I've recently had conversations with people who are thinking of leaving a church or moving to a new church. Their rationale seems reasonable - even spiritually justified. They are looking for better teaching ... "I need to be fed", a more traditional style, a more contemporary style, a better setting for their children, etc. Surely, these are things that God would want ...
But are there benefits to staying in a church, even committing oneself to a church where the teaching doesn't always feed me, where the style bugs me, where the children's ministry is theologically correct but pragmatically weak? It almost seems absurd to think we would stay in such a setting on purpose. I mean, what would happen to us?!
Ronald Rolheiser, in his book "The Holy Longing" (pg 61) writes, "If we commit ourselves to a church community and stay with that commitment, we will, at some point, have the experience that Jesus promised Peter would befall every disciple: Prior to this kind of commitment you can gird your belt and go wherever you want, but, after joining a concrete church community, others will put a belt around you and take you where you would rather not go. And Jesus is right. What church community takes away from us is our false freedom to soar unencumbered, like the birds, believing that we are mature, loving, committed, and not blocking out things that we should be seeing. Real churchgoing soon enough shatters this illusion and gives us no escape, as we find ourselves constantly humbled as our immatureitites and lack of sensitivity to the pain of others are reflected off eyes that are honest and unblinking. We can be very nice persons, pray regularly, be involved in social justice, and still not be fully responsible. It is still possible to live in a lot of fantasy and keep our lives safe for ourselves. This gets more difficult, however, if we start going to a church, most any church, especially one that is large enough to be inclusive. To be involved in a real way in a church community is to have most of our exemption cards taken away."
In other words, the thing that we loose when we treat our church as we would any other consumer item - which is evaluated on the basis of how it benefits me - is that we loose the opportunity to be challenged to love in ways we would rather not have to love. We want to love people who are easy to love and be in situations that are easy to be in. The way of Jesus - the way of denying oneself, taking up the cross and following him - is a way that embraces unfulfilling sermons and services, spotty childcare, people who are not "normal" like me. Committing to a church, for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and in health ... is the very step that may move my life to experience what I keep moving from church to church to find - a vital relationship with God, deep spiritual transformation, and a community marked by supernatural love.