For most of last year, and up until just a few weeks ago this year, Dana and I attended a small, denominational church just two blocks down the road from our home. We stopped going there about six weeks ago, and returned to the church where we’d attended before.
As I rounded the corner in the Wal-Mart deli yesterday, I ran smack-dab into the preacher whose church we’d been absent from for nearly two months. It was the first time I’d seen or talked to him since we were there.
After a minute or two of awkward small talk, he said they sure had missed us there.
It put me in an uneasy position in a public place. If they’d missed us so much, why were we having this conversation in Wal-Mart instead of a phone call four weeks ago? Why was I now getting put on the spot feeling like the bad guy? If you really missed me wouldn’t you have let me know a long time ago?
I’m not mad about it. But it just wasn’t true.
I had another random encounter with a different church friend a few weeks after returning from the Camino de Santiago. We exchanged a few fairly impersonal pleasantries before he said how much he enjoyed following my pilgrimage and how he “couldn’t wait” to get together and hear more about it. Haven’t heard from him since. Don’t expect to. I don’t think he really meant it.
Two years ago we attended an Easter church service with a family member when just before the service began an older gentleman was walking around shaking hands with people. You could tell he was especially looking for those who hadn’t been there before. When he came to me, he offered this warm greeting:
“It’s my job to go around and shake people’s hands this week. We’re really glad you’re here.” So heartfelt. So genuine.
Four years ago my father lay dying in a hospital bed just as he’d experienced one of the most genuine Christian experiences/conversions/revelations (choose whatever word you like) I’d ever seen. And for the first time in 71 years asked to be baptized. When the church pastor of another family member arrived supposedly to lead the tradition representing my dad’s decision, he soon called my mom and me out in the hall to tell us the very last thing I ever expected.
Because my dad was bedfast, it would be impossible to “fully immerse” him in water. Anything less violated the pastor’s personal baptism doctrine. He was sorry. He couldn’t help us. And so he left.
I could share dozens more stories like this, and as you can imagine, have had a volatile relationship with church (little c) over the years. But never with the Church (big C). So this probably isn’t going where you might think. I love the Big C Church.
I had conversations with many people last year, especially along the Camino, who because of experiences just like this, have separated from the church. People said more than once “the church has a lot to answer for.” I’ve learned it’s SO not true. Jesus already answered for the Church in a big way. We celebrate and recognize His answer in our behalf through the coming week.
So much of my church philosophy changed when I changed the way I looked at church itself. As I grew and matured, I viewed it not so much as a place I go to receive, but much more as a place to give and serve. It’s more outward than inward. More about Him than about me.
This side of Heaven, the church is made up of people. We’re all imperfect. We’re going to let one another down on a regular basis. It’s no different than anything else we experience every day, and we have to look past the small stuff. The church isn’t bad. Its people just aren’t that great at fully living out its mission. It’s been that way from the beginning of time, and will be that way to the end.
We try. We fail. It doesn’t mean we stop trying.
There were periods in recent years when I stayed out and away from church. I let the small distractions get in the way of the bigger reality, and after a time realized how much I missed being part of Church – not the traditions or the regal recitations or even the cheerleader messages or multi-media entertainment so much of the “church” now emanates – but the genuine worship that happens only in a collective group. I missed that.
Dana and I joined a church last week. After five years of not being on “church membership roll” whatever that means, it was kind of a big deal for us. We’re happy about it.
I had to learn you can’t depend on church people.
But the Church will never let you down. It’s perfect.