Today I’m in a bit of shock. And I’m sad.
And I suspect I’m coming to understand why millions of our kids are abandoning the church by college age, if the pollsters are right.
I went to a church service today, for the first time in a decade. I went with a friend who’s visiting me, who wanted to go to church while he’s here in Ontario from Alberta. It’s a Baptist congregation of roughly 200 souls, some whom I’ve met around town in the past. The service was 1 hour and 50 minutes long, and included a few people expressing thanks to God, two short songs and prayers, no offering, and a 25 minute sermon, about the Sermon on the Mount. It was passionless, carefully choreographed, and predictable, even by me who hasn’t been in a church more than half a dozen times.
My friend was impressed, and plans to go again while visiting us.
I was mystified. Saddened. Shocked. I didn’t say anything to him.
The last time I went to a church was about 15 years ago, and it was also a Baptist congregation, led by a Godly man who was also my neighbor. My family and I went. My kids were bored in Sunday school and didn’t like being separated into different age classes. Being homeschooled together every day, they felt uncomfortable. My wife and I were impressed with the pastor’s bible knowledge, and how friendly everyone was, and the kids were nice too. We’d just been kicked out of our church and didn’t realize we were in shock. We were underwhelmed by the infrequency and official-ness of their social schedule, but overwhelmed by our own frazzled emotions, due to being rejected by deeply loved people.
I was mystified then too. And we were sad.
Before that, we had been an integral part of a close knit fellowship; interacting daily with Godly brethren, for two decades, in a deeply satisfying consensus community. But persecution arose, people were hurt, kids taken away and never returned, a few parents jailed falsely. God told us He was doing His laundry, as it were, and to sit still while He did what He does when persecution comes. Not everyone sat still, and a few took charge to prevent future harm. We reminded them about God’s warning and eventually, after 10 years, my family and I were given the left foot of fellowship by a leader who had emerged. The leader was my best friend, and co-founder of the fellowship, and my sister was the accomplice.
Apparently we were disturbing the peace of God, and rebelling against His appointed authority. And so to keep the peace we left, and everyone we had been close to, including my own family, let us.
We were mystified then too. And sad.
Why did God allow our wonderful, lifelong fellowship, where His presence was evident in many ways daily, to be ripped away, and us cast adrift?
What drove us to tears and our knees then, and still does, is how sweet fellowship, many long term friendships, deep sharing, close family and a long history together, could be sacrificed on the altar of security and peace? It was a manufactured peace, built on a foundation of fear of man, the selfishness of ‘leaders’ and the usual accompanying fleshly weaknesses. We’d never had leaders before the trouble began, and with emergence of executive leadership came executive decisions, and the law. And penalties. And dis-unity. It shattered our family and most others, and the fallout eventually drove our oldest child to abandon the faith, and left us alone. So far it’s been like a 15 year long divorce.
I have several friends who just nod with understanding. Been there, done that.
So this morning, like hundreds of other mornings, I woke up with that familiar ache, a gnawing for fellowship, intimacy, deep prayer, shared food, fun and friendship, with anyone that loves Jesus. I dared to hope that I would find some people who have a hunger for Christ in one another. But alas…
We’ve been in this community for 5 years now, met some great people who are best described as churchless, or none’s, but have no regular fellowship. Most are terrified to commit to anyone or anything. It’s like we’re all suffering from a form of church PTSD. There’s a lot of hurt, betrayal, loneliness and pain buried just beneath the surface of many folks lives.
Today I’m mystified for a different reason though.
This morning at church, there was an implicit understanding that there could be no deep discussion, no questions, no problems discussed, no meal, no ministry or anything that might prevent the building emptying within two hours.
Apparently, all that stuff happens throughout the week, at various homes and gatherings, including sports, prayer, study and outreach. I’m glad it does.
But what mystifies me is why a church building designed for 500, hurries to and from a quick service on the one day they can hang out longer, deeper, and closer. And while everyone seemed to know each other well, there was an evident lack of familial familiarity that breaks across traditional church cultural barriers. I can sense when folks know each other just close enough to know that if they got any closer, even became vulnerable and confessional, they wouldn’t know how to handle the fallout.
My church experience was very different, in that we didn’t grow beyond 40 or 50 souls, and we all did the stuff of life together all the time, which was almost daily. Sunday was the best, because we had all day if we wanted it, and we usually did. Every day was like Sunday actually, except shorter, and even if some were missing due to work or travel etc, the familial architecture of our daily life was such that it was difficult for newcomers to distinguish between blood family lines. We had meetings of a sort, for prayer and study, but going together to the laundromat could be just as much a service, or a backyard BBQ could end up in prayer, discussion or worship. We were not a commune, but we were communal in our affections and care for one another, and it was a magnetic attraction to the many lonely folks who found no home among traditional churches.
In retrospect, Satan had to break it up. We were just too dangerous. We had his gates in our sights often, and snatched his victims from his kingdom regularly. So he did it from within.
And as I understand the scriptures, and history, this is somewhat akin to how the early church was, comprised as it was of large Jewish families who lived in close quarters, with a long shared history of God centred lives. The unity and love so evident in scripture among the early church was built on a foundation of a close knitted-ness that already existed among them as a Jewish nation. They were already a family of families, and their unity was in their common experience of God himself, as He had revealed Himself to them. It isn’t an accident that God caused the OT writers to record 4000 years of detailed daily and communal life of His people, but just a few vaguely explained decades of the NT. I think He wants us to take more cues from Israel.
We need it. Badly.
So, I’m mystified that so many don’t want more of a vibrant and fulfilling kind of daily life with each other. I know God’s moving some folks past this dry tradition bound desert I encountered this morning, and I’m hopeful that maybe my kids will see its fruit, but it is hard at times to see so many churches and Christians, but so little peace, joy and overcoming love in the Holy Ghost.
It’s mystifying. And sad.