Church: To Stay or To Go?

Reformed church of Gossauphoto © 2008 Tambako The Jaguar | more info (via: Wylio)

Today’s guest post comes from my friend Mason Slater. Mason is a husband to Melinda, a seminary student, a youth pastor, a blogger and a freelance writer in the Mecca of Christendom, Grand Rapids, Michigan. He blogs at New Ways Forward. (Add him to your Google Reader; he's one of my favorites!) 

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So this past week Rachel has been blogging about how faith changes our relationships, which has been brilliant because I can very much relate. I’ve gone though many of those same changes (and in many ways still am), and that process has transformed my relationships in significant ways.

I want to focus here on the relationship that has been the most difficult for me to work out—my relationship with my church.

What do we do when we begin to come to different conclusions about faith and practice than are taught by our faith community?

We have plenty of options, but I’m going to look at them under two categories: We can leave, or we can stay. 

If you find yourself in this dilemma, I can’t tell you exactly what to do because I don’t know your story. But I can tell you mine.

In college I began to push back against the mostly Baptist faith with which I had been raised. I studied for myself and was exposed to more of the world.  In retrospect, there was probably more grace given to me than I realized at the time, but it didn’t feel that way. (That said, calling someone a heretic for rejecting Left Behind eschatology is hard to do graciously). The more I asked tough questions the more my questions were either dismissed as a phase or I was told I needed to just believe the Bible.

But I did believe the Bible. I just didn’t see how it was saying the sorts of things I’d been taught.

So I left.

But not all at once. Over time I stepped back bit by bit from the many ways I was involved in the church, until one day I walked out the doors knowing I wouldn’t return.

I tried other church communities which did not look at all like the one I had left, and I tried no church community at all. Each path had its own ups and downs, but over time I was faced with a decision I did not expect:  Did I want to go back—not to the same church, but to one similar to it?

I had to make this decision because I was offered a position on staff as a youth pastor on staff at exactly the sort of church I’d left. I thought it would be an easy decision, but it wasn’t.

After much thought and prayer, my wife and I decided that this was exactly where we needed to beThe institution and tradition still don’t fit us exactly, but that really isn’t the point. We love the people and have a role to play there now.

That role? To be the voice I wish I had heard at that point in my journey. Not in the sense of acting a part, pretending to be on the same team while secretly indoctrinating people into images of myself. No, I simply pray that I might be able to help the people I work with see that this Gospel story is deeper, farther reaching, and more beautiful than any of us had imagined.

It can be a difficult path to walk. More than a couple times in the past six months I thought I was going to be Chad Holtz-ed (see how I did that?) over some of what I’ve said or written, but so far it’s all working itself out for what I hope is the best for all involved.

Yes, I still have the same disagreements theologically and socially, but I’m learning to put them in their proper place. I’ve made peace, more or less, with my story. There are areas in which I push back, but I’m glad to play the role I’ve been given—to try to share a bigger picture of God and his saving work from within this tradition.

When I walked out those doors years ago I never thought I’d be back, but I am, in a way. And I’m happy to be, because if there’s no voice to tell these kids there is more to the story, when they walk away it might be for good.

So when you are faced with that choice, to walk away or stay for God-knows-what reason, just remember you’re not alone. You’re not alone because many of us have faced that choice and in our brokenness tried to choose a path with some level of graceAnd, you’re not alone because there is likely someone else like you or me a few pews down.

Leaving might be the right choice, but if you stay there is a role to play in that path as well. It’s at least worth thinking about.

Grace and peace.

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Your turn.

Have you ever faced a big decision about possibly leaving a church? How did you make that decision?

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