I have been reflecting on reasons why people leave the church, stay in the church, or return to the church. This also began making me reflect on why I am still a part of the church, and why I am a pastor of a local church. I have been connected to a church ever since I was baptized in infancy. My relationship with the church has been rather tumultuous, and not without conflict. In fact, I see two stages in my past. The first is when I realized that I would continue to be a Christian, and the second is when I realized that the church is actually a good thing.
I grew up in a small town and I was raised in a small-mid-sized local church of a conservative bend. Church never felt like a safe place to ask questions or to doubt. This was difficult for someone like me, who is naturally inquisitive. I wanted to know why we give so much importance to the Bible, why we went to church even though the Bible never says that we have to go to church, and additionally, why did we go to church in the morning and in the evening? I wanted to know why only men could be pastors, elders, and deacons. I wanted to know why there was this long list of things that I could not do. I wanted to know why we had to do things so ordered and formal, when there were several passages in the Bible that talked about God hating our assemblies and rituals. I wanted to know why “this way” was the right way to worship but not “that way”, I wanted to know why I had to dress up to go to church, because after all, doesn’t God see our hearts? I wanted to know why I had to make profession of faith to partake in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper even when everyone in the church should have known my commitment to God and my faith. I wanted to know why the Epic of Gilgamesh read a lot like the story of Noah’s Ark. I wanted to know what God was doing before God created the world. I wanted to know why science says that the world is far older than my Sunday school teacher said. These were a few of the questions that I had.
Growing up, I often felt as though these questions invalidated my faith, you see, you could have faith, or you could have questions, but good Christians didn’t ask these type of questions. Throughout college, I became increasingly disillusioned with Christianity and felt as though there wasn’t much of a place for me. I felt as though I was bad for having these questions and doubts, and that this was irreconcilable with faith.
However, at our church, we had a seminary student who was doing his field practicum, and when he arrived, I began posing my questions to him. He was willing to accept my questions and my doubts. For those things that he was able to help with an answer, he offered an answer, for those things that he could not, he wrestled and struggle along with me, and provided me a space in which I could both believe and doubt.
I learned that women could be pastors, elders, and deacons as well as men. I learned that the Bible is to be read as a religious book that shows about God, and helps us live in ways that God desires, rather than a science textbook. I learned that the church is important as a place for fellowship, and to help us grow in our faith. I learned that asking questions and doubting was okay, and in fact, it can help us in our journey of faith.
Although I did not realize it at the time, I understand this to be the reason that I am still a Christian. Had this particular seminarian not been placed in my particular church, I am unsure what would have happened. Perhaps I would still have been a Christian, perhaps I would have left the faith. Regardless of what would have happened, I continue to identify this as the reason that I am still a Christian.
A second, related relationship I credit as to why I am still involved in (and in fact have committed my life to service of) the church. During college, I was involved in our Campus Ministry with ministers from both the Christian Reformed Church in North America, my current denomination at the time, and the Reformed Church in America, what would become my denomination. College was a time in which I was not on the verge of giving up Christianity, but with the Church as an institution. I saw it as a relic of the past that has done horrible things, and that had so many rules, guidelines, differences, and divisions, all of which stood in the way of relationship with God.
It was during my conversations with one of the ministers in particular, that I began to see a different side of the church. I began to see the church as the body of Christ, as a body that sought to live out its faith in Christ in the best way that it was able. I saw the church as a body that had many different limbs, but were all connected in Jesus. I began to see the church as an imperfect body, a body that does some wrong things, a body that sins, but despite all of this, as a body which is still used by God in special ways. I began to see the church as a body that is made up of imperfect people, but a body which I needed to stay connected to.
There are still many times when the church frustrates me, when I feel as though the church does the wrong things, when I wonder if this is what Jesus called us into. However, I still believe in my heart that God called the church into being, that God works through the church, and that the church is still the world’s best hope for a foretaste of the Kingdom of God.