*Guest post by Sarah Butterfield.
On the way home from yet another new church, my husband turned to me at a red light, and said: “Maybe we should write a book. We could go to a different church every Sunday and write about it. We’re basically doing that already!”
I snorted. “That sounds horrible.”
And it was horrible. We had moved from Michigan to Texas over a year ago, and we’d been church-hopping ever since. We had expected to find a church home right away, like we had done every other time we had moved. So it was with great confusion and dismay that we were still spiritually homeless.
Both my husband and I were long-time Christians who had always gone to church. As a married couple, we had felt most comfortable in non-denominational Bible churches as we moved around the country collecting higher education degrees.
We expected to have no trouble finding a church in our new home in Texas. But there was a problem: a vague “check engine” light was blinking in my soul, pointing to something wrong but not spelling out what needed fixing.
After a few months of attending a church whose congregants were friendly and warm in their welcome, my husband and I sat in a circle around the pastor for a new-member meeting. A woman sitting across from us twirled the ends of her long, blonde hair as she asked him a question about reconciling our faith with the evidence we have about evolution.
I glanced at my husband and leaned forward in my chair, eager to hear the pastor’s approach. Instead of the thoughtful discourse I was hoping for, the pastor shifted in his seat, mumbled something unintelligible, and moved on to his next point.
I was devastated. On the way home from church, we took turns voicing our sadness and frustration. The “check engine” light was flashing at us, letting us know we didn’t belong here. Now we understood what the problem was: there was no room for doubt, no space for questions in these churches. Just a dogged determination to be right, to worship at the altar of certainty, and to defend the position at all costs.
I wish I could tell you that we kept going to church because of our deep spiritual maturity, but mostly it was just out of habit. It wasn’t long before we discovered that it’s possible to leave church even while you still warm the pew every Sunday morning. It’s possible to sing all the songs and pray all the prayers as lip-service while your heart searches for the faith it once knew. It’s possible to play the part of the nice Christian and hide your broken heart behind cynicism and exasperation.
I know this because I lived this.
In God’s great mercy, we discovered that we were not alone in our feelings about the church. We found others who were as discontented as we were and who voiced their feelings online. Back then, I didn’t have the language to describe how my faith was changing in ways that made me feel like I didn’t belong in church anymore. Knowing that there were others with the same struggles was the grace we needed during those years.
Moving from Texas to California for my husband’s job was the fresh spiritual start we needed. We made some intentional decisions before our first Sunday in our new home. We would not church-hop. We would choose a church within a specific denomination. We would stay within five miles of our home. We would get involved within the life of our church.
These decisions led us to the church we’ve been a part of for ten years now. It’s not perfect, but there is room for us here. We’ve stayed committed, even through the occasional disagreement or disappointment. We have been rewarded by growing in new ways, by developing a stronger sense of community, and by the opportunity to offer ourselves to build up the local body of Christ.
God is at the front of the classroom, telling us that the Christian faith is a group project. Maybe, like me, you are the one groaning in the back. “I wish it wasn’t true,” you might be thinking, “I wish God and I could fly solo, not having to rely on the people sitting next to me, and not having to be relied upon.” Community within a body of believers can be as beautiful as it is messy. But the trajectory of Genesis through Revelation reveals that we were made for this, to be better together.
As Ericka Andersen writes in her book Reason to Return:
“We will always feel a spiritual ache for more when we aren’t part of a local church (…) We were created for a very special and sanctified kind of community. Without it, each of us is a missing appendage floating in spiritual space and unable to be fully grounded or known.”
I don’t know where you are on your spiritual journey, whether you’ve given up on church or the church has given up on you. I share my story here in the hope that it will encourage you to seek out a community of faith, and to consider how your presence in the church and the church’s presence in your life has the potential to enrich us all.
*This post is part of the “Reason to Return” blog series. Read more from this series:
- The Local Church: Where Transformation Happens
- Experiencing Church: Lessons on What Church Really Means
- Leaving Church? We Found a Better Way
- The Power of Being Plugged In: Why Church Family Matters
- The Joy of Needing & Being Needed in the Local Church
- When Our Baby Needed Open Heart Surgery, the Church was There
- That Still, Small Voice