Thursday, October 1, 2015

I Was Hurt By the Church. How Can I Re-Engage?

I used to be involved in a Christian community back when I was in college. Needless to say, I graduated and moved on. Now that I'm in the workforce, I understand I should get involved in a local church. However, something is holding me back.

Quite a few times, I felt betrayed and ostracized by the community I was in due to some of the drama that happened. It is hard for me to get involved into a new community given the fact that I've felt let down. Furthermore, it takes me a long time to get to know new people. How can I start anew and change my expectations for a better outcome? 

Thanks,
Let Down

Dear LD,

Though you sent this question in to Relevant Magazine, they gave you a lame answer. A lot of that article didn't even make sense. First of all, no one should ever be applauded for leaving the church over "drama." How do you start anew and change your expectations for a better outcome? What Relevant should have told you was this:

Repent of your sin, ask God for forgiveness, and go back to church.

You need to get over yourself. Your question was chock full of you and your expectations. There's no love for Christ in your approach. I see no desire to really change. You want everyone else to change, but you can stay exactly as you are. Not only is that not church, that's not Christianity. Jesus said no one can be his disciple unless he denies himself, takes up his cross daily, and follows after him (Mark 8:34, Luke 9:23).

There was not even a hint of that in your question, though you did take a few backhanded slaps at Christ's bride like it was all her fault. That's typical. All the people "slow clapping" (as Relevant put it) are just like you, and that's not a good thing. You're all about what you want, and it sounds like all you want is a group of people to hang out with who won't judge you and will let you do whatever. You need to ask God to forgive you and fix your perspective. Then find a church to attend that is grounded in the sound words of Christ.

Even the most community-oriented, seemingly-selfless congregation is worthless if they aren't grounded in the truth (Romans 3:12). You might find the friendliest bunch of worshipers you've ever encountered. But you can find that in a bar! The church must have the word of Christ. It is that word that has called them together in one body, teaching and admonishing in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in their hearts to God (Colossians 3:15-16).

You need correction. The church will help to give that to you; telling you to stop being selfish and be conformed to the image of Christ. You must be set apart, holy and beloved, as God's chosen ones are to be. You must have a compassionate heart and put on kindness, humility, meekness, and patience (Colossians 3:12).

You must bear with one another in the church as they will bear with you. If you have a complaint against another, you must forgive; for as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all, put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony (Colossians 3:14) -- not "love" according to what you think it is. You must recognize love for what God says it is.

What God says love is does not mean letting a person do whatever they want and making sure they feel warm and fuzzy, which is clearly what you're after. Love absolutely does not mean "never having to say you're sorry," despite a ridiculous movie line you may have heard.

Love is patient and kind. It does not envy or boast. It is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way. It's not irritable or restful. It does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things (1 Corinthians 13:4-7). When Paul wrote those famous words, he was rebuking a church for doing it wrong. Right now, LD, you need those words. You're doing every one of those things wrong:
  • "Love is patient." You have not been patient.
  • "Love is kind." Turning your back on the church is not kind.
  • "Love does not envy." You envy the community of the church, but you don't actually want to sacrifice anything in order to take part in it.
  • "Love does not boast." You're boasting that you did everything right while the church was wrong and she needs to fix it.
  • "Love is not arrogant." You think you're above correction. You're standing outside the church telling her to correct her problems, and then she'll be worthy enough for your company.
  • "Love is not rude." Your backhanded slaps at the church are rude.
  • "Love does not insist on its own way." At this point, do I really have to tell you how you're insisting on your own way?
  • "Love is not irritable or resentful." You're irritated with the church, and you resent your experience. You've got a chip on your shoulder and are holding on to a grudge.
  • "Love does not rejoice and wrongdoing." Refusing to attend church is wrong. You've found some sense of "joy" in not attending church because church was a burden. If you actually love Christ (and I must caution you, there was no evidence of that in your letter), you must love his bride.
  • "Love rejoices in the truth." Do you actually know the word of God? Do you love it? Do you rejoice in it? If you did, you would desire to be with other believers who rejoice in the truth despite all their shortcomings.
  • "Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things." It's necessary to put these four together because they have to do with endurance. Belief and hope don't stand alone in this context. They're about how we conduct ourselves in a relationship with the body of Christ. Because you love other Christians, you bear with them, believe with them, hope with and for them, and endure with them.
Lest you think I'm being completely insensitive, I confess that there are some legitimate reasons to leave a church -- not ever leave the church altogether, but perhaps leave for another one. Even in such cases, a person should rely upon the advice of several counselors, they must be in prayer, and have open and honest communication with their current church before making such a change. Then if they leave, they must still treat one another respectfully, not talking ill behind one another's backs, even if one party does not behave themselves accordingly.

I don't get the impression you've been through one of those legitimate reasons, though. You say you left "due to some of the drama that happened." Yeah, I'm not buying it. That's not the reason you left. Your reasons for leaving were most likely selfish, and I'm drawing that conclusion based on the self-centered and Christless tone of your letter.

I've been a pastor in the same church for five years (associate for two, head pastor for three). In that time, I can't say that I've seen one single instance of a person leaving our church and having a legitimate reason to do so, especially not the way they left. In fact, I know of only one occasion where I felt like a person was genuinely wronged by us, her church, and probably did have a legitimate reason to leave. I would not have blamed her for leaving over what happened. But she didn't. She would later tell us, "I pulled up my big-girl pants and got over it."

Some people have left our church over completely ridiculous reasons. If I went through the list, even you would say, "Are you serious? Someone left over that?!" If you were to go to those individuals and ask them why they left, they would probably give a generic answer like yours: "Oh, I felt so let down." "Oh, I didn't feel like I belonged." "Oh, it was just so much drama." Right! And they were part of the drama!

And there's the rub, LD. When you were in church, you were part of the drama. You always will be. The church is going to be full of people you won't always agree with, and they won't always agree with you, but they love you anyway. If and when you repent and go back to church, you will find yourself sandwiched between a couple of sinners who have given you every reason in the world not to love them. But if you have been called by the Spirit of God, and you have a heart that has truly been transformed in Christ, you will love them anyway.

Look, I put myself in that as well. I'm a sinner saved by grace. My wife and kids and I will give reasons to my congregation for them not to love me. But the flock I've been entrusted to care for (pastor means "shepherd") will be faithful and will keep coming back because they know it's not about me. They've not placed me on a pedestal and made unrealistic expectations of their pastor. They keep coming back because it's about Christ. What I teach is his word, not mine.

It has to start there. It must start on the word of God -- not community, not goosebumps, not the style of music you like, not great programs, not atmosphere, not heating and air conditioning, not any other warm/fuzzy you're expecting of the church. The church is described as the body of Christ (Romans 12:5) and the bride of Christ (Ephesians 5:25). It starts with Christ and his word.

The Apostle Paul wrote, "If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain" (1 Timothy 6:3-5).

Be honest -- Is that passage not talking about you? Have you ever really known the sound words of the Lord Christ? Because you haven't known them, you've been conceited and understood nothing; about God or his church. You've had this unhealthy craving for controversy over the church. As I've already pointed out, you've been envious. You've been the cause of discord and slander, deprived of the truth yet thinking that the church is a means of gain for you.

It's time to repent, LD. If you don't know your sin, you don't know you need to be saved. If you don't ask God to save you, you have no business asking to be a part of his body. After seeking God's grace, ask him to help you find a church that is grounded in the truth. Then you must ask them for forgiveness. It may not be the church you attended before, but you still need to confess your sin. The Bible says to confess our sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed (James 5:16).

I'll be honest with you because love does not withhold discipline (Hebrews 12:6) -- If you refuse to repent and you continue to slander the church, you will go to hell (see also Matthew 24:45-51). Now, don't hear me saying that attending church saves you. It doesn't. Jesus saves. But if you love Jesus, you'll love his bride, no matter her shortcomings. She's not yet perfect, and neither are you. That comes later, if you endure with her to the end (Revelation 19:7).

There are times when a church must be called out for wrongdoing. I've already cited one example in 1 Corinthians. But you are not in that position. Right now, you must receive correction. If you love Jesus, you will show it by obeying what he commanded (1 John 5:2). And what he commanded is that you love his sheep and feed them (John 21:17). You also need to be fed, trained, and disciplined. First, you need to be humble enough to know that.

I'm sure this is not the answer you wanted to hear, LD. But it's the answer you needed to hear. Repent and be baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ -- for real, this time -- and you will be saved.

Grace and peace from God our Father
Pastor Gabe