When I was young I went to this really fun, alive church led by one of the kindest pastors I’ve ever known. It was a healthy church in a small town; maybe 400ish people considered it their home (I was young so give or take a bit on that number). Even though we had very little connection at this season of my life, my pastor was and will always be a hero of mine.
Around the time I turned 12, I watched the slow, painful, evil demise of this beautiful community. I watched people become unable to love their neighbors as themselves. I watched people prioritize elements of non-essential doctrine over relationships. I watched people gossip, backtalk, slander and look more like the Father of this World than the Father of Lights. I watched hyper-spiritual hopes create a new world caste system of the “ins” and the “outs.”
I watched this beautiful church crash. As a young boy I watched the worst of the church put on a song and dance in front of me. Sometimes I still see it like a slow-motion pantomime where I recount the faces of these people who once considered each other family. I remember the day my mom sat in the van and cried all the way home from church because she couldn’t stop what was happening. I remember the Sunday my pastor sat on the steps of the altar unable to speak when it was time for the sermon, and after several minutes of haunting silence, an elder coming up and simply ending the service. I remember the last Sunday I was there. There were maybe 30 of us. My parents, imperfect but faithful, faithful people, did what they had promised they would never do…leave. I know it was the right choice for our family, but I still think it’s a decision that grieves my parents in secret places.
I hated church.
I hated them all. I hated what they had done to my pastor. I hated what they had done to my parents. I hated what they had done to my friendships. I hated that there were people who couldn’t hang out with me anymore because of where I went to church. I hated how they divided people. I hated their facade of spirituality with no remnant of love. I hated the ease with which people left, the ease that people spoke evil with and the ease of looking nothing, and I mean nothing, like Jesus.
I hated the church.
If I had all the time in the world I could tell you about the next several years of my life. I wish I could tell you that I was different than everyone I hated, but I wasn’t. In the summer of 1999 one of my best friends drowned in a cliff diving accident. And…I went numb. At least in hatred there was emotion and feeling and the occasional swing of passion, joy and love. But being numb is potentially the worst place to be. So I chased the typical American high school dream of feeling good. I wanted it through girls, through attempts at popularity, through the right people liking me, through a party lifestyle. It was three dark years in my life. I don’t pretend to compare my story to others who have faced difficult things…but this was the part of my story where I lost myself.
In 2001 a series of event changed the course of my life. A real, physical, undeniable, supernatural experience with grace in an Anaheim hotel room. A hard conversation with my dad at a Dodgers game where we confronted all of my secrets. A desperate love for Jesus that had so long been buried by hate and numbness that was screaming to break through to the surface. A long, hard look at the worthlessness of my decisions and desire to change. I really, really wanted to change.
I needed a next step. Enter YWAM Montana and a little program called DTS (Discipleship Training School). I needed to get away, and something about this felt just right.
Revolutionary changes came. Every day I came alive. I changed. It’s like God made up for three years in three months. I found myself in Thailand. I met this beautiful girl named Emily. I was living in a UN Refugee Camp. Everything had changed. So many stories that are just too long to tell, but everything had changed.
I came back to the States, my life moving forward. But I was haunted by one lingering reality. I loved Jesus, but I hated the church. I remember nights in tears praying, “I don’t know what to do. Father please help me, I don’t know what to do.”
He did. In late 2002 I found myself reading books on the dusty floor of Powell’s bookstore in Portland, longing for answers. In a moment of despair I closed a book I had put way too much hope in and considered giving up. Maybe an answer just wasn’t possible. And like a rushing flood a voice thundered within me. “Don’t hand your generation over.”
“Don’t hand your generation over.” That’s all he said, but it’s not all he did. In that moment my heart changed. It was a Grinch moment. It’s as if he had done spiritual surgery; wherever hate had created a home, forced eviction left nothing but ghost towns of a once great empire. All he left was love. Fierce, wild, love. I had his heart. I felt his feelings. I had Jesus’ eyes for his church. His beautiful, broken church.
The next ten years of my life was a lot of discovery. God revealed so many right feelings with wrong motives. So many wrong feelings with right motives. Places I had been given a prophetic heart and voice and places I had my head far up my you-know-what. I tasted arrogance, truth, mercy, justice and everything in between. I worked to forgive those who had done wrong and realized there were many stories I just didn’t know what really happened and couldn’t pretend I did. In spite of everything I had seen, everything that had been done to me, and everything I had done to myself, I still couldn’t deny-
I loved and will always love the church.
There have been a lot of conversations lately about the church. Sadly, I’m not the only one who’s seen God’s people at their worst. Some people have even suffered much worse things than I have. And to any of you who may read this, let me say with everything I have – I’m sorry. My choice to stand in love and unity with church is not a dismissal of her actions and the responsibility she has to own them.
Recently, the perpetual conversation was reignited by a blog by Christian leader and thinker Donald Miller who boldly declared his disinterest in church and that it really wasn’t a big deal. He also wrote a response which is much more interesting after receiving a huge response that he claims caught him off guard (C’mon Donald…we’re not that dumb). And while I have greatly benefited from Donald’s leadership and writings and understand several elements of his response blog, I wholeheartedly disagree with his conclusions. I actually agreed with so much of his perspective in his follow up writings, but see none of it as a helpful perspective on why belonging to a local church doesn’t matter, but rather why a generation must fall in love with the church and help lead her to her beautiful future. While we have narrowed the concept of “church” into false categories and argued the wrong stances, being committed to a local fellowship of believers is not only something I will give my life for but is vital to the life of every follower of Jesus.
And if any of you are actually interested in reading a book about this, I would highly recommend picking up Why The Church Still Matters by my hero and mentor Jon Tyson. It’s short…amen.
This is a very important and detailed conversation and I admit that blogs don’t serve well given their brevity and sharp-statement status. So I just confess my inability to do such a conversation justice, but I have been too compelled to stay quiet. There are thoughts behind thoughts behind thoughts that lead me to my conclusion and I long to share them with you. I think the only way to do them justice is to list the main reasons why I believe what I believe. In the weeks and months to come I will write a specific blog behind each statement. So in many ways I’m writing to take a stand. I love the church. I will defend her till the day I die, and I believe that this is the right place to be.
Here are some simple reasons that I love and will always love the church. Over time, I will explore them all in the fullness they deserve.
1. Following Jesus is something I am incapable of doing apart from community. You were created to have spiritual family that empowers you to live on mission.
2. Dangerous things happen when we view ourselves above being committed and submitted to other believers.
3. God has promised that He involves himself in our lives in unique ways when we are gathered together in His name in ways He doesn’t when we are alone. And no matter what anyone says, musical worship is not just for extraverts or people who like to sing and teaching is not just important for those with certain learning styles.
4. Learning how to be around people I don’t agree with, don’t like, don’t understand and don’t relate to is pivotal in my spiritual development.
5. The church statistically and factually is the most generous, selfless, justice movement in the world.
6. While I am at times an unashamed and outspoken critic of what we call church, the creative possibilities of God’s community are profound and God uses all kinds of churches to change lives…even the ones that are different from me.
7. While I’ve met my fare share of broken, hurtful people…the vast majority of people I encounter who are committed to a local church are remarkable, kind, passionate and life-changing people. And in most cases the church has never actually hurt anyone, people have. I refuse to take the actions of individuals and bind them to the collective whole.
8. Belonging to the church keeps me connected to the historical, rooted community of God’s people and practices that always survive the constantly changing cultural worldview.
9. It’s a Grace Factory.
10. God believes in the church. He has never lost hope in what it is and what it can be. I will never lose hope either. Jesus has an undeniable and insatiable love for his people and to carry his heart I must as well.