I posted the following on Facebook Sunday morning, left for church, and when I returned, was a little surprised by some of the reactions. I’ve been wrapping up my current non-fiction project and this was a summary of the section I was polishing:
Being able to go to ANY church prevents us from growing in any SPECIFIC church. I mean, w/ so many churches available, people can easily avoid the problems and challenges of diversity. If a church doesn’t match our ethnic profile, we just find another church. If the pastor challenges some of our personal beliefs, we just find another church. If certain relationships are tedious or annoying, we just find another church. As a result, what often happens is that we Christians cluster in theological and demographic ghettos. We attend those churches that reinforce, rather than challenge our point of view. We find those churches that make us feel good, rather than challenge or stretch us to do, be, or believe something different than we expected. It could be that the N.T. church was so alive precisely because they did not have the luxury of going to any church they wanted.
About an hour after this update, a friend posted another thread on Facebook, partly in response to mine, suggesting that people who have not lived in emotionally toxic relationships/churches “really have no business at all chastising those” who choose to avoid church.
Over the years, I’ve learned that “church attendance” is a very prickly issue for many Christians. Especially when it’s suggested that church hopping or non-attendance is an excuse to “avoid the problems and challenges of diversity.” Nevertheless, when I see responses like the one above, I often wonder: At what point does having undergone real spiritual abuse become an excuse to disavow church attendance?
Now, before you skewer me, let me clarify a couple of things.
First, I realize that “church attendance” is an amorphous subject, and that the expression itself requires some specificity. Loving God and following Christ are not synonymous with going to church. A person can follow Jesus and not attend a church. A person can attend a church and not really love God. “Wherever two are more are gathered in my name,” said Jesus, “there I am in the midst.” So any gathering of saints, whether in a coffee shop, house, or houseboat, can be a legitimate replica of the Church. I get that.
Secondly, everybody’s situation is different. Like Edyth’s who commented on my thread:
My church changing has more to do with whether the church can handle my special needs kids.
Edyth’s situation is illustrative of the issues many beloved saints face when approaching church attendance. I have the luxury of showering, shaving, dressing myself, getting the truck keys, and leaving for the second service. I do not have to deal with a handicapped child, spouse, or relative, or navigate a personal handicap. Staunchly towing the “church attendance” line without acknowledging the difficulties — if not impossibilities — some face, is just thick-headed.
Thirdly, real spiritual abuse occurs in some churches. This is undeniable. In addition, subtle forms of manipulation, coercion, and control happen frequently in churches under the guise of “spiritual direction” or “submission to authority.” Not only do I believe there are “toxic churches” and “toxic relationships,” I’ve been in them (which I’ll elaborate on in a sec).
Fourth, the contemporary American church model is flawed. On many levels. Evangelicalism’s embrace of modernistic methodology has been well-chronicled. Celebrity pastors, performance-oriented church services, and Christian consumerism are indications of a warped, Americanized version of things. The fact that we have come to define “church” as simply a building, rather than a body of believers, is evidence of a seriously unbiblical idea.
Having said all that, none of these things are a legitimate reason to disavow church attendance, a commitment to a local body of believers, and/or commitment to building long-term, accountable relationships with other believers.
The New Testament ideal for the average believer regarding affiliation and involvement with other saints is pretty clear:
- The biblical ideal is for Christians to be in regular, intimate fellowship with other believers.
- The biblical ideal is for Christians to exercise their gifts in the context of a larger body of believers.
- The biblical ideal is for Christians to be discipled by more mature Christians, and to reciprocate by discipling others less mature than themselves.
- The biblical ideal is to seek out and submit to wise, good, godly spiritual teachers and leaders.
- The biblical ideal is to find healing and release healing in the community of the saints.
These are biblical ideals. They are realities for which every Christian should strive — even Christians who have been in toxic churches / relationships. Will the realization or pursuit of these ideals look the same for everyone? No. How could they? Everyone’s background and situation is different. Not to mention, the Body of Christ is much bigger than the chapel on the corner or the mega-church in the valley.
But this doesn’t diminish the ideal.
Someone might counter, None of these things require me to join and attend an organized church. And you’re probably right. They don’t. Question is, Are you pursuing the biblical ideal?
I visited with some friends this weekend, Roy and Zita. They used to attend the same church as me and remain devoted Christians. However, they do not attend a traditional church. They’re leaders in a network of house churches. They meet weekly in the homes of various friends and neighbors to study Scripture, pray, worship, and fellowship. They do not meet on Sundays in a church building.
To some, Roy and Zita are not attending a “real church.”
But if that were the case, then the entire first century church is in trouble because they mostly met in houses. When persecution arose, they met in hiding, in catacombs and such. It wasn’t until Constantine became a believer that Christians built “churches,” and things sort of went downhill from there.
Does this mean that church buildings are evil and that Christians that meet in them are equally bad? How could it? Whether it’s a catacomb or a cathedral, the important thing is the nature of community that meets there.
But despite the multiplicity of ways “church” can happen, some people still tend to get defensive when you suggest that maybe they’re just making excuses to avoid attending church. Especially if that “excuse” involves having been part of an abusive church or in a toxic spiritual relationship.
Again, before you get angry, allow me to clarify: I believe real spiritual abuse occurs in churches. One of the reasons I believe this is from personal experience. I was a staff pastor for over a decade before leaving the ministry. The church I was in basically imploded. Part of that implosion was the result of a senior pastor who was overly-controlling. Before the church collapsed, I was publicly disciplined, demoted, stripped of my title as associate pastor, prohibited from preaching for one year, and received a pay cut. It was one of the most difficult times in my life.
Pastors are usually portrayed as abusers, not victims. But the truth is that shepherds can be just as hurt and emotionally wounded as any congregant. Perhaps even more so. For some reason, we don’t talk too much about that.
Anyway, after the church disbanded, I wandered spiritually. I stopped exercising, gained weight, wasted time, felt sorry for myself, got angry, suffered depression, and basically sunk into bitterness. And, oh, I absolutely refused to attend church. I was still processing everything that went on and slowly came to the realization that I had been part of a very toxic, dysfunctional church and relationship. You should know, I’d been raised to be a survivor, so attaching the label of “victim” was incredibly hard for me. It still is. Nevertheless, that’s what I was / am.
And I knew I couldn’t stay there. Why? The biblical ideal is to work through the spiritual / emotional wreckage, whatever that might be, and return to fellowship. Remaining calcified in unforgiveness and hate would have been a win for Darkness. I knew I had to move on. I could not allow someone else’s “toxicity” to become mine.
Expecting a person to transition immediately from a toxic church / relationship back into another church / relationship is ludicrous. My daughter recently adopted a lab puppy that’s apparently come from an abusive situation. It has some scars on its head and I can’t approach that dog without it cowering and pissing all over itself (and me!). Can you blame it? I so want that dog to know I’m not like its other masters. But that will take time.
Likewise, it is understandable that someone who’s been in an abusive environment / relationship will, like that puppy, cringe at the prospects of developing relationships or attending another church.
Every outstretched arm carries the possibility of pain for a victim.
Nevertheless, the ideal is for the Christian who’s been in a toxic relationship and/or a toxic church to return to Christian community. In whatever form that works best for them. This could mean a small support group, a Bible study or prayer group, even just a long-term relationship with another person in which they can process their issues. The important thing is not that they’re simply “going to church,” as if that’s some magic formula, but that healing is being sought, issues are being addressed, and they are moving into integration with the larger community.
All that to say, when I see Christians react so angrily to the notion that being in regular Christian community (and all that means) is the ideal, when I see them vent at every mention of church attendance, I can’t help but wonder if they are on a dangerous path, the path to becoming toxic.