Go to a church you want to leave (and stay)

We are all impacted by the forces of consumer capitalism.  These forces help us to grow comfortable being selfish.  These forces help us grow comfortable discarding old things in favor of new.  These forces help us grow comfortable being disconnected from the relational consequences of being selfish, discarding old things and choosing new ones.

Nowhere is this more obvious to me than in the American church.  The primary metaphor for selecting and joining a Christian community these days is shopping.  People leave church A for church B for reasons that used to be reserved for choosing Walmart over Target or Sears over JCPenny.  And they have be shaped to believe that this is ok…good even…because they have needs that must be met.

As a pastor, I see this all the time.  Sometimes it is when people leave our community and go to another one.  Other times it is when people leave another community and come to ours.  Every time, there are broken relationships that often go unattended. Why is that?  Why do people think that their presence, and lack of presence, doesn’t matter to a community?  I think it is because we have been taught that church is an institution and our primary mode of living is as consumers.

Do you think Walmart cares if you start shopping at Target?  They do, because they want your money.  But do you think Candice at check out counter #11 misses Michael Danner? I doubt it.  Do you think Donna the store manager grieves your absence and wonders what she may have done to push you away?  Nope.  Do you think John the stock clerk feels rejected because for years he has stocked those shelves so you could have what you needed  when you needed it and now you just walked away?  I hardly think so.

But this is what happens in the church.  It happens because the church is not an institution, it is a community.  And it happens because there is no metaphor more ill-fitting and devastating for a community than shopping.  The church is people and relationships and connections and mutual support and encouragement and on and on and on.

Paul uses two metaphors for talking about the church that help illuminate my point.  One is the church as a body.  The other is the church as the bride of Jesus.  When you are talking about a body and a marriage, separation takes on a whole new meaning.   It takes on the meaning of amputation and dismemberment.  It takes on the meaning of divorce and all the attendant pain.

Somehow we have to replace the metaphor of shopping with the metaphor of body and marriage.  We need to do this for three (at least) reasons…

  • As followers of Jesus we need to be formed by His image and likeness and not that of consumer culture.  We are more than autonomous buying units.  We have more to offer each other and the world than what is in our bank accounts.
  • As followers of Jesus we need to be aware of how our actions impact others in the church and we need to choose Philippians 2 over our own self-interest.
  • As followers of Jesus we don’t grow in maturity be leaving difficult environments and relationships.  It’s only as we stay put that we learn what it means to love another like Jesus loves us, to forgive another like Jesus forgives us, to be forgiven by another when we’ve done something stupid, to extend grace others don’t deserve and to received grace we don’t deserve.

The long and short of it is this:  consumer culture has shaped us into toddlers, not fully grown and mature adults.  In order to grow in maturity, you need to put down roots.  The roots you put down in a church community are not the same as brand loyalty in the marketplace.  They are deeper than that and require more of you.   Too many people assume that there are no consequences to church shopping.  There are and they don’t just effect the church communities people are leaving.  They impact all church communities for this reason: they fundamentally redefine what it means to be church.  If we can’t trust one another in the church community, then there is no basis upon which to build relationships built upon mutual accountability and mutual love.

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3 thoughts on “Go to a church you want to leave (and stay)

  1. This was, actually, a wrestling point for my wife and I as we made the decision last summer to shift our membership/attendance away from one congregation to another. We had invested 17 years in that one congregation and spent a lot of time with the people, sometimes in agreement, sometimes in disagreement (and sometimes, that disagreement was to the extreme). But we worked and strived for the Kingdom in that congregation, even if it was one that at times made us very uncomfortable.

    But what moved us out was two things: First, while we had been 17 years at that church, a sense of “belonging” wasn’t there. It’s hard to explain, but the dominant culture just didn’t seem to fit us and we frequently found ourselves “outside”, even while we were holding ministry positions within the congregation. Secondly, during my years at seminary we formed a vision of incarnational ministry within the community, moving beyond the Sunday morning experience and church sponsored programs to something… different. While I was in my internship, the church I interned under demonstrated this kind of ministry. My wife and I agreed that if we wanted to follow our vision, while we could potentially have done so at our former congregation, we needed to move on… and so, rather than leaving, we asked our home congregation to “send” us… it wasn’t “we found a better supermarket over the hill”. Instead, it was, “you nurtured us and helped us mature, now let us spread our wings and go as we follow Jesus’ calling”. We had grown “bigger” than our congregation and they sent us with blessings, recognizing it was time for us to move.

    I think that’s a valid shift, honestly, and one that took a lot of discernment to come to.

  2. Michael, this is a profound message that needs to be shared more widely. How about submitting it to The Mennonite and/or MWR?

  3. I like Janeen’s suggestion. Good stuff. My experience in putting down roots in Markham concur with what you’ve written. There just isn’t anything that sustains life like deep, healthy roots. The shallow kinds only allow vibrant life when everything is just right.

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