In high school, a new family moved to our small town and the husband became my Sunday School teacher. Greg was a great Bible teacher. He had a wealth of knowledge and did a good job including everyone in class discussions. Greg’s wife, Donna, partnered with him in leading our class and offered excellent insight. Her real strength, though, was in making sure everyone felt welcome. She took the time to learn about each one of us and would then remember to check in about what she’d learned. Looking at Donna, I can tell you what a sister in Christ should look like.
Greg never shied away from the hard questions of our faith. No theological discussion was off limits to him. To this day, when I run up against a theological wall, Greg takes time out of his own busy life to schedule a phone call and examine my questions with me. He’s recommended dozens of books to me over the years, perhaps none more significant to both of us than Lauren Winner’s Girl Meets God. Her description of lifelong friendships describes our relationship with Greg and Donna’s family perfectly:
“There are a few people out there with whom you fit just so, and, amazingly, you keep fitting just so even after you have growth spurts or lose weight or stop wearing high heels. You keep fitting after you have children or change religions or stop dyeing your hair or quit your job at Goldman Sachs and take up farming. Somehow, God is gracious enough to give us a few of these people, people you can stretch into, people who don't go away, and whom you wouldn't want to go away, even if they offered to.”
Our families have vacationed together, mostly camping. I remember one year in particular, Greg shared a disagreement he was having with someone at church. The person decided he didn’t want to be in close fellowship with Greg anymore. It left Greg reeling and ended up being a hurtful situation. So damaging, in fact, Greg considered leaving the only church they’d attended since moving to town. Greg did a lot of soul searching in that time and that’s when he stumbled across Winner’s book. It helped him examine his own faith and establish what he really believed.
After continuing to struggle with the broken relationship with this brother in Christ, Greg visited the local Episcopal church one particular afternoon (Winner is an Episcopalian). He sat down with the priest to learn more about this small church in my hometown. The priest asked Greg a number of questions about his church experience. He inquired about how Greg’s wife and daughters felt about their church family. Apparently a very wise priest, he spent most of the conversation listening to Greg’s reflections. After a time, he offered Greg this advice, “Some people look their whole lives to find a church experience like you’ve described to me. It sounds like it has been a huge blessing to you and your family. My advice is stay right where you are.”
That story taught me a valuable lesson. You’re not going to find the perfect church experience. In fact, the more involved you get, you’re sure to find flaws in these all-too-human establishments. Yet the local church is where Christ chooses to do his work on this earth, through the Holy Spirit who lives in the body of believers as a whole. It shouldn’t be easy to break a covenant relationship you’ve made with fellow Christ-followers. Are there times people should consider leaving? Absolutely, but I would hope it’s a gut-wrenching decision.
If a church splits over a controversy and your fellowship is wounded beyond repair; if your doctrinal stance on a major theological point differs with a current congregation in an undeniable way; if your family is in danger physically, emotionally or spiritually—these are reasons to consider leaving. For the most part, in my personal experience, we’ve made it too easy to leave. I often wonder how many good and hard faith conversations we miss out on because one or the other party chooses to leave the church. Think of the message we’d send our children if we rode the highs and lows a church family will experience in their eighteen years of childhood. Rather than looking for a perfect church, look to meet God in the church you call home.
Not All Who Wander (Spiritually) Are Lost ©2020 Church Publishing Incorporated, New York, NY 10016
Cover image by Cecile Hournau.