“I left the church but not God”
That phrase alone says it all. This is the story of a man named Ryan Murphy. He served in his church faithfully for 15 years as a pastor, so leaving it certainly wasn’t easy.
Unfortunately, there are far too many stories like his, myself included. So when I saw his saga unfold, I had to reach out to him. Ryan understands multiple things that I believe are noteworthy:
Loss. Leaving a church, whether you’ve been shunned, let go peacefully, or just chosen to leave is never easy especially if you’ve been a part of it for a long time.
Compartmentalization. Ryan didn’t “throw the baby out with the bath water” when he left the church. In other words, he continued to follow God even more than he did before. He understands that God is not constrained to a building, and he understands that the church body isn’t constrained to a building either. He was able to compartmentalize the notion that God and the modern corporate church are not the same thing and do not have to exist together. He knows that you can have a relationship with God, AND be a part of the “body of Christ” without being part of an official church.
Discernment. Ryan had the discernment to understand the flaws of the church, as well as the church’s potential and current positive attributes.
Critical thinking. Ryan won’t blindly follow the cookiecutter Christian process if that process goes against his convictions. He thinks outside the box because he understands that God also thinks outside the box. He knows that churches so often get stuck in their ways that they miss God’s true purpose on Earth.
Deconstruction. Ryan understands that sometimes things need to be deconstructed to be put together the right way. This includes many (but not all) churches today. God models this in scripture when He uses refining fire on our hearts as He works on us. It’s a painful process, but beautiful in the end. We must die to our old, corrupt selves and become the new selves God destined us to be. When the process is in dire need of improvement, we must sometimes be willing to demolish the process and start over.
Reform. Ryan understands the church’s need for reform. And this is something that should be on all Christians’ minds, whether they belong to a “church” or not. If we don't seek to improve ourselves, and the communities we’re a part of, we become spiritually stagnant. God designed us for growth, and this very much includes the church. We mustn't get stuck in our ways and our old routines just for the sake of it. We must constantly evaluate our convictions, our behavior towards others, our self-awareness, and our view of God. And if something is off, we need to fix it.
If you have a similar experience to Ryan, know you are certainly not alone. Studies show that church attendance has been declining steadily since the 1990s, and that speaks volumes. It can feel very isolating, maddening and scary when the church fails you.
Remember this though: people may fail us but God never will.
Additionally, remember that the church is filled with broken people. They can choose to let Him use them, or choose to ignore Him. What YOU can do is seek to improve the things you can. Call out the hypocrisy. Jesus did, and so can you. Show kindness to others in your community - the single parents, the orphans, the widows. When the church fails, you can succeed. When hope seems lost, you can find it, then share it with others.
When we can learn to separate the bad from the good, and when we can strive for God despite all circumstances, we can be more like Ryan.