How one woman struggles with traditional church

IMG_1819So here's a post I never thought I would write. For some time now, I have been searching for a way to integrate the faith God has shaped and is shaping in me into a particular context. I have longed to be a part of a local Church Body, to be shepherded, to be accountable, to be faithful, to serve. And all along the way, underneath these longings, is an honest longing to pursue the calling on my heart.

I want to use my seminary degree.

I want to use my pastoral gifts.

I want to partner with others to teach and share the gospel through both words and actions.

All of this seems perfectly reasonable. I still, in fact, don't dislike the idea.  It is just that I grow more and more uncomfortable at the thought of doing church per usual, and I'm becoming more and more one of those people who wants to go out and be The Church.

Some go to church on Sunday morning hoping to hear their favorite worship song, or if they're lucky, two or three of them. I go to church looking for the lonely and hoping to love them—and frankly speaking, to be loved out of my own loneliness. Truth be told, I am lonely each time I enter a church building, and I don't always leave feeling any less so.

I am often asked to sign up for another video Bible study that is delivered by a dynamic woman with great hair. She is a powerful teacher who is fond of fill-in-the-blank workbooks. But I want to see the Church train both men and women to study the Bible for themselves and then teach others how to do so. I want to see the priesthood of all believers, every last one, given the nudge and the opportunity to learn how to study the Bible and how to passionately follow Jesus with joy and through sacrifice and spiritual disciplines—and I want to see that replicated. I want to see disciples actually making disciples.

I want to see justice and love and racial and gender reconciliation roll down in your midst, mingled together, dripping off your members like the shower a dog shakes on to the carpet after a cool bath. Honestly, it sometimes seems this is more likely to happen outside of the church walls.

My husband and I were invited to an upscale restaurant after church (the one you say you go to every Sunday), and it made me a little sick and a little sad. I'm not against good food or some great table fellowship, but Jesus is ruining me and making me want to hang out with the most broken people of all where no one bothers to put on a nice face and his light shines brightly into the most barren of places. This is not an indictment against you, but a sign of where Jesus is taking me.

Someone told me they don't go to that side of town because it's too dangerous, but you don't know that my friend lives right there in the middle of it all. You can smell drugs and alcohol in her apartment building, along with a variety of other things. I go there alone, (yes, without my husband), because my friend needs my help each and every week. It's the least I can do. Would you do any differently if your friend didn't have enough food? Or needed shoes? Or simply needed to be reminded that there is always hope?

Several who have found out that I led a Bible study for women in residential chemical addiction recovery have been surprised. At one point, I would have been, too. And they exclaim: "Wow! I could never do that." I want to say: You could if Jesus asked you to. In fact, that is where I have felt his presence the most. I have never experienced the sweet presence of Jesus more intensely than I did in that circle of broken hearts and laid-bare souls. Most of Jesus' time was spent serving the under-resourced, the uneducated, the lame and the scandalous. He spent time speaking truth to power, too, but when he did, it was often to expose their hypocrisy and to uphold the cause of the weak. How is a church loving the marginalized? This is one of the first questions I ask when I enter the door.

Sometimes good, churchgoing folk find out that I have a seminary degree and that I am a writer and a chaplain and a teacher and that I have no children, and I often feel I am viewed like I am a unicorn. We have never encountered one of these before, what do you do with these strange creatures, we have no affinity group in which to place one of these.

I can only add that this is my impression, and I realize that my impression of how I am perceived may not always be accurate. But here is the heartbreaking truth: it is obvious that I don't fit into MOPS or DivorceCare or Young Adults or the ladies' fill-in-the-blank Bible studies or the nursery (because we're still healing from infertility and failed adoptions). It's also true that male-tailored paths to leadership don't have an easy on-ramp for people like me. I have the gifts, education and experience to serve—but speaking frankly, I don't have the opportunity. Getting the opportunity would mean men (who hold most of the power) would have to fight for me to step into a position that isn't always available to women. I'm so grateful for the brothers who have done so and continue to do so, but I haven't found traditional church to be an easy place to plug in.

It's the ministries on the margins that seem to most value females serving in their midst. And here is the bottom line: Jesus can call my husband and me to any church he pleases and we will follow. I am willing for that to be a traditional church or a home church; a missional gathering at a coffee shop, a basement or a gymnasium, even a foul-smelling apartment building.

But at 41 years of age, I realize suddenly that I want the next 40 years to be invested wisely. I want them to reek with Jesus-love and healing and using all of the things he has planted and gifted in me; I want them to be sacrificial and holy. I want loving community to become ordinary, and the fruits of that community-investment to be extraordinary for the Kingdom's sake.

I want to be a living, breathing, stretching, growing part of the Body of Christ; I want to say yes and not no to all of the things Jesus is stirring in me; I want church to count for something. This is why I sometimes struggle with traditional church.

Do you struggle with traditional church—and how? What does church look like for you?