If you ask, in a church celebration, how many people have been hurt in or by a church, the vast majority of hands will go up.
This is an unfortunate dynamic, but one that reinforces something that we already know - believing in Jesus doesn't make any of us perfect people.
I have no doubt that many who read this have dealt with frustrations or hurts suffered at the hands of a church or specifically church leadership. I am no different. In fact, I was thinking recently about my journey through churches and what I've had to endure.
I wish to share some of my story here, and at the end, to explain why I seem to refuse to 'learn my lesson' and swear off church forever (though I essentially did avoid it for a time) in order to avoid the possibility for further pain.
I'll spare you the full story and jump right to the breaking point.
My wife and I were living in Dallas, TX while I was completing a degree in theology from Christ for the Nations Institute.
After being involved in a new church for about the first year after our arrival, we were looking for a new church home (another story for another time).
We learned that a small church in town was looking for someone to lead music during Sunday service while their worship leader was out of town. I volunteered my services.
After a couple weeks, the pastor asked to talk with me. He told me that the worship leader was actually planning to move shortly and asked if I would be interested in taking over the volunteer position.
Happy to be of service to a church, I agreed.
At this time in my life, however, I was dealing with some issues. Specifically, some sin issues. I had a particular sin in my life that I simply couldn't get rid of. It was making me miserable and I wanted to break free from the trap I was stuck in.
I scheduled a time to meet with the Pastor so that I could seek his help. I did this very shortly after we discussed my helping in the church, because I wanted to be transparent about myself.
I had never spoken openly with someone about my struggles and it took all my courage to share what I kept secret from just about everyone else on the planet. During the meeting, the pastor nodded his head as I described my situation and he promised to help.
That was the last time the pastor ever talked with me.
The pastor's wife spoke to my wife that soon after and told her that she should leave me.
I could hardly believe it. It was a betrayal of trust by a pastor. Not only was he not going to help me, he harmed me. After that, I was pretty well done with church for a while.
My school required me to attend church services, but they offered a chapel service. I would come sit in the back for the last 10 minutes of the church and then check in to say that I had attended. I visited a few churches locally, but if you're not willing to trust anyone in leadership or connect with other people attending, church really stops being very useful - sure there's biblical teaching and worship, but I literally got 4 hours of that every weekday at my school.
After Dallas, we moved to Virginia Beach so I could begin my Master's degree in theology. I loved learning about the scriptures, but I was also your typical, 'I love God, but I hate Christians' Christian.
We visited a few churches in Virginia Beach, but mostly we just came in, sat in the back, and left as soon as the service ended. There were invitations to meet the pastors every week, and every week we didn't go.
Along the way, I finally learned how to accept the freedom over that area of sin in my life I had desperately asked for help in the pastor's office in Dallas.
After 2 years in Virginia Beach, we moved back to Maryland to be near my family so that we could have help in caring for our growing family as my wife was pregnant with our second child.
We knew that we needed to be part of a church, so we found a small church with pastors who we knew and trusted and we paid a visit soon after our move. We were welcomed and wanted and accepted. It was exactly what we needed. We attended and served in leadership at that church for 6 years and when we left (to go on full time staff at a larger church which could afford that), being part of a church community was part of our makeup once again.
But there's an important lesson about this church as well: we didn't find a perfect church. This small church was filled with interesting characters. Some were "good interesting" and others not so much.
There were things we loved about this church and other things which drove us crazy.
We came back because if you're not sharing your gifts and talents and simple presence with others, you're essentially burying what God gave you, and in the parable of the talents, that approach doesn't end well.
We needed to love and be loved.
We needed to know and be known.
That's the core of what church does - it causes us to be open to community; and community is the entire point of why God created humanity.
God is community - the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in one Being. God wanted others to participate in that community, so he created us. The fall of humanity screwed it up, but God is going to set it all right.
If we aren't striving to create community here and now, we're not bringing God's kingdom come and his will to be done on this earth as it is in heaven, as Jesus clearly told us to do.
Churches aren't perfect, because none of us are perfect yet.
I love how Nadia Bolz-Weber handles this. She tells people who want to join The House For All Sinners and Saints in Denver that, "we will let you down".
That should be on the billboard in front of every church instead of horrible jokes or condescending comments.
Let's lead with our weaknesses, since it's in those weaknesses that God's strength shines through.
It's when we try to act perfect that we end up hurting people.
James K.A. Smith writes in Desiring the Kingdom that "I often tell my children that one of the reasons we go to church is to learn to love people we don't really like that much - people we find irritating, odd, and who grate on our nerves (the feelings mutual, I'm sure!). And sometimes we will even have to work through our frustrations and hurts when we fail one another and disappoint one another" so that we can learn the value of true community.
In short, I came back to church because there's no plan B for God's restoration of a fallen and broken world.
Just as God brought a Messiah through a badly misguided Israel, God will bring redemption to this world, despite a church that shoots itself in the foot way to often.
If you're at a place where you are done with church because of all the hypocrites and jerks (and that's just the pastors!), I would encourage you to remember that community has always been God's plan. People sure screw it up all the time, but if you throw out the baby with the bathwater, you're not helping to bring redemption.
I sure wasn't when I was an island unto myself instead of doing the hard work of learning to engage in healthy ways.
Normally, my writing involves some practical steps or perspectives to take out of an article, so if I were to sum up this narrative and encouragement, it would be with this:
1. The church is bigger than you, or me, or somebody who betrayed you. Don't let anything cause you to disconnect permanently from gathering with other believers. Jesus hasn't give up on the church, so neither should we.
2. Working through issues is so much better than letting them define you. If you need help resolving issues, I would encourage you to read Boundaries by Cloud and Townsend.
3. People in our world aren't looking for perfection, they are looking for something genuine and real in a world with too much plastic and fakeness. Genuine community doesn't look like everyone smiling all the time. It looks like people choosing to care about one another, especially when the chips are down.
I'm not advocating that you become a doormat, or accept any kind of abuse (verbal, spiritual, physical, etc). I'm saying that community is a non-negotiable aspect of following Jesus. There's always going to be reasons we'd rather withdraw and prevent the opportunity to get hurt.
If this world/the devil/whatever can get you to disengage with community toward other people, I think it diminishes our focus on community with the One who invites us into deeper community.
Don't write it off. Don't walk away. Engage. Connect.
Love God and Love People, no matter the cost.