the church and their behavior. How dare they throw us out? Just for not agreeing with their stance on church membership.

I was in my teens when my family was asked to leave a church. I remember it pretty vividly. I wasn’t emotionally attached to this church—the service was long, the music was boring, and there was only one person my age. Leaving didn’t bother me much. Getting kicked out also propelled our family to formally join a different church. We called it a “country club” membership and our purpose for joining was to get all the naysayers off our back and keep them from judging us for not committing to a congregation. The reason we joined didn’t bother me, either. I was just glad that we seemed to be settling on something and our church hopping days were—maybe—coming to an end.

So I stood at the front of the church with my family after going through the motions of giving a testimony to an elder that was—I’m sad to say—a total lie. I said the vows with my family, knowing it was just a formality and once we got tired of this church we’d find another one and the words were nothing but a security blanket in case someone hassled us for not being real Christians (church membership in the south was a big deal even if you weren’t actually a believing Christian).

Back then, I’m not sure I was a “real” Christian. I didn’t know what those vows meant and I thought church membership was dumb if not laughable. However, there was something mystical about the connection to a body, to a congregation. There was something comforting about being committed to one church. Even so, because of the means through which we acquired our membership, I hadn’t really thought it was my decision. Even after my family moved on and I decided to stay, I still didn’t understand the importance of membership. I didn’t get it, not until my church went through a split. It happened a year after we got a new pastor

This new pastor entered our church, riding a white horse and wielding a giant book of dreams and visions for a church that was already bursting at the seams. Before long, we were at 3 services and my church was suddenly a place I was proud to call home.

Before this pastor entered the scene, I was following in my family pattern of church hopping—looking for something that would meet my needs as a single woman in the south. I also felt my church was a bit too dressed up and perfect for me. I needed something that was a little less put together and a little more au naturel. For some reason—I believe it was the Holy Spirit—I decided to stay. I was already coming to a place where I was seeing the importance of sticking with something, of committing to something, like a marriage. As long as the church was telling the story of Jesus, I didn’t have a good reason to leave.

Then the split happened. I was caught in a whirlwind of secret and not-secret meetings. I was standing in the middle while my friends fell on different sides of the argument. Should I leave with the dissenters? Should I side with the rebels? Should I support the establishment? Who was in charge? Where should my loyalties lie?

Again, I think it was the Holy Spirit who caused me to stay. That and what was becoming my mantra: as long as the church was telling the story of Jesus, I had no reason to leave.

The church in the aftermath of a split can be a tragic reality. While tragedy and financial woe followed the departure of a majority of members, beauty and grace followed, also. It was a chance for a fresh start, for a reassessment and asking why we do the things we do. After 5 years of sticking with a church I wasn’t sure I liked, I suddenly fell in love with it.  

It was an exciting time. I was needed. I was a part of a team and I felt like those of us who stayed were all in this thing together. The community knit together and became a family when before, it really was just a country club with some Jesus sprinkled in. It became a place that wanted to be a part of the city, rather than a place that put up white picket fences to bar entrance to those who didn’t look like us.

But it wasn’t all gumdrops and roses. There were times I failed the church and the church failed me personally. There were times I left crying because I felt out of place and times I wished I felt comfortable being real. However, this same church was a family to me in many ways that my biological family couldn’t be. I received care and support when I was preparing to leave for the mission field. I found a community in the places I volunteered and in my small group—friends who I still stay in touch with and make a point to see when I visit the city where I grew up.

But the good things didn’t happen in the blink of an eye and the bad things didn’t go away over time. The church can be a community that fills holes our biological family leaves behind and a means of revealing the Gospel that reading the Bible at home never can. The church is also a messy, turbulent, and sometimes nasty place. So why join? Why attach yourself to it by formal commitment and saying vows and such?

Here’s why I said yes to the church: Jesus saved the church. He died for His people. His blood covers a body. His instruction is for a family—a community. By joining a church, I’m saying yes to a body, joining a community, and making myself a part of a family.

I joined because I wanted to formally be a part of the family of God. I wanted an earthly authority that wasn’t me and Jesus going this alone. We’re called to fight this battle with an army, not just ourselves and the Holy Spirit. There’s enough indication of a formal assembly in scripture to make me think this institution is important to God.

And if it’s important to God, I want it to be important to me. So I joined a church a few weekends ago. This time I didn’t think of it as a country club and when I told the story of how Jesus saved me, it wasn’t a lie.

Like the best of families, this church will fail me and I will fail it. I’ll use my gifts selfishly and my church family will neglect to shepherd and care for me. I’ll get angry with this family and this family will probably be frustrated with me. But the church is the means through which Christ works out redemption in the world. It’s a means through which the world experiences His Grace. It’s a place of gathering to hear the story of Jesus and partake of ceremonies that remind us of that story. Every week, and throughout that week, I’m meeting up with fellow warriors. We’re refreshing each other in order to go into battle together.

The story of Jesus didn’t end on the cross. It continues now—through the church. Jesus already chose me to be a part of that story. And just like my personal story is pretty messy, the story of the church is pretty messy, too. And just like Jesus took my messy personal story and brought redemption to it, Jesus brings redemption to the church and loves it in and through its bad days.

It’s a pretty cool story.

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