In my short 30 years, I’ve been in a lot of churches. When I was a baby, my parents took me to a little Southern Baptist congregation that we continued to attend until I was in middle school. I remember growing up learning about Jesus on felt boards in Sunday school, frequent potlucks, learning how to sing harmony by hearing my Dad sing and play guitar on stage, Christmas plays.
I also remember how the pastor of that church, the man who baptized me, broke it apart by having an affair with the children’s ministry director.
During my freshman year of high school, we attended another community church. That one suffered from financial mismanagement and strife among the pastoral staff and fell apart not long after we left.
We found another home church after we moved. At this one, my lonely teenage self found friends and a sense of belonging in a good youth group. I also met the youth group volunteer who would sexually abuse me.
I’ve had better church experiences since then. But every time I think about some of my memories of church, I have to ask myself: why is it still something that I love? Why do I look forward to attending every Sunday? Why do I want my kids to grow up in church?
These are some of the conclusions I’ve come to, some of the truths I hold onto.
1. The church is made up of people, and people are broken.
My husband and I have moved around a lot since we got married, and so we’ve regularly attended three different churches in the last 9 years, not to mention the ones that we’ve visited with friends, while “church-shopping,” or for special services.
Never once have we walked into a perfect church. Because no church has ever been filled with perfect people.
There’s the odd ducks, the unconvinced, the just-convinced-but-still-want-to-get-drunk-on-Fridays, the self-righteous, the busy-bodies, the always-complaining…the list could go on for as long as there are people in the church. I’ve probably had some kind of similar label given to me.
This is the body of Christ. We are saved by His grace, but we haven’t been fully sanctified, and we all still struggle with sin as we seek to follow Him side by side.
This reality has freed me from feeling as if the truth of God’s love was somehow proved false every time someone in church failed to reflect it. The character of God is not dependent on the obedience of His children. Though we should seek to mirror Christ as best we can, our failures do not mean the whole project is doomed to be hypocritical. Rather, our failures toward each other are a sobering opportunity to practice the forgiveness we have received*, and to be reminded that our hearts aren’t satisfied even by relationships with other Christians, but only through relationship with a perfect God.
2. The church might fail me, but God never will.
And that is the second truth that reassures me: that even when other Christians, even my church leadership, fail me, hurt my feelings, stray in their theology, even abuse me, God never will.
My pastor is not God. My small group leader is not God. My best friend is not God. My spouse is not God.
So if they happen to hurt me by giving into sin, that does not mean that my trust in the good character of God, or His good plan for the church, needs to be shaken.
Instead, once again, the failures of other Christians give me an opportunity to practice the grace that has been given to me and prevents idolatry of any person or relationship. When church fails to live up to my expectations, to God's plan for it, it reminds me to rely on the only One who is perfect, the only One who will never fail.
3. The church is not about me.
This is an important one. I think that many people, including myself at times, feel failed by the church because they think of it as an organization geared toward serving them and their needs. They feel like each and every one of those needs must be met in order to be a part of that church.
But it’s freeing for me to know that church is not a service industry, it’s a family. Simply sitting in a chair on Sunday and consuming a product, it’s easy to find things to make you dissatisfied. But seeing yourself as a part of something bigger, working and contributing, learning and growing not for the purpose of self-improvement but the glory of the real center of it all, the Father of the family, it’s easy to ignore a song choice you didn’t resonate with.
Being a participant in something bigger than myself, being a part of a family, means that occasional slights and failures on the part of my brothers and sisters pale in comparison to the importance of what binds us all together for eternity.
4. The church is vital for me.
And finally: no matter how much I sometimes wish I could, I cannot do this Christian life alone.
When leaders are corrupt, when fights split congregations in half, when abuse is uncovered, it’s easy to think, “Wouldn’t it just be easier if we all did this Jesus thing on our own, instead of dealing with all this messiness?” The thought is tempting: no more awkward handshakes during greeting time, no more angry emails about last Sunday’s sermon, no more drama.
But the truth, difficult and wonderful, is that no, we cannot walk out our faith alone. Being a Christian is first about our relationship with God, but we cannot have a relationship with Christ if we are not in relationship with the Body of Christ.
God specifically designed humans to work in harmony with others (Genesis 2:18), and even though sin has complicated things, His vision for the church remains that Edenic unity. As Paul urges the Philippians, “Complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” (Phil. 2:1, 2).
The church is meant to be the present, already-not-yet reality of God’s complete redemption of the whole world through Jesus. We are the first fruits of that work, and we need to encourage each other on as we wait for that wonderful day.
Church also gives me the opportunity to serve others in a real and sacrificial way, something much deeper and more committed than just showing up at my local soup kitchen every once and awhile. It requires me to open up my life to others, to pick up the phone when they call to cry about something, to bring them meals when they’re sick, to commit to living my life alongside them. Church prevents me from becoming what the apostle James warns against, from being one of those who “merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like” (1:22-24).
So if I’m not participating in church, I’m not participating in the kingdom of heaven. I forget what it is to really be a Christian. Without church, I would be missing out on something that is meant to foreshadow and prepare me for a future in heaven, worshipping Jesus side by side with my sisters and brothers.
I write all these things as a reminder for myself and as an encouragement to those like me, those who have been in church long enough to have a list of ways other Christians have failed them, or maybe those whose brief experiences with church or a particular Christian have left them with a bitter taste in their mouth. But please: don’t give up on God or on church because of the failures, either imagined or real, of Christian people. Sin infiltrates everywhere, even the church, but that does not undermine the character of God nor His good plan for the Body.
And to those of us who are committed to this church project: pray. Pray hard, every day, for your church family, for your church staff, for your pastor, and for guidance on the ways you can be a healthy, contributing member of the Body. Pray that your church family would be as wise as serpents to the ways that the Enemy tries to attack and destroy Christ’s Beloved, and as gentle as doves in the way they humbly treat each other.
*Please note: being a part of the family of believers never excuses anyone from the consequences of their sin. If you or someone you know is the victim of abuse or other criminal action by a person in your church, do not stay silent in the name of mercy or forgiveness. Report their actions right away, to your pastor and to the necessary authorities.