Over the last five years, there has been an increase of men and women removing themselves from the local church in order to pursue either a deeper relationship with the Lord or to witness about Christ to the surrounding culture. I recall in my own life specific moments where I lacked the motivation to attend a Sunday morning, worship service. Something inside of me refused to participate in a show or an event in place of a community of Christ followers. I dodged a service or two, but somehow I still showed up on Sundays. Everything inside of me kicked and screamed against the notion of attending a Sunday morning worship service while pretending all is well. During those seasons, I wanted something real about my worship experience. The songs, the music, and the whole shebang needed to come from the heart.
What brought me through those desert times? The ironic answer is the church, or I should say, the community of believers that I worshiped alongside during my ugliness. For whatever the reason, I remember the battle to get up on Sundays, to get ready for church, and to arrive on time for the full experience. Each Sunday served as a battle that related to a larger war going on within and without. I had my list of reasons, excuses, and grievances for opting out of Sunday, church services. Time and time again, the Holy Spirit touched my heart through his word and his people. No one told me to leave and never come back because of my bad attitude. In fact, the Spirit of God was not driving me away. Instead, he kept wooing me to him through his people, the church.
I share this because I dabbled with being a Lone Ranger, Christian. One week I skipped a Sunday service, but I attended mid-week bible study. The next week I would flip it. Honestly, I never really shook off church for an extended season. I know some friends and family members who have gone down this path. When I read Proverbs eighteen earlier this week, I did a double take over the very first verse. Here it is in two different translations:
“Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire; he breaks out against all sound judgment” (Proverbs 18:1, ESV).
“A man who isolates himself seeks his own desire; He rages against all wise judgment” ( Prov. 18:1, NKJV).
Even though I dabbled with isolation, I remember experiencing the truth of this passage in my life. I desired certain patterns of living to change for the better; however, I kept isolating myself from the Spirit of God and his church. A wise person once said that the best hiding place is in plain sight. I mastered that principle to the letter. I “hid” inside and outside of church by being visible, by putting on airs to those around me. Because I had been alternating between Sunday services and mid-week bible studies, some in my life mustered the courage and boldness to ask, “What’s going on Matthew? One week you show up on Sunday, the next you attend a mid-week bible study.” It was interactions like those, which brought healing and restoration to my heart. What I heard during those times was that I am wanted in this community. These people noticed my behavior and my absence.
Until those interactions with friends, I sought my own desires and raged against sound judgment. No one could break through the force field around me. Words bounced off of me like racquetballs. Friends and family members resorted to ducking and hiding. When I reflect on those days, I really wanted to receive their love and acceptance in a deep and profound way. For whatever the reason, I could not receive. The Lord used his word, his Spirit, and his people to bring me back around to wholeness in relating. I praise and thank the Lord every day for the transformation that has taken place in my life. For some, the struggle to experience transformation and healing takes longer and seems more elusive. Going at it alone like a Lone Ranger is not the answer, but those individuals do not know any better.
Is it true that all those who disengage from the local church carry pain on the inside? Because I used the word all, the answer is no; however, some or even a majority do carry around pain with them. In my personal experience, locked up pain on the inside prevents me from being with God and his people. Heck, it even prevents me from being who I am. How do churches and leaders and the laity reach out to these hurting ones inside and outside the walls of Christendom? One tactic to employ requires meeting people where they are at in the moment. In fact, being with hurting ones in their pain says more than a sermon. Another thing to do is to listen. Every person has a story to tell, so listening to someone share about his or her pain affirms his or her dignity or worth as a person. Lastly, I think walking alongside them provides the support to stick to the path etched out for them by Christ.
The thing to remember in of all this is that Jesus sees us as sheep (John 10:2-4, ESV). In the wild, sheep are prey to wolves, bears, lions and so forth. Sheep survive longer with the herd than without it. The apostle Peter warns the first century Christians that the evil one prowls around like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour (1 Peter 5:8, ESV). When professing followers of Christ remove themselves from the local church, it is similar to a herd animal wandering from the group. At that point, the Christian like the prey animal becomes a perfect target for predators. There is an immense need in today’s church to be safe places for people work through their stuff. Call it the ministry of reconciliation, which means the ministry of the word and the Spirit. Hurting people need God’s love and truth to restore them rather than half truth or lies about sin and its effects.