If 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, 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- I believe Jesus can and wants to redeem Pharisees as much as publicans.
- 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.
- I believe that 2000 years of church history holds a bit more weight than my personal experience.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.