A number of years ago I was a member of a church.
It was a family and community, in ways that I now know was a rare and beautiful thing. People loved each other, took care of each other, noticed if you were gone, noticed (more importantly) how you were (really) doing. We prayed together, sure, but we also laughed together, went to movies, had bbqs, went on trips, shopped, picked up each others kids, advised, encouraged, cajoled, cheered, and, well, loved each other. The pastor and his wife were my family and the unconditional love they showed me during that time has never been matched. I don’t know why, or how, or what the magic fairy dust was that created it, but as I look back on my life, it was one of a very few places and groups of people among who I could truly be myself.
That lasted for a year or so and then, like all great things, it ended. But it didn’t end with a whimper – the bang reverberates still. Many of us will never be the same. It started so simply – a challenge from our pastor to actually define what it is that our church stood for. In this world of liberality, our pastor wanted us to take a stand: what were the scriptures that we were going to stand on. The leadership – Board and Elders (of which I was a part) spent months challenging each other on what we believed God really wanted us to be taking a stand on. While we were meeting, praying, talking, debating through those issues, Dan, the pastor, was using his sermons to bring the rest of the church along for the discussion. Everyone was on board, excited it seemed, to have a simple, clear, definition of who we were as a body of Christ. The end result of those months of study and deliberation was a one page document. A covenant. It summarized what we honestly felt was who we were as a church, using only the bible to do so. No words were our own – they were all God’s (and no, I don’t mean God spoke to us and told us what to write – it was made up entirely of actual bible verses).
So the document was presented to the church and everyone agreed – yes, this is what we believe. (hard not to, if you are a Christian and are presented with a list of ten or so bible verses). Dan asked everyone to reaffirm their church membership by standing at the front and publicly agreeing with the covenant. And all new members would be asked to do the same.
And that’s where the trouble started. Some folks felt that what was written there should go without saying, some felt that “my membership here has been good for 20 years and how dare you call that into question”, some were excited, and many were ready to move forward. Dan likened it to when a teacher tells his class there will be a test for the weeks leading up to it and then on the day of the test, some students are surprised. What? You are really going to make us DO this thing you have been talking about for the last year?
And everyone became divided. The two camps became more and more hostile, and church became a place of conflict. Many people left – some because they just didn’t want to deal with it all, some because they were angry – and some of those angry people stayed, trying to return things to the way they felt they should be. Some were prepared to move forward, whatever the cost, feeling that this journey we had been on for the past year had led us to this crucial place of decision. I was squarely in one camp and my family was squarely in the other. I tried so hard to change people’s thinking “guys! You believe the bible, right? And follow it as it’s the word of God? So why on EARTH is agreeing with these verses such an issue??” I honestly did not understand, and still don’t. But issue it was.
Men and women who were elders in the congregation were behaving in ways that horrified me. They were speaking to our pastor as though he was a recalcitrant child. Some were respectful in their opposing communication, certainly, but many were not. It was horrible to watch, and horrible to live through. And the fact that much of it was playing out in my own home was a source of such incredible grief to me. I can still go back and feel that pain, and can only imagine what it was like for Dan and Suzanne. To us, it felt like a spiritual battle. There did not seem to be a rationality behind it, or even anything tangible to hold on to as a meeting place. Church was a war.
Over the next year, everything changed. Many people left, from both sides of the fence. Some because the community we had been was now broken beyond repair and they needed to reestablish that somewhere else. Some because they were angry. Some because they were just tired. Dan and Suzanne left, heartbroken. And I left.
Since then, I have not had the energy to start over somewhere new. Why? No matter how much God was in a place, there were people there too. Fallible, human people. People who had the power to create and destroy whatever was being built up. And no matter where I go, Dan remains my pastor. Never mind that he is now in Edmonton.
So for almost 6 years now I have been without a church. Without community, worship, group prayer, sermons. And I miss it. But I miss that magic. Those people. That group. That pastor. That worship. And it will never be again. I have to let it go, and move beyond it, but so far just haven’t.
And in the process of throwing out my previously innocent idea of church, naivete that Christians should surely agree on important things, the hope and belief in the Acts 3 description of Christians living together – in the process of chucking all that, sometimes I wonder, was Jesus in the bathwater?