How to Stay in Church: A Field Guide

I didn’t want to leave.

I didn’t want to be another exit story, another dissatisfied customer, another exvangelical. I wanted to stay, to affect change, to help heal the wounds I saw bleeding out all around me. I wanted to be part of the people of God, even with all our flaws. I wanted to remain, stay rooted, belong.

I loved the church. It wasn’t in me to leave. Maybe that’s why I got so hurt; I couldn’t let go for a long time. This codependent spiritual relationship fed my abandonment issues. Couple that with a theology that tells you to serve at the cost of your own wellbeing and you have a recipe for unhealthy boundaries and resentment.

The church was more than just a place to belong. For me, it was an identity piece, something that gave definition to my life and helped me make sense of my theology, the world around me, and my inner world. At least that’s what I thought. So, I hung on long after it was over. I defined myself as an evangelical even as I departed from the camp, taking to the wilderness. For a while, I kept adding labels, trying to name and claim my spiritual place in the church. I became a Charismatic, orthodox, anaemerging, mystic, evangelical Christian. It was a mouthful. I hoped it would translate into a heartful, but it never really did. The more I tried to define my place in the pews, the more out of place I felt.

Eventually, I slowly came to accept the fact that I had left, that my roots were uprooted, that my place was discarded, that my identity was no longer wrapped up in the church. I had to accept that any home I could create wouldn’t be found on Sunday mornings somehow wedged between songs and sermons. I had to accept these new terms of my spiritual life.

But I know these terms aren’t for everyone. There are those who have yet to leave. There are those who have no thought to leave. There are those who are finding their way back. This wilderness isn’t for everyone. And that’s ok. There is no one right way to discover your spirituality, walk hard with Jesus, and learn the ways of love.

The question is, though, how do you stay?

How do you remain in the pews when there is hurt inflicted under the guise of theology? How do you stay an evangelical when you can’t throw a stone without hitting a sex scandal and abuse? How do you root yourself in something that is so broken, so damaging, so flawed?

Maybe I’m not the best person to talk about this, after all, I’ve left. I don’t go to church these days. I’m an outsider. Maybe that disqualifies me from talking about how to remain. But I will tell you this: I still love the church. I’m still captivated by the idea of community and togetherness. And I believe in the mission of the church as I understand it. I believe the church was called to be a place where people come together to follow Jesus by loving their neighbors. For all my cynicism, I still believe in the power of the Holy Ghost flowing through the local church.

Even though I love the church, I’m by no means blind to the hurt it causes. And if you’re going to stay, you are going to get hurt. You must prepare to triage yourself and other people because the church is going to hurt you. There are going to be people who wound you, some doctrine that crushes, and an unwillingness to change that is going to be like smashing your face against a brick wall. Theology will be wielded as a weapon and the pulpit will give up its authority for the sake of political power. It’s going to hurt to stay.

If you want to stay, you must brace yourself for the hurt.

You’re also probably going to be alienated. You’re going to be shunned at worst and uneasily accepted at best. People aren’t going to know what to do with you since you don’t fit into the evangelical machine. Because you aren’t afraid to call bullshit and critique you will be ostracized as a dissenter, a troublemaker, a rebel. Some people are going to think you need Jesus to save your soul. Some people might think you’re of the devil. The elders may roll their eyes at you. But if you are committed to staying, you will endure. You’ll be lonely in church.

But remember you’re not alone. You have support and love. There are people in the church and outside the walls who will love you, believe in you, buy you booze when it hurts too much, and just generally be someone to lean against. You must find your people. You need the support and love if you are going to withstand the onslaught of hurt. These people will be a shield, a balm, a hospital, and a refuge. You need a good support system if you are going to stay.

We were built for community. The evangelical lie is that the community you need is confined to the church. The world is wide and Jesus roams in the hearts of many people who would love to love you.

Prepare to stay no matter what. You will get tired. You will get sore from the constant straining. You’re going to want to give up. But the best thing you can do in remaining at church is to be a faithful witness to the God of love. That requires commitment, jumping in with both feet, vowing to be planted and trampled down deep into the earth so you can one day bloom. Your seed will fall on good soil and hearts will change, theology will shift, and change will happen. But you must remain for the long haul. Don’t give up. If you can handle the hurt, the alienation, and the weariness, please stay.

I admire you for remaining. You are strong, dedicated, and powerful. The Holy Ghost dwells deeply in you. You are also loved by those of us who have left. You are staying, trying to make a way for us to return to healthy churches rather than the clusterfuck circus we have going on right now. You are loving us even as your path is different than ours.

So stay. Brace for the storm and stay. Know you’re not alone. If nothing else, Jesus is with you because Jesus is on the side of the outcast, the misfits, the downtrodden. You are on Jesus’s side. Your witness is powerful, and your prophetic voice is loud. You stay as a monument to that those of us who left had a reason. You stay as a reminder that the outcast, the leavers, the wounded and bleeding should be embraced instead of shunned. You stay because we can’t.

You are remarkable.

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