When a Community Is No Longer a Church

Preface

I haven’t been shy in previous posts about the spiritual journey I’ve been on over the past several years. Last year, this journey was accelerated after finding myself with more time to read, write, and digest materials in an attempt to better align my faith with the gospel message. At the same time, Brooke and I were also attempting to navigate the difficult landscape of COVID-19, politics, and starting a family when we eventually decided to leave our church.

The purpose of this post is to provide a brief overview of the behaviors that prompted us to withdraw from the community we had been a part of for five years. We believe many of these issues exist across much of the Western church and are sharing them out of love and encouragement for those who might be witnessing similar struggles in their own gospel communities.

None of the issues covered below are specific to events that Brooke and I experienced ourselves, which is how we’re confident that we’re sharing this out of love, accountability, and encouragement — and not anger, bitterness, or self-preservation.

I’ll try not to dwell too long on any single topic, but am happy to talk through these issues and how the church can combat them in further detail with anyone who might feel led to connect via e-mail, social media, etc.

But First, a Call for Humility

If Brooke and I could go back in time, we would approach things differently than where we’ve landed today. We believe that in a perfect world, these conversations are had at an individual level within the church where they can have the most impact. Given the opportunity and what we know now, we would have attempted to influence more change before making the decision to leave our church and will keep this in mind as we search for a new church home.

If you’re reading this and experiencing similar issues within your body of believers, don’t make the same mistakes we did — override your natural instincts and confront the individuals you believe are leading others astray before seeking other outlets to address them. Not only does this have the potential to be more productive and influential, but it’s also biblical.

At the same time, I believe that written word and the public sharing of thoughts and opinions are instrumental in a free nation where individuals often struggle to have their voices heard. And while I don’t think of myself so highly as to believe this post is worthy of biblical canon, most of the New Testament (outside of the gospels) is comprised of letters written to the historical churches addressing issues that had been plaguing them at the time. There’s no denying that writing can be a powerful and productive tool.

God has given each of us different gifts that can be applied in these situations. Ultimately, pray for the discernment to understand how to approach them in your own lives for fear of falling into the same traps you’re trying to address in the first place.

1. The COVID-19 in the Room

Every reader who stumbles upon this post will have different thoughts on COVID-19 than others. It’s a debate that’s been belabored so much that I don’t think it will be particularly fruitful to spend any amount of time addressing it here and now. As a matter of fact, I’m going to attempt to speak to this next section without even giving away my own positions (later edit: never mind).

The point I’d like to make is that — regardless of how society should or shouldn’t have reacted to the global pandemic — the political controversies surrounding COVID-19 prompted our church (and many others) to unintentionally establish dangerous precedents that are evidence of worldly concerns prioritized over biblical ones.

Below are those I consider to be the most controversial.

“Spiritual” Reasons

At one point last year, we received an e-mail update on how COVID-19 restrictions and gathering guidelines were going to impact that Sunday’s services. Our church had decided to offer several services throughout the morning: the first requiring masks of all attendees, and the second and third making masks optional “for those with medical or spiritual reasons” preventing them from being able to wear one.

After reading the e-mail, I remember a million thoughts and scenarios racing through my head as I tried to digest the implications of allowing “spiritual reasons” to become an excuse for someone trying to avoid doing something being asked of them…

What is a “spiritual” reason not to do something? Who decides if a reason is spiritual? What’s the limit when using spiritual reasons to justify wrongful actions? Can I walk into church shirtless and cite I’m doing it for spiritual reasons? Can I break a commandment if I cite a spiritual reason for doing so? Will a church member be excused from an affair if they cite spiritual reasons? Will they ever justify a leader or staff member’s dishonesty as spiritually-driven?

And so on. I suspect the author of the e-mail was actually substituting “spiritual reasons” for “political reasons”, fearing the ramifications of what might happen should they mandate guidelines that would cause friction with the political narrative influencing much of the church.

Regardless, it’s a dangerous and lazy theology that serves as an easy excuse to avoid addressing important issues within the church

Lack of Leadership

In many ways, I don’t envy the position of church leaders across the world who were required to make decisions on how COVID-19 would impact the church. At times throughout the past year, the data and information required to make informed decisions just wasn’t always there.

Fortunately for Christians, we have a few spiritual resources at our disposal when it comes to making decisions that will have a significant impact on large bodies of believers (prayer, the Bible, etc.). And so in a similar vein to citing spiritual reasons for not wearing masks, I found it disappointing to hear the church’s leaders sharing the following rhetoric with various members:

If we mandate masks, we’ll lose significant portions of the congregation who disagree with us. But if we don’t mandate masks, we’ll lose other portions who think otherwise.

How many other stances has the church taken — not because they believe they’re biblical or godly — but because they fear the implications of upsetting their congregation? There’s a real danger in not taking ownership and responsibility of the gospel message, especially out of fear of the consequences.

It’s worth mentioning that I do believe the church can take a firm stance on issues while still remaining sensitive to those who oppose. After all, the Bible is clear that we as Christians shouldn’t alienate those who disagree with us. We just need to be careful in understanding the distinction between remaining sensitive and becoming too accommodating to unbiblical stances.

How Might We Affect Others?

Last summer, I connected with a prominent leader in the church and shared the struggles of the full-time quarantine Brooke and I had been practicing (especially given much of our family had yet to meet our daughter, who had been born just two weeks into the pandemic).

The sentiment they ended up sharing left me with more questions about their personal ethics rather than easing my own concerns about the pandemic. They told me (paraphrased) that ultimately, as individuals, we cannot burden ourselves with the concerns and consequences of how our actions might impact a grandparent (or any other vulnerable relative) of a friend or acquaintance. In other words — our actions should not reflect a concern for anyone outside of our immediate circles.

The implications of this theology are nothing less than astounding. Would someone intimate with the Bible really be so selfish in how they were conducting their lives? A later perusal of their Facebook activity reinforced the idea that they weren’t really concerned about the overarching impacts of their actions as they continued to organize neighborhood Fourth of July gatherings and engaged in their usual lifestyle, seemingly unfazed at the potential negative impacts their actions might have on others downstream from them and their immediate family.

In a way, I think this is one of the larger issues with the stance many Christians have taken on mask-wearing and social distancing. Their actions reflect a lack of empathy and concern for others and instead are indicative of self-interest and comfort — and a clear violation of biblical principles.

2. More Than a Building

A few years ago, our church made the decision to relocate as a result of having outgrown its current building. At the time I remember having been excited at the prospect of having a new space that would accommodate more people, but did not realize how consumed the church leaders and body would become by the project. For many, a well-furnished, newly-renovated building would become somewhat of an idol.

A Blueprint for Disaster

The first sign that our new building would signify more than just a building surprisingly wasn’t the idea that our leaders were spending too much time each Sunday keeping us up-to-speed on the most minute, irrelevant details of the renovation. Rather, it was the Sunday they decided to distribute blueprints of the new building plan to each member of the congregation as they walked into the school we were temporarily using for services during the renovation time period.

I initially thought the church might have been trying to keep its members informed that the due diligence was being done as money and time were being dedicated to the efforts, but other checks should exist within the church to ensure things like that are being considered (more on that later). Handing out blueprints felt more like an act of showmanship from those involved and an obsession over a building that should have eventually just become another tool to reach others.

Misplaced Resources

The biggest red flag that the church building was taking unnecessary precedence over other issues was the basement remodel that took place last year during the pandemic. Apparently, a member had made a significant donation (think: six figures) under the condition that it be used to renovate the outdated basement. This solidified the idea that the overemphasis on the building had roots deep within the entire church, not just leadership.

It wouldn’t be fair to directly fault anyone in a leadership position with this misdemeanor. They were simply using the funds as stipulated. The issue is that over time, the church cultivated an atmosphere within its body that allowed the quality of the church’s accommodations to take precedence over providing for those in need. (Note that most of this took place in the middle of the pandemic as people were losing jobs and struggling to collect unemployment.)

There is a valid argument that the church was able to take the money and stimulate the local economy through the support of local contractors and skilled laborers. However, I’m also aware that several contractors worked on the project on a volunteer basis, undermining the idea that the renovation was allowed to happen to reinforce the economy (why not dismiss those volunteers and pay struggling contractors instead?).

During our time at the church, we had joined a small group that prayer-sponsored a bilingual family who used the church’s basement for their own services for people who didn’t speak English. Our church had offered them the use of the newly-renovated sanctuary, but they were happy just to be able to utilize the basement — no matter how ugly it looked — to preach the gospel message. They understood that a church is more than just a building.

3. Aspiring Church Plant

A few years ago, the church leadership shared their vision for a church plant in a nearby population center. Like many other churches, they felt they were being called by God to reach a subset of the population not targeted by the current facilities and resources.

This was the first time I had ever witnessed a church plant and I was impressed with the attention to detail and competency they were showing as they prepared in-depth presentations to share timelines and other pertinent information with the congregation.

It was a surprise, then, to see the consideration for this plant come to a halt when one of the senior pastors made the decision to relocate to another state, and then become almost non-existent when confronted with the global pandemic.

If the church truly believed it was God’s calling to plant a church, what were they implying when they let these obstacles get in the way?

In 2018, a close friend and I worked through a bible study where the author had participated in a number of church plants. He regularly shared the joy he experienced when he witnessed God provide for church plants that started with few resources, where people were stepping out on a ledge and trusting that God would provide through the difficult circumstances.

Reflecting back on that study, I wonder if the leaders really felt called to plant a church, or if it was an item on a checklist they felt made them a more distinguished body of believers. Did they really believe God wasn’t able to work through the departure of a staff member or a global pandemic?

4. Social Media Weaponized

I often find social media becomes more of a weapon than a tool for many Christians. Over time, I eventually observed this happening at the church through the individual social media accounts of those we had befriended over the years.

It manifested itself in the form of several leaders and members taking stances that I couldn’t help but think were only alienating the very people they were called to be witnesses to:

  • A couple — both in leadership positions within the church — regularly posted anti-mask and anti-COVID-19 rhetoric despite having little-to-no medical education or background

Not only were they alienating potential believers as a result of their rhetoric, but I’ve also personally struggled to reconcile many of their stances with actual biblical messaging. The church has a responsibility to hold its leaders accountable, especially as they publicly struggle to understand what it means for Christians to truly be counter-cultural (more on that in a future post).

5. Business Misconduct

I referenced earlier that churches should have processes in place to ensure due diligence is being observed when executing business transactions. This includes transparency and fairness when awarding business — not only to local firms, but also entrepreneurial members.

To be upfront, I don’t have any evidence that church funds or resources were ever abused during our time as members. However, I am aware of situations that were suspicious enough to spark feuds between members, sometimes going so far as to prompt members to leave the church in disagreement.

One instance included a member not known for their financial-savviness (but a best friend of one of the senior pastors) being awarded an exclusive credit card processing deal where they would receive a cut of all credit card transactions made by the church in exchange for facilitating them. Around the same time, they were also receiving significant monthly contributions from the church for a ministry they were serving in. Today, they frequently secure contracts for their independent contracting business to participate in church renovation projects.

It’s hard to observe scenarios such as these and not jump to conclusions of favoritism or an abuse of the church’s generosity. Regardless, the due diligence and transparency simply wasn’t there to create an atmosphere of trust that the church was conducting its business in a biblical manner.

Conclusion: Where do we go from here?

Despite what many Christians believe, the world is truly becoming a better and safer place to live in. As churches struggle to retain membership amidst the evolving diversity and dynamics of our culture, it’s our responsibility to hold them accountable for their actions and the motivations that drive the decisions being made at every level.

When their actions are seemingly prompted by self-interest, selfishness, and misconstrued theology, don’t be afraid to speak up. Just remember the same love and consideration exemplified by the greatest example we have: Jesus.

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