Love the Church You’re In

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In an era when many Christians are leaving church, content editor Dena Dyer writes, "God placed a deep desire for community in every Christian. That’s why the scriptures refer to the 'body of Christ.' We were never meant to worship, work, or wrestle alone. In reality, it’s dangerous to try."

I’m in love with my church. I’m committed to my church. And I’m thankful for believers who make up the church where my family and I belong.

Now that we have that out of the way, I freely admit that my congregation and denomination are far from perfect. I could give you a list of reasons why I’ve often thought of leaving either or both of them. In fact, this love affair includes a separation and almost-divorce.

Reacting to Pain

In my late twenties and early thirties, I experienced severe depression and a soul-crushing crisis of faith. Two friends buried children, and our community lost eight or nine young people to freak accidents and family violence over a short time. My husband was a youth minister at the time, so he and I were involved in many of the funerals.

After Carey took another job and resigned from the position, I stopped attending services altogether. It was too painful to have people say unhelpful (and often cruel) things—often bookended by Bible verses taken out of context—or to overhear church members making similar statements to my friends. As Barbara Brown Taylor wrote in Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith: “As a general rule, I would say that human beings never behave more badly toward one another than when they believe they are protecting God.”

I wasn’t sure God was listening to my prayers or cared about the world, anyway. Why pretend that he and I were on speaking terms, when what I really wanted to do was be left alone?

Carey didn’t know what to do with me. He’d never seen me overtly hostile towards God. We’d met as missionaries, after all, and attended seminary together. My counselor reassured Carey that once I’d worked out my anger, I would go back to church.

I wasn’t so sure.

At the time, I didn’t realize I was going through a phase necessary to any relationship: the phase after the honeymoon and before committed, warts-and-all love. I needed to be angry … to question … to find a faith that left room for doubt and mystery and lament.

I needed to break up with God.

Returning to Church

My return to faith and to the local church was a complicated, lonely process which would take a book, not just an essay, to fully explain. To make a long story very short, I chose to go back to church, accepting it in its glorious messiness, because my family and I needed it.

There’s that word again: need. God placed a deep desire for community in every Christian. That’s why the scriptures refer to the “body of Christ.” We were never meant to worship, work, or wrestle alone. In reality, it’s dangerous to try.

In returning to the place my sons had been dedicated and baptized, I found a sense of stability I’d been missing. We’ve almost never lived near close relatives, and the rootedness we’ve experienced from “doing life” with the same folks over the years is priceless.

Instead of seeing differences in theology and practice as deal breakers, I resigned myself to the fact that “no human community, not least one that professes to know something of the unknowable, can ever fully align with all our beliefs.”

Recovering Faith

As I participated in communion and worship, my anger subsided. The rituals reminded me of eternal truths I needed to hear and helped me place my questions in the context of both biblical and contemporary believers who had suffered much more than I ever had.

I also started noticing the many humble ways my church’s members reached out to the poor. I began thanking God for friends who brought me meals when I was sick, babysat my kids so I could go to the doctor or dentist, and showed up in droves when we lost a dear friend and father figure in a motorcycle accident.

And when I gave of myself—leading a moms’ support group, singing on the praise team, cooking for sick friends—I made investments in the relationship. My ardor for the church may have cooled for a time, but as I chose to act in loving ways, a spark grew into a flame.

In a recent blog post, author Sarah Bessey admitted, "I never really want to go to church. I just don’t. I’d rather stay home in my jammies and have a lazy Sunday. I like podcasts and books. I have a lot of weirdness about the church as a whole, too: questions and accusations or frustrations, perhaps … But every Sunday that I push through that, I never regret it. I’m always glad I actually got ready and put my children in the car and we went to church to remember that we are the church."

I worry that so many people are leaving church these days. We live in a culture that tends to throw away broken things, and even broken people, instead of doing the hard work of restoration. What will happen to my children’s generation when they move repeatedly for jobs and rely only on social media for their connectedness? I long for them to value face-to-face relationships, even those that are confounding, and to not be satisfied until they’ve found a faith community in which to grow and serve.

Andy Rooney once said, “I’ve learned … that no one is perfect until you fall in love with them.”

The same could be true of the local church.