Leaving Church: Jesus Leaves Churches Too

leavingchurch-coverTony Steward hasn’t been to church in over a year.

At least that was what he said back when his website was still up in 2013. After working as a pastor at two different mega-churches for over ten years, Steward walked away from it all and didn’t look back.

Well…almost. He wrote a blog talking about how after seeing how “the sausage was made” at church, he wanted nothing more to do with it. The truly haunting thing about his post was the withering (and somewhat true) criticism of that which he was leaving behind.

And the biggest reason he gave for not going to church anymore? He no longer saw the value in it.

“I see little value in our modern concert halls and hopeful authors. I find pulpits full of small minds, impatient elitists and disconnected politicians. I find them offering very little in comparison to the grand nature of our God, his Word, and the Faith his Son has left us to live out. I see none call people to greatness of soul, honesty of intellect, conviction of heart and freedom of voice – cause then they wouldn’t need them anymore.”

Ouch.

Apologizing To Prophets

I saved Tony’s entire post on Evernote back in 2013, and since then I’ve read through it a couple of times every year because of Tony’s brute and insightful honesty. While I am not a fan of cynics, I do appreciate prophets, and I read his words as a gift because I’ve personally seen and experienced how…occasionally…his description rings true.

So today I’m finishing the series I’ve been in responding to last month’s The Atlantic article called “America’s Empty Church Problem.” I wanted to do this series because it’s not everyday that The Atlantic argues that people ought to give church another try, or at least points out the problems that happen when so many people leave en masse.

And I’ve argued (judging from the comments unsuccessfully!) over the past several weeks that the church really is better for the world than most of us know.

I believe (along with The Atlantic article) that church is the antidote for growing racial/classism/political divisions that we are seeing, and that church can help reverse the societal breakdown.

But despite the overwhelming evidence and statistics that church attendance is good for you and for society, people are still leaving.

So today, as I end this series, I wanted to try a different approach.

I’m sorry.

Sincerely. I’m not saying this as a rhetorical move to get more blog views or as a tongue in cheek apology to manipulate you to coming back.

Tony’s assessment is easily recognizable to me, and not primarily of other pastors, but what I see in the mirror. Often I’ve let my own personal ambition, my desire to appear successful or just to keep “the machine” that is the church institution running smoothly go unchecked.

Looking back on my 15 years of ministry in large churches, there’s a lot that I’m proud of, and a lot that I’m not.

Like those times that I didn’t tell the whole truth, or the temptation I’ve often yielded to to use people in service of the greater good, how sometime I can treat people like a cog in a machine and not as a brother or sister made in the image of God.

For all that, and much more, I’m sorry.

Repenting of Self-Righteousness

I’m the pastor of a large church, the kind of church that many people hold up in their mind as all that is wrong with the world. And while on this side of the pew I still believe in what we are doing together, I want you to know, not just that I get it, but that I recognize my own personal responsibility in why you might leave in the first place.

Church is at her best when the people leading/serving her aren’t doing church for the people but equipping the people of the congregation to be the church.

Churches are at their best when they are filled with people who know and care about each other, and for whom the word “family” isn’t a form of corporate branding but a real and significant term of endearment they have for each other.

So today, instead of pointing out all the ways that people who were leaving church are slowly starting to reconsider what they left, or again making the argument that church needs you, and your country needs the church, I just want to say I’m sorry.

I have a hunch that there are a lot of pastors out there who are starting to realize that all the accommodations that we have made to Western culture have a massive downside.

I think a lot of us are realizing that in creating a place where church is easier for everyone to belong to, we’ve also made it less valuable to belong to it.

So a little autobiography. My first ten years in ministry, my number one priority was making a name for myself. It’s not fun to write that, but it’s true. And in order to do that, I knew I had to make as many people happy as possible.

I stood up for or against very little, and since I was a good public speaker and had the ability to convince people I was a “good” church leader with a political savvy. For most of my ministry I resembled a lot of what Tony said he was leaving.

But a few years ago, I spend several months reading the Church Fathers and Mothers. People like Gregory of Nyssa and Julian of Norwich and Thomas Merton, I read them for a class I was auditing and they changed my life.

Reading from these saints from different traditions and times speak against the Spirit of their age (and somehow in doing so sounding so contemporary and prophetic today) I noticed something. They were connected in a way to God that I never had been. Following God wasn’t so much like running a business for them,  but was a real and present and ultimate reality.

And so I started trying to discover more about that God.

This lead me to confessing to my leadership that I was using people more than loving them, preaching more about prayer than actually praying and reading to sound smart and not to help people grow in greatness of soul and the love of God.
And that lead to me to the rediscovery that there really is a God who is there, and this God cares about the way His Church functions.

Jesus Stands Above the Church

So this past Sunday, I preached out of Revelation 2-3, where Jesus addresses the 7 small churches in what is today known as Turkey.

Jesus affirms and encourages these churches for their service and devout belief, but for some of them He also stands against them for their idolatry and their accommodation to Roman culture.

And it dawned on me as I was writing this sermon that Jesus is with these churches but not the same as them. Yes, the church is the Body of Christ, but when the church isn’t being what She is called to be, Jesus threatens to take away Her light.

Sometimes we over-identify the Church with Christ and in doing so we can communicate that God is just rubber-stamping whatever decision we have already made. Sometimes we forget that church can not just be whatever we decide for Her to be, and more importantly, we forget that the most important defining characteristic of any church is not how the member see her, or how the outsiders view Her, but how Jesus sees Her.

And sometimes, if Jesus doesn’t like what He sees, He will take His light away from Her.

I don’t believe the popular myth that you can be a Christian without the church, but I do believe there are some churches (of all denominations and sizes) that aren’t very Christian.

So take heart Tony, take heart all of you who feel like leaving church was the only option you had left if you were going to be able to find God. Your experiences with church might have been shallow or even abusive, but there are plenty that are out there that are not.

And chances are if you had to leave a certain church to find God, Jesus might have left it first.

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