Up until this past Sunday and with the exception of Easter, I haven’t been to church since before spring break. Brunching, bicycling, boating, and back porch coffee have characterized our Sunday mornings all spring and summer. This may sound like no big deal. But it makes for the longest hiatus I’ve had from church in my forty-one years of life. I was born onto a Baptist cradle roll and grew up going to church three times a week. I credit my youth group experience as foundational and formational to who I am today. My masters degree is in theology, and I’ve twice held a job in the local church. Apart from his educational path, my husband would say much the same.
Without a doubt, we believe in the significance and ministry of the local church. Yet, for the life of us, we cannot figure out a committed and consistent church life for our family in 2019. We are ashamedly unsettled.
I shoulder the blame for most of our wandering. I have spent too many months and years trying to find or recreate what I thought to be real church. My constant overthinking and my persistent nostalgia for the past has impeded my openness to what God might want to do in the present.
Yet it can’t be said I haven’t tried. Sure, we spent a few years pining for something that felt like church as we knew it as children and teens. But then we pivoted and spent a few more years determined to embrace church as something totally different than our past experiences. We’ve gone “all in” on participation in everything from megachurches to a church plant, with three kids in tow. When it would have been easier to throw in the towel or choose aloofness or anonymity, we have forced ourselves to go and engage.
But still, we haven’t found our place, our way, our home. It’s as if we can’t make our faith, our feet, and our feelings simultaneously align.
If the local church is the Bride of Christ — and I believe that she is — then surely it shouldn’t be this hard. Weddings are fun, right? But maybe this metaphor of a bride and groom is alluding more to the Church-Christ relationship as a marriage than as a wedding. And marriages are much more complicated. Marriages have ups and downs, good times and bad times. A marriage requires tremendous commitment. A marriage is a marathon, not a moment. An organic relationship, not a one-time event.
In talking about marriage, Ann Voskamp quotes her therapist saying, “Any ecosystem that remains always the same, never changes is stagnant. Is dying. If a relationship isn’t changing or growing, it’s dying. The bottom line is: pursuing an unchangeable state of happiness will lead you to a stagnant state of despair. Health means always growing, which means always changing.”
If this is true, we have certainly nailed the “always changing” part in our relationship with church. It’s just harder to remember as Voskamp continues: “The two become one not to become settled, but to become stronger––to persevere and suffer and grow a new life together.”
Growing a new life is hard …and tiring. Anyone who has ever carried a child can attest to this.
Growing up and into a new relationship with church is hard, too.
I’ve always loved the way Eugene Peterson paraphrases the verses on rest in Matthew 11:28-30 in The Message:
“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me; watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”
I think that’s where we found ourselves six months ago or more. Tired and burned out on trying to figure it all out. Embarrassed by our fickleness. And God, in His kindness and mercy, has given us rest. He has given us non-judgmental friends. He has given us space to reconsider who He is and what the purpose of His church is. He has given us the opportunity to talk to the girls about where we’ve messed up and how we want them to view church as more than a duty or a club. Instead of condemning us, He has invited us individually and as a couple to listen more carefully to Him and what He might be saying, where He might be moving, how He might be working. We are learning, slowly, how to quiet ourselves so we can see, and hear, and understand.
If I’ve become more confident of anything during our sabbatical from church it’s that God is faithful, compassionate, and slow to anger. Our relationship with Him and the local church may be ever-changing, but the Lord Himself is not.
I know better now than ever, a decade into our wandering, that the Lord will meet us in the corporate worship, in the communion, and in the community of sinners and saints in a myriad of places. Whether it be in a Baptist mega-church, a Presbyterian sanctuary, an Anglican chapel, a school auditorium, or a downtown gathering of believers, He is there. And He meets us there not because we are faithful, but because He is faithful. As 2 Timothy 2:13 says, “If we are faithless, He remains faithful. For he cannot disown himself.”
This past Sunday evening when the pastor invited us into Communion I heard familiar words with a renewed hope for this season:
The gifts of God for the people of God.
Take them in remembrance that Christ died for you,
and feed on him in your hearts by faith, with thanksgiving.
We are still part of the people of God. God is for us. God is with us. Just as he is for and with you. And in this ever-changing marriage between Christ and His church, one thing is for sure: the bridegroom never leaves.