I left First Baptist Church, (FBC) Bolivar, just over three years ago. I had had enough. I was tired of inefficient committees. I was tired of worship wars. I was tired of what I perceived as passive leadership. I was tired of the infighting. I was tired…of the church. To be clear, I was not just tired of FBC; rather, I was tired of the institutional church. I grew up at a rural Baptist church in central Missouri that, while smaller, operated much like FBC, the first church I’d really planted myself in as an adult. A bit of history might be helpful here; there are more good memories associated with the church I grew up in than I can recount, but I most closely associate it with the tumult and upheaval that prompted my family’s exit. It’s probable that the sour taste in my mouth left over from that negative experience may have subconsciously figured into my eventual exit from First Bolivar, but I don’t want to over-analogize the two instances. Though I won’t go into the gory details, my family left that rural church out of necessity (and for what I believe were the right reasons). As an adult, I left my church completely on my own volition.
And it seemed right. I convinced myself I was leaving for the right reasons. The church was the one with the problems; I was just one of the few with eyes to see them, right? Of course, I hid my inflated sense of self in a lot of “churchspeak” that allowed me to quietly sneak out the backdoor while my mind continued cycling its laundry list of accusations and complaints on a permanent loop, my own personal negative news ticker. Funny how my inflated sense of prophetic zeal spent more time in a self-polluting inner monologue than actually working to confront or resolve any issues, real or imagined. How noble, right?
So, off to a new church I went, a frustrated child taking his ball and going home because the game hadn’t played out to his liking. After a few weeks of searching, I landed at Freshwater Church, a new plant in Bolivar, and by the grace of God, I didn’t poison it with my presence. On the contrary, many of the lies I’d bit into hook, line, and sinker began to be revealed for what they were, devilish deceptions. Through the distance obtained by leaving; the humility I gained by entering into a new fellowship of believers in which I had no preexistent identity, status, authority, or say; and a severe work of the Holy Spirit in my heart, I began to realize where my issues with my former church had originated: my own self-serving, self-glorifying, self-worshipping heart.
What I had created in my mind was a church in my own image. I knew how it should operate; I knew how its leaders should lead; I knew how decisions should be made. So when reality didn’t line up with my fantasy, my ego balked, my heart hardened, and I stopped seeing the church as a place where God invites us to serve one another and instead commenced to critique it through a me-centered, consumerist standard against which no institution comprised of human beings could measure up.
This time was like a rebirth. Once I admitted this to myself and repented of my arrogance, my foolishness, my brash egotism … I could breathe again. I could pray again. I began to hunger for the Word again. I began to see God’s church once again as a motley assemblage of imperfect saints drawn together not to demand their own needs be met, but rather to celebrate and model the selfless servanthood of the bridegroom, Christ, who is coming back one day to present his church, made holy and blameless through his sacrifice on the cross, to his Father.
Though I’m firmly planted in a new place now, I have since returned to worship with my former church on at least two occasions, both marked by a rekindled love for the people there, a deep and sincere respect for its leadership, and a freedom to worship that had previously been choked nigh unto to death by my own sinful pride.
A revelation like this is a tough pill to swallow, but a beautiful thing. Repentance is difficult act, but a beautiful thing. However, only now, years later, am I realizing that somewhere along the way, I left out a necessary step. I’d like to take care of that today.
Church, I’m sorry.
There is nothing impressive about my proclamations of love for Jesus that came while lobbing stones at the church he died to save. There is nothing impressive about it at all. It takes little to no effort to be a fault-finder among the people of God. If one walked into First Bolivar, Freshwater, Southern Hills, Second Baptist Springfield, Saddleback, Mars Hill, or (insert name of any church large or small) searching for issues about which to complain, I have no doubt that person could find success quickly.
But the Bible calls us to something far greater than finger-wagging denigration of his church, his body here on earth. In the gospel of John, Jesus says to his disciples that the mark by which they will be defined as His body is not their high and mighty ability to condemn; no, He tells them they will be known as His by the love they bear for one another. And what is love? As the writer says in 1 John 3:16, we come to know what love truly is by looking to the model of a man who laid down his life for imperfect people and, in turn, laying down our lives for others. What would churches look like if we were simply too busy fulfilling this calling, laying down our very lives for one another, to even find the time to bemoan, accuse,and condemn from atop our illusory pedestals?
This is not an easy calling; it is part of what Jesus meant when he said that as believers we follow him by taking up our cross daily, an act whose inevitable culmination is the death of our own self-worshipping hearts. In all reality, it does at times feel much better to eschew Jesus’ command, drop the cross, give release to our own spiritual immaturities, and spew venom rather than giving grace to the church. But, trust me, such release is a short-lived and hollow pleasure.
Derek Webb, an artist I often find to be one of the most prophetic voices of our time, recently released a new album whose title track has been on a constant loop in my head for the last 24 hours. Webb, whose history with the evangelical church is an interesting one to say the least, needs only nine words of a chorus to sum up everything I now know I’ve needed to say not only to the church I left, but also the institutional church as well. To borrow from Webb, I just have three things I want to say:
I was wrong, I’m sorry…and I love you.