Why I Stayed in the Church

436203563If you spend time in the Christian blogosphere, you’ll know that there’s been a lot of talk over the last few days about leaving and returning to the church. Most of the conversation has been sparked by uber-blogger Rachel Held Evans’ newest release Searching for Sunday. In it, Evans recounts her journey of the last few years that has taken her out of the conservative church of her childhood to a being part of a church plant to full-on disillusionment to eventually returning to a mainline Episcopal church. Like others of the Millennial generation, Evans believes her process was, in part, instigated by the failures of the conservatism of her childhood.

If you follow Evans’ blog, you’ll know that this is not a new theme for her. Or for other bloggers in her network. In fact, this disillusionment with the church is a major component of what has made Evans so successful–she voices what a lot of people are feeling. As you can image, this makes her pretty controversial or as the Washington Post called her recently, “the more polarizing woman in evangelicalism.”

And yet.

And yet, I don’t believe that Evans is the only voice for how the Millennial generation is engaging with the church. Nor do I believe that Millennials are leaving the church en masse . But I do believe we are wrestling. We are wrestling with the same questions that Evans is asking, even if some of us come to different answers. At least, I know I have and am.

Part of what I think might be happening is that those of us who are staying, despite (and sometimes because of) our doubts and frustrations, simply aren’t speaking as loudly as Evans and others. I know I’m not. In many ways, I’m not speaking up because of how quickly the conversation turns messy and vitriolic, and quite frankly I spend enough time refereeing fights between my kids. I don’t need more online.

Still, I wonder if I’m doing a disservice to my peers. What if I could offer good answers for our questions? Or at least, I could offer different answers than the ones we’re hearing? Well, at that point, at least we’d have a choice. At least, we’d know that the only solution to our frustrations isn’t to leave the church. We could stay. We could stay and be part of the change we want to see.

A few months after I’d started blogging here at SAL, I wrote a post entitled, “15 Reasons I Stayed in the Church.” I thought now might be a good opportunity to rehearse those reasons. I re-read them this morning and they are just as true as when I first wrote them.

First a bit of background: my husband pastors a small country church in Virginia. We were both reared in conservativism and have experienced the good, the bad, and the ugly of ministry life. We’ve spent time overseas in mission work, struggled through a difficult pastorate (which we eventually left), and walked through a period of doubt where we questioned both our call to ministry and God’s goodness. (It was during this time that I remember telling my husband we had to stay if only because we’d make very bad atheists–even if we didn’t want to believe in God, we’d always have a chip on our shoulder and nothing’s more irritating than a friend with issues. If we couldn’t be happy atheists, it wasn’t worth walking away.)

So when I offer these reasons for why we stayed in the church, I do so as a woman who has wrestled with the church’s messiness–and my own. In the end, they may not answer your questions fully, but at least they’ll be a place to start:

Fifteen Reasons I Stayed in the Church

  1. I believe that there is no such thing as Church (with a capital “C”) without church (with a lower case “c”)–as messy and as difficult as that may be.
  2. I want to be the change in the world that I seek. And that means engaging the problems closest to me. Like in the next pew. Like in this pew. Like in my own seat.
  3. I believe that reconciling nations and people starts at home. If I can’t work toward reconciliation in my own church, there is no way I will be able to accomplish it on a broader level anywhere else.
  4. I’m not a militant separatist. I don’t believe that everybody has to think EXACTLY the way I do before I will worship with them. Even if they are more conservative than I am.
  5. I don’t expect the church to be anything other than it is—a group of difficult, broken people plodding their way to glory. The kingdom of God is coming; it isn’t here yet.
  6. I believe the church is bigger than political parties even if the people attending it don’t understand that. Even if the people who leave it don’t seem to understand that either.
  7. I believe Jesus can and wants to redeem Pharisees as much as publicans.
  8. I believe that by staying in the church I earn the right to speak about the problems I see. It’s the old adage that you can criticize your family but no one else can. By staying with “my family,” I can speak about our failures and the doubts I wrestle with.
  9. I believe that 2000 years of church history holds a bit more weight than my personal experience.
  10. I have Christian brothers and sisters who have been imprisoned and lost their lives for doing the very thing that I would be giving up.
  11. I do not want to lose people I love and who love me and my family. And while there are times that conviction must trump relationships, these relationships act as a grid to help me determine whether my convictions are sufficient enough to risk losing these people from my life.
  12. I need the church to regularly remind me about the things that I don’t like in the Scripture. Things like God’s anger and my sinfulness–things that if left to myself, I would conveniently ignore or rationalize.
  13. I am not an island. My choice to leave church affects everyone else in the congregation. Remove one part from the whole and it is no longer the same entity.
  14. I have children. And while I’ll be the first to admit that it’s dangerous to raise your children in a church that distorts the gospel, it’s also dangerous to raise them apart from church altogether. One way the gospel is expressed is in the loving covenant relationship that happens in the church – I want that to be part of the warp and weave of their experience. I want them to know that real commitment means taking the good with the bad.
  15. Jesus hasn’t left the church. I don’t mean this in a sanctimonious way. I mean simply that after he threw out the money changers, Jesus continued to worship and sacrifice in the temple. His work is to purify and redeem, not to alienate or destroy.

I’ll be honest with you, even as a pastor’s wife, there are days that I struggle with being in a local church. There are also days I struggle with being in a marriage. All of us do. But these struggles don’t necessarily mean that something is wrong. Sometimes they mean that something is very, very right. They might mean that God is using my church and my marriage to transform me in to His own image. And if He is doing that, then the worst thing I could do is try to get out of it.

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Note: I want to make it clear that some church environments (and marriages) are abusive. Please do not read this post as supporting abusive religious contexts. I’m simply arguing for the validity of the church as a whole. Entrust yourself to the True Shepherd and He will guide you.

That Classic Twist

“Young Lady in a Boat” by James Tissot (1870)

There are many reasons to love classic literature–the chance to escape to another time and place; the sheer feast of language and character; or perhaps, more pragmatically, the opportunity to multitask personal development with entertainment. But of all the things that keep me re-reading “the classics,” the most important is that they have such a direct connection my everyday life. They are (dare I say it?) so very relevant.

Part of what makes a work a “classic” is that it captures something about the human experience that remains true regardless of time and place. The story may be set in a backwater town of Judea, the hustle and bustle of London, or South Africa during apartheid, but the characters’ struggles are my struggles, their joys my joys. On the pages of literature, we see the truth about ourselves.

Classics also have an uncanny ability to predict the future. Every so often, you’ll stumble across a section of text so timely, so applicable that you have to look up for a moment to recover your sense of temporal balance. I’ve even found myself flipping to the front of a book in order to double check the original publication date. It’s not that the authors have some mystical, prophetic gift; it’s simply that they understand their own times well enough to predict the natural result of them.

I had one of these experiences this last week while reading Gustav Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. In its day, Madame Bovary was scandalous; a story of wanton love, an adulteress, and a church too ineffective to save her from herself. Flaubert was even brought to trial on grounds of corrupting public morality. But instead of promoting immorality, Madame Bovary is a profoundly moral piece of fiction that shows the consequences of an overly romanticized view of the world. Emma Bovary may be remembered for her adultery, but her main problem was her dissatisfaction with the mundane realities of life. Compared to the dream world she’d discovered in her novels, her doctor husband was too simple, lacked ambition, and would never be able to satisfy the longings of her own deeply-complicated, emotionally superior soul.

It is the perfect warning to a generation of women whose vision of marriage has been shaped by romantic comedies, reality dating shows, and the promise of “true love.”

But of all the things that Madame Bovary reminded me of—including the danger of disdaining the mundane—it’s those prophetic comments that kept me reading. At one point of the story, Emma’s husband Charles is deciding whether to support her request for music lessons. (In reality, she’d suggested the lessons as a guise to cover her weekly rendezvous with her lover.) Not knowing this, Bovary weighs the benefit of them and is finally convinced by these words from Homais, the local chemist:

One should never let any of the faculties of nature lie fallow. Besides, just think, my good friend, that by inducing madam to study, you are economizing on the subsequent musical education of your child. For my own part, I think that mothers ought themselves to instruct their children. That is an idea of Rousseau’s, still rather new perhaps, but that will end by triumphing. I am certain of it, like mothers nursing their own children and vaccination.

And there you have it: Flaubert predicted homeschooling, attachment parenting, and the conversation about vaccinations. Forget mommy blogs; go read a classic.

John Updike’s “Seven Stanzas at Easter”

Seven Stanzas at Easter
by John Updike

Make no mistake: if He rose at all 
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His Flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that — pierced — died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.

And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance. 

From ‘Telephone Poles and Other Poems’ © 1961 by John Updike.