Church has been the influence that has pushed me, challenged me to a greater faithfulness, and stretched me outside my comfort zone. It has also been the pebble in my shoe, the sandpaper which has knocked off some of my rough edges. There’s no doubt about it: Church can be difficult.
By definition, church is the company of people who embody the ways of Jesus, both in word and in deed, throughout the world. In practice, this means doing business on the regular with people who see the world in ways that are incomprehensible to me, who utter words which make my head spin, and who do things that rub me the wrong way.
Doing church forces believers to grow up to maturity and the reward is a loving bond that advertises God’s love in large letters. We worship together, yes, but in a deep way, we walk through life with each other.
Since church is not optional, Eugene Peterson offers this helpful observation:
Sooner or later, if we are serious about growing up in Christ, we have to deal with the church. I say sooner.”
I say “sooner” as well, and that’s why I’m grateful for Traci Rhoades’s new book about her experience with churches in a number of traditions. In Not All Who Wander (Spiritually) Are Lost: A Story of Church, she meanders through the highs and lows of her own story as a faithful church woman. Then, inviting the voices of others into the room, she creates a space for holy curiosity in which we discover that there just might be more than one “right way” to gather in celebration of our faith.
According to Ephesians 1:14, we have been created and rescued by God to live “to the praise of his glory.” We do this by participating in what God does, and since he has chosen to do his work on this planet through the church, I appreciate the way Rhoades beckons her readers toward unity– but with this caveat:
You’re not going to find the perfect church experience.” (36)
So, as the old saying goes, if you think you’ve finally found the perfect church, run like crazy before you ruin it. Even in imperfection, there is great hope and ten thousand reasons to “deal with the church”–and to do it “sooner.” Here are three thoughts harvested from Traci’s good work that encourage me to persevere:
We have been formed by things that may surprise us.
From the outset, Traci knew that her faith had been influenced as much by her father’s unwillingness to attend church as it was by her mother’s faithful following life. This speaks volumes to me as a mother and also as a woman who shows up in the pews on the regular. My life is different because of that commmitment to gather, and Traci began making observations early on:
I saw firsthand a life lived with God and church (my mom’s) and a life lived without God or church (my dad’s). I have never doubted which one seemed right and true to me.” (xiii)
Grace lubricates the relational gears over the long haul.
If you’ve spent any time at all participating in the life of a church family, it goes without saying that you’re carrying some hurt, some regret, or even some downright erroneous teaching. In church, we are thrown in with a group of people we did not necessarily select, and are given the command to love and to serve one another. At times we follow leaders who seem to have lost their compass.
The truth is that if God allowed me to self-select my own “perfect” church family, I’d still be cherishing all sorts of inflated notions about how godly I am, because the conflict or discomfort I’ve experienced in some church settings has been exactly the course of study I’ve needed to lead me to repentance–with the goal of becoming more like Christ.
Watching my own children who have grown up in church, I am trusting for that kind of grace saturated curriculum to form their faith as well. Traci found it to be true:
Overall, when I look back at my early years in the church, I’m more thankful than disillusioned.”
We really do need each other.
Fresh out of college, I joined a busy and growing church and was loved well by the people with whom I served. One of these women had grown up in the church. Her grandparents had been founding members, and she and her husband were raising their family in those well-known and beloved pews. I couldn’t begin to picture that kind of rootedness, and it left me longing.
Today, after twenty one years with my present church family (and a grandson in my Sunday school class!), I am beginning to understand what it is to make a deep investment with a body of believers. Even so, I also need the wide open window of other peoples’ worship experiences and thoughts about the nature of God to remind me that being right can easily get in the way of being holy. The church is God’s gift to us, and we need one another with all our rich harmonies of expression in order to sing the beauty of God, which is infinitely more than one of us could ever express with our own small voice.
Many thanks to Church Publishing Incorporated for providing a copy of this book to facilitate my review, which, of course, is offered freely and with honesty.
Grace and peace to you,
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