The name for this blog comes from the Hebrew word merchab. Merchab is a masculine noun that appears most often in the Psalms of the Hebrew Scriptures. It means a broad or roomy place, an expansive place, a wide place. Read more...

March 20, 2010

"When is it the right thing to do to stop going to church?" (A response to David T. Brown)

Dear David T. Brown,

Thank you for your comment on my post “Church – A Response to Jaqueline.” Your words touched a deep chord in my heart, hence this rather lengthy response.

I am the last person in the world who should lecture anyone on “When is it the right thing to do to stop going to church.”

I often say that I became a priest because God knew that the only way I would ever keep going to church is if I was ordained. My favourite verse in the Gospels is Luke 5:16, where Luke tells us that Jesus, “would withdraw to deserted places and pray.”

However, it would be less than honest for me not to acknowledge the context in which Luke 5:16 occurs. Jesus has just healed a leper. After the leper is healed Jesus instructs him to “Go and show yourself to the priest, and, as Moses commanded make an offering for your cleansing, for a testimony to them.” I believe this instruction was given in order that the leper might be fully incorporated back into that community that had once shunned him due to his disease. It must have cost this healed leper dearly to return to the very people who had excluded him and seek reentry into their flawed community. But Jesus valued the communal expression of faith even when it involved pain.

So, I cannot walk easily away from the embodiment of faith as it is presented to me in an imperfect vessel.

I believe that some form of Christian community is a necessary part of Christian spiritual practice. We grow by finding our way in difficult, uncomfortable, awkward situations. The writer of Colossians did not say “Bear with one another,” (Cols. 3:13) because he thought community was going to be easy, but because he understood exactly how challenging it is.

We must ask ourselves what it is we are looking for when we go to church. Are we looking for a comfortable, warm feeling? Or are we consciously choosing to enter into spiritual boot-camp where we know there will be friction, frustration, pain, and disillusionment but where we also know we will grow in our ability to embody the humble self-giving sacrificial love of Christ?

You say that “the church that I love should not be a chore.” But surely it is through doing our “chores” that we experience growth and depth in our lives. Surely, the world only functions when we human inhabitants of this world choose to do our “chores,” in faithfulness to God’s call.

What is it that makes it so difficult to be around people who “don’t want to move into the reality of the today as I see it”? Do we need people to see the world as we see the world in order to remain in community with them? If those who profess a common faith in Christ cannot remain together in spite of differences, what hope is there that we might fulfill the ministry of reconciliation to which we are called by Christ?

Again, please do not hear me saying, we must stay in a church community at all costs. Clearly, there are times when a church community has become so abusive and dysfunctional that the only healthy response is to depart. But, I believe this is less often the case than justifies the number of church departures we have experienced in the past few decades.

What might churches look like if they became places where we truly practiced, “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control”? (Gals. 5:25)

Staying in any human community is always difficult. There are many things I find painful about church. But, I wonder if I better serve Christ by leaving or by staying and bearing witness to the reconciling healing power of God that enables me to walk alongside people I often find difficult?

Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23) Perhaps the church is my cross. Perhaps the community of Christ is exactly the place God has given me to learn what it means to “deny” myself and to practice dying. Perhaps it is only along this painful road, that we will together experience the true resurrection of Christ in our lives.

Brian McLaren, in his book A New Kind of Christianitybeautifully articulates the purpose of church when he writes,

The church, then, in Paul's mind, must be above all a school of love. If it's not that, it's nothing. Its goal is not simply to pump knowledge into people, but to train them in the "way of love," so they may do the "work of the Lord," empowered by the Holy Spirit, as the embodiment of Christ.

Learning in the school of love is always going to be painful. The school of love will always require tools that are never going to be popular. The practice of church requires patience, forbearance, enormous charity, faithfulness, gentleness, generosity, humility and then more patience. I am not sure where else we are going to learn these skills, if we refuse to stay in the messy, perplexing community, we call "church."

In the end no one can tell anyone else when "is it the right thing to stop going to church." As with any Christian discipline, each of us must listen deeply and personally to God's voice. Any practice can become a form of bondage if it is carried out from a sense of duty and obligation. But, equally, any discipline followed in response to God's call will be a source of new life and freedom.


Rob H said...

If one considers that it takes a leap of faith to start and continue to go to Church and bask in God's word and challenges, imagine how difficult it is to leave. In the same token one needs to explore the reason that causes one to think it is right to leave.
Majority of times it has to do with other people in the church who have caused grief or confusion and have drowned out God's presence.

It is sometimes hard for the person who discovers Christ, goes to a church and all of a sudden discovers an organization exists that can sometimes be the pain bearer as one struggles with staying the course in being with Christ and that flock.
A church family can be more hurtful then ones own family because we are trusting our Christ relationship with strangers.


thanks Rob. I agree absolutely. And I think your last line is exactly the point I am trying to make. The very fact of how painful churches can be gives them their potential strength in peoples' lives. You are a great example of someone who has stuck it out with your faith community through turmoil, pain, upheaval, trauma, betrayal and all. Now you get to sit in a pew beside your children and your grandchildren. This is the reward of staying the course and keeping faith with a group of people even when they are painful.