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This post is part 18 in a blog series that I have entitled “the wilderness between legalism and grace,” in which I share how I came to realize that I had an incorrect view of God and self and how I became free of the system of legalism whereby I was trying to earn God’s favor. You can view all of the posts in the series here on the series landing page. This post addresses when you need to leave a church, and when you need to stay.
In my last post, I shared briefly about one of the churches that we attended while we were living in Kentucky:
So when we arrived in Kentucky, we quickly found a good independent, fundamental, Baptist church to attend.
We attended that church for the next two years, but struggled to fit in the entire time we were attending there. There was a lot of good things about the church and the people there, and most of our “problems” with the church had very little to do with legalism, so I’m not going to go into them here. We just weren’t completely happy, and we knew it – but tried to make the best of it because we thought it was where we were supposed to be.
I didn’t want to go into more detail, but earlier today, I felt convicted that I needed to share some things.
This blog series is about a wilderness – and just as the Israelites made a lot of mistakes before they made it to the “promised land” so did I. It’s not fair for me to call out all of the wrongs that have been done against me and ignore the things that I have done that have caused my own pain.
This chapter is one I’d like to gloss over and say simply “we left a church for reasons that didn’t have anything to do with legalism.” But it’s not that simple.
I hope by this point in my series it is obvious that at this point in my life, I was not in a good spiritual place. I was in pain. I was hurting. I was angry at the problems with legalism, but I didn’t understand grace. at. all. I kept God at arm’s length while still pretending to be a pretty decent Christian.
But you can’t hide ugly. Eventually, it comes out.
This church that we attended in Kentucky had some social dynamics that we found made it difficult for us to fit in socially. While we originally thought that making friends there would be easy, for some reason, we just struggled.
As the months wore on our frustration grew. Then we were dealing with a difficult pregnancy, a difficult childbirth and recovery, and then we were right into predeployment phase – it was a good six months of being far too tired to try to make friends. We had pretty much given up.
But then my husband left. There I was with a husband gone and infant in tow and I desperately needed community. I found it in MOPS, which I joined at the beginning of that year. I found it in OFS and the Bible study that accompanied it. In the fall of that year I joined PWOC. I had an amazing network of community through all of those parachurch organizations, but the way that all of those groups embraced me made me that much more frustrated with my church and its seeming lack of support.
I looked for problems. I looked for inconsistencies. And, as it was an imperfect church made up of imperfect people – there were plenty of problems and inconsistencies to be found. Like the multiple times I was left out of playdates and game nights, the mornings when nobody said hello, the holidays like Easter and Mother’s Day where I had no one ask me over for dinner, and the times I overheard wonderful stories of other military wives in the church getting taken care of but I had been forgotten.
And so, I withdrew. I held onto those hurts, the resentment, the bitterness and ran off into my own little corner where I could feel loved and taken care of by other people.
“If these people won’t bother caring or supporting me, then I’ll go somewhere else to people who will.”
The day there was a Sunday School picnic and I sat alone at a table with my infant son while other people filled up all the tables around me and mine stayed empty – instead of moving to sit by someone else, I left the picnic early and cried all of the way home.
I didn’t ask for help when I needed it. I didn’t ask for prayers, love, and support when I wanted it. Instead I focused on all of the ways in which I wasn’t getting help and support.
The cycle went on this way for months, until finally, after I left yet another church function in tears, my husband told me from the other side of the world that I wasn’t going back.
This part of my story is necessary to tell because ultimately, leaving that church and moving onto others were huge steps for both my husband and I on our pathway to grace and getting us to where we are today.
Looking back on that year, it still hurts. I still feel the disappointment of feeling left out and forgotten. But, in hindsight, I also remember the times that I was invited over. The times one of the men in the church came and mowed my lawn free of charge. The military wife get-togethers that the church hosted. The times people did ask about me and my husband. The marital counseling that we got over RnR. The Christmas presents that they dropped by even after we had left the church.
All that stuff that I downplayed – because it was easier to be bitter, angry, and resentful than it was to be thankful; because it was easier to run away and sulk than it was to be direct and honest with people who might have been able to make a difference.
I justified myself saying that a woman whose husband is deployed simply shouldn’t have to ask for help from the local church.
But what if I had humbled myself and done so anyway?
I’m not going to deny that there are a lot of churches out there that honestly lack good community. People get left out. There are groups that are hard to break into. People get hurt. And the church (as a whole) needs to do a better job about taking care of its members, especially those who are hurting, forgotten, struggling, and starving for community.
I’m not going to deny that sometimes, starving people need to simply leave and go somewhere else where they can be fed.
But if everyone who is in bad community leaves, the problems will never be fixed. <—Tweet This!
Back in April of this year, I was overcome with conviction as I watched the webcast for the 2013 (in)RL conference from Incourage.me: The Challenge to Stay in Community. Women told their stories. Some of those women left communities, groups, churches, and relationships because they had been hurt. Other told the stories about how they chose to stay: how they chose to risk conflict for intimacy – how there had to be hard talks, honesty, and directness in order for hurts to be rectified and a community or relationship to improve.
We chose to leave our church, and ultimately, God weaved that hard situation into my story in a way that still brought him glory and made my life more beautiful.
But I still regret the times I made passive, whiny comments to a friend – instead of speaking up about how I truly felt. The times that I left crying, alone – instead of choosing to stay and find a shoulder to cry on that could have become a friend. The times I fumed and said nothing – instead of humbly asking for help. The times I accused in righteous anger or vented on Facebook about how my needs weren’t being met – instead of going to the people who could have made a difference and honestly, directly, and graciously telling them how I felt and how the situation could be improved.
I can’t tell you exactly what God wants you to do if your church isn’t meeting your needs.
But I’m asking you to focus less on the problem and consider the possibility you could in fact be part of the solution.
Maybe, leaving your church is inevitable. Maybe you’ve already tried to be that positive change and nothing has come of it.
But maybe you are like me. Hurting. Fuming. Frustrated. And you would rather sulk, withdraw, or leave than risk the effort needed to try to make a difference.
No church is perfect. And maybe the people in that church just need a second chance. Maybe they need someone to come to them humbly and respectfully and say, “You’ve hurt me. You’ve left me out of things. I’m feeling ignored and unloved. I don’t feel like my needs are being met by this community. Can we work on improving this, together?”
Readers, I think this is something that needs to be talked about! Can you tell me about a time when you, like me, chose to walk away from a community where your needs weren’t being met? Do you regret that decision at all? Or maybe you chose to stay. Why? And what happened when you made that choice?
To view all the posts in this blog series, visit the landing page.
Next post, part 19: on being “in your place” in church