I’ve been part of many churches over the years. It all started in a baptist church in South London, where my parents held a chubby bald me as I was dedicated in that community.
Then there was the church of my childhood, with it’s uncomfortable pews, cups of weak tea and some of the warmest people I’ve known. There I learnt to dislike and then to love liturgy. There I learnt the blessing of doubt. There I first realised that there were people in the world that thought women should be quiet.
There were the various churches I dated through my University years – the Scottish baptist church that we walked across a wide playing field to reach each Sunday, arriving with dew-soaked feet. The Episcopalian in the centre of town, where only a committed few hung around for coffee afterwards, but the minister remembered my name from day one. The community church in California, which introduced me to Beth Moore and always bugged me by turning off the lights during the singing.
Then to Brussels and the ragtag group of Christians trying to do something different, where we met in bars with psychedelic fluffy sofas or the park or skipped the planned meeting altogether to go and spend time with the refugees on hunger strike inside the Catholic church down the road. There I found a community of people willing to invest in me, take a risk on me, see the divine in me and encourage it out into the world.
And now our international church here in Luxembourg, where the coffee is still not great but the music should be sold on CDs, where you’re as likely to hear French, German, Norwegian, Dutch, as English, where they let me climb that high step to stand nervously in front of the microphone and finally admit to myself that maybe this was a gift?
Each church has been so very different from the last, and from the one after that. They’ve been liturgical and they’ve been unsure what Lent is. There’s been an organ, and there’s been a ukelele. The setting has included wooden pews and stone columns, and orange velvet wallpaper. The people have all looked exactly the same, and they’ve all looked completely different.
I read the experiences of many of my Christian writer-friends online, and hear many stories of struggling with church. Many who have left for a time, because of hurts, because of disenchantment, because of core values not upheld, transformation that never comes. It’s a brave hard decision to leave. It’s really not easy.
It’s not been easy for me either.
None of these church experiences were perfect. The liturgy became stale and lifeless. The songs were played too long and out of key. The sermons became performance. The bible studies were sometimes more about winning a theological point than growing together. I’ve been excluded as a women. I’ve seen others excluded because of their own unchangeable identity. I’ve come very close to burning out as a church leader. I’ve become disenchanted by everyone’s apathy. I’ve become apathetic myself. I’ve sworn and ranted at the stupidity and selfishness of the church leadership. I’ve threatened to quit it all and just stick to worshipping God my own way, in my own privacy.
I haven’t left yet. But staying is hard.
I’m reading an advance copy of Micha Boyett’s book “Found: A Story of Questions, Grace and Everyday Prayer” (which is stunningly good – I’ll write more about it soon, I just have to finish it before its rightful owner takes it back to the US on Monday).
Part way through, I found myself copying out these words of hers into my journal:
“Leaving often masquerades as the more courageous choice. But in reality it’s often easier to leave a relationship than pursue it despite its difficulty. Stability demands forgiveness, discomfort, and, often, a sacrifice of the more interesting, more exciting possibilities. Stability is brave.” (p114 in the advance copy)
Stability is brave. Staying can be so very brave. And rarely does brave actually feel very courageous in the moment. It feels hard. It feels like weeping on the bathroom floor at the mess of it all. It feels like using all the swear words you can think of when another bad decision has been made by leaders who should know better. It feels like those awkward conversations with people you don’t see eye to eye with when you bump into each other at the coffee table. It feels like a sinking heart when no one is interested in the event/idea/ministry you’ve poured your whole soul into.
But the staying, the times I’ve stuck it out, have produced some of the best lasting relationships, the truest lessons, the most transformational periods of my life.
It’s still not easy. Start digging beneath the surface of any church and you’ll find a lot of disagreement and mess and distorted-values.
The Spirit is still here and she invites me to stay. To commit to stability even when it is hard. Even when I’d rather sleep in on a Sunday and worship from my bed. Even when if I even glimpse that person across the rows of chairs I might want to find the nearest bible to throw hard in the direction of their head.
Spirit comes in those moments when I allow her in and she breaths new strength and new patience and new LOVE for the church into my soul.
Once, as a teenager at a charismatic Easter festival, they put images of churches to Christina Aguilera’s song “You are Beautiful“. It was cheesy in the extreme. The kind of thing that nowadays makes me roll my eyes and shoot Rasmus a this-is-so-ridiculous look.
But the memory has stuck. The lesson stuck. That the Church is beautiful, no matter what they say. Words won’t bring her down! (sing it with me!)
And so I stay and I work hard to find the beauty. And I do find it. I find it in the friends who’ll text me virtual hugs and prayers on hard days. I find it in the pastor who meets me for long coffees discussing aspects of theology and church structure. I find it in the accented voices that rise all around me during the sung worship, the myriad nationalities that lead us in prayer and read the Word each week. I find it the small group of mamas who grapple with the hard paragraphs of that confusing gospel of John and then hand each other their babies to cuddle. I find it in the women a generational older than me who invest in me and encourage me to be all God made me to be. I find it in the group of young professionals who head to the Italian restaurant after church because half an hour of coffee-drinking time is just not enough time together. I find it in the people from church that turn up to volunteer with us at Serve the City – sometimes the people I’d least expect to be there.
There’s beauty here. And there’s transformation happening, slowly slowly. And most of it’s happening in me, in my own heart and mind.
For that I’ll stay.
Photo pinched from our church’s Facebook page. Probably taken by either Almyra Knevel Persson or Steve Planata…