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by Cara Luecht

People are leaving the Church in record numbers, and they are not being silent about their reasons. With terms like “deconstructing” and “exvangelical” they are letting the Church know that they are unhappy with the direction the Church is taking on any number of issues.

What if the problem is less about the issues and more about how we have chosen to handle them?

For those of us left, this creates an opportunity.

Will we rise to the occasion, or will we be satisfied with the loss?

Chapter 1

A Starting Point

I grew up in a Christian household. Not just any Christian household. I grew up in one of those families that didn’t go to dances, whose parents never drank, and who sat down to family dinners every night. When I was a kid, I didn’t join sports or do any school activities that had Wednesday evening or Sunday obligations. I had two parents who loved me and my siblings. I was protected against many of the harsher realities of life. Of my peer group, I can say I was one of the few who experienced childhood without the trauma of divorce, addiction issues, tragic parenting techniques, or some kind of abuse.

My father was a Pentecostal preacher who typically drew crowds of just under a hundred people. My mother was a stay-at-home pastor’s wife who did an admirable job at the religious version of keeping-up-with-the-Joneses—which was a feat for the wife of a preacher of modest means in the era of Tammy Faye Bakker. Being a pastor’s wife in the 80s could be demanding, and my mother excelled in many ways. Although she didn’t play piano (a standard for the 1980s pastor’s wife), she did sing, and she made sure that her daughters took piano lessons. And even though she dealt with her own insecurities, she taught women’s groups and Sunday school classes and played an endless number of support roles for my dad.

My dad was old school but struggled commendably with the legalism that tended to be his default position. Like us, he grew up in the Church, but he grew up in an era when his first trip to the movies in 1963 to see Son of Flubber meant that he spent the entire time in the back row, by himself, praying that Jesus didn’t come back until the movie was over and he had a chance to pray for forgiveness.

For us, the outcome of this culture of legalism played out in things like his begrudging approvals when we asked to go roller-skating because he knew that there would be secular music, and he didn’t want us listening to it. But more than that, he didn’t want us growing up to think we’d go to hell if we did listen to it.

In short, my parents did a good job. And if you are coming to this book because you are expecting another Pentecostal kid to write about their escape from the tyranny of the Church, you’re going to be disappointed.

I still love Jesus. Church camp was awesome. And now I am a Pentecostal preacher myself.

It was not an easy journey, though, and my faith looks a lot different now than it did at the beginning, but I suppose that’s the point.

Questions I Couldn’t Answer

I never wanted to go into ministry. More than that, I actively didn’t want to go into ministry.

I grew up as a preacher’s kid—or PK for short—and I knew that it wasn’t the kind of life that anyone in their right mind would pursue. It’s hard. There is no money in it (unless you are a televangelist or mega-church pastor). People can be jerks. And in the Church, those jerks can be even more difficult to deal with because they’re fueled by righteous indignation. So, justified jerks. Fun.

Then my dad decided he was ready to retire.

I had served in the church as a worship leader for nearly two decades, so I knew, following standard practices during a leadership transition, when my dad left, my husband and I would also need to find a different place.

After considering our options, we visited a few local churches and listened to online sermons. What I found surprised me.

There are some exceptionally good churches out there, and the last few years have given me the opportunity to get to know many pastors and congregations who are diligent in their mission to spread the gospel. But six years ago, they evaded me.

When I began searching for a new church, I listened to sermons that blamed disease on a lack of faith. Sermons that blatantly misused Scripture. Pastors who gave altar calls for salvation and never mentioned repentance. Churches that no longer celebrated communion as a community. Worship bands that led songs with pretty words but horrible theology. And prayers for salvation that sounded like joining a country club where all the members enjoyed an abundant, successful life as defined by human standards.

Part of my challenge in finding a new church family was that I had basically been in the same church for most of my life. Looking back, I think I was somewhat of a snob about it all. I was frustrated by the things I knew were wrong, and I allowed my frustrations to color my opinion of the churches I visited. But one thing I have learned is that God uses our good and our bad, and this time he was using my overly critical mindset to stir something that I had not considered for a long time.

With a love of learning that stretches back as far as I can remember, I have always returned to education when something doesn’t make sense. And none of this journey that I had embarked on since my dad announced his retirement had made any sense at all. Church had changed. People had changed. But I knew that God had not changed. It was natural for me to start looking for a way to learn more about my beliefs and God in general.

I applied to seminary. It was easy to tell by the look on my parents’ faces that they thought seminary was overkill, but I didn’t care. At one point, my dad asked why I didn’t simply take some Bible college courses online. It was here when I understood the problem and the first of what would be many questions solidified.

I didn’t care about what I should believe. I had learned what to believe my whole life, and it had gotten me precisely to where I was standing at that point: no church, no community, and a faith that I could defend to the rafters, thanks to decades of training that resulted from the Church’s obsession with apologetics, but no sense of why I believed any of it.

I knew the “what.” I needed to know the “why.”

Why did I believe what I had been taught? Why is Christianity different from other religions? Why do we worship at the altar? Why do we take communion? Why do we baptize? Why do we pray for others? Why do we say things like “faith the size of a mustard seed” and “lukewarm” and all the phrases that make no sense unless someone is part of the Church? And I didn’t want the same pat answers that I’d heard over and over from other Christians who were offended that I even asked the questions.

I didn’t need to listen to an apologist try to prove the existence of God. I had been listening to them for decades and watched all that information become useless in the lives of my friends and the students I taught when they faced hardships. I had been around long enough to know that argument does not have “keeping” power. The Holy Spirit does.

So how could we, as people who profess to walk with the Holy Spirit, miss the mark on so many levels?

We have the greatest story, the only one with a loving God who can make sense of all the problems in this world. So why was it that my college students (those from Christian homes) often asked if they could write their freshman English papers about science versus religion? Why were the homeschooled kids—the ones I thought would be the most solid in their beliefs—simply angry with the world? Why had the world become a burden for the people in the Church, instead of the gift that God had intended?

Why was everyone so threatened? If the battle has already been won…why did everyone act like the fate of their church rested on who was voted into a political office? Why were the people who had been sitting in the pews the longest also the most angry and impatient?

I was accepted into seminary, and I started studying.

One of my first classes asked every student what had pulled them into this kind of study. I had to think a lot about that. My first “why” had led me to an expanding circle of other questions, but I synthesized it down to one that encompassed all the other issues: What makes a mature Christian?

Chapter 2

The Myth of Maturity

I graduated from seminary at the end of 2018. Little did I know how many times over the next years I would return to that question of maturity.

Like most kids who grew up in the Church, I assumed that if you were old and if you had been a Christian for a long time, you were mature in your walk with Christ. After all, “old” and “mature” seem to go together naturally.

When I began looking for other churches (before I had started seminary), and I realized that we—as the Church—have difficulty answering the most basic “why” questions about our faith, I suspected that we were not as mature as we thought.

And 2020 cemented my suspicions.

The year the pandemic began, I watched people (old and young) in the Church who had been friends for decades torn apart over social media posts. Politics, health emergencies (or lack thereof, depending on your politics), isolation, racial tensions, and simple things like masks made people who had been Christians their entire life completely unrecognizable as such. I read scorn-filled posts from people who had, three months prior, been teaching Bible studies. People stopped connecting with their church family because they disagreed about a cloth mask: if you wore a mask, you were faithless; if you didn’t, you didn’t care about others. Preachers traded in the gospel for politics. I prayed for pastors as they tried to navigate between people who called them racist because they wouldn’t connect to a particular phrase, and I prayed for those who left the Church because their pastor happened to connect in a way they didn’t agree with.

In short, the Church risked becoming unrecognizable as such because the gospel took a backseat to whatever the hot topic of the day happened to be. Looking back, we realize that this isn’t new—but the isolation and restrictions of 2020 made what had been simmering and swelling underneath the surface bubble to the top at an alarming rate.

Sure, there were pockets of beauty—that’s because God will reign in all things. Conversations about race opened that might have never happened. Friendships that were allowed to heal became stronger. And many of our assumptions were called into question, forcing us to reconsider some of our own practices and habits. But I don’t think any of us would say, collectively, that we made it through those years having better demonstrated God’s love to the world.

No matter how we define Christian maturity, there is a truth we cannot escape: Our maturity will be evidenced by our actions. James 2:26 makes this clear: “For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead” (NRSV). And when, as Christians, we parse out our recent past, we could have treated both those outside the Church and inside the Church better.

During times of little to no crisis, it was easy to consider ourselves good Christians. Most of us would have simply pointed to our behavior as proof. The problem is, pious living does not mean mature Christianity. Just because you can make it through your day without cursing in the grocery store doesn’t mean that when you are facing a stressful situation at the checkout counter you will treat the cashier with the kind of love and consideration that points them to Christ.

Personal discipline does not necessarily mean that you are close to God. It means that you are compliant. That’s not bad. And it goes along with maturity, but maturity in Christ can’t happen without relationship, and if we are in relationship with Jesus, it’s inescapable that our interactions with others will demonstrate it (John 13:35).

So, as I sat in my office at home, watching Facebook demonstrate everyone’s worst to the world, I prayed for discernment and insight and any way not only to understand what was going on, but also to help those who were evidently not doing well.

I spoke with other pastors who recognized the same challenges within their congregations, and we realized that we are not innocent in all of this.

We had fallen into the same trap that our people had. We had assumed that because parishioners had been sitting under our teaching and attending our churches for decades that they were mature. The facts spoke otherwise, and maybe this calls our collective pride into a place of accountability. Where we expected to see compassion, we often saw the reverse. Where we expected to see patience, we often witnessed intolerance. And truthfully, we were disappointed in ourselves, in our people, and in the Church in general.

Even if your own church didn’t experience these challenges, we can’t ignore the data. The latest Barna survey revealed that 52 percent of churchgoers are looking forward to attending in-person services again.[1]1 That leaves 48 percent of the Church less-than-enthusiastic about coming back. Those are our brothers and sisters in Christ. Those are the ones who are saved, who understand the message of the cross, and who have spent their time and efforts within the body of believers.

If we can’t even keep our own, then something has gone wrong. At the very least, this means that 48 percent of the people sitting in the pews do not have the basic understanding of the importance of the Christian community. If we are honest, though, it might be even bleaker. What if the 48 percent who do not want to come back feel that way because of the actions or inactions of the other 52 percent?

If the number of articles written by those who have chosen not to come back to the Church is any indication, this is largely the case for a good number of Christians.

This speaks directly to maturity because community is at the very heart of understanding the gospel. Jesus never intended us to be perfectly behaved believers in isolation. Anyone can behave when all temptation and potential for conflict has been removed. We are supposed to be together and make each other better by building relationships. Iron sharpens iron (Proverbs 27:17). God made humanity in God’s image and created us to have relationship with both God and other humans. Living in community is valuable because of the challenges.

A lack of conflict does not mean a congregation is mature. It could mean that everyone simply tolerates each other and no longer learns from each other. Or, maybe even more frightening, it could mean that there is an entire congregation who has grown to think the same things, to agree on the same opinions, maybe even to follow the same political leaders.

To mistake harmony for maturity is dangerous; God uses conflict to make us better suited for Kingdom work. If you are part of a congregation because that community thinks and feels exactly as you do, then you need to take a serious look at your own potential for growth. Likewise, if you have left a healthy congregation because they do not think and feel as you do, have you simply told God “No”?

Please do not misunderstand. Paul makes it clear that we are to live in unity. But unity is not achieved by robotic like-mindedness. Unity in the Church is achieved only when we celebrate our differences, learn from them, use them, and then put them aside when the time comes to serve others.

This leaves us with the question of how we have swallowed the myth of our own maturity so completely. And have done it for so long.

The rich young ruler’s encounter with Christ in Luke 18:18-30 offers insight.

The scene begins with the rich man asking Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Like any of us living relatively comfortably in a success-driven society, this young man probably had checked several things off his list. He was wealthy, successful by the standards of his peers, and he still had his youth. The next thing to conquer was securing eternal life.

It sounds arrogant to our ears, but if we are honest, how many times do we go to God with our own lists? God, I have grown beyond my addictions, I have volunteered my time, I am a good person. What can I do next? What thing do you want from me?

But Jesus was not fooled by the rich young ruler’s pride-laced question. God wants all of us, even our strivings. Especially our strivings. There is no list. There is nothing to check off. The first commandment is to have no other gods before us. This includes the gods of our own making. This includes the gods of success and wealth and human effort.

As soon as we think of spiritual growth as a list we can check off, then we are falling to pride, because it becomes something that is in our power to achieve.

And that is the paradox that we must become comfortable with. Spiritual growth isn’t about right action, it’s about relationship. And relationships are never complete. They are always growing.

When Jesus answered that the rich young ruler should sell everything, give to the poor, and then follow Him, He was not giving him another list. He was not telling everyone who would read the Gospels for the next two thousand years that they had to live in poverty to follow Jesus. What He was telling the young man was that everything he had done that he was proud of, he had to give up. Even more than that, anything else he wanted to check off his list was meaningless in terms of eternity.

Jesus was telling him that everything he had on earth, every effort, every right decision he had ever made, every dime he’d ever earned, would never be enough to secure a place in eternity. Eternity cannot be bought or earned or won. Eternity must be found. And the only way to discover it is to follow Jesus.

We can do everything right. We can make all good decisions. We can live a pious life and do our devotions every day. But until we realize that relationship is not about earning something but about loving Someone, then we are still working under our own power, and we still have more to give.

Spiritual maturity is not a place we can reach through effort, much to the rich young ruler’s dismay. Maturity is not something you either have or do not have; it is something you grow into. A mature Christian is one who knows they will never arrive at maturity, and they are becoming mature only because they recognize that they are not. It is the humility inherent in the recognition of our weakness that reveals if we are on the path to maturity or if we are simply skipping down the Christian road, hoping that someone else will have found an escalator by the time we reach the next mountain.