February 18, 2020

iMonk 101: November ’08: Alone and Not Alone

(From November of ’08. Part of what this web site is all about. And why some new readers may not exactly get it at first.)

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. A Church Shopper says

    Thanks, all, for your responses to my post. I was misunderstanding what was meant by “church shopper.” Seems like “church hopper” is a more accurate term for a person who goes from church to church but never “buys.”

    imonk, keep up the great work. Your blog, along with the comments of your readers, always give me food for thought.

  2. Jonathan Hunnicutt says

    In some ways, I really resonated with this post, because I certainly felt that for a long time. But looking back, I now realize that was because God called me to a ministry of racial reconciliation and I was too afraid to go to a black church. So for three years I drifted, miserable at every church I went to. Finally, some friends invited my wife and I to a black church that was becoming multi-ethnic and we immediately felt at home.

    I cannot tell you how healing this church experience has been, in many ways, it has reaffirmed my faith in the church as an institution. It has shown me what the church can be. Now, our church is far from perfect, and frustrates me on at least a monthly basis, but we do pretty good. I would credit most of this to our pastor who is a man who genuinely seeks God. We’re gaining a reputation as a healing church, a church that heals people’s relationship with church, after being so burned.

    Of course, I will be moving this summer, and I will probably go into exile again, but the question is worth asking: Is this feeling of dislocation because of disobedience? I know mine was.

    I think part of the evangelical churches problem is that we keep trying to make cookie-cutter churches and Christians. So we’re all white, and we all believe the same thing, and do the same thing. As soon a church goes multi-ethnic, all that stuff gets thrown out the window, since you have to embrace a diversity of gifts and voices for it to work well, and it creates space for non-conformists.

    To be even more blunt: Is this God’s judgment on the SBC and white evangelicals for their lack of racial reconciliation?

  3. Judgment: maybe, but not likely.
    Reaping what we sow: probably.

  4. perfessir says

    “The 4th century monastic mothers and fathers who left all of the “shopping” to go out into the desert, went into exile.”

    Been Episcopal, Assembly of God, Baptist, Independent Fundamental, Lutheran (MS), United Methodist, Independent Praise ‘n Worship, Roman Catholic.

    Lived in California, England, Ecuador, Oregon, Peru, Texas, Kentucky and Washington.

    And now “exile” in Vietnam, with no church, and one Christian friend.

    I miss something, but I don’t know what it is.

    But I do like moving beyond social and “intellectual” posturing and get real. Thanks IM!

    Thay Tom

  5. Thank you.