Leaving Your Church? Consider This First

Editor's Pick, Perspectives

One night some years ago, I came home from church and opened my computer to read a suddenly popular meme floating around social media: “I am the church.” The meme, so far as I understood it, was intended as a kind of protest against the institutionalization of the church through paid religious professionals, versus the church as lived out by the everyday Christian. 

I get the impulse. I really do. We desperately need to remember that the “church” is not merely a gathering orchestrated by clergy. It’s also a sending and a scattering, a decentralized movement of God’s people in the world.  

But as a descriptive statement, “I am the church” is pure nonsense.

The church by definition (the Greek ekklésia simply means “gathering”) is a communion, a company, a body, a place where God meets us in “others.” I am not the church. And neither are you. But together, in Christ, by the power of the Spirit, we are the church. 

Which means that I cannot be what I have been called to be in Christ apart from you. And you cannot be what you have been called to be apart from me. And no one can be what they have been called to be apart from all the others the Lord has called—for they all are how the total Christ (to steal a phrase from Augustine6) is present to enrich and bless and save our lives. 

The practical tragedy of “I am the church” theology is that it philosophically underwrites the loneliness that is epidemic in our culture. Mother Teresa actually said that this was the poverty of the Western world: “The greatest disease in the West today is not TB [tuberculosis] or leprosy; it is being unwanted, unloved, and uncared for. We can cure physical diseases with medicine, but the only cure for loneliness, despair, and hopelessness is love. There are many in the world who are dying for a piece of bread but there are many more dying for a little love.”7 

God has designed the church to be the place where the disease of being unloved is healed.

As love is given and received among the people of God, we are made whole. We grow up into our salvation. Thomas Merton more or less summarized the entire desert tradition on this point: 

The more I become identified with God, the more will I be identified with all the others who are identified with Him. His Love will live in all of us. His Spirit will be our One Life, the Life of all of us and Life of God. . . . 

The ultimate perfection of the contemplative life is not a heaven of separate individuals, each one viewing his own private intuition of God; it is a sea of Love which flows through the One Body of all the elect.8

This call to community is beautiful and hard, for a number of reasons.

We live in a very transient society where we are more mobile than ever, hopping from city to city and from church to church. The lack of rootedness in deep, long-term relationships spoils spiritual growth.9 

On this the Desert Fathers and Mothers were in unanimous agreement. Amma Syncletica counseled, “If you find yourself in a monastery do not go to another place, for that will harm you a great deal. Just as the bird who abandons the eggs she was sitting on prevents them from hatching, so the monk or the nun grows cold and their faith dies, when they go from one place to another.”10 Transience was as much a problem then as it is now, and we’re similarly going to need to learn the value of staying put in community—as far as it depends on us—if we expect to grow spiritually. As Abba Anthony said, “In whatever place you live, do not easily leave it.”11 

Which leads to the second difficulty.

One of the reasons we don’t stay put in community is that we’ve been hurt. When a significant breakdown in relationship occurs, it always seems easier to just move on. Trust me, I get it. I’ve spent my entire life in the church, and while the church has been the greatest blessing of my life (I’ve often said that not a single significant good thing has come to me except by way of the church), it has also been a significant source of wounding. In fact, it has been the most significant source of wounding. I might go so far as to say that the wounds have cut as deep as they have in proportion to the blessing that the church has been. The power for life, used wrongly, can be deadly. Maybe we should be honest here. If we spend any significant length of time among the people of God, we will get hurt. Jesus knows this, which is why smack in the middle of the prayer he taught his followers to pray, he said, “And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” And then he closes his teaching on prayer by expanding on that line: “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:14-15). 

Hurts will happen in community. Offenses will come. The only hope we have of being a community over the long haul is by continually opening ourselves up to the flow of God’s forgiving grace— to us and through us to other people. 

The New Testament vision of a mature community is only possible as we learn to forgive. When we do, the wounds we suffer at one another’s hands are ultimately, like Christ’s, healed—as they are transfigured in resurrection life. Which is precisely where Paul’s teaching in Ephesians 4 leads: “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32). When we walk in forgiveness, resurrection life washes our wounds clean, lifting them up in healing grace. As one of the world’s leading trauma researchers, Besser van der Kolk, has said, “Our capacity to destroy one another is matched by our capacity to heal one another. Restoring relationships and community is central to restoring w ell- being”12—which is, as it turns out, what the church has been saying for two thousand years.

But there’s a third difficulty here, and it is a difficulty as basic as it gets:

We are sinful, selfish people who just don’t want to open our lives to others for fear of what will happen when we do. We’d rather nurse the delusion that we’re fine, that we know everything we need to know (and that if we don’t, we at least know how to find out), that we’re gleefully independent and s elf- sufficient . . . than take the risk of entering deep community, where it will soon become apparent that we’re not fine, that we don’t know everything we need to know, and that we’re not nearly as independent and self-sufficient as we thought. 

streams in the wasteland

Taken from Streams in the Wasteland: Finding Spiritual Renewal with the Desert Fathers and Mothers by Andrew Arndt. Copyright ©2022. Used by permission of NavPress. All rights reserved. Represented by Tyndale House Publishers, a Division of Tyndale House Ministries. 

andrew arndt Andrew Arndt is the lead pastor of New Life East, one of seven congregations of New Life Church in Colorado Springs. Prior to joining New Life’s team, he served as the lead pastor of Bloom Church, a network of house churches in Denver. He is the host of the Essential Church podcast, a weekly conversation designed to strengthen the thinking of church and ministry leaders. Andrew received his MDiv from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and is currently working on his DMin with Western Theological Seminary. He has written for Missio Alliance, Patheos, The Other Journal, and Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Streams in the Wasteland and All Flame. Andrew lives in Colorado Springs with his wife, Mandi, and their four kids.

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