Ever want to walk away from church? Not just your local church but the whole idea?
My commitment and loyalty to attending church has never wavered. Until this year. My focus is not on the specific situation that occurred, which led to the hardest season in my life concerning church. Rather, I want to pickup in the aftermath when my trust in the entire idea of church was terrifyingly broken.
First, to be crystal clear, God is abundantly able to repair ripped relationships within a local body of believers. I have seen it firsthand and it is beautiful. I have been through difficult situations in the past where trust was broken between a church leader and me, which led to me wanting to flee one specific church but not the whole concept. Thankfully, trust was completely restored with that individual within a relatively short time and even deepened and strengthened our relationship. This post about protecting church unity was part of the fruit of that challenging experience, which only a handful of people ever even knew about. However, a hard truth is that resolution can never be forced. As far as it depends on you, strive to live at peace with everyone. (Romans 12:18)
I never could have imagined I would ever struggle with church as I have this past year. I have literally always gone to church. Never have I taken a break. Ever. The longest absence was due to having a baby, sickness, or government restrictions. My husband is the same. Church has never been optional for either of us. Yet, suddenly church felt very unsafe. I know I am not alone in the struggle. Perhaps you too want to tap out of the whole idea of church. Perhaps you already have. This post is for you. I feel for you and am so sorry for what you have endured. Only God fully knows your struggle, but, providentially, I now have had a taste of what you are experiencing. For those who have not faced the deadly temptation of walking away from church, I hope this post will grow a measure of empathy and understanding, for not everyone confidently views church as a safe haven.
A friend of mine did finally tap out on church several years ago after facing excruciating burn after burn from a number of church leaders at various churches. Based on her unique circumstances, I previously thought her choice was justified and only slightly questioned her about it. Sadly, she eventually ended up in unrepentant black and white sin and cut me off when I confronted her. With hindsight, I wonder if leaving church altogether is what caused her heart to harden over time (Hebrews 10:25-27). Despite her truly devastating church history, I realize now that even she needed to continue pursuing church somewhere. When faced with my sudden internal struggle concerning church, her life story strongly motivated me to attend church somewhere no matter how painful to avoid falling into sin myself. Nevertheless, I had to push myself into church at first since nothing about entering felt good. Shockingly, when visiting my church from childhood shortly after all of this began, I physically reacted to entering that familiar place. My body was tense and my heart was racing. Church was no longer a safe, desirable place for me. Even the one I was married in.
While in the short term, my friend’s example helped, I needed something much more compelling for the long haul. Lovingly, God directed my attention to a very convicting passage of Scripture that strongly motivated me to retain connection with the imperfect body of Christ no matter the level of my discomfort.
Ephesians 5:25-30, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her, so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless. So husbands also ought to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself; for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church, because we are parts of His body.”
This passage was truly beyond my comprehension. Christ, my Friend and Savior, loved the universal, true, authentic church so much that He gave His very life for her. People attending church may or may not be part of that group (Matthew 7:21-23; Matthew 13:24-30). But regardless, even genuine Christians, leaders included, are imperfect. (I Timothy 5:19-20; Galatians 2:11-14). With enough time, interactions, and proximity, every single true believer could rub us wrong and hurt us at some level. They are human. No one is a super-saint. Even the apostle Paul, knowing his relentless battle with his sin nature, called himself a wretched man. (Romans 7:18-24). Yet wretches are exactly who Christ loved so much that He sacrificially died for them. He truly cherishes the church. This mind-blowing truth is what I anchored my soul to in the dark valley of broken trust. My mind could not grasp why God would love such a broken mess. But isn’t that what we all are? A heap of individual brokenness (Romans 3:12). Yet He loves me.
One day early in this trial, my oldest and I had a full blown verbal attack back and forth accompanied by tears all the way to the new church, which thankfully was not far from home. Neither of us wanted to be going to the new location. My son was angry. I was angry. Really, we were each tremendously hurting and it came out as anger towards one another. But, I was also stubborn. We were going to go to church no matter what. We slipped in at the last minute and sat down. One big not-so-happy family. Within seconds, tears were flowing down my cheeks. My heart was so utterly shattered. I didn’t want to be there. Another imperfect place with imperfect leaders and imperfect members. Who knew what pain awaited us here. Then came the message, which was all about the importance of gathering every week. Why? Because every time we come together we declare to the world that God did not give up on mankind. Wow. God did not give up on us? Why not? We do not deserve any of His love or grace. The brokenness I had been witnessing convinced me that we, mankind, did not deserve anything good from God. Yet, here I was in a church declaring that God did not give up on mankind. Once back in the van afterwards, my oldest stated what I was thinking: that was a very timely message for our family. Every time we gather we are reminding the world of the very good news that no matter how broken and messed up we are, there is a loving, kind, gracious, compassionate, merciful, forgiving God just waiting to welcome us into His arms.
Knowing of my trial, a friend told me about the Alone show on the History channel, wanting me to gain insight from hearing the participants self-talk, which revealed what motivated them to tap out or persevere. We watched season 8 as she advised. The winner’s mindset was to constantly remember the pain was temporary. The parallel was obvious. My pain was temporary too. Heaven, a place where all tears will be wiped away by the one and only loving, kind God, is my inheritance (Revelation 21:4). If I hope to endure and continue attending yet another imperfect church, I must constantly remember that any pain encountered is only temporary (II Corinthians 4:17).
One day I received a book in the mail as a gift. The title, Wounded by God’s People, immediately gripped my attention. The author, Anne Graham Lotz, began by describing a painful situation at a church she had attended for 15 years. Just like me. She had her babies there. Just like me. Her kids had been baptized there. Just like me. She had been hurt. Just like me. The similarities provided immense comfort as I realized I was not at all alone in my experience. Neither are you. I know how incredibly hard it is to persevere after being deeply hurt, and I’d highly recommend reading the book. One day the bride of Christ will be spotless, holy, and blameless. Meanwhile, we must have courage to weekly worship with the imperfect body of Christ, seeking to cherish it as Christ does. (Side note: The person who sent the book to me had no knowledge of my church situation. How kind of God to directly show His omniscience, comfort, and compassion towards me! I felt so loved by God. II Corinthians 1:3-4)
My encouragement to those in a similiar situation as my own is to be vulnerable and push yourself into a church building anyway. I know your body might shake and you might feel incredible physical discomfort. I completely understand and I am so sorry this is part of the process. Do it anyway. Be vulnerable. When anxiety attacks, cast it on God who cares for you (I Peter 5:7). The search for the right healthy church might take some time, but the key is to actually search. God will bless your obedience to His Word to gather (Hebrews 10:23-25).
Surprisingly, I’ve realized that it is not just the attendees that must be vulnerable. Leaders get burned as well and must work at trusting the new people entering the doors. The new pastor did not know me and has been significantly burned in the past by former members. He has no idea what impact I will make on him. But, I want him to trust me. I do not want him constantly on edge waiting for me to burn him. Showing up at church is a risk not just for you but also for the person teaching you as well. Be brave. Have courage. God is with you.
Our marriage counselor, who we talked to A LOT through this whole storm and has truly been an agent to help preserve our relationship through this tumultuous season of life, said that leaving a church can be somewhat like experiencing a divorce. I’ve never been divorced, but I can imagine some overlap. Accept that you are in a time of deep emotional and spiritual pain. If you have a spouse and children, they too might be experiencing tremendous loss and confusion, but in different ways than you and at different times than you, which requires sensitivity and awareness on your part. In this post I’m advocating that you just show up at church. I’m not recommending you immediately dive in and attend every event and reach out to every person and volunteer for every need. Broken hearts like broken bones truly need time to heal.
At one point, I realized I was not emotionally strong enough to handle a church event I had signed our family up to attend. I felt very weak and fragile and consequently frustrated, but I had to acknowledge reality. This particular type of church event needed to be put on hold until I was more healed. The extras of church can come gradually later. My prayer for you is that you will bravely just enter the doors of a healthy church and attend the main service. Staying away might seem the better path but it reminds me of when I hit the pedestrian. I had to keep driving. I couldn’t stop just because I had a negative physical reaction for years each time I passed a pedestrian. Do the hard thing. Enter the building. Get your body and soul in the door and corporately worship your Father who knows exactly what you are facing. In time, you will hopefully be able to reach out and connect. For starters, just show up.
Four months after our family’s trial began, we were out of town and unable to attend the new church we had been pursuing. Guess what? I missed the new church! So did the kids! That was a very good sign to me. Our hearts were slowly starting to heal. We were being knit to a new part of the imperfect body of Christ.
Once my husband and I knew it was time for the next level of involvement, we began attending the classes before the main worship service and also began inviting families over for meals. To be honest, entering the small room with the small group of people all sitting in a circle was nerve wracking. I felt incredibly vulnerable and uncomfortable. But, I knew this was necessary if we were really going to become part of this body of Christ. Once again, I had to push myself out of my comfort zone. Right off we had to go around the circle and tell everyone what had brought us to the church. This was a painful question for me and all I could manage was a quick, “Church change,” and then let the next person speak. Rebuilding trust with the concept of church takes time and does involve repeated discomfort. Over time, we started connecting with this new body of believers. Different ones in our family would experience grief at different points, but we were also all growing in acceptance of our new situation and striving to make new friends. Seven months after the trial, I had my first Sunday where I did not experience a feeling of sadness at any point during our time at church. Again, my heart was noticeably healing.
I met a man whose wife was hurt by a church 20 years ago and has never returned to any church. That could so easily have become my story. Earlier this year, the temptation to flee every single church was a very real temptation attacking with such ferocity I was shaken to the core. I am so thankful I did not give into the temptation to flee. Recently an old friend asked me how I was liking the new church. My face lit up and I genuinely declared without hesitation, “I love it!” Months earlier, I never could have imagined I would be able to love any local church again. God heals. Praise Him!
Healing is not an easy journey. It hurts. Tears return. But so does joy. Palpable, very really joy has flooded into the deepest recesses of my heart. I am so very thankful to God for giving me the grace to not give up on His cherished bride. I pray you too will muster enough courage to seek out a healthy church and find healing and hope as well.
In Matthew 16:18, Jesus said to Peter, “I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.”
Christ loves the church. He is building the church. Let’s imitate our Savior and strive to do the same. Yet, let us make sure our trust is in God Himself and His Word and not in a local gathering of mere humans no matter how biblical they may appear (Revelation 2-3). “Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD and whose trust is the LORD.” (Jeremiah 17:7). My trust is not in the new church. My trust is in God, who has very clearly lead our family to this particular church for this next chapter of our lives for reasons only He knows.
Very soon Christ will come and the true church will become absolutely spotless! (Revelation 22:20) One day the tares will be revealed. Only the wheat will be left (Matthew 13:24-30). The goats will be put to the side. The sheep clearly on display (Matthew 25:31-46). One day toxicity and savage wolves will no longer wreak havoc to the body of Christ. One day the bride of Christ will shine in all her glory and radiance and we will finally comprehend how wise God’s plan was all along. Don’t tap out. Have courage!