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Surviving Church

Matt Stone is talking about How to Survive Church. Many of us have CLB stories that involve a lot of pain and something of an exodus or emergence to discover new forms of church. Matt writes to those who are themselves emerging into something, but have stayed put in established churches… what he calls the “forgotten stories of the stayers”, which are also “full of pain and gritty determination.”

We’ve met people like this since leaving church… as a “leaver,” my wife recently swapped stories with a “stayer” that had me thinking about this too. Matt observes,

[V]ery little has been written about those of you who don’t fit conventional church but choose, for whatever reason, to stay within it. I think a significant reason for this is that the emerging church conversation is heavily weighed towards Missional ecclesiology. We mavericks simply don’t have as much to offer in that area do we? Other than an ecclesiology of endurance!

I love that phrase, “ecclesiology of endurance” — it reminds me of Eugene Petersen’s classic, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. Matt offers four reasons why people stay despite the problems they see… I think the chief of these is “for the sake of those close to you,” usually meaning kids or a spouse. By way of survival advice, he then offers ten lessons to help keep people on an even keel as an emerging person (or simply “maverick”) in an established (or traditional) church. I reviewed his list, and have to say it’s great advice, and closely resembles what got me through the last five or six years at my own CLB, though I admit I was never very good at the “take your pain to God in prayer” one. I did a lot of picking my battles and my timing, and hope my choices were wise. Eventually the time came to leave though, and it was, well, rather unmistakable as such.

This is where I would add to Matt’s excellent post… eventually there may come a day when it’s time to leave. You may not see it now and it may be the furthest thing from your mind, but over time if the battles you pick stop yielding any headway on important issues, your time will eventually be drawing to a close. Either you distance yourself or they’ll distance you as a “dissenter.” Trust me on that one. Here’s a few thoughts I would offer on that matter, and since established churches tend to preach with nifty alliterated lists and things, I’ve followed suit. (Hey, I’m contextualizing!)

  1. Divide your time, and focus outward. If church is causing issues, don’t spend all your time there. I recall being there almost every time the doors were open, but it really wasn’t necessary… and I’d have done much better to keep more free time in my schedule and pay more attention to the people outside the church. This is just thinking missionally, and that can be done regardless of your position vis a vis the church. Simply start spending your time that way and see what happens.
  2. Dig your own well. By this I mean learn to draw your own “living water” from the scriptures, and from Christ himself. Instead of relying on the church to feed you your spiritual needs, cultivate the habit of going straight to the source for yourself. Look particularly into some of the issues that may be causing concern about your church… not as a way of digging for “ammunition,” but simply to be sure you’ve got some of those issues worked out fully in your own mind. Learn to approach the questions from as fresh a perspective as possible, shelving your past understandings until you get your own from the text.
  3. Discern your relationships. Look carefully at your relationships within the church, and though it can lead to painful realizations, try to identify the ones which are long-term and which are simply ones of convenience… that is, if either you or the friend were to leave the church, would the friendship remain? Or is your relationship just defined by a mutual involvement in your church?
  4. Determine your boundaries. After you’ve thought through the issues, determine which ones are material enough to leave and which are minor enough to put up with. If practices in the church change in the future, remember your list and govern yourself accordingly.
  5. Dispel your fear. The reason that Matt did not list for people staying in the churches that are causing them pain is most often fear. Fear that you will lose your faith if you leave, fear that you will lose your friends, fear of God’s displeasure, whatever. Fear is fear. If you determine to stay, stay in faith. If you determine to leave, leave in faith. I feel my old charismatic days coming back with the advice to act “in faith,” but think of it if you prefer as acting deliberately rather than falling into any kind of default to the easier position. The “right” thing may be the easier one, but determine it’s the course God wants you on and do it deliberately.

Perhaps you’re crying “Foul!” at this stage and suggesting my advice is simply shaping people up to leave their churches. You’d be right… just not about the “foul” part. Yes, I can be a bit cynical… but with cause. I’ve run into people who feel trapped in a church that causes them pain, but who are afraid to leave for a variety of reasons. The five bits of advice I’ve laid out don’t necessarily drive you from church, but they do make you less dependent on it — less of the bad kind of dependence, that is. None of this is bad advice even if you plan to stay forever. Some of these are things that I did before leaving my CLB, and some of them are things I wish I’d done… but all of them help to strip away the external factors that colour a decision about whether to stay or go. If you are able to voice criticisms and concerns in a constructive way and be heard in ways that produce positive change, that’s fantastic… but if your words fall on deaf ears over an extended period of time, perhaps it’s simply time to move on. This is where you need to not be bound by fear, be able to draw spiritual nourishment right from the source, be confident in what you believe and what boundaries have been pushed too far, and to know who your friends are, the relationships that you will want to carry on and the ones which the disappearance of is something you’re determined not to be offended by.

I have a habit of carrying around a few 3×5 cards (well, 2.5×4″ actually) in my Moleskine so I can jot down quick notes that aren’t as fully-formed as what I might write in the Moleskine, or if I’m quickly making a note at a stoplight or something so I won’t forget it later. One morning early last week when I was out for breakfast by myself, I took out one of those cards and wrote this:

I don’t “settle” well. The age-old observation that there’s no perfect church, so just stick where you are and be happy has a new tone — it meant “don’t look elsewhere” before, and now it just means “don’t bother.”

It was a partial thought, and I’m connecting it to this whole series of ideas… by this I mean that if the church you’re in is causing you continued pain, perhaps Matt’s advice (and even my additions) will help get you through the worst times. But if the church is continually causing you pain and threatening to harm your faith, you have my permission to leave. Yes, it may be fearful, and it may be a journey like Abraham’s, on which you don’t know the destination… but it may be the best thing you could do. I’m not saying it’s right for everyone to leave, but if you’re in a church that’s causing you enough continual pain that you’re considering survival techniques, if you’re attempting in vain to be a change agent and seeing your words fall on deaf ears over an extended period of time, perhaps it’s time to think again. True, there’s no perfect church — but that doesn’t mean you need to settle for where you are. Remember the old joke, “Doctor, it hurts when I do this!” Doctor: “Well, then stop doing that!”

When you’ve given it a try, and worked through all of Matt’s advice toward surviving church as a “stayer”, consider what I’ve suggested… and if you’re not able to work for the change you’re hoping, ask whether God still wants you there, or whether you might find yourself surviving better as a “leaver.” You’ve got some good advice here no matter which road God has you on. And I can think of something worse than slogging it out in a church that continually causes you pain, which may even be abusive, in which you’re powerless to bring change. What would we worse would be sticking it out when God had wanted you to leave.

One Response to “Surviving Church”

  1. Bob Says:

    Great post Bro. Particularly like the bit about facing your fears–naming the fears of “if I don’t go to church, I’ll lose my faith/friends/God’s love. That is a huge one that is place on the believer. As a “leaver” I wonder, if I knew then what I know now, would I have been a “stayer”? Of course, the corollary being could I have learned what I know now if I’d've stayed?

    But I think ultimately we are all “stayers”. We may wander further from the church at times. We may have deeper wounds that will take longer to heal. But in the end (if not here then there), we will be brought back to stay. It’s that realization that is changing “don’t bother” to “What is the bother all about?”

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