Emerge and Restore

Exploring faith, God, and church in the 21st century...

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Location: Kansas, United States

Friday, August 19, 2005

Blessed by a bad church

Those of you who know me know that I spent a few very long years as a youth minister in Texas. You know that those years both scarred and strengthened me. My outlook on faith, my philosophy of ministry, everything about the way I think and act as a minister was ripped to shreds and eventually rebuilt. When I'm being honest and not trying to re-frame my failed ministry in a falsely positive light, I'll tell you straight out that this was a terrible church. Some churches are hurtful because they are complacent or tired or simply misguided. Others are un-Christ-like and self-righteous and hostile. This was such a place. I could make you queasy with stories of hungry, hurting people who were treated like dirt. Your jaw would drop as I recounted evil words from the lips of those who were supposed to be the most spiritual ("We're ordering you to stop giving food to the needy. That's not the demographic we want to reach"). If I told you how my family were treated, you'd wonder why we stayed past the first month. As I've said many times, it was hard for that church to know God because they wouldn't ever let Him in the door.

Earlier this week, my wife and I were talking with a group of friends, discussing negative events in our lives that we later became grateful for and it reminded me of something I wrote before I ever had a blog. When I moved to my current location, a friend from a nearby church in Texas who happened to be a sidelined observer to everything that happened during my tenure there, e-mailed me the question:

"Why are you still a minister?"

Besides the obvious and relatively troubling, "How else would I support my family?", my answer to him was that maybe that experience taught me some things I needed to learn. It wouldn't have been right to give up because I believe that God put me there. I think he did it for my good. That particular church has imploded and will likely close its doors soon. That too, I think will be good. But I learned more in my time there than I could have in virtually any other situation. I went there as a lifelong member of the Church of Christ, and I thought and acted like one. I was the fundamentalist, ultra-conservative legalist that I now rail against in this blog. And a couple of months into it, I looked around and said, "Hey....this isn't working. Not even close." So then I began a rollercoaster ride that has brought to where I am today (although the ride continues).

A bad church taught me volumes about how not to do church, about how to alienate people and stifle them and keep them from pursuing the Kingdom of God. A bad church taught me that the church is not a building, and it taught me the dangers of thinking that it is. A bad church taught me the difference between an institution-builder and a disciple-maker. I learned to be ferociously honest with myself because nobody there was honest or real or willing to face reality. I learned to get up and get working even when I didn't want to; when I knew that I would be opposed from within the church. I developed the thick skin that it is helpful for ministers to have. I learned what it does to your soul when you keep silent when you should speak up, just for the sake of keeping your job. I learned that Christ-like churches don't just happen because you fill a building with Bibles and smiling faces. I learned to wring every last bit of living water out of a very, very spiritually dry place; I learned to look for God in the little things. And maybe most importantly of all, I learned that just as God has grace for the addicts and the abusers and the prostitutes, he also has grace for the hard-hearted, the self-righteous, the parched soul just going through the motions of faith, the frowning face who has forgotten how to love. And I think that those lessons will serve me well in the future.

And if God could bless me that much through a bad church, think of what he could do with a good one...or even an decent one that's occasionally frustrating. I understand that there are such things as toxic churches (although my understanding is narrower than Arterburn's), and would never advocate staying in such a place, I do want to send out a word of encouragement to those who are struggling with their place of worship, who feel disappointed and let down. Even if my church lets me down, drives me crazy, or holds me back a little, I think that if I can get past my consumer attitude thats too concerned with what I get out of church, if I can subdue my pride that feels like I deserve a bigger and better place, then I bet God has some blessings waiting for me, maybe he's waiting to reveal himself in some way to me...if I can just get out of the way and look to him.


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