When Church Doesn’t Nourish: Leaving Church in Ordinary Time

When Church Doesn’t Nourish: Leaving Church in Ordinary Time February 17, 2019

They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.
Jeremiah 17:8

The children of the evangelical movement are tired.

We’re burnt out by church and “small groups” and hip tattoos, with sold-out stadiums and Christian “influences,” with sermons that are riddled with cliches and bad jokes, with rigid theology covered up with a trendy pop cultural reference, with performative worship that prefers clapping to heart-change, with stiff worship that prefers “the way we’ve always done it” to the creative, changing movement of the Spirit, with the glossing over of conversations of race or sexuality, with welcoming churches that don’t welcome every piece of us.

Our churches don’t feel sustaining.

These lectionary passages from the Old Testament today talk about shrubs in a dessert – dried out, without roots, subject to hot winds – and that sometimes describes the most churchy moments of our lives.

The lectionary passages say that trusting God and reading Scripture are the sustaining water in a drought, but for some people, those practices are tied to experiences of church that left us feeling rootless and insubstantial.

The Church was supposed to nourish us. It left us dry.

Thus says the LORD:
Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals
and make mere flesh their strength,
whose hearts turn away from the LORD.

They shall be like a shrub in the desert,
and shall not see when relief comes.
They shall live in the parched places of the wilderness,
in an uninhabited salt land.
Jeremiah 17:5-6

Most folks who left church didn’t leave because we found something better that we wanted out in “the world”. People left because staying felt like running out of water in the desert, and we had to leave in order to survive.

People stopped being nourished, so they went hunting for water.

Honestly, a lot of us stayed a lot longer than we should have. We stayed in spiritual places without a hint of nourishment, because we were told that this was nourishment. We were told that these were the streams! If we felt hungry, it was because we weren’t trying hard enough, praying hard enough, loving well enough.

It is your fault if you aren’t being nourished at your church.

Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers;

 but their delight is in the law of the LORD,
and on his law they meditate day and night.

They are like trees planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.
The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
Psalm 1:1-4

Perhaps, Beloved, it isn’t your fault that you weren’t nourished.

Perhaps, Beloved, the religion itself was the dry desert.

Perhaps, Beloved, you are being called out of the dry deserts towards rivers that will never run dry.

Perhaps it was the church, not the world, that was the “uninhabited salt land.”

Today is the Beatitudes, where Jesus famously blessed the poor, the broken, the wounded. But in Luke, Jesus also curses those who are rich and popular and satisfied by their own success.

Jesus has a heart for the ones without boat houses, without podcasts, without tenure, without vacation time, without sexual relationships that are protected by the state.

And Jesus is angry at everything, especially religious institutions, that promise nourishment and then instead are dry deserts for the hungry and thirsty.

“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.
Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.
Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.
Woe to you when all speak well of you,
for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”
Luke 6:24-26

Christ’s Church these days is enamored with popularly, obsessed with growth, bloated with wealth, giving preference to the wealthy congregation sustainers while overlooking the less glamorous.

His Church has prioritized theological purity over helping the needy and political connections over justice for the ones without influence.

His Church has prized emotionality over emotional health, manipulation over honesty, and getting seats at important tables over widening the Table for whatever poorly dressed, badly smelling, unpopular human desperately needs grace.

This is the Church, in all its messiness and sin.

If this Church has not nourished you, it isn’t your fault.

And you who have left to go seek nourishment are blessed – blessed by the Christ who sat at a well, and told a nameless woman about streams of water that would never run dry.

If you aren’t being nourished; if what they told you would nourish you has started to feel like death and not life; if you are hanging on to old ways of knowing Jesus that are taking your energy instead of filling you up; if you are trying to serve the world on your exhausted energy because someone told you that you “should” serve in a particular way; if you feel like you’re trapped in old sins that the old way of doing religion isn’t giving you freedom from; if you feel like you need to repent but the old way of repenting is so full of shame and self-hatred that you don’t know how to come to the streams of grace without killing yourself first; if you are so tired you don’t know what they mean when they say that Jesus’ yoke is heavy and His burden is light;

hear our Jesus speaking to the ones that He loves:

“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.

“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.

“Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.

Blessed, blessed, blessed are the ones who are in-between what is old and what is new, between what is dead and what is resurrected, between the religion of the oppressor and the religion of the oppressed. Blessed are the ones who have left their churches and haven’t found new ones. Blessed are the gay kids. Blessed are the burnt out working moms. Blessed are the worship leaders who don’t believe it anymore. Blessed are the incarcerated. Blessed are the scared. Blessed are those experiencing homelessness. Blessed are the thirsty. Blessed are the ones who say out loud that this stone is not bread, and are brave enough to go looking for food. Blessed are the tumbleweeds.

Blessed are the dried up ones, for God will lead them to streams of water.

To my blessed tumbleweeds, I pray that you tumble your way to new resources and fresh streams hidden away where you never thought to look before. I pray you take a lot of risks and let yourself be blown off cliffs, trusting that at the bottom there’s a river. I pray you risk dropping your bucket into one more well, even though all the wells have been empty before.

“What is the difference between a scribe and a prophet?
A prophet loves the people he chastises.”
Gilead, Marilynne Robinson

This all sounds harsh to the Church, but I deeply love the Church. I love the Church so much that it breaks my heart how often, in history, she falls away.

She is always falling away from Christ, like we are. There’s nothing I’ve said about the Church that wasn’t true 50 years ago, 500 years ago, and 2,000 years ago.

The history of the Church is a constant falling away, repenting, and coming back – coming back, though, because through the grace of God, there were people who were brave enough to say that there was no nourishment here.

The Church needs her tumbleweeds, even though she doesn’t like them. The Church needs the tumbleweeds – she needs us to to get the hell out of Dodge, and go hunting for something sustaining, because when the Church has lost her way, she is just as unnourished and unsustained and broken as we are. She needs the water, badly. She needs the ones who are brave enough to say the emperor has no clothes! The church has no Jesus! The well has run dry!

We tumble out of the Church to find Christ in the world, so that we can bring Him back to her.

We tumble out to find nourishment, not just for ourselves, but so that we can run back to town like the woman at the well, yelling for our sisters and brothers that we have found Water from a well that won’t run dry.

I pray you hear Jesus today, blessing you as you tumble.

Blessed are those who left what was not nourishing,
for they will be blown into what gives life –
for themselves,
for the Church,
and for the whole world.

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