Being raised by churchgoing parents, by the time I had finished law school, I had attended a fairly wide variety of churches. I had been a part of everything from the large, conservative, Southern Baptist church in my hometown to a lively, charismatic church, which my neighbors viewed with suspicion, assuming it was somehow affiliated with the Jehovah’s Witnesses (it wasn’t).
Twenty-five years into feasting from the buffet of evangelical brands of Churchianity, going to church services had become routine, just part of the package. Sure, I sat through a lot of boring sermons, and, in my young, adult years, many of the activities for the “singles” felt like spending time at an alcohol-free, religious honky-tonk for the unmarried.
Certainly, there were those times where they’d sing my favorite song or the pastor would manage to grab my attention with some analogy that really made the pieces fall into place. I’d dust myself off and remind myself not to be so cynical, because after all, this was “God’s house.”
But then I read this very poorly edited book containing a very good message, written by a lady named Nancy Missler. It was called The Way of Agape, and it made quite a big deal of the scripture passage, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit [“God’s house”], who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price” (1 Cor. 6:19-20).
All my life, I had been reminded by preachers of the great privilege to be in “God’s house,” and here was this scripture I had glossed over, telling me I actually was God’s house. I dug deeper and discovered this wasn’t the only thing I had missed.
I found out that all my sins – past, present, and future – had died with Jesus on the cross (2 Cor. 5:21, Isaiah 53:10). Then, I discovered that tithing is an Old Testament law that pales in comparison to the New Testament idea that Christians are called to give all they have and walk out their faith together as a family of believers (Mark 12:44, Acts 2:44).
None of these truths ought to have been terribly earth-shattering, if it hadn’t been for the fact that:
- Sunday morning services were cast as a type of Christian Mecca where, with the help of the choir/praise band and our seminary-educated preacher, we could all really meet with God;
- Many of the sermons felt like heavy-handed reminders of how I needed to get cleaned up – not just saved (I’m thinking, “If getting saved didn’t clean me up, then what did it do?”);
- I was constantly being reminded to “press in” a little harder to get closer to Jesus (“I’m God’s house, for crying out loud! I can’t get any closer to Him!”); and
- I was being regularly reminded of how important it was to give a small sliver of my very busy life on Sundays, because you know, there’s that guy standing in the back counting how many people are here this week, and our attendance numbers during this one hour sure do matter a lot to the preacher.
Finally, one Sunday, I sat in a mega-church worship service in Mississippi with about 1,783 of my closest, Christian friends, and it all fell apart for me. For the first time, I just couldn’t figure out why I was there. I really couldn’t. Despite the fact that some of the people around me were clearly touched by the experience (and I don’t mean to dimish that at all), for me, it felt like I was in the audience of a Christian infomercial.
I still wanted Jesus in my life, and I still very much needed to deeply connect with other believers. But I also knew I could meet Jesus outside that auditorium, and the closest thing to me connecting with other believers in church services usually involved a quick handshake from someone whose name I forgot as soon as they had said it.
That day, I walked out to the Wal-Mart-sized parking lot, determined, like never before, to love Jesus at all costs, to find other believers who would join me – even lead me – in my journey, and to quit going to church services for a while.
Quite frankly, it was far easier to do than I had imagined. I thought that walking out of there would feel like abandoning my family; instead, it felt more like deciding to take a break from eating at Ruby Tuesday’s every, single Sunday for several years.
I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to connect with other believers, that I’d become a spiritual hermit; but in no time, I fell in with a sincere crowd of discontented, evangelical Episcopalians (I kid you not) and joined them each week for dinner and a solid, biblical, video teaching series called the Alpha Course.
If, in my college days of hyperactive service for Jesus, I could have seen into the future, I would have thought that the devil himself had taken me captive. But the reality was that I was hungrier for Jesus, more satisfied by Jesus, more receptive to grace, and more transparent with other believers than I had generally allowed myself to be in those years past. Some good things were happening.
And interestingly enough, those good things that happened during that time eventually led me back into a structured, though smaller and more community-oriented, church setting where I’ve been serving, loving, and being loved for five years now.
That’s probably a little out of the ordinary for most who decide to check out of Churchianity. However, it’s due to the providential direction of the Holy Spirit, who was at work in the midst of it all and taught me a few of the following, valuable lessons as I camped out in the wilderness.
First, Jesus will never leave us or forsake us, even if we walk out of the traditional church setting to go try to find Him somewhere else. Next, like it or not, if you want to experience Jesus and experience relationship with His followers, you’re very likely going to find Him and those people right smack dab in the middle of a traditional church experience. And finally, even if I don’t want a Ruby Tuesday’s experience every week, some people do, and many of them get properly fed there, so who am I to judge?
It’s been a peculiar journey, but it’s been a good one that has led me to see Christ and His community of believers with a more humble heart and a more open mind; most importantly, it’s given me a desire to see people coming to know Jesus, wherever He meets them.