I recently read an article about reasons people are leaving church and it resonated so much with me that I had to pen my own experience. I grew up in the Church of England. I don’t mean going to church, I mean feeling as though I lived there. My father was a vicar and the church was adjacent to our garden. I was used to staying after services, waiting for him to finish chatting. My father is a wonderful man, full of grace and godliness. He spent hours with parishioners after church talking and praying with them. I loved this about him, but as I grew older I began to fear for him.
I started to feel a general misgiving and mistrust of church. Things started to feel manipulative. Friendship evangelism felt fake and more akin to marketing strategies in an unethical human resources office than among the people of God. Then there was my Dad. To me, church was the faceless institution that took the best of my father, bled him of his love and energy and then pulled him apart at PCC meetings and made him cry. But Dad remained loyal to the Church. He still loves it and serves it and believes in it with a passion I cannot fault or explain.
I never projected any of my feelings onto God, nor can I ever remember being angry with Him - only people who called themselves church goers. I used to feel sorry for God, having such rubbish adverts.
This unhealthy scepticism manifested itself most strongly soon after I was married. I found myself in another church tradition and for the first time was able to observe from the outside. I saw faithful servants in this church running themselves ragged, whilst other ‘passengers’ seemed to hop on and off as they chose. The ministers were excellent, but never thanked, the children’s workers should have been afforded hero-status, but were often not recognised. Silent sweet-hearted people were busy in the wings and noone saw. We received a wonderful welcome but I was immediately fearful. Some rubbed their hands with glee when they found out what we could DO. It all felt sadly too familiar.
When I wasn’t accepted as a member due to being from a different church, something in me snapped. I felt angry and voiceless. Things finally came to a head when I attended a church meeting and saw one of the ministers at the church being verbally shredded by a member. I was horrified. It felt as though Satan was in the camp. No one else seemed that surprised. When I spoke to the minister afterwards, he seemed hurt but told me that sort of attack was common. I no longer wanted to play. All my toys, and the blanket were thrown out of the pram. How could I go somewhere I was beginning to hate?
Talking about this to a very gracious friend, I was open-mouthed when he warned me that I was becoming hardhearted and critical. It was something I had never associated with myself at all. I had always been told I was like my wonderful Dad. But I began to realise the awful truth. I was struggling to find my place in the body of Christ and I had come to resent others who felt at home where I did not. I even looked down on them, pitying their servant nature and feeling superior because I was not a ‘doormat’. Shame on me.
I pleaded with God about this situation, asking Him to give us permission to leave the church and go somewhere else. I even contemplated started our own house church for a while. But somehow this place had got under my skin. God simply did not give permission for us to go. Instead He slowly gave us the conviction to stay. Through a number of sermons, prayerful friends and visits to other churches, I realised some important things:
- Jesus said “I will build my church and the gates of Hell will not stand against it.” He wasn’t messing about there. The church is his and therefore it is under attack from the inside as well as the outside. But these attacks will not prevail.
- The church is the bride of Christ. Just like a bride, it is taking centuries to get ready for the big day! In many places, the bride of the church isn’t even sure which dress she is wearing - i.e. what she should look like. Some brides are unsure of who they are marrying. They are attracted to other prospective husbands and ‘flirt’ with the idea of marrying them. Unlike other brides, the bride of Christ is being prepared by her husband. When she realises this, she will indeed be beautiful.
- All churches are fundamentally flawed. They are run by normal people with hurts and fears, passions and joys. They have their good bits and their bad bits. No church is perfect.
- Unbridled criticism of the church is tantamount to calling Christ’s wife a whore. Realising that is sobering and humbling.
- I am just as sinful as those I was critical of.
Where to now?
I am firmly committed to staying within the church. Most weeks I still struggle with that decision but that is due to the baggage I am still working through. I want to learn to give of myself again in a godly and whole-hearted way. I know how much I have needed the family of God around me to hold me accountable and to draw me back to God’s word. Out on a limb is a dangerous place for a Christian. I pray that one day I will truly feel part of the body. Until then I am learning the responsibilities and joys of a bride. Maybe you know this feeling too?