Several years ago, when Angelo and I were young and just starting out in life together, we attended a toxic church.
We didn’t know it was toxic, and we were young, and green and willing to jump in and help. We served by helping in the youth ministry with junior high kids. A ragtag bunch of kids met with us in the church basement where we tried to lead worship, share the gospel, and be their friends. Most of the kids lived in the apartments around the church, some were from church-going families. Sometimes the kids would be so ornery during youth group we wondered why they came at all.
Our pastor at the time warned us one day about investing too much in these rowdy neighborhood kids. He said the goal of the ministries of the church was to bring people into the church as regulars. Regular attenders who would become regular members, who would regularly serve in ministries themselves and become regular givers. He said if a ministry didn’t provide material growth, in membership and financial giving, that that ministry wasn’t worth a line in the budget.
We didn’t realize at the time that he was feeding us a regular pile of baloney.
A few years later we left that church. We had been spiritually manipulated to the point of exhaustion. We felt soul-slapped after we’d written a letter to rescind our membership and the rest of the church was told to “treat us as tax collectors” and have nothing to do with us.
I know the ugly side of church.
I wrote yesterday about the gift of community, and I do believe that the essence of true community that Jesus inspired is truly one of the most beautiful things. But I also understand how mucked up we make ministry, how we convolute the great commission, how we contort compassion. Here God offers this amazing gift of community and then has the audacity to bring sinful, selfish humans to the party!
I know the weird confusion of wanting to invite friends to church, but not my church. I remember us asking ourselves, “Do we really want to expose them to our church?” We wanted them to know the hope of Jesus Christ but wanted to spare them of the inevitable painful drama. When things grew worse and before we had left that church, we heard ourselves saying to one another, “I’m so glad this is happening to us instead of _____ who is so young in his faith that this would devastate him.” Oh, we were in a battle alright, but it was a war of internal affairs and one we hadn’t the energy to fight.
Within time that church fell apart.
The neighborhood kids, you may wonder?
Well, we had this foursome who came from the apartments and disrupted youth group like crazy. Two sets of siblings, two girls and two boys. We happened to see them about six years after we had to leave that church and they all survived high school. Indeed they flourished.
Each one of them followed Jesus faithfully. There was a path laid out before them that started in that old church basement. There was a truth shared some Wednesday night long ago that continued to shine in their minds and lead them. And these kids–“at-risk” in so many ways–became adults who wanted to be a part of community in healthy ways. One was studying to be a nurse, another a fire-fighter. Every one of them had a relationship with their savior Jesus.
One of my favorite psalms ends with this quartet:
The Lord will indeed give what is good,
and our land will yield its harvest.
Righteousness goes before him
and prepares the way for his steps. (Psalm 85:12-13)
God never ignores the harvest. He sees the heart-soil tilled and the seeds planted, he sees ahead and brings to completion all our investments made in faith. He indeed gives what is good. And none can stop him.
I wish I could say that that church was our only experience with spiritual abuse. But it wasn’t. We have been lied to, misled and dismissed since then, by others in leadership. But, we learned early on that that leadership wasn’t the “head” of the body of believers, Jesus is. When the apostle Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus about the great dynamic of unity in diversity, he said this: “We will in all things grow up into him, who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.”(Ephesians 4:15-16)
The gift of Jesus in this is that he is my Peerless Leader.
He makes no mistakes, he misses no thing. He sees us all as equally important to the community and loves watching us grow up into love. Just as we rejoiced when we bumped into our former middle school kids, Jesus rejoices when he sees us moving and being and responding in love.
After we left toxic church, we gathered our courage one Sunday morning and drove to a new church a friend had told us about. We were rung out and dry and a little scared, I won’t lie. Tears escaped my eyes as we sat in the back of this congregation and heard the pastor say,
“God doesn’t talk stink about you. He can’t! He loves you so much and knows what’s in store for you, knows the plans he has for you! He never says an untruth, never criticizes what you bring to the table or considers your gifts to him to small. He thinks you’re great. He made you and loves you with an everlasting love and even more, he’ll never give up on you!”
He never gives up. He knows us and loves us and gives what is good – even when we’re slogging through the muck of damaged relationships, dark pasts, difficult seasons and unknown futures – God is good. All the time.
This might be one of my very favorite gifts.