October 22, 2017

Alone, and Not Alone: Meditations From the Evangelical Wilderness

We talk about the evangelical wilderness around here a lot. It’s sometimes academic, and sometimes it’s very personal to all of us. These are some of my thoughts from there today. If God has taught me anything, it’s that you (yes YOU) are out there, and I’m not the only one.

This post is for a particular group of people.

People who really don’t have any choices about what church you attend. Through circumstance or choice, you are a church monogamist, not a church shopper.

You may be a person in a rural area, and your church choices are extremely limited. Maybe, if you are conscientious about your use of fuel and time, your choices are non-existent.

You may be in an area where there’s only one church of your denomination or tradition within reasonable driving distance.

You may be in a foreign country, either as a resident or in the military, and there is only one Christian or evangelical fellowship near you.

You may be a person in a missionary calling, and you must worship with the people/church you are seeking to plant or encourage.

Your marriage or family choices may have settled for you where you go to church. It won’t change unless you relocate.

Whatever the situation, you aren’t church shopping. When people talk about visiting ten or twenty different churches and comparing notes, you don’t relate.

Talk comparing worship leaders, pastors or parking lots doesn’t register with you. You take what you get and you count yourself fortunate to get it.

Perhaps you are forced to worship far from your own tradition. You are a Catholic forced into rural Protestantism. A Presbyterian among Charismatics. A Baptist among Catholics. You are an evangelical who appreciates the broader, deeper, more ancient church and you are forced into the seeker-sensitive, purpose driven wilderness. You are a person who loves traditional church music and you’re listening to a band made up of the youth group rockers and vocalists. You are a person with an education going to church with people who want the Gospel in a cultural form that’s hostile to education and difficult for you to relate to.

There are days that the sound of the same contemporary worship choruses or funeral home organ or out of tune piano makes you consider whether you can ever come back to church again without earplugs.

Perhaps you are loyal to one small group as your primary fellowship. Perhaps you are the supportive person who stays and supports the pastor no matter what else. Perhaps you are the only person who can handle the youth group. Whatever the reason, you are where you are being who you’ve chosen to be and going elsewhere isn’t an option for you….but you feel it.

When people talk about “quitting church,” you don’t hear “changing churches.” For you, leaving would be quitting. Every week, you are making a choice to stay and not leave, and you are making that choice in a situation where many other people would have moved on.

Perhaps you’ve been hurt by the church you’re in. (So many people hurt by churches….it’s hard to think about it.) Mistreated. Lied about and blamed. Maybe more than once. You realize your kids have suffered some disillusionment. Perhaps your marriage is paying the price. There may be conflicts and bitterness over this choice. You’ve wondered, “Is this the right thing to do?”

You’ve certainly wondered, “Why don’t I have the choices that other persons have? Why does my sister have ten churches in a mile radius while I have one?”

You’ve wondered if you been present enough, given enough, been supportive enough and now you need to step away.

You’ve wondered if your choice of this one church is a sign that you’re healthy, or that you’re weak.

You’ve felt good about yourself for being here, and other times you’ve hated yourself for being in this situation. Maybe this is a church where you are content, or maybe it is a church that has filled you with frustration.

God’s part in all of this is the most difficult part of all. Why you? Why here? Why this? Why Lord?

(You’ve probably learned, like me, that “why” questions are not going to get much traction, but they still come to our minds, hearts and tongues easily.)

I don’t know how many different versions of this situation you’ve encountered. I don’t know if you are content or restless, at the end of your rope or hopeful. I don’t know if you believe this is where God wants you to be or if you feel like God is no where near or far.

What do I want to tell you?

You aren’t alone.

You aren’t alone in what you are feeling or in what you are going through.

You may have someone to talk to, or you may not, but don’t think you are the only one who believes that if you could choose another church you’d have a much different life and experience. If you wonder if you’re a bad person for wanting to be in another church, you aren’t. And you certainly aren’t the only one.

I also want to tell you that God knows what he’s doing, but I am not his press spokesperson. I can’t explain his ways in these matters. I do know that you aren’t there by accident, and that the assignment has a place in God’s Kingdom script.

I recently preached on the story of the rich young man in Mark 10 who refused to sell out and follow Jesus.

He was the star of the show. He had lots of choices He liked the script he was living very much.

Jesus invited him to leave that script, and come into the Kingdom script.

And to have no idea what tomorrow was going to be like. No idea where he was going to spend the night. No idea when he was going home.

His security would be Jesus. His script would be whatever Jesus wrote and directed.

There was no little brochure explaining all the benefits of following Jesus; how he would get his best life now, etc.

If you look at where the Apostles and many of the disciples wound up, there’s a good chance it wasn’t going to be in the comfort of a megachurch auditorium.

I think we all face that kind of choice with Jesus. And those of us who are far from the church choices, church benefits and church comforts that others are offered need to remember what it feels likes to get your assignment from Jesus for your part in the play.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think Jesus minds very much if we have some emotion and restlessness about this. He knows what we are like and he knows what we are made of. He knows that we struggle and that we wish for a different assignment sometimes.

He was, after all, one who learned obedience through tears. He was the one who prayed “not my will, but your will be done.”

As I’m sure you’ve guessed, I’m part of this group. I don’t feel like an evangelical most of the time. Evangelicalism is the piece of driftwood I’m standing on. What happened to the ship?

The ministry Jesus has given me has taken church choices of any kind away from me. I’m on the fringe of the fringe, preaching to the unlikely and those who normally wouldn’t come near a church. I get to meet them in a very unusual place, and there aren’t many of us who can make it in this ministry. It pays little and demands much.

And to be here, my church choices are non-existent. In my one choice, I’m as odd and out of place as I can possible be. My wife has gone elsewhere- Rome- to experience the church, and I am here, like one of the Apostles, telling the story to the nations that have come to my backyard.

To be here and to be this person in the Kingdom script, I must have my choices taken away, and replaced with the mission.

In other words, Christ leaves me with himself, and a mission that cannot be sustained apart from clinging to and following him.

Most of the time, Jesus is my church and my pastor.

So I have no Marine drill instructor correction for you. My heart is beating like your heart, and I feel so many of the same things.

You’re not alone, and God hasn’t left any of us. In fact, in this evangelical wilderness, he may be closer than you ever thought.

Comments

  1. Joined a church in 04 because after visiting 10 churches we liked this one the best. It was a nondenom meeting @ a school at the time. After 2 years, I was asked to be on the board and accepted. I was a long-time Christian that had kept his faith but hadn’t gone to church in 15 years. My wife started teaching the kids Sunday mornings. Everything was just fine…

    And then we decided to build a building we couldn’t afford, and all of a sudden everything we did was for the explicit purpose of growing the church. At the same time, I started going to BSF, started reading my bible, and realized that my pastor was basically prosperity-lite and seeker-sensitive. All of a suddent we had 18 sermon series a year, in every sermon, he would say “If we love people like Jesus, think about how many people would be in this building.” The emphasis was never about keeping God’s commands because we are to be obedient, just about the resulting growth. He also started “editing” the Bible — passages are read that always conveniently start before something controversial. He talks about the sheep being saved without mentioning the fate of the goats. Talks about the OT Cities of Refuge without mentioning what happens to the intentional killers. Jesus is your buddy, healer, Savior, but is never your Lord.

    As far as governance, the pastor has to be pinned in the corner before he tells the whole truth about the state of the church. Most the professionals that help start the church have left because of the poor leadership on display. As a result, the church is financially struggling. We have replaced people who tithed $15k a year and voluteered 10 hours a week with people who give $300 per year and show up every 5th sunday clutching “Your Best Life Now” to their chests.

    I feel trapped because I feel like I did not oppose the slide as strenuously as I should have and I feel the need to help get the car out of the ditch. My wife feels trapped because “Who else will teach the kids?” We are trapped in semi-Prosperity, “I love you Jesus” repeated 20 times to tambourine and guitar, bible church, addiction recovery, purpose driven Hades. Having taken a break and looked around over the summer, the alternatives are not much better – the same drivel just more financially secure. It could be worse I guess – my wife’s childhood church is in a TULIP civil war right now :-/ Teachers being ousted from instructing 5 year olds because their view on limited atonement is not correct.

  2. Thanks for the “pingback”. I know there have always been times and places like ours throughout church history (and much worse). But what is God up to? When the stuff we focus on in church seems to speak more of his absence than his presence? The irony in this to me is that the church seems more worldly than the world. That the place of feeling out of place is more with God’s people than in creation or the marketplace. Obviously, God is everywhere and we are to go with him into the world as salt and light but isn’t being with God’s people in worship, word, witness and community to be our waystations? This seems so upside down. I do not want to be a victim or cause of this. Lord, have mercy.

  3. How sad for so many. I have recently taken a job at a religious institution out of necessity; I was laid off when the company I worked for closed up, and this was the only place that gave me an offer. I feel horribly out of place; I don’t comb through the Bible with the fine toothed filter comb of correct doctrine, everyone there thinks alike (read white, middle class, republican), and the major point of discussion with most people for them to tell me how wonderful and doctrinally pure they are. I so miss the “real world”, the secular world. But I can’t quit–I need the money. So, in the words of the fish in “Finding Nemo”, I just “keep on swimmin'”.

  4. Thanks for writing this, Michael.

    I attend a Toronto-style church close to where I live. We started going just after we moved to Melbourne (AU) nearly four years ago, and my wife is happy there. I just don’t fit. I spend far too much time sighing and rolling my eyes at things that just seem very silly to me. I’m wary of labels, but I’m warming to post-Charismatic.

    I’ve tried to leave. I sit down to dinner with an “emergent” church on the other side of the city on semi-regular Tuesday nights, but it’s a long way to travel to be involved in any great measure. I tried attending a “mega-church” close by, whose theology seems to be pretty straight down the line (the senior pastor even blogs!), but my wife wants to stay where she is, so it didn’t work out.

    So I go and sit and sigh and try and work out why I’m still there. Why we can’t just leave. Of recent times, I’ve begun to think that maybe it’s God trying to teach me to learn to worship and hear him in a situation that I don’t want to be in. That if I can learn to worship him there, I can worship anywhere. To fellowship with others whose core belief is the same as mine, but whose faith practice feels so unnatural to me.

    I don’t know. But it brings some comfort to know I’m not alone.

  5. Thank you.

  6. Here are words I never thought I would hear coming from my mouth: this week my wife and I are joining a Lutheran church. I’ve been a pastor for almost 30 years in nondenominational churches. The last situation was difficult, and when we left, we found ourselves somewhere we’d never been before. We didn’t want to move because of our children, but what’s a pastor to do about church and ministry when he must live in the same community where he pastored? I became a hospice chaplain, but as for church, we’ve been wandering in the ecclesiastical wilderness for almost four years now. Soured on nondenominational evangelicalism, we nevertheless endured three years of cheesy stage shows and bad preaching before stumbling upon a humble little congregation of Lutherans who have refreshed our spirits with their simple, beautiful liturgy and generous, hospitable spirit. I know I have to work through some doctrinal matters, but you know, I don’t think I’ve ever agreed with everything in any church where I’ve been, and at least in this congregation I am free to think through these things without fear of the culture warriors freaking out. If you had told me five years ago that I would be joining a mainline church with enthusiasm, I would have said you were crazy. But that’s what the evangelical wilderness will do for you.

  7. Thanks for making me commit the sin of envy there Chaplain Mike. You can buy my Root Beer.

    Seriously, it’s great to hear you’ve found a place away from the wilderness.

    Lord….there are so many of your children who need this kind of home. Help our mainline brothers and sisters understand the treasure they can offer to so many evangelicals.

    peace

    MS

  8. Michael, now that I am going to be a Lutheran, I can buy you a real beer!

  9. Thanks.

  10. Thanks for the insightful and candid post. I can relate a bit to Chaplain Mike, in the sense of being a vocational pastor and then seeing things from the other side. After graduating from a Christian college I was a worship minister in a mid-size church for about 8 years. Then a few years ago I transitioned into teaching at the same school where I graduated. I wasn’t at all prepared for what it was like to now be a church volunteer and not a staff member. Instead of being the worship leader, I was now a guitar player in someone else’s ministry. That was very hard, but I’m so glad that God has allowed me to see things from another perspective. I wish all vocational ministers were able to take some time off and be a church volunteer for 6 months. They would come away with a very different point of view.

    Chaplain Mike, thanks for your honest thoughts – I can imagine after being a pastor for 30 years it was quite hard to be “on the other side.”

  11. Chaplain Mike, no you can’t. Michael is still SBC, and our people are watching him.

  12. Yes. Clark is correct. That comment has probably already been emailed to the main office. It’s ROOT BEER! We promise.

  13. To the older woman, probably mid-70s, who sits in the congregation every Sunday, scowling,

    I see you from up front, how you frown when I pick up my electric guitar. I know you especially don’t like it when we play Newsboys or anything else when my amplifier is turned to the “Crunchy 2” setting. I hear you were a teacher for many years; I imagine you’d be more comfortable in a church sanctuary than on a folding chair in the YMCA gym, maybe with an organ instead of the band we have which includes, besides me on my ax, the bass player who spends his evenings playing conservative complaint-rock in bars and coffee shops.

    But, you come, anyway, and I’m grateful. I’ll try not to play too loud. (But sometimes it’s really hard!)

    To the guy who keeps the sound and video equipment humming,

    Yeah, we know all about you. You sing the hymns so loud and so…confidently…that you sometimes mess up the worship leader. You believe a worship service should be all about the message; you really have no need for the music.

    And yet you show up, nearly every week you aren’t on a missions’ trip to Mexico, making sure we fill the gym with as joyful a noise as we can manage. You may be the best teacher I’ve ever had, and I appreciate your Sunday School classes. You and your wife probably keep half our programs running, from missions to Sunday school to the coffee table. Thanks for sticking around.

    To the rest of the congregation,

    There are two, I think, college-aged guys who hang out during the summers that could play me into the ground and back again. They know it, I know it, you know it. I guess they’re too cool to play in church, though, so you’re stuck with me. I know compared to the other alto I sound like a frog in a rain barrel, and the above mentioned bass player would also play circles around me if we had someone to cover his bass.

    Still, you let me play and sing. You accepted my “red guitar, three chords, and the truth,” even though my “truth” is a little shaky in the higher registers. That is not the reason we go to this church, but it’s one of the reasons I can’t imagine leaving. His grace is sufficient for me, but your’s isn’t too shabby, either.

  14. I always tend to start with a dark view of things and somehow find the light that is hidden there. This, I imagine, has something to do with my having depressive tendencies. Having said this, I’ll now describe my way of approaching my church experience.

    I tend to think of both church and family in the same way. They are, at least for some of us, things we would just as soon get as far away from as possible, but all the work entailed in remaining and making something of it somehow changes and shapes us into a better sort of person. And so I remain. I think of this as having something to do with God possessing a weird sense of humor. But whatever it is, I’m convinced that I need to resist the effort to flee. For me, it is one of those dying to self practices that seem to be so much a part of the fabric of Christian life.

    The tendency of American Christians to shop and hop is one of the most destructive parts of modern day American Christianity. Just as remaining in a marriage and working through the hurtful, lonely, unfulfilling, and dark parts of life shape us into people of substance, the same is true in the church.

    And yes, the church is unpleasant. The American evangelical church is for me, a thin broth. And like someone raised on Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup, they seem to like it just fine, and resist any efforts to thicken up the soup and add some real meat as hoity toity and superfluous to the fine salty brine they’ve always known.

    I recently read “Beyond Smells and Bells: The Wonder and Power of Christian Liturgy”, and found myself aching to be in a place with such beautiful and meaningful practices. I began contemplating leaving for one of the Episcopal churches in our area. Then I read an article in First Things about the end of the protestant church in America. It referenced some of the divisive issues going on in the Episcopal Church. I knew all this already, but it cured me of my romantic dreams brought me back to reality. We are broken people in broken churches with other broken people. Ever so often, if we are fortunate, we find ourselves connected to a group of people where life is happening and the Holy Spirit is moving in a powerful way. And then after a time, when we find things have changed and the life and excitement have disappeared, we are tempted to blame someone and go out looking to find that excitement somewhere else because we believe we know what the real Christian life is like, and we should never be without it. But I feel moments like this are a gift given to us from God, and that the correct response is to treasure those moments when they come, and hold them in our hearts after they have gone. They are real, but cannot be manufactured or duplicated. And so we go back to cleaning the toilet, and being nice to the cranky old lady that says you are sitting in her seat, and all the other unglamorous and mundane parts of life as it comes to us.

    Until God directs me in some clear way to be somewhere other than where I am, all I know to do is to subversively thicken the soup where I can, and maintain hope that the Spirit will awaken the church to the majesty of who she is.

    MDS

  15. I spent 20 years attending the same church. Raised my children there. Served in many capacities at various times – children’s pastor, youth pastor, worship leader, elder. Every time I got discouraged and wanted to leave, God seemed to indicate it wasn’t time, that this place was my assignment for now. Things were often hard, with leadership squabbles and failures.

    Finally a new guy with fresh ideas and a desire to serve God and people took over. Things went pretty well for a couple of years…but the “senior” pastor never went away and wouldn’t release the new guy to sink or swim on his own. There was constant bickering and resistance behind the scenes, due mostly to resentment of the new guy’s success.

    Last February it all came crashing down.
    The church simply ceased to exist – the senior man engineered a way to “merge” with another church, a feel-good church growth place. Merger meaning they moved into our facilities and took over.
    Oh, we tried to save the church with prayer and fasting and meetings – lots of those! But in the end, the only Christian thing to do was to let go and walk away rather than embracing the very evil we were battling.

    It was the right choice, but I still grieve for the loss of friends and relationships grown over 2 decades. My family and some of our church friends have begun attending a non-denominational “Christian Life Center”, and are very happy there. The pastors believe their primary job is to equip the saints for the work of ministry, and they really live that out. There’s no power struggle – what a relief. We feel wanted and appreciated, and serving God is a joy again.

    So why did I have to stay 20 years at the other place and be one of the last to leave the sinking ship? I don’t know… There’s that “why” question again.

    I guess I said all this to say, hang on and keep trusting, Michael! You’ll get through this wilderness eventually. How do I know? Because God is good, and has only good in store for us. Of course, His definition of “good” and mine are often two very different things.

  16. Michael,

    Thanks for giving voice to something many people feel but which is most often not talked about.

    We came from the UK to northern France three years ago as “missionaries to the church”, with a mandate to help build the small evangelical Baptist church we’re a part of (I’m on leadership). Isn’t it often the case that we’re called to live in the tension of knowing, on the one hand, without the shadow of a doubt, that we’re exactly where God has called us to be and living the destiny he’s invited us into, but also knowing, on the other hand, that it’s just incredibly tough for all the reasons you so eloquently expressed?

    That’s the irony: never in my life have I known with such certainty that this is where God has called us to be – this is our mission – and yet never in my life has it been so tough. And the choices for us are zero – despite the many huge problems and challenges in our church, the sad reality is that it’s the best of the bunch where we are. And anyway, like I said, it’s the one God planted us into.

    I can testify to your closing comment that it’s often in these times and circumstances that God is closer than you think. My personal walk with God has been transformed since we came here – because if it hadn’t been, I would have sunk.

    Rob

  17. Michael,

    Thanks for posting this.

    I fall under the military side. More specifically in the forward-deployed surface Navy, you switch churches every time your ship leaves or enters homeport. It’s difficult to build community that way. Furthermore, there are many folks who consider church to be more of a family affair. They go to church in port, but they don’t attend services underway for whatever reason. If the tradition doesn’t match quite right, expect less attendees period.

    Ever since we appointed a new lay leader onboard, there is now a Catholic lay service, Protestant lay service, and an Episcopalian/Lutheran service led by the chaplain. That really opened my eyes to how much people really value the traditions they came from when choosing to attend. I, with only a year of guitar experience, end up leading worship at the Protestant one.

    In homeport, I find myself going to the Lutheran service *and* the contemporary service, the latter at which I join up with one more experienced musician who plays classical guitar. And that’s pretty much it for anything resembling a modern “worship team.”

    Even with more choices being out there, there is the conundrum of reaching out to those raised in black churches. I was in a base exchange last night looking through music and noticed one of my shipmates with a large handful of gospel CDs. I jokingly told him “That’s a lot of CDs!” He replied gleefully “I’ve got to get my gospel on, sir!” We apparently used to have a gospel service on the ship, but the lay leader transferred, and nobody took his place. Having eyed some of what he bought, I bought stuff by Kirk Franklin and Hezekiah Walker to attempt to figure something out.

    In the midst of that whole mix, we attendees still fellowship, but there’s a certain uneasiness when we start talking about specific doctrines. Heck, I didn’t even know Presbyterians were Calvinists until I got out here, and I thought I was big on apologetics back in college.

    There are no prosperity preachers here, but there is plenty of it in the form of books, and lots of them. I see T.D. Jakes on the ship quite often. Gloria Copeland and Joel Osteen take a large chunk of the religion section of the exchanges. Every time I see that, I want to rip them, spit on them, something. God is so much more than that hogwash. All of us more discerning readers think of Amazon.com as a godsend in this respect.

    In the lack of such consumeristic choices, I know this is where God wants me. The prospect of transferring back to the states after this is tempting on a matter of convenience, but I feel that I’ve found a very unique calling here, one which I will have a hard time leaving if or when God says to move elsewhere.

    And if I’m reading this blog correctly, all of this “post-evangelical” stuff was happening under my eyes when I was back in the states. Who knew?

    Thanks for your work, Michael. Fellow commenters, you’re not alone. God is very good indeed. May His countenance shine upon you and give you peace.

    Garrett

  18. What does one do when he pastors a church that – has one major problem after another, is strugglng to maintain in a economic and racially changing neighborhood and is unwilling or unable to change? What if that pastor is struggling with his theology and belief about what church is supposed to be? I’m really just tired of pastoring but in mid -life don’t have another way to support my family? I understand if you don’t post this question, but it is honest and the discussion struck a chord.

  19. Bob Sacamento says:

    Perhaps you’ve been hurt by the church you’re in. … Lied about and blamed. … Perhaps your marriage is paying the price.

    A bunch of gossiping old hags at our church managed to convince my wife that I was cheating on her. Never did it. Never tried to do it. Never considered it. Don’t even have the time or energy for it if I was so inclined. But now she’s suspicious of me all the time. Thanks, church ladies. Thanks for showing the love of Christ in such a powerful way.

    For what it’s worth, I don’t think Jesus minds very much if we have some emotion and restlessness about this.

    I sure hope you’re right about this.

    You’re not alone, and God hasn’t left any of us. In fact, in this evangelical wilderness, he may be closer than you ever thought.

    I’m trying to believe this, but right now it’s a matter of pure faith for me, when most evidence is pointing in the other direction.

    Thanks for the post, Michael.

  20. Hooray! I knew there was a reason I am drawn to your blog, IMONK! God bless you, brother!

    In the view of society, I am a church quitter after being there most of my life in both teaching and administrative positions.

    But in God’s eyes, I am NOT a church quitter. He’s just getting us off the pews and out the doors where the NEEDS are. We sat and HEARD long enough. THE URGENT NEED NOW IS THE MEET NEEDS OF THOSE IN THE HIGHWAYS AND HEDGES! God grows us up to go out and SERVE. Few benefit when mature Christians just ‘set and sang.’ 🙂

    MAY GOD RICHLY BLESS YOUR BACK YARD!

  21. Thanks, Michael.

  22. As a pastor having people leave is most always painful, although there have been a few that I was more than glad to see go. Whether as pastor or not, I see one issue being not to look with contempt on those with whom we worship and serve even if we are out of sorts about much of what transpires and about how we aren’t getting “fed” the way that we’d like to be fed. I struggle in an area where there are many choices of churches, and people take advantage of that in all senses of the term.

    My prayers are with all who struggle in this way. It is a diffucult place to find oneself.

  23. I am so helped by this post and the comments.
    I’d like to ask a question, which seems relevant. How does a person get over a bad church experience? It sounds like some of the commenters have gone through things (whether as clergy or laity) that could have left them very bitter. I myself am still struggling with negative memories of the place that I left. I would like to move on, and the church I now meet has provided some progress. But I can’t let go, and I can’t break free.
    I don’t want to go into too much detail. But I’m interested in what others here have experienced. Whether you’re churchless, or in a new place, how did you learn to let go of years of trauma from a toxic church?
    And why do I still miss the damn place? I don’t get it.

  24. I belong to a SMALL church (30-40 members) with a pastor that seems to have travelled a road similar to Michael’s, at least theologically. He has taken a small group of dedicated, close knit people and tried to restore some of what’s been lost. He bases his sermons on the lectionary; we have a liturgy that tries to bring back some of what was lost in the rush to modernize and be relevant; we take communion every week; we try to observe to some degree the church calendar and participate in each of its seasons; his positions on how the gospel has been lost in modern evangelicalism and its social activism is similar to Michael’s. I consider us to be very blessed to have a leader and a church experience like this. But…he’s in his early 70’s and is planning on retiring sometime soon. We live in the middle of Fullgospeltown, and I have no idea where we will find a man of similar mind. God may have such a man lined up, or we may be forced to make the same choice Michael described – choosing to stay because God has placed us here and made us a part of this people, regardless of where the next pastor may go. I’ve been feeling at home in the wilderness for quite awhile, but that’s because I’ve had a family to travel through it with.

  25. Dave R: Where can I send my resume?

  26. Ky boy but not now says:

    anonEvang
    “I am so helped by this post and the comments.
    I’d like to ask a question, which seems relevant. How does a person get over a bad church experience?”

    When we finally made the decision to leave, relief. It was a weight lifted.

    A few months back when we were almost at the decision point we visited another church. Suddenly we noticed two other couples from our small group there. None of us knew in advance we’d be there. Call it what you will it made things a lot easier.

  27. anonEvang,

    Maybe others will have better answers than myself. I have had experiences with a few different churches that has been places of openness and spiritual healing. You need to be in a place where you can experience the love of God and of others. This may not be a church in itself, but a parachurch group, or retreat centre. Meeting up with a Pastor who has experienced such things could be very useful as well. If you could identify your general location, perhaps other readers could identify a place that might help you recover spiritually.

  28. My family and I had to stop and pray to have the strength to go to church. It was horrible. There were factions and divisions so bitter that a cloud hung over the whole group. We tried to go elsewhere but had no peace from God with that decision. Then the church flooded, I got real sick, a lot of people left, and I got called as pastor. What a ride.

    anonEvang Only Christ can heal hurt that deep. Find some one to pray with and pour it out. Dysfunctional church family is as damaging as dysfunctional biological family.

  29. I think after struggling with church issues for 15 years, I’ve come to a place of contentment, knowing that there are no perfect churches, or maybe even any good churches. The Church of course, reflects us and we aren’t perfect . . . or even close.

    Now I do seek the lessor-of-evils each time we move. My wife, for whom church means friends and not doctrine, structure, thinking etc, has made a deal with me. The deal is, each time we move, I choose the church, but when it is chosen, and she invest her energy in relationships, then we will never changes churches again while living in that location.

    The hard thing is, it is impossible for me to judge a church from a thousand miles away before the move. I can study their doctrine, their denomination and correspond with their pastor (which I did before moving to our island utopia). But once you feet are on the ground, two things happen. You find out the truth, the real attitudes of the pastor and leaders as well as the persona of the church. I also realize that my views are dynamic . . . changing over time.

    At this moment in history, I see as my most ideal church, Dave Tomlinson’s Holy Joes. I would love to have an informal church, in a bar or coffee shop, where we sit around and discuss real things . . . sort of how we do here. But where I can talk about my deepest secrets, longings and questions . . . without someone pointing a finger at me and using what I just said as evidence that I’m not a true believer.

    The fact that I am now committed to my church (as long as we live on this island . . . unless my wife changes her mind) I have to make do. I do challenge the status quo, such as the Hamm Creationist videos, but I often keep quiet to avoid constant conflict.

    So, I think that’s why I appreciate these blogs, my handful of friends across the country that think like I do, LAbri conferences etc. That’s where I get my true “but encouraging one another” aspects of the church.

    I feel a little like the Will Smith character in the movie I Am Ledgend, where he something about, “Broadcasting on all frequencies is there anyone else out there?”

  30. Truly poetic insights monk…
    As you said in the wilderness there is nothing but Jesus to rely on.John the Baptist is a perfect example.

    Paul found himself lonely an abandoned in prison after prison beaten, whipped and then martyred.
    Constantly trying to get believers to stick to the simplicity of the gospel against all rumors from the gainsayers that he was a charlatan.
    If lonliness,destitution and martyrdom was an apostles crown why should we seek the compfort of spoon fed sanitized, homogenized, pastuerized, cookie cutter pablem religion??

    “By your traditions you make void the word of God”

    Jesus said count it all joy when you go through trials for my sake and let your joy overflow so others can see your light.

    Monk you are at your absolute best when your not trying to unscramble the eggs that satan is constantly scrambling.

    Remember there was always ONLY a remnant who had true faith and that little peice of wood your standing on is the remnant of the ship you where wondering what happened to.
    That ship was the TITANIC and was always heading for the bottom of the ocean because it was manmade.
    Built and sustained by mans foolish selfrighteous religious pride & tradition.As was temple in Jerusalem which Jesus declared “your house is left desolate”.
    But the Jews couldnt see this and so it is Christianitys turn to be tried in the fire so dont be surprised because human nature hasnt changed.

    JOHN 4:Jesus declared, “Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.

    ( The Synagogue nor the Temple in Jerusalem )

    23 Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.
    24 God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.”

  31. “I don’t know if you believe this is where God wants you to be or if you feel like God is no where near or far.”

    “In the lack of such consumeristic choices, I know this is where God wants me.”

    Just curious–how do folks seem to know what “God wants?” I guess I didn’t get that gift of discernment. Maybe you are where you are by accident of birth (born into a particular denomination) or simply by chance. If you are born into a non-Christian family, is that what “God wants?” Are all our choices necessarily what “God wants” when our intentions are to worship him? If you find yourself in a place that doesn’t “fit,” what’s wrong with wanting to change your situation and to serve and worship God in a way that brings you closer to Him? Does God judge me by what’s going on in my heart, or by the name on the building where I attend church? By the worship style and music or by the life I lead? By the creeds I recite, or by whether I really try to keep the first two commandments? I don’t have any answers–just wondering. No wonder Jesus had to get away from the crowds once in a while.

  32. Sal,

    There is nothing wrong in wanting to change your situation.

    But, it is hard not to have any choices. I’m glad to be where I am, because I love my job and my co-workers. As far as a church, I’m at the best of 3 poor choices, and if clustering continues, it may only be one. I’d love it, if I could worship and be friends at the same time. But, it is not, and frankly I don’t see it changing. For it to change, both I and the people that are in my parish would have to be open and vulnerable. I will not be vulnerable when others are wearing solid armor. Probably, they don’t see it that way, but I am a stranger and they are long term natives.

    All I can say is that I’m glad to be where I am, because I am closer to tangible spiritual food, and the Internet, including this site, help feed me. I hope that my words encourage others.

  33. Thanks for writing this, Mike!

  34. Anna A,

    Thank you for your post. I live in a huge metropolitan area with more churches than some small countries probably have. It’s hard for me to imagine what it might be like to have limited choices. I hope the folks in your parish soften up and lighten up. And I agree with you that the internet, and particularly this site, helps to fill in the gaps.

  35. My sincere thanks to those who responded to my question earlier. Mike, you’ve got some great commenters.

  36. Sometimes I feel kind of, well, shallow by not having much to say except “Yup, me that’s me… that’s us…”. But admitting reality, here goes: “Yup…”

    This wandering into the post-Evangelical wilderness has brought divisions to my family, as I’m sure it has to others. Where have I heard that before…? Somewhere in the gospels? Anyway, I believe that in the Modern Reformation article Michael mentioned families stuck with church committments because of kids involved in youth ministries and etc. A couple years back I had the choice of staying in the local Smalltown Bible Church with its Hyperactive Kids for Christ programs, or rejoining the little fellowship of post-evangelicals I had attended before. The twenty-seven teenagers in the house didn’t want to leave the twenty-three youth ministries they were involved in. Being a member in good standing with Homeschoolers Anonymous (Hi, my name is Dave, and I’m a recovering homeschool parent…), it tore me apart to think of our family not worshipping together. But I let the ones with wheels of their own continue on their way, and started back down the trail out of town and into the wilderness. I shudder from a distance as the musical ones learn worship as Jamming for Jesus.

    My wife is following the lonely trail behind me. Raised in the Pentecostal church and not knowing there was anything different, anything else that was really Christian, she had raised her daughter in the Assemblies. Her daughter was in high school when we were married, and my wife felt she couldn’t ask her to start into the wilderness at such a key formative stage. So, part of the family is riding the Bible/Baptist train, part the Pentacostal bandwagon, and part chopping through overgrown and forgotten paths trying to find the Lost City of Hope. Our nation has the culture wars, our family has the worship wars… Fortunately, we peacefully coexist for the most part, but it stills saddens me that once again a Christian household displays the same trends and tendencies as the culture we live in.

    In the midst of all this chaos I see God meeting and drawing our kids to Himself in all of these camps. I try to feed them tidbits of real food as they careen past, and brace myself to catch and comfort them when the (likely) disillusionment strikes and they realize how thin is the porridge they’ve been eating.

    We live in a time and place where you can easily be lonely in a large city, lonely in a large church, and lonely in a large family. But as the institutions, the ways and means we’ve known in the past, crumble around us, the Lord continues to feed His people, even using manna from the internet.

    p.s. How many cliches and twisted metaphores can YOU string together at one time? 🙂

    p.p.s I don’t mean to be flippant – this is serious, painful stuff. I find a dry sense of humor swirling around a tongue planted firmly in cheek helps brighten the path a little.

  37. I have to say that both Michael’s piece and many of the comments posted have been some of the most mature, well-reasoned that I have read in a long time. I too am feeling “stuck” in a church family (+20 years) that has taken off in a direction that strikes of porridge and broth. Nothing heretical or too far off the chart, but just a slowly developing shallowness where the music is loud, romantic, and mamby-pamby, and the teaching is often need-centered. I am a former RC now in a “Bible Church”. I appreciate now more than ever much of my liturgical heritage but do not want to return to Rome. I have also appreciated what I have received in our evangelical church but it seems the foundations are slowly crumbling into irrelevance. What to do?? My wife and I are tied where we are with kids but I would love to consider a move. However, as many have already said, God still reigns and he reigns where we are. He will indeed continue to do his work through very imperfect people (like me) and praise him for that! Perseverance IMO is far better than church-hopping and being a trouble maker. We’ll see what tomorrow holds:-)

  38. This is a Beautifully written post. If you were to take “a questioning pole” as to who is attending church, and who isn’t….(?) the numbers might just astonish people-its sad. I would elaborate on my experiences that of being within the same church organization for 32 years; but I’d prefer to hold back my tongue just a smidge due to high volume eyes and ears that just can’t see “Change” needed in Our Midst…let alone any infactic need for restoring injustice, truth, and witness to hardship ,and its oppressing events as it unravels–again, “with many watching”.
    “Church Hopping” has never interested me; nor did I ever make a habit of this practice. But……as I get older; and watch the attendances of churches rather crumble. Invitations to advancing His Kingdom come with such a “Price” of ….”If you don’t do, and act, and behave as WE want you too….Your obviously unruley, and not quite our mold,yipes–Get Out. Sad……these efforts of a non-creativity approach; also, a non-obedience to scriptural practice-Our sound Doctrine itself,hummmmm….. Makes a woman wonder “What on Earth”???? ….”We all have our Gifts….We all have our failures…..as requested By God, Himself, written of with a magnitude of appearances scripturally….”Thou Shall Not Stand In The Way Of Sinners”…….and so forth. But today, some efforts have become so closed door that the ellegance of the scriputres written are being destroyed, and trampled to bit. So…..saying all that than…For myself….God IS my church…..God is my Master……”I look to No-One else” (other than just plain old friends-Miroslav Volf , and One t) To represent for me too take heed in every direction I would be told. You can certainly feel the “Love and Compassion” in churches of richnesses and health…in the ones struggling to survive…..You pray for Gods Wisdom to offer them perhaps a Mass Communicator to intervene before its too late……over stepping the rulers/so called authorities if need be. I look at it this way…..a trouble maker I’d say No! A artist for “Change” and proper direction as the Scriptures call for….I’d say watch out…Rahab walks a tight rope…right up front. No closed door policies aloud, nor cheating forms of lies with-held…it all comes back around two-folds, time and time again… written of greatly within the PSALMS–ASK King David! I love the Psalms… they tell stories of the days….discernments……and such. Rahab

  39. Amen. For each one of these called to with Great integrity…. Stories of perseverences, and Truth!

    Amen. “Great Post”….love , spiritual…fun!

  40. A friend who knows (and shares) my struggles just sent this link to me, saying, ‘This one’s for you!’ And so it is. Thank you so much for helping us “Wilderness Wanderers” know that we don’t wander alone.

    Thank you, too, to Warwick for writing:

    “So I go and sit and sigh and try and work out why I’m still there. Why we can’t just leave. Of recent times, I’ve begun to think that maybe it’s God trying to teach me to learn to worship and hear him in a situation that I don’t want to be in. That if I can learn to worship him there, I can worship anywhere. To fellowship with others whose core belief is the same as mine, but whose faith practice feels so unnatural to me.”

    I’ve expressed those same thoughts, but they were more palatable and encouraging, somehow, coming from someone else’s pen. Empowered by the HOly Spirit, these words carried me grace-fully through this past Sunday’s worship challenges.