“Now, I don’t know what kind of feelings are conjured up in you when you hear the word church. For me, the church has represented the best and the worst moments in my life. I have been more hurt, more judged, more left out, more ostracized by church people than any other group of people in the world. That has been my experience of church people . . . ” ~ Darren Whitehead
When, I heard those words a week ago, I was on edge. These words, I could have written them myself. I’ve lived them. And I know I’m not alone. This is true for some of them people I love the most. This is the heartbeat of social media and pop-culture’s thoughts on church.
Rachel Held Evans wrote a great article, “Why millennials are leaving the church” that resounded with so many people. I particularly loved this quote:
“You can’t hand us a latte and then go about business as usual and expect us to stick around. We’re not leaving the church because we don’t find the cool factor there; we’re leaving the church because we don’t find Jesus there.
Like every generation before ours and every generation after, deep down, we long for Jesus.”
I know this isn’t just a millennial phenomenon. This is true for the ages. I think it’s always been.
“[…] it feels like everywhere I turn, the Church (with a capital “c”) is hated, distrusted, over-trusted, mocked, angry, sad, naive, unforgiving, judgemental. Broken (with a capital “b”). It’s all of the sudden really cool to love Jesus but hate the church.” ~ Melanie Rainer, b is for broken and beautiful. c is for church.
I was blessed to grow up in a crazy-cool youth group that stretched and grew me beyond my wildest dreams. [Which you can read about here] I was exposed to teaching suited for any aged years. I made friends that became family. I had leaders that challenged and inspired me. I was allowed to step-up into leadership roles myself. I was a shy, awkward girl who desperately needed a place to belong. And I found it. It was far from perfect. There were disagreements, we broke each other’s hearts, and I’m still unlearning flawed theology I’m sure no one ever actually meant to teach us.
But I loved this group of people fiercely. I wouldn’t be who I am today without them. So, when two of my former youth pastors planted Church of the City nearby I was equal parts excited and leery. Darren and Jake are people I respect and trust. They are part of my story. Their teaching and more importantly their love has greatly impacted my life. I knew that if they were involved, this would be something I could get behind. This was a place that I wholeheartedly wanted to check out and at the very same time run away from as fast as my legs would carry me. Because this church, though brand new held echoes of my past.
I found the old fears whispering in my ears. Would this be like high school all over again? Am I expected to be who I was then? Because I’m not. I’ve lived more life, experience more pain and failure since then. I’m far more broken then I was as that fresh-faced, innocent teen. I’ve watched people I love be burned by the church. I’ve been blistered by it as well. I wear those scars on my heart. I don’t trust like I did at seventeen. It’s harder to once you’ve been hurt.
And I’m not innocent in this. I know I’ve done my share of wounding too. I’ve been horribly judgmental. I let people walk away and not asked (or cared) why. I’ve said things I wish I could scrape back into my mouth because the words cut deeper than I ever dreamed. I’ve thought things as black as they come. I painted on a mask of happiness, life-is-great, and God is always good when deep-down I was wrestling with the sheer disappointment that can be adulthood. I was a phoney and a fake of the highest order; a hypocrite of the worst kind. I’ve served when I had no capacity to do so. I was a blood donor dying of internal hemorrhaging, too proud to admit that I was the one desperately in need of help. In all my messy, flawed ways I know I hurt people I loved.
I walked in the doors that first Sunday this June carrying all that brokenness with me, all the distrust, all the shame of not being who I am at twenty-six that I thought I would be when I was sixteen. And because my God is good and knows what I need that day we talked about how God wants to heal our brokenness. And for the first time in a long time I was open to that healing.
It’s not been easy but every time I walk in the doors of Hunter’s Bend Elementary, I’m a little bit more open to God, to this church, to The Church. As Darren continued, my heart began to sing:
“. . . But I have also experienced love and grace and acceptance and, at times, outrageous generosity and kindness than any other group of people in my life. The church has cared for my family through sickness and crisis. The church has grieved with my family through loss and through mourning. The church, with all of her imperfections, is the mysterious, supernatural community that actually plays a part in transforming us. It exposes narcissism in our hearts our hearts and greed and self-centeredness. It reminds us that life is short and we cannot afford to waste our time and our resources and our gifts on things that just don’t matter. [ . . .] And I gasp at the beauty of the church.”
Yes, yes, isn’t this true too? Church people may have blasted my heart to smithereens but they’ve also helped stitch it back together. I have been the hands that have bruised but God has also used them to help heal. Never in my life have I experienced such deep connection than I have with those walking with me on my journey toward God. My family’s story is one of God’s faithfulness and the beauty of His Church.
I was reminded again this Sunday that the Church wasn’t historically a religious service attended once a week. And while I do think there’s something vital that happens when we gather together to sing praise and hear the spoken word, the church is ultimately the people and not a building.
I’ve seen the church at it’s brightest in settings outside those brick walls. Walking with me down the halls at school. Talking with me over endless cups of coffee. Sitting with me around a campfire in Colorado. Waiting with my family in one too many hospital waiting rooms. Crying with me in parking lots. Laughing and cheering at games, shows, concerts, TV shows, and movies. Celebrating as vows are made. Standing in that kitchen, while caramelizing onions.
It happens over dinner tables and dessert, when we lower our defenses and say this is who I really am. It’s when we love people from our gut. When we say we’re sorry, when we ask for forgiveness, when we try and try again to get it right. It’s weddings and funerals. Joys and heartbreak. Triumph and tragedy. It’s in those moments we decide to become known for what we are for, rather than what we are against. It’s learning our lives overlap and intersect, and instead of trying to separate you from me we just accept that we’re all part of each other’s stories, and we admit we really, truly are better when we do this together.
Yes, the Church is broken. Yes, it fails. True it’s a mess. It can be backwards and downright ugly. I guarantee it will break your heart. But it will also help but it back together, if you let it. It can help you remove that filter of cynicism and weed the bitterness from your soul. It can floor you with its love and its beauty.
So, if you find yourself churchless, and in the Nashville area, I invite you to mine. It’s flawed because we are flawed. But know I’m walking in those doors with you carrying my brokenness and baggage. Fortunately, here, our bags always fly free. And if you live nowhere near, and you’ve been wandering for years, I’d encourage you to give the church another try. Look for the kind of people you want to live life with and maybe you’ll be surprised. If you find yourself in a church you call home, fling open the doors wide to others and remember:
“Our homes are to be hospitals – refuges of healing radiating the light of heaven. And our dinner tables are to be operating tables – the place where broken souls are made whole again. In our churches people should find rest from their battle for acceptance and release from the lie that they are nothing more than the goods they possess. When we lower our defenses, when we remove our facades and our peepholes, and we begin to truly present with one another – then the healing power of the gospel can begin its work.” Skye Jethani, The Divine Commodity
And every moment I find this to be true I gasp at the beauty of the church.