Meet M, a good friend of mine.
He’s a thoughtful guy and a good preacher. Recently, over breakfast, he talked about how he’d left his church. His comments were carefully and thoughtfully expressed. I felt he put words to what a lot of my wife Jeanette and my older Christian friends (and some younger) have been saying about their church experiences around NZ.
M’s comments are not mean-spirited, nor is he bagging the church. Quite the opposite.
Please understand I love the local church. That’s why I am doing the work I do (WillowNZ). But I think we all agree we can do better, and in most cases most of us want to do better. I hope and pray this short and honest story will be instructive and give us all something to think about and perhaps be less judgemental of the literally tens of thousands of good people in NZ who are now known as the ‘Dones or Church Refugees’. Alan Vink
M is husband and father. He and his family have been members of their church for 20 years.
For four of those years, M worked an associate pastor role. In his two final years, M created and led a group for Intermediate boys.
“Why am I leaving my church after 20 years?”
I wrote that on a serviette at my local café. I expected answers to flow because (a) I’ve had years to think about it, and (b) I’m usually good at finding the right words to frame my thoughts. But by the time my second coffee had come and gone, I had nothing on the napkin.
So I squeezed out some words. “I’m bored and uninspired.”
As soon as I wrote this, I knew I had hit the dartboard but without threatening the bullseye. I was kind of right; my church problem was like boredom and like uninspired, but these were symptoms whereas I was trying to locate the cause.
Three coffees in, I folded my near-blank napkin and left.
Weeks later, I came back to it. Same napkin, same café, but not the same approach. This time I took on the easier task of describing how church made me feel. I figured that if I could name a specific emotion, the follow-up question, What is it about church that makes you feel this way? would be instructive.
What I often experienced at church was the feeling of being perplexed. In its milder form, it felt like mere frustration. But at other times I was genuinely disturbed, even angry. So what was it about church that made me feel this way?
The songs? Yep, sometimes the words were shallow and weak, or the tempo dirgeously slow, or the band too performance-driven (should we elevate musicians on platforms?).
The sermons? Yes, sometimes they were confusing, or worse, were boring, or worse still, served no discernible purpose.
The long Mission talks? The forced ‘high fives’ with congregation members? The lengthy notices and after-match biscuit chats?
Yes to all of them.
But why would they leave me feeling disturbed to the point of leaving my church of 20 years? What was it that linked them all?
Dissonance is the conflict that happens when things that ought to work together, don’t. It happens in music when notes are at odds. It happens in fashion when clothing doesn’t fit the body. Or in politics when someone’s actions contradict their words.
Wherever dissonance occurs, there are always at least two things involved: This in conflict with That. In my church, what was the Other Thing that so often clashed with the sermons and the songs, the notices and the biscuit chats?
It was the profound truths I had come to believe.
I believe that the world was intentionally made, not haphazardly formed. That the One who invented the universe was infinite and good and wise and was involved with His creatures. I believe that this good God so loved the broken, wicked world that He gave His one and only Son and that this Son, being in very nature God, somehow made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.
I believe that Jesus of Nazareth is this incarnate God and that in his human form He was pierced for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities and that the punishment that brought me peace was upon Him and that by His wounds I am healed.
I believe it all.
And not only I believe it, but others do as well; the whole church, in fact. So when we gathered together as God’s rescued kids, we expected, maybe subconsciously, to be part of something that resonated with the profound things inside us.
What we got was a clash.
Our small slice of Eternity / HIM were mixed with the words of songs that seemed driven by the need to rhyme more than the need to express deep, living theology. These lyrical clichés were, in a technical sense, completely true. But in being devoid of depth and insight, they were also terribly false.
The Profound Truths often clashed with the sermons.
Having preached a little, I truly respect (and feel for) anyone who takes up this responsibility. Feed My sheep is a daunting task, which is why not many should teach. But if we’re going to take the stage, I think our speech should be of the Emmaus kind. On the road, Jesus spoke words that compelled His listeners to say, “Were not our hearts burning within us while He talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”
That kind of preaching harmonises with the Wondrous Things within us. In fact, such preaching even heats the Wondrous Things up. I have experienced sermons that were like air blown over the coals of my lukewarm convictions, making them hot again.
Boring / shallow / humanistic messages can’t do that. At best, they clash with our sense of God’s bigness and cause us to be glad when it’s time for coffee and biscuits. At worst, they shrink our sense of God till we begin to think that HE is like the messages we keep hearing.
Sometimes that leaves me angry and perplexed. But mostly I feel very little, which, in the end, disturbs me more. That’s because I’m prone to mediocrity and self-indulgence. I’m nowhere near what I could be as a disciple and cannot afford to stay in a place that allows my weaknesses to go unchallenged. What I want – what I need – is to be in a community that calls better things out of me, that helps me feel a better kind of anguish – the anguish of feeling God’s greatness and wishing that I loved Him more than I do.
So I’ve left my church of 20 years.
Where to now?
That’s the other question I’m invariably asked: “Where are you going to fellowship now?”
The truth is, I don’t know.
I’m interested in exploring other ways of gathering with believers, ways that aren’t the theatre model of seats facing a centre stage. But I’m not gung-ho about that. I could happily take my family to a church that does the standard approach well.
For me, the key isn’t 20 people vs. 200 or Seats in a Circle vs Seats Facing Forward. What I need most is a sense that the things we’re doing together are cut from the same momentous cloth as the things we believe, as the God we believe in.