My friend, Rick Anderson died suddenly of a heart attack a few years ago. I think of him often and wish that we could have another dinner together. You see, Rick and I became friends at church way back in the early 1980’s, but in later years he lived in Boston and then Evansville and I lived in South Carolina and then Indianapolis. We fell out of touch a couple of times and it wasn’t until my career took a turn that brought me to Evansville for work from time to time in 1998 that we began to “hang out” again. I would show up. He would pick me up at my hotel. We’d have dinner…and we’d talk. Often, the conversation turned to church and he wanted to talk about that, but it was difficult. It was difficult because to my friend, church was poisoned.
Despite the fact that some of Rick’s closest adult friends were cultivated at church, that was also the place where he experienced some of the worst relationships and emotional pain. God didn’t poison church for him. People did. Judgments. Accusations. Assumptions. Unrealistic expectations. Manipulations. Controlling leadership. Pressure!
A complete deficiency of Grace.
I have felt it myself. I remember as a young man thinking something like: “I just can’t imagine doing this for the rest of my life.” The “this” was the pressure I felt to meet the standards that were expected of me in the church I was a member of at the time. Another occasion, around the time that Rick’s faith was being poisoned in Boston, I was verbally and emotionally abused by a church leader in Indianapolis in a group setting where he demanded the others participate in “discipling” me. That spiritual assault haunted me for several years, and events like that threatened to poison the church for me as well.
Thankfully, I finally realized that I did not need to feel that way, and the church was not designed to be that way. Church can be a beautiful thing…incredibly encouraging…a long-term support…and personally transformative. Rather than being a source of spiritual poison, church can be our lifeline to ever-flowing spiritual nutrients, a source of calories for a successful spiritual life. It was designed to be the Light of the World…a city set on a hill. The voice of the Savior in the world.
Rather than a snare to trap a person in a world of spiritual enslavement, it is a trampoline to propel us into a world of spiritual growth and an ever-expanding relationship with God…the Creator of it all.
Let’s examine some scriptures...
Hebrews 10:24-25 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
This passage is often used as a hammer to enforce regular attendance at officially sanctioned church events. To do that, you miss the point. It wasn’t meant to be an endorsement of a checklist of church meetings that we all must attend. Rather, it is a reminder to value the mutual encouragement and motivation that can come from being together…encouragement and motivation to love others and to do good to those around you, and a call to fulfill that responsibility we share. If that is your priority, then you don’t need a checklist. You’ll be there at every opportunity that you can. It’s not about checking off the box. It’s about the relationships!
Then again, even though the point of this scripture isn’t to structuralize a list of formal meeting times, it does indicate that we NEED to be together. It is part of the DNA of the church that we meet together to worship…to encourage…to train…to work together. Time alone is important too, just as Jesus went off alone at times to pray, but the church is built as a community.
Acts 2:47b And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
People don’t add you to the church. You don’t join the church. When you choose HIM, He adds you. As long as you follow HIM, you are a member of HIS church. No man can exclude you. No group can kick you out. HE adds…and HE is the only one who can remove you. Now, you can walk away from HIM, but no man can take that status from you. It is HIS church. It has many names. It has many members. In the end, HE decides who is a member.
Hebrews 12:18-24 You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom, and storm; to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them, because they could not bear what was commanded: “If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned to death.” The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, “I am trembling with fear.”
But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the CHURCH of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
I love this passage. How amazing is the company we keep as members of “the church of the firstborn?” How incredible that our names are written in heaven. Can you see it? Can you see the angel penning your name into the book of life at the moment that Christ added you to His church? How special is that body? How special is that community?
My friend Rick never regained that special sense of community. Man poisoned his understanding of church and despite our many talks, I could never quite get him over the hump so that he could feel SAFE reinvesting himself with a body of other believers. He wanted to. He wanted to make that jump…to him it was a great leap…back into a spiritual community, but he just couldn’t quite do it. It is a great sadness to me. Not that I think he is lost, but only that he was not able to fully heal. Remember, God added Rick to the church, and Rick never walked away from God. Rather, he escaped from spiritual abuse and struggled mightily with the pain for the ensuing years prior to his passing. And, if there is anything I know about God, it is that He loves those who are hurting.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Jesus. Matthew 5:3-4
I believe Rick is being comforted. I believe his spiritual healing has finally come.
As for those of us who are still kicking around here on Earth, we’ve all had different experiences with church. Some good. Some bad. Some simply mediocre. Some of us have been deeply hurt, perhaps poisoned. Some of us have had nothing but positive memories. Whichever describes you, I want to encourage you to simply reach out and embrace the community that God has given you, and embrace the grace that comes to us all through Jesus Christ. Sometimes, mankind messes things up. Remember though, that we will make mistakes, but God’s church is bigger than any man, and we can still be that city on the hill. We can still be His voice to the world.
I hope that church is not poisoned for you, but if it is…just know that God still loves you…and His book of life is written with special ink that only you or He can erase. As long as you hang on to Him, He will hang on to you…and you are still in His church.