Investing With a Whole Heart In A Disappointing Church

I’m not sitting down to the best of writing conditions. It’s April 19th and there’s snow falling outside my window. That alone leaves me a tad out of sorts. The kids are ready for sunshine and the energy level is a little crazy in here today. A little boy just used my chair to catapult himself across the room and there’s a girl molding peanut butter cookie dough into butterflies behind me in the kitchen. They are going to morph into unrecognizable shapes when they bake but she’s so excited about this experiment that I don’t have the heart to tell her. This is one of those days that I’m a little checked out as a mother. I’m here, and answering questions, but I’m sort of not here, you know? I’m tired and fighting off a head cold. And, I’m tired and fighting through some discouragement. So, I’m just plonking myself down in the midst of the chaos and I’m going to sort out what’s up with me. You’re welcome to come along.

I dropped my oldest daughter off at school today and had a good, long talk with God on the way home. It was nice, because it was one of those times I didn’t just trust that he was listening, but I really felt it. Feelings don’t change what is real, but it’s nice when they match up.

I talked to God a lot this morning about my church. If you measure things by vocation, I’m not really anything there. I’m not the pastor or an elder or director of anything. I’m just a mom that shows up and leads Bible studies sometimes for the women and kids. But my heart has been in this thing. And today, I wanted to quit that. I sort of still do.

I think it’s because of how much it hurts when people leave. I said goodbye to a good friend recently and had a conversation with another dear friend that was looking at another church. It sort of sent me tail-spinning.

Remember long ago, when our church plant was just starting, I wrote The Keeping Strength and asked, “What is going to make this church different from all the others that have disappointed people?” Well, it’s four years later and I know that we’ve disappointed people. People just plain disappoint. We’re not all that consistently impressive.

These days, most of us choose a church because it offers us something we think will make our lives better. Maybe it’s good teaching. Or, friends for our kids. Social opportunities for those cold winter evenings. Maybe we’re aware of our need for community and belonging. Sometimes, we’re strategic and service oriented and want to be someplace where our gifts will be used with the most bang for the buck. We can imagine a fertile, green pasture where we will graze with like-minded, Jesus loving sheep and baa out just the kind of worship songs that make our hearts sing.

But, there’s a lot of room to be disappointed when faced with a real life church.

My husband, this man with an extra dose of faithfulness, has always had a different outlook. He sees church membership vows like marriage vows. There’s a commitment there. Sometimes in church, like in marriage, you see things that are better in other places. There’s a pull toward those greener pastures. But, given a faithful theological foundation, you stay there and build on it. You dig in deep and serve and show up. You decide to belong there. And, it’s in that commitment and at times long-suffering, that we experience the richest church life. Just like in marriage. Sticking at it and working at it is what makes it so beautiful and satisfying when all is said and done. It’s not that everything is perfect. But some things are actually better than perfect- an imperfect church and an imperfect marriage are both things that allow us to experience grace and to grow. And, they both look ahead to the same profound mystery (Ephesians 5). Our imperfection leaves room for us to long for the perfect union of Christ and his Church. This is the the true marriage. The rest are shadows pointing back toward what’s most real.

So, Jon and I are all in when it comes to this imperfect marriage, and this imperfect church. We dig in and invest our all. We look ahead to the finish and ask God to help us display a little bit of what’s to come in the here and now.

But, I think this high view of things can crash into broken-heartedness at times. It hurts so much when people leave. Maybe it’s like that anytime you let yourself love someone. Love and grief are such close friends. When you let your heart be bound up in the joys and sorrows of another, and feel a sense of responsibility to care for their needs, and then they leave and go somewhere else, it really hurts. It’s a complicated hurt because it doesn’t really make sense in our world and culture. It hurts so much that I start to feel like I’m crazy and deficient somehow. I should be tougher and less possessive or something. I should trust God more and be able to just say “See you around,” to the people leaving.

But, wait.

I guess that is not actually trusting God more is it?

If anyone out there has any really helpful thoughts on how to love people really deeply but keep your heart from hurting when they walk away, will you let me know?

Or maybe.

Sometimes we’re called to things that hurt.

Sometimes pain is not an indicator of failure.

God gave us two great big commandments. To love him with all our hearts, souls and minds. To love others as ourselves.

This is following him and sharing in his sufferings.

And this is what the church is supposed to proclaim-

Jesus loves us.

He suffered for us. For the leavers and the quitters.

For the disappointing.

For me.

His love hurt him. And, he invites us to share in this love-hurt because he knows the joy that is coming will be worth it in the end.

Sometimes, pain is not a sign of failure.

It’s a sign that your heart is working. It hasn’t quit yet.

I started this post discouraged but knowing that discouragement never has the last word. Not when we are working our way toward the gospel.

And, I see it- I’m glimpsing it once again. This Jesus-changes-everything thing that sorts me back out when I feel like such a mess.

Thank you for coming along with me as I stretched to grasp it again today.

This is a rapid paced, hard scrabble scribbling- but it did its work in me.

Now, I get to go be present with my kids.

And, I have an imperfect but totally cool-looking, puffy (and delighted over by a little girl) butterfly shaped (sort of) peanut butter cookie waiting for me.

May you, along with me, delight in the imperfect and the disappointing today and keep loving big.




5 thoughts on “Investing With a Whole Heart In A Disappointing Church

  1. I am reminded that people are fallible. We are fallible, the Lord is one the One who keeps us. We will stand on the gap for those that have gone and we will pray, but God is their God as well. He is great and mighty. He does not change, He will finish the work He started. Thank for sharing this, the marriage analogy is good. Church is more than just the building it is the people, the fellowship, the encouragement, the exhortation

    • Thanks so much for your encouraging thoughts- focusing on who God is really helps when tempted toward discouragement. And that “He will finish the work he started.” Thank you!

  2. while I’m not a person who attends church, I am a person who believes strongly in commitment and who works to put my all into helping others create lives that feel worth living. I have worked at my agency for what-will-be 19 years next month, and have experienced so much change, so many leavings of those colleagues that I’ve come to care so much about, and the “graduations from therapy” of hundreds of clients. It’s the colleagues leaving that is the hardest for me, for I have been aware that they have left due to feeling disappointed and disheartened by what they have experienced at the agency. I find myself sometimes struggling with questions of “what is wrong with me that I stay?” While our agency’s mission has pretty much remained the same, which is to serve, the demands on how that service will be employed have been influenced by forces outside of our control again and again (i.e., changes in government policy and funding sources), and that is hard to experience. It can be hard to ride the wave when it sometimes feels like a churning tsunami underneath our feet. I have gone through so many moments over the past 19 years where I have thought about leaving, about abandoning those I have been choosing to serve in this realm. The moments come more frequently now as the changes come more intensely. In fact I was exploring private practice again last week. This week, I’ve settled back down, have done some recalibrating, and have felt my commitment once again strengthen to ride the current changes out. I suppose this is my small way of saying that I appreciate you putting words to your experience, Lara, and that in my own way, I can relate to the rollercoaster ride of emotions that surface when major change happens, when a person important to us and the community we are in the midst of chooses to step away. I also very much appreciate the reminders of how important commitment is, of how much growth can occur when one chooses to stay rather than go. Sending you much love and strength for this current part of your journey, Heather

    • Thanks so much for sharing, Heather. I hadn’t thought before about this being a more universal experience but yes, the personal investment and therefore the emotions tied up in the ‘rollercoaster ride’ of people coming and going do seem to be very similar. Way to go for sticking it out for nineteen years. That’s a long time and a lot of changes. And, I’m sure a lot of people helped by your commitment and steadiness! Love to you, too, and prayers, as the next wave of changes come. And, looking forward to our sibling getaway (because sisters are stuck with you for life, haha).

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