If Not Church, then What?

–Daniel S. Ferguson

Disclaimer: This blog is about people who have left the church but still love Jesus. If you’re done with both the church AND Jesus, this isn’t meant to address you. You can still read it, of course, but I wanted to be clear. I do love you, though.

Many of the people I’ve met who have left the church or seriously considered it, surprisingly, still want something to do with Jesus. As Gandhi famously said:

“I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

Christ, as He is widely understood, is quite attractive as a spiritual leader. He’s forgiving, self-sacrificial, generous, and wanting loving relationships with everyone. Christ’s grace has an immense gravity to it, and even those who are sick of the church still want that grace.

Which begs the question: If not the church, then what?

The Bible leaves us very little choice on the matter. Jesus expects Christians to be held accountable for their actions in church (Matthew 18:15-20), Jesus gives His own Spirit to the church (John 14:26), Jesus assigns the church with the continuation of His mission (Ephesians 3:10), the Bible routinely refers to the church as Christ’s “bride” (Revelation 21:9) and “body” (Ephesians 5:29-30), and Jesus even admonishes individual churches Himself (Revelation chs. 2 and 3).

There’s a lot more references besides those. Jesus and the New Testament are positively obsessed with the church. After the message of Christ’s redemptive grace, the nature and practice of the church is the second most common issue.

It’s really easy, therefore, to come to the conclusion that one cannot leave the church without leaving Jesus.

But there’s more to it than that.

The church didn’t die for your sins; Jesus did.

For one thing, church “membership” (which is an aged term that needs to die) is not required for salvation. Christ’s sacrifice for us automatically makes us a part of His body, no matter what any individual church says about us. No matter what, we’re adopted children of God and co-heirs with Jesus Himself. We’re part of the capital ‘c’ Church because of Jesus.

So if you’ve left a church because you couldn’t take it anymore, or because they kept hurting you or others, that doesn’t mean anything about your soul. You are still saved. You are still under the grace of Christ. You still have Jesus as your priest, and you always will (Hebrews 4:14-15).

Your salvation no more depends on the church than it does on a dinner napkin. After all, it isn’t the church that died on the cross. It isn’t the church that rose from the grave on the third day. It isn’t church that’s the divine Son of God made manifest in the flesh, born to a virgin, and set on the throne of Heaven for eternity.

BUT…Jesus Loves the Church

None of that means you can simply ignore the church, though. All the grace that Jesus shows to you personally He also shows to the church. Many of us have been begging the church to show us the grace, mercy, forgiveness, and dignity that Christ does. Many of those complaints are well-founded, but we must show it back to the church. Yes, even if it’s hurt you. Even if it’s hurt others. Even if it’s still hurting us and them. Even if it’s in the wrong.

We are not left with any other option. We cannot cry out on the one hand, no matter how rightly, that the church hasn’t shown us the love of Jesus if we do not, on the other hand, show that same church the love of Jesus. Following Jesus demands no less of us. We have but one perfect example to follow, that of Jesus, and He does THIS:

“But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8, NIV).

While were STILL sinners. While we were STILL messed up. While we were STILL morally and spiritually bankrupt. While we were STILL hurting other people. When we had absolutely nothing good to offer, Christ died for US.

He died for the church, too. After all, the church is just people. Broken, messed up, sinful people with beautiful souls that God loves infinitely and wants good things for.

I know the church may have hurt you. It’s hurt me, too. But it’s hurt Jesus most of all. And He’s forgiven it. If we lay any claim to following Jesus, any at all, we are compelled to do the same. I know that’s painful. I choke on those words sometimes. Forgiveness is hard. It costs.

It cost Jesus, too. His very life.

Maybe Church Can Look Different?

You may have left your local church. I’m not going to just your journey just because I haven’t. I managed to find a local church that rekindled my immense hope in what church can be. That was grace. I hope you have that experience, too, but I’m not going to blame you for leaving a community that hurts you. I all but did myself.

What I am going to encourage you to do is to keep in touch with the Christians who did love you well. If there don’t know any, find some. We’re out there. Maybe check out a different local church. Maybe find an online community of Christians to be a part of. Maybe just go to church small groups for now and avoid the mess that can be Sunday mornings. Heck, email me if you need to. Christians who will love you are out there. Come to us with your experience, your journey, your pain, and your joy.

Remember that you’re part of the capital ‘c’ Church no matter what. Even if you never find a Christian community to call home. Jesus never gives up on you, and He doesn’t live in a religious building. He lives in your soul. He wants you to be in community with others who love Him so that you can love others and be loved more fully, but He won’t leave you.

No matter what.

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