“The way God designed our bodies is a model for understanding our lives together as a church: every part dependent on every other part, the parts we mention and the parts we don’t, the parts we see and the parts we don’t. If one part hurts, every other part is involved in the hurt, and in the healing. If one part flourishes, every other part enters into the exuberance. You are Christ’s body—that’s who you are! You must never forget this. Only as you accept your part of that body does your “part” mean anything. – 1 Corinthians 12:25-31 MSG
As I sat in church this past Sunday morning, for maybe the third time in two years, I began to feel a twinge. Something in me was bubbling up from below the surface; something I couldn’t quite put my finger on but something that I knew I’d been missing. It was something that the pandemic had taken away, but that I couldn’t fully appreciate until I was back inside those walls. I attend a family service on Sunday mornings, and as I sat in that fun, relaxed yet engaging service full of music and energy, I felt cleansed, moved, more alive. That thing I was feeling was being back at church.
This experience was in stark contrast to how I’ve been feeling for most of the past two years. And, over my lifetime, it is a feeling that frankly has not always been there for me as I sat in whatever pew I was in that day. The truth is, my relationship with the church has been on life-support the last few years. Like a lot of other things, without the ability to physically gather and spend time with our church friends, our ability to nourish that relationship has been almost completely decimated. Towards the end of the pandemic, I was looking for excuses to stay away on Sunday mornings which is a feeling that I have had in my life before but one that I look back on with deep regret.
Of course, many of us have missed, or been pushed away from, a lot of the things that we hold dear. But being back in that place served mostly to remind me of what I had missed by being away. Missed were the feelings of immense joy at hearing the first song on Easter morning, the peace found from singing Silent Night in a candlelit nave on Christmas Eve, or the hilarity of watching a baby squirm as the reverend pours water on its head during a baptism.
But in many ways, the importance of being part of a church is much more than just those moments of joy, sadness, laughter and enlightenment.
In a recent New York Times article (link here), Margaret Renkl writes about why she is leaving her church. She cites, among other things, a “troubled relationship” from childhood that is severed by a pandemic which forced her, like most people, into isolation. She refers to herself as “Unchurched”, and un-churching was certainly a common theme that was happening before the pandemic. As is the case with so many things, Covid didn’t create the problem of Un-Churching, it just accelerated it.
I can’t relate in every way to Ms. Renkl and her experiences, but as I read the article I could empathize with many of her sentiments. As I mentioned, I have had a tough relationship with the church myself. The causes were varied, but among them were less than inspiring pastors, infighting and church politics, and of course the more global church scandals that we all know about and look at as terrible. I’d venture to guess that many (maybe most?) of us Christians have had interesting or difficult relationships with the church. But, the more I thought about the article and thought through my own relationship with current and past churches, the more resolute I become that, in fact, we need the church now more than ever.
Now, to be fair, this is less a defense of the capital “C” Church, the Religious Industrial Complex. Goodness knows way too many problems have been caused throughout history by the Church. No, this is an argument for Jesus’ church, “a church so expansive with energy that not even the gates of hell will be able to keep it out.” (Matthew 16:17-18 MSG)
The church I walked into on Sunday morning has all the faults of any church I have ever walked into. But, it also has offered me so much in the last decade of my life, and I have faith it has so much more to offer not just me, but anyone who puts their faith in the power of their church.
Over the years, my church has given me a lot. It has brought men into my life that are strong role models, both for me and my son. It has brought friends to me and my wife in a city (Washington, DC) that is notoriously in constant transition and hard to connect with. It has cooked for me, given me shelter, washed my feet, given me a place to pray and learn and listen.
It has given me the opportunity to produce a podcast, which has been a lifelong dream. It has given me inspiration in times of uncertainty, and an opportunity to be there for my friends in their times of trouble.
But, most importantly, it has given me a relationship with Jesus that has changed my life.
I believe in my heart that I can’t be a fully faithful follower of Christ and totally committed to Him without a church. That church can look like a lot of different things, but it needs to be a church as He describes it. As I physically re-enter the church, I am sure it will be different. And I am sure that I will possibly occupy a different role within that “body” than I did before. Maybe I was a finger and now I need to be a toe. Maybe I was the nose and now I need to be an ear.
But I will be there for whatever it needs me to be, because it has been there for me in more ways than I can count.
I do agree with one sentiment that Ms. Renkl expresses in the article. Life IS hard for all living things. But just as the heart continues to beat even when the mouth makes life difficult, so too must we commit to continuing in the face of hardship as part of the larger body.