Church opened its arms to me for the first time when I was thirteen years old. My brother and his band of enthusiastic new friends took their roles as fishers of men seriously and roped me into the youth group. I was hooked from the start and couldn’t wait to return. I didn’t grow up with flannel board re-enactments or competitive memory-versing, so everything about the Sunday scene was fresh and enticing. People were friendly—overly so. The leaders were young and cool and hilariously funny. They gave us the gospel straight and tall, and we drank, and we lived.
And we also dreamed, or at least I did. In my young mind, the church on earth was the closest thing to heaven I knew. In my eyes, it was nothing short of perfect.
The church felt like a safe place.
For a while, our church building was being remodeled and our Sunday meetings took place in the local community hall. Monday to Saturday, the space functioned as the scene of pool games and experimental kisses, broken hearts and underage drinking. But on Sundays, the building took on an entirely different persona: Pool cues lay untouched, alcohol was replaced by soda, and the only music was the worship band at the front.
The contrast couldn’t have been clearer, at least in my mind. Inside the church was safety and acceptance, peace and goodwill, everything and all that was good; outside was wildness, darkness, mystery, and pain. A good kid, highly sensitive, and prone to fear, I was more than happy to stay on the side of the light, even if it meant at times blinding myself with it.
I became a Christian, and I discovered salvation. I found what I believed to be an impenetrable sanctuary.
For a time, no pain touched my church world. I loved Jesus; I adored his church. I never questioned whether my romance for the safe haven of the church was anything but right and pure. Jesus seamlessly merged with the cozy warmth of acoustic guitar chords. In my experience, life alongside other believers could be nothing but divine.
Grief invaded the safety of church.
The irony isn’t lost on me that I first learned about the accident that took my brother’s life while attending a Wednesday night Bible study. The news shattered the atmosphere like a bullet. My leader did his best to give me the details gently, in hushed tones, but to me, it felt like a cruel joke. Surely it wasn’t possible. Not in the safe warmth of the church. My leader drove me home and offered to walk me to my door. For whatever reason, I refused him and walked in alone.
We held the funeral at the church less than a week later. Over six hundred people spilled in and overflowed the grounds. My brother had in time become a youth group leader himself, and a very popular one. Those at the front reiterated the reality of the resurrection, the fact that Greg was now with Jesus, and we were thankful. But we were something else too. Sad. Shocked. Shattered. As my brother’s only sibling I felt the waves of loss acutely. The light and love of the church now had a gaping hole in it shaped like my brother.
That barrier, the invisible line I’d always dreamed would stop bad things getting into my perfect sanctuary, had failed. Bad stuff kept arriving. Anxiety and panic attacks followed grief like a tag-along relative. Even within the walls of my favorite place I no longer felt safe. But I believed I could still recapture that pain-free version of church I’d experienced in my youth. I clung to that hope, as white-knuckled as I clung to the church pews, waiting for the tide of fear to pass. Waiting for the return to stability I had relied upon for six years.
I met my husband at church almost three years after my brother died and we married in the same building where we’d held his funeral. We moved away, as many of our age and stage did, and found a new congregation, a grassroots church plant, located conveniently across the road from our rental apartment. For the next five years, I hoped the change of place would replace the feelings of disconnect and sorrow I had at least left behind in my church of origin.
We held a Bible study in our top-floor living room in a 1930s walk-up with peeling paint and the windows wide open to the gum trees tossing their heads. And we made lifelong friends, soulmates. What we didn’t know then was that within another decade the corners of that very group would tear under the weight of mental illness, suffering, and marriage breakdowns, and that the thing we claimed as solid and sure would turn out to be just as fragile as the last church.
We tried to recapture the warmth of church.
We moved again, to a new city this time for my husband’s academic job. We joined an even more vibrant community than the one we had left behind. Everything there was on a larger scale, shinier, more professional. Perhaps this, I thought, would be a place that could withstand the painfulness of life on the outside.
For several years we had been suffering the sting of infertility, and that year brought things to a head. So there I stood one night during a praise song, surrounded by hundreds of voices loudly proclaiming Christ’s power, and all around me, people raised their hands. I couldn’t even lift my head. Tears streamed down my cheeks. The lyrics of triumph rang hollow. Much as I longed for it to be otherwise, I felt only defeat.
After a year in our new city, we returned back home, pregnant at last, a miraculous answer to so many people’s prayers, but still reeling from the trauma of the year. One morning we overslept and missed the start time for a church we had planned to visit across the city. We remembered what someone close to us had said about a new church close to our new home. “This one is special,” they’d whispered, like they were confiding a secret. In truth, we didn’t really believe them. Perhaps we didn’t dare to believe. We were weary and worn down from the world. But we climbed out of bed and turned up at the location given us, only to wonder why the whisper hadn’t been a shout.
Not since my youth group days had I felt the embrace of warmth and safety that we experienced entering that new space. It had an electric welcome, nothing short of ecstatic. We stayed for five years, and as we welcomed our three children into the world in quick succession, a swell-wave of blessing, I felt that familiar old forcefield rising. Surely nothing bad could get in here, I told myself. The church was practically perfect.
But this time, when pain came, it came not from our lives but from the inside of the church.
I’d seen it all now. Church wasn’t just permeable—it could be downright painful. Hearts broken, we left.
An Unintended Idolatry
For many years, across several churches, I’d been seeing a Christian psychologist to help with my anxiety, to process my grief. One afternoon session, our conversation turned to idols. It was in the period before our third baby was due, we were still deeply enmeshed in our church, not knowing yet we would soon be leaving. I was busy trying to finish my PhD in literature while juggling the many demands of life and family. The pressure was causing my anxiety to return. I loved writing but I was worried it was swallowing too much of my time. Was I idolizing my work?
My psychologist paused and looked at me, like he often did, with a gentle form of bemusement: “It sounds to me, Nikki,” he said, “that it is much more likely that you are idolizing your church than anything else.”
It was true, I supposed, that my calendar, my priorities, my waking hours, were strongly weighted to the church. Between Mike’s leadership responsibilities, and my time with the church women, many also young mothers, we hardly spent any time outside it now. But church was good, wasn’t it?
His question stayed with me as I left that room. It echoed in my mind in the months to come when we left the church in question with our broken hearts in our pockets, our souls frayed.
In giving my heart to the church, in locating my hopes within its walls not above them, had I in fact been engaging in an unintended act of idolatry all along? My idealized version of the church had grown into a kind of dream that, when pain intruded, shattered in a shower of disappointment, confusion, and despair.
Not Dreaming, But Still Believing
Our story was not quickly resolved, nor is there room here to tell it all. But I can say both my husband and I are on a journey of un-dreaming that has brought us to think far more of and far less of the church than we ever imagined. The surprise for us was that God was not surprised by this pain and brokenness. He knew all along.
And not only did he know from afar, but Jesus also came to his own and his own “received him not.” He took off his garments at the last supper and gave himself in love, washing the feet of all, even the one he knew would betray him.
Jesus modeled church in the mess and risk of a world in which the light shines in the darkness, but also in which the darkness comes into the places that people dream of as light. He is not a naïve dreamer. But neither does he abandon his unruly, dreaming church—and neither can we.
We can think more of the church when we marvel about what God—as Father, Son, and Spirit—is up to, working in the broken and impossible places in his resurrecting power.
Cover image by Tanjir Ahmed Chowdhury.