by Jared Johnson
A picture speaks 1,000 words. Have you had occasion to send – or receive – a picture like this recently? I have.
There are over 50 “one-anothers” in the New Testament, and just like biological families, church families are hard. Forgiving, submitting to, praying with, and honoring each other are hard; always have been and they will remain so.
Back in June, before many churches had resumed “embodied” worship – being back in the building on Sunday morning – Barna Group reported that roughly ½ of all “practicing Christians” in the US had not participated in online worship for at least a month. I haven’t seen a hard number more recent than that, but the anecdotal evidence seems unrelentingly negative. “I’m leaving that church – can you believe what they just decided?!” After a couple recent conversations, I gave some thought to reasons that I’d leave my home church of 25+ years.
I could come up with only 3. I would leave my home church if…
- …it closed. I don’t mean “we won’t be meeting here at the building for a time because of the pandemic” closure, I mean liquidation. If they ceased to exist “as a going concern,” then I wouldn’t attend anymore. Obviously, I couldn’t, even if I wanted to. But that’s the point; just like death separates us from our biological family members and we can’t interact with them anymore, a congregation’s closure would mean I couldn’t be part of that church any longer.
- …the leaders “un-invited” me from the congregation. If my brother or parents said I was no longer welcome in their homes, I’d be grieved, but I would comply. Again, same goes for my church relationship. If I were “cut” from that family of faith, I wouldn’t return.
- …I heard or saw evidence of a pattern of covering up unethical behavior by leaders. If a major scandal broke in the local news of a staff member behaving badly, it likely wouldn’t change my impression of the elders and staff as a whole. If a story, however, came to light about habitual malfeasance – if multiple staff and/or elders were involved in making a problem “disappear” – then I would disappear. In Henry Cloud’s Necessary Endings, he describes people who are wise, foolish, and dangerous. The dangerous individual, he says, should simply be dismissed from an organization. I am not a leader at my congregation, “just another guy in the pew.” As such, if my leaders demonstrate that they are among the dangerous, it’s not my place to remove them, so I would remove myself.
I like the approach my home church has taken throughout 2020, but if it were completely the opposite, I think I’d still consider myself part of the church. I might not attend in person; I might adjust my Sunday morning routine in painful ways to work around it, but I’d still think long and hard about how I could still participate. Beyond such temporary concerns, if my church changed the way we did outreach, small groups, discipleship, order of worship, communion, or any number of other things, I still think I’d consider it home.
A devil’s advocate might be quick to throw down the “BUT DOCTRINE!” gauntlet. I disagree. Here’s how and why: if I thought my preacher began spouting nonsense, I’d ask to chat with him. If he didn’t like what I had to say, I’d ask one or a couple of the elders to chat with us. Three of our present nine elders literally watched me grow up in this church. A fourth elder was at the same college I was for two or three years, graduating just ahead of me, and he has been at this church ever since as an intern, staff person, lay leader, and now as an elder. The shared history and relational capital are too much to toss aside flippantly. If our preacher was, to my ears, no longer biblical, and all that relational capital with those elders was spent in my quest to “set him straight,” I have to believe the elders would un-invite me from the congregation. They’d be perfectly justified to do so, since at that point, I would sound a whole lot more like “a divisive person” (Titus 3.10) than I would sound like a prophet.
There are so many reasons to fight right now in 2020 America – and by reasons I mean excuses. Isn’t Jesus bigger than all of it? Paul wrote multiple letters to Corinth. The Corinth church had some guy living with his stepmom and bragging about it – at least, we can only hope it was “just” his stepmom! People in the congregation were suing each other back and forth, fighting and bickering in front of pagan Roman judges. Other people were getting drunk on communion wine while others never got to participate in the commemorative meal. And we think we have it rough when the guy next to us wants to vote for the other guy! Well, near the end of Paul’s first letter to that rowdy bunch, he began drawing his thoughts to conclusion with this:
I passed on to you what was most important and what had also been passed on to me. Christ died for our sins, must as the Scriptures said. He was buried, and he was raised from the dead on the third day, just as the Scriptures said. (1 Cor. 15.3-4, NLT)
That’s the definition of “what’s most important,” per Paul.
Politics? Not important. Well, at least, not most important. Supreme Court Justices – which is still politics – not most important. Masks? Not most important. Physical distance from my fellow worshipers? Not most important. It’s not like we were greeting each other with holy kisses back in February!
Instead of fixating on divisive topics that, by design, get our blood boiling, let’s focus on and make much of what’s most important, per Scripture. A former pastor of mine and friend would frequently remind us “if all your stories about God’s involvement in your life are from 10 or 15 or 20 years ago, you need some new stories.” Is the Spirit evident in, around, and through us? It’s obvious when someone is drunk on alcohol. Is it obvious that you and I are under the influence of the Spirit? Do we freely share stories of our good Father’s incredible interventions and involvement in our lives? Or are we consumed with merely ranting about the scandal du jour?
Don’t be drunk with wine, because that will ruin your life. Instead, be filled with the Holy Spirit… (Eph. 5.18, NLT)
For every blood-boiling news story that we hear any given day, we should have 10x more God stories. I’m just as guilty as the next guy of fixating on the mundane and pointless. But Scripture points us in the other direction.
And while I keep learning that lesson just a little bit more every day, I’m going to stick with my family of faith, come what may. They’re worth it.