If you find a perfect church, don’t join it. You’d spoil it.

–Billy Graham

Maybe time away from church this year has caused you to reevaluate what your relationship with your local church will look like going forward. It is the kind of reevaluation that often happens at midlife, but the pandemic has amplified the question of what church is for a whole lot of us.

Up until I hit midlife, I found myself in one deeply dysfunctional church after another. This “tour of troubled churches” happened as a result of relocations, but more frequently, it happened because we left due to abuse of power by a leader, cover-up of sin by his fan club of enablers, and/or division.

When I found myself sitting in a counselor’s chair at midlife to process my depression in the wake of my mom’s death and some other challenges happening in my family, it didn’t take long for the counselor to tap into another tributary of grief in my life – the pain I was carrying from that collection of traumatic church experiences.

When my Jewish parents understandably reacted with anger after I came to faith in Jesus as a teen, my reading of Scripture and the language church people used of one another – brothers and sisters, family of God – led me to believe that the church would function as a spiritual family for me. I wasn’t looking for a replacement family, but a supplement to the emotionally-fractured family from which I came.

My counselor helped me to see that the church had been precisely that to me, but not in the way I’d hoped. Instead, I was drawn to familiar patterns of verbal abuse and rejection I’d learned in childhood. Younger me hoped that by changing the packaging as we changed churches, I’d find a functional spiritual family at last. So we moved from fundamentalist independent Bible churches to home church to Third Wave Charismatic congregations, with a liturgical Lutheran congregation thrown in the mix for good measure. The counselor helped me recognize that though the worship style or doctrinal beliefs may have differed in these congregations, the core unhealth of these churches led me to the classic definition of insanity as I repeated familiar old patterns while hoping for different results every time.

The only way I could break the cycle was by being broken myself.  All the church activity in the first half of my life that bolstered my identity as a member of the Christian family required some serious deconstruction. It has been hard and holy work participating with God in the reconstruction process over the last couple of decades since I first landed in that counselor’s chair.

I’ve found that many who are processing awful church experiences don’t continue to attend church. There are lots of good reasons reasons for that. Going back to the place that wounded you is rarely a wise, spiritually healthy choice. Looking for a new church can be loaded with emotional triggers as you compare and contrast the new congregation’s practices and people with the ones you’ve experienced in the past. When you’ve been burned and are burned out, you need rest and soul care. Thus, it can seem easier to do your own thing and skip church altogether.

I am noting with interest that a few preliminary studies are showing that as a result of the pandemic, some people are disconnecting from their previous church connections. The closures and stay-at-home rules of this year became an off ramp for many who may have already been looking for an exit.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution for those who’ve been broken by a previous congregation. There is only the hard work of reconstruction as you discern what of your faith is worth keeping and what rightly belongs in the garbage heap. Counseling was of immense help to me, as was a couple of faithful friends who listened, prayed, and have occasionally called me on my tendency toward self-protective bitterness. But the process wasn’t quick or simple. I’m still in process. At this point, I recognize I will be for the rest of my life.  

If you’re in a place of deconstruction – as many who find themselves in midlife are, and should be – I want to encourage you with some relevant words I read last week. A recent article at Christianity Today magazine about believers who’ve gotten involved in justice movements and eventually left the church behind, while not speaking specifically to those who’ve been wounded by the church, discussed those who find themselves feeling as though the church is shackling them in their growth. Pastor and author Tish Harrison Warren commented on this CT article: “In addition to what (the author) recommends (being taught by Christians who are people of color), which I completely agree with, we need to go back in time, mining resources from ancient sources. As he says, ‘Christianity existed long before whiteness existed.’ Don’t leave. Go deeper.”

Though Warren’s comments were framed as a response to the specific content of the article, her advice is relevant to all of us engaged in the work of reconstruction: “Don’t leave. Go deeper.” I recognize that some may need to leave in order to heal, but pray they have a faithful friend or two to walk alongside of them for the long haul. Leaving is hard.

Staying is hard, too.  

The artifice of the edifice of a dynamic life of faith, the remnants of my first half of life in the church, has for the most part been dismantled. A simple mustard seed of faith remains. I’ve continued to do the work to come to terms with the formational parts of my early story, I’ve also found perspective on my spiritual family, the church, via the study of church history and by listening to the voices and perspectives of those who’ve been wounded and left, and those who’ve been wounded and stayed. My understanding of church as family has been revised, expanded, and strengthened as I’ve matured and moved toward healing.

As you reflect on your relationship with a local church in the months to come, I pray you’ll go deep and see how God meets you there.

Cover photo by José Ignacio Pompé on Unsplash