Bait and Switch

On New Year's Day of 1998 I wasn't a Christian. I was hung over, and I had to sing a gig that day, and I was feeling very scared. I had met a cute man the night before and it had been a relatively innocent, nonphysical encounter, but I still felt confused and ashamed. On January 4th I went to church for the first time, and the next week I went again. This was an evangelical church in the middle of Chicago, a vibrant church where the arts were valued and used brilliantly. The arts reached me immediately. I was in my thirties and my life was just starting to look better on the outside, but inside I felt battered and deflated and scared. I must have been desperate to go to church.

I remember a woman singing a simple song about how "Jesus doesn't care what you've done before." I remember a skit where a couple of men talked about how they were afraid a Christian woman would judge them. On Good Friday there was a video slide show of paintings of Jesus' final day and crucifixion, set to the Barber "Adagio for Strings" and I was washed away by the historical weight of those events. This stuff really happened. This is the saddest piece of music ever written and this is what it's about.

By the time that Easter had come and gone, I was in. Saved. I dove into that community and was happier than I had ever been. All the creativity I could ask for, and all for a higher purpose. I was a fish in water, finally.

I had the distinct experience of being the flavor of the month, for a while. Not so much to the community, but to the church itself. The evangelical congregation can be so seductive, so welcoming, so deeply and fervently interested in my salvation, my well-being, my "getting plugged in." I felt that this community truly cared about me as a person, and that they cared because God cares. I heard Bill Hybels thunder from his pulpit "Lost people matter to God!" I was a lost person who had been found, and then I had the joy of being a part of the team.

But after about two years, our pastor resigned... or was fired... or forced out. There was uproar. People left. A new pastor came, and we were told that the arts were too "self-focused." That we were putting on a show, and that the "younger people" preferred a simpler service. The old worship leaders quit and were replaced about every 18 months. I hung on as long as I could but gave up when the 29-year-old worship leader told me that "The Lord is telling me that we shouldn't have choir in our services."

Choir. The 3,000 year experiment that failed. With a little bit of supervision, this 29-year-old might have been able to orchestrate a kinder transition from one style of worship to another, but our church made the common mistake of thinking that hiring a young person to "draw in" young people was more important than having a wise leader to minister to the ninety-nine.

We fell off the top of the charts, we who had just been baptized 2-3 years before, and it was hard, because I have experienced that so many times in my life. Haven't we all? The frat boy who pursued me with such charm and seemed so caring - until he caught me, and then couldn't even look me in the eye. The new department head at work, who interrupts you in meetings and isn't sure the company needs you after all. The friends who suddenly start doing things without you. Isn't that why we went to church? That's why I did. I needed something I could count on.

Now that I'm something of a seasoned Christian, I get it. God is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow... but church is just people. Church is just like the rest of the world, except we keep hoping it'll be a teeny tiny bit better. More trustworthy. But no. Church is full of politics and I should stop expecting anything better.

Really? Have we all just given up?

At my present church, we have just concluded the seeking and hiring of a new pastor. There was upheaval, and a process that was just barely democratic but stank of a coup. I was appalled until I attended the meetings and felt the seething resentment and realized that there is conflict and division that goes back more than 10 years, and that some kind of political momentum was in play that was going to change our church's direction. Possibly radically. I knew I could only get out of the way.

The rallying cry in so many churches is that we must reach more believers. We must find the lost and lead them to God. Everything that we do in church, good, bad, and ugly, is centered around this great commission, and obviously that's a crucial goal.

But churches, I gotta ask you: is it right to find us, and love us, and then elbow us aside in search of newer converts? I am not Barna, but I have a feeling he might tell us that one of the top reasons people leave church - forever - is politics. I'm not talking about leaving church A and going down the road to church B. I'm talking about leaving church, and in many cases leaving God. I know that God doesn't leave us, but we can certainly leave Him, and live decades if not the entire rest of our lives separated from Him. What happens after that I do not know, but I don't have to tell you that I have had God in my life and I have had no God in my life and the with-God life is better.

Maybe we should also ask Mr. Barna to give us the full truth about "church growth." How many of the "new faces" we think we're seeing are just old faces from a different church? How many will actually sign on the dotted line, only to leave two years from now, with hearts that may mend, but trust that is broken forever? We often turn to sobering statistics about the decline of committed Christians in this world, but are we contributing to that decline by ignoring the revolving door?

The people bringing in the new regime in my church are convinced that our church will now get down to the business of telling a truer truth, and reaching more people for God. But there are quite a few of us who chose our church because of the way it was. The pastor who included more seasoned Christians, the music that included those of us over 35, the leadership that included and encouraged women in leadership. We can stay, and we really want to, but this isn't the church we joined. It's hard, and you know what? It hurts. Because everything that happens in the church reflects our love for God and our desire to know how He loves us. When the church opens its arms to me, and then chews me up and spits me out a few years later, it's hard not to wonder if that's how God feels, just a little bit.

So, churches. Do me a favor. If you really want to reach the lost, stay the same. I know that the one lost sheep matters more than the ninety-nine, and I get that. But I have friends, and I can't bring them anymore. My non-Christian friends see me go through this agony and all of their anti-Christian observations are made true. At the end of this process, I'm lost too. Lost all over again.

Churches, if you want to reach all the peoples of the world for God, stop. Think. Don't offer me a spiritual home that really is just an overnight shelter. I might decide to stay out in the cold.


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