by Jonathan Merritt
Talking about sticking with a faith community is far easier than actually doing it. The church is made up of people, and as a result, it is messy and difficult. People disappoint, fail, and hurt.
More than a decade ago, my father decided to plant a church. It wasn’t an easy decision, but he was sure God was in it. When we left the congregation we’d served for nearly twenty years, some people got nasty. They fed rumors and avoided eye contact when we ran into them at the grocery store. This hurt deeply, and our family was forced to choose either to be bitter or to stay focused on what we believed God called us to. As a pastor’s kid since birth, I know that faith communities can be as painful as they are grace-filled. Sticking with it isn’t easy.
My friend Chris Heuertz has spent his life building communities around the globe. He says incompatibility is one of the communal struggles that is actually an “unexpected gift.” When first formed, chemistry draws people into the community and keeps them there. But as time goes on and new people join us, chemistry changes. We have a choice to run or stay.
“If we want to be in true community, we have to make the choice to not give in to what’s easy but instead to explore the unique gifts each person brings…often it’s those who share the least amount of natural chemistry who work the best together,” Heuertz writes. “It’s in these relationships where we are sometimes most able to see beyond ourselves to the larger picture and bigger vision that unites us. These relationships become an illustration of true community. But they are not easy.”i
I often silently assume that everyone in the church should be as perfect as the God they claim to serve. I think about a friend of mine who found out that two of the other members in her small group had cheated on their spouses with each other. She hadn’t been a Christian long and felt burned, not just by her friends, but by God. She left the church and never returned. I often wonder what she might have learned if she had stayed. Maybe she would have learned how to forgive, how to suffer, how to love better. Now we’ll never know.
At the same time, I can’t expect the church to be my spiritual everything. As I look back on the emptiness that once visited me, I realize that I had placed unrealistic expectations on the church. I’d been relying on it to fill me up and keep me full, to be the primary if not the only place I encountered Christ. As I learned to experience Jesus on a regular basis in my life, I was better able to experience Jesus in a local faith community. I’d forgotten that church was not a landing place but a launching pad. Not a finish line but a starting block. I had made the church my single source of spiritual vitality. But the church is not a source but a conduit.
i Heuertz, Unexpected Gifts, pp. 145–146.
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