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Joshua Rogers, blogging at Finding God in the Ordinary, addressed a subject recently that has haunted me often during the course of my life.
He asked aloud if it was really possible to find Jesus in your heart, by yourself, without being part of an organized church?
Joshua was prompted to write about it after “the wildly popular blogger/author Jen Hatmaker wrote a viral Facebook post in which she announced that she has stopped attending church. She’s been burned by leadership, hurt by the hypocrisy, and left ‘alone with the ghosts of the sanctuary.'”
Jen adopted the attitude that, for her, church “feels like Jesus who never asked me to meet him anywhere but in my heart. . . Wherever you meet Jesus, and his people, and his love for the world, and his ways, and his healing work, it is good.”
However, Joshua reminded her that “Actually, Jesus met us in our sin, adopted us into an eternal family, and started a supernatural movement that was defined by believers getting together for worship, teaching, and serving together.”
He noted that church is “defined by people in relationships that are centered on Christ. Church is bigger and more mature than a life of casually hanging out with your favorite people on your porch. Church, in some formal way or another, has been around for millennia and it’s going to be around a lot longer than Jen Hatmaker’s pecan trees.”
It is a lesson I have had to learn repeatedly over the past 60 years. I have left “church” several times after being hurt deeply by pastors and other Christians alike.
The first time was when I was 10 years old. My parents had divorced the year before and I had moved to a new community. I clung to the pastor of the small-town church we were attending and even served as an altar boy. He paid attention to me and I relished being noticed by another man after being abandoned by my dad.
One day, the pastor announced he was moving away. I cried at the thought of being abandoned by another father figure in my life. My relationship with God was affected, too. Why would I want a relationship with my Heavenly Father when I knew in my heart that he had already abandoned me?
Fast forward another four years. I’m an early teen living in a much bigger city and attending a new church. This one is attended by members of the high school “clique” of super-popular kids. However, while I was treated as one of the gang on Sunday morning, the young Christians ignored me at school the rest of the week.
Then, the pastor delivered a sermon one Sunday where he misquoted Mark 10:12 by suggesting that if a woman ever divorced her husband for any reason, she committed adultery. Of course, we were the only family in the church who was comprised of a broken home. I could feel the judgement as all eyes turned to scowl at my mother, sister and me.
I started checking out of church at that point and sprinted out the door a few years later when I was denied confirmation in the Lutheran church for asking too many “silly questions” about weighty subjects like the trinity and where Cain’s wife had come from — answers to which could easily be found in the Bible had someone truly desired to help me grow in faith.
My sprint turned into a full-blown gallop after my father died when I was 19 and his Lutheran pastor wouldn’t even tell us when the burial would take place. Nor would he allow my sister and I to view his body even though his step-family had a private moment with the open casket. The pastor relented only after we protested loudly.
The final dagger to my heart came when I returned to the church after the burial to find the plant my sister and I had bought for the funeral sitting in the hallway outside the sanctuary, with the dozens of other flowers my father had received locked in the chapel. I couldn’t even see who had taken time to send my dad flowers.
From age 19 to 35, I wanted nothing to do with church, but God kept pursuing me. Finally, in 1985, I accepted Jesus into my heart and joined a church I loved. I participated in and even led several small groups with other men while seeking other ways to serve the church.
Then, Satan infiltrated the congregation and caused deep fissures that broke the church apart. I tried to stay involved, but everything became political and I left before I could be hurt again.
However, I continued meeting with the same small group of men as I had every Saturday for more than 10 years until my wife and I decided our marriage was too sick to heal and we separated. I was told that by walking away, I bore 100 percent of the responsibility for the failed marriage and, as a result, I lost my entire church family.
I moved to Arizona and did not attend any church for two years until a good friend strongly encouraged me to find a new church and put down roots. I finally settled on another very active church where I became involved in the men’s group and also taught Sunday School.
I had never felt more alive or welcomed in a Christian church!
But, because I got to know the 170 children attending Sunday School on a first-name basis and took an interest in their lives, it made people feel uncomfortable, especially when the kids of all ages would give me a hug when they arrived and again before they left. They would also clamor to sit close to me during big group sessions.
The children’s pastor later admitted that I would eliminate half of his problems every week if I were to simply get married again. Apparently, it’s better for a man to be involved in a loveless marriage than to be teaching kids about Jesus as a single guy. But, I wasn’t ready for the pain of marriage again.
Several years later, it became too problematic for me to remain involved there, so I left the church — again — bought an RV and toured the country while working as a journalist. I remained connected to “the church” through CDs, audiobooks and recorded music. I would attend a new church almost every weekend if there was a non-denominational service within driving distance of my campground.
Eventually, I sold the RV and returned to Arizona determined to join another church. Then COVID hit about three months after I started attending, and everything moved online. The three small groups I had joined disbanded.
Once again, I was without a church family. I felt empty and as though something was missing in my life.
Fortunately, I found a new church and quickly became active in the men’s group there.
That’s why Joshua’s story resonated with me.
He, too, had left the church several times thinking he could find Jesus by himself. It felt liberating for a while to be free of the messiness of church life, but Joshua eventually came to realize it was impossible to be in “the church” without being around people in a church setting. He concluded:
“Whatever your body does on Sunday morning affects your soul. Getting out of your house, driving to a building, singing in unison, listening quietly (to a biblically-solid sermon), being friendly to other worshipers — it takes humility to keep showing up and it makes a difference. It forces us to remember that the Christian life is bigger than us, that it’s meant to be lived with others — not just in our hearts.”
It’s a lesson I learned, too.
Online church, CDs, videos, downloaded sermons did keep me connected to Jesus, but I did not grow. The magic of the Christian faith takes place in a community with real people being honest about their lives and struggles.
Jesus did not teach his disciples or serve other people from a distance. He got messy and became deeply involved in their lives.
Can you find church in your heart alone? I’ve tried. Many times. It never worked.