When I was eleven years old the church my father started with just a couple of families split. We packed our brown van and headed to Lititz, Pennsylvania. For years I hated God for that split, for those people who conspired to "go a different direction," for manipulating Dad (or so I naively thought) into a profession where people could be so cruel and self-serving.
My bitterness grew as I grew, climaxing with an expulsion from Liberty University at the age of twenty. I lived as a middle finger against the so-called institutional church. I didn't need the church. I didn't want the church.
I spent the better part of my twenties on a pilgrimage. I was trying to discover who God was, and who this Christ Jesus was and what it had to do with me. I committed my life to this pilgrimage, to following Christ no matter what; even when I didn't understand things.
It wasn't until I was 28 that a dear family friend sat me down in a Vermont apartment, while I was touring the country in a band, and said, "Tim, what happened in Florida with your dad's church was wrong. You father is a good man. Sometimes people lose sight of what really matters."
It was the first time a grown-up had confronted the issue with me.
We drove off into the evening snow and my mind rested on that Florida church. I whispered forgiveness to that group of people and the bitterness disappeared as we did, into the night.
Chances are, if you grow up in any kind of church--the kind where human beings gather several times a week--you're going to experience some pain and frustration. I remember always hearing about how so-and-so-family was going to leave the church.
"What, how are they going to leave?" I thought.
There's a lot of this talk nowadays as well. Only now it's all over the blogs and attached to social issues and expands on a more universal scale. People write about how they decided to stick it out, to not leave, or how they're dropping the name evangelical or they don't care to be called a Christian, because they don't want to be associated with certain other people who tend to hold narrower views on the "issues."
All this talk makes me sad, because I remember that bitter taste, the taste that I used as justification for flipping off the "church" and doing what I wanted.
As I reflect on the growing fission in the church universal I remember what I told myself when I decided to follow Christ no matter what. A few months after I was expelled I sat under a winter sky by a raging fire and prayed. There was no "church" building, there was no leader in front of me, there were no "rules" or odd theologies. It was me, sitting in the hand of my Creator.
I rested in his immensity. I felt what C.S. Lewis calls "Northernnes" but not the kind of Norse mythology, but rather the kind that opens up and into a vast severity of majesty and holy terror. And there I was alone with it all, alone with him all.
"What matters, Tim, is how well you follow me and what it means to follow me. This you must learn as you live, as you grow."
When I attended the Sunday gathering of "the called out ones"--the actual meaning of "the church"--I no longer saw what I considered petty disagreements and divisions. I saw Christ.
"Will you wash my feet this morning, Tim?" he'd say as I shook so-and-so's hand.
"Will you put your experience behind you and join me on Calvary?" he'd say as I stood listening to music that I too quickly judged.
"Will you hold your tongue and even the things I've taught you, and sit at my table and drink with me?" he'd say as I cringed at the "new vision of ministry" from the "church leaders."
I still find myself in discussions with folks about "leaving the church." I ask one simple question: "What is the purpose of the church?"
Not too many people have thought about this question. This question helped me move past my own hang-ups and anger and helped me see that the church is much bigger than one person. It is, in fact, a collection of people: The Family of God.
And so what do I make of all the talk swirling about regarding so-in-so walking away from the church?
I say, let them go. Let them set out on their own pilgrimage with no judgment from their brothers and sisters. And I, for one, will pray for them as I would my own brother or sister.
Should the church be concerned with a Millennial exodus? I'm not so sure. In a few years it will be the Millennials running the show, setting up churches and church governments and trying to figure it all out. And I, for one, want to be in that gathering to break bread, to hang at Calvary, to show restraint, when they are leading my children in The Way eternal.
There are plenty of issues that we need to discuss, and I'd prefer to discuss them in the Family gathering on Sundays and throughout the week, rather than on blogs and online channels that possess no physical accountability for the things that are said. On the issues, I pray for openness; openness to biblical authority, openness to the truth that I might be wrong, openness to showing restraint with my words--because words, oh, they hurt and they heal. May I be a person who distributes words of healing along with the stiff words of truth, but always tempered with the blood of Christ.
I know some love the Internet as a universal church "justice" enforcer, but that perspective misses the point. A righteous justice enforcer cannot be an impersonal digital platform with no checks and balances. Families don't keep one another accountable by airing their junk in public. They show honor toward one another as brothers and sisters and they figure it out between each other, physically and in person.
I can never leave the church, because I am the church. I am a "called out one" and so are you. And when we stop giving one another the middle finger I think we will actually start understanding one another better and, actually, loving one another in the way that Jesus loved: by giving himself up.
The goal is for all of them to become one heart and mind—
Just as you, Father, are in me and I in you,
So they might be one heart and mind with us.
I take Christ's prayer upon myself and, too, pray that I might be an agent of unity. That I might aid the "called out ones" in the Family business. To be unity to Christ, first, and to His Word. That my leanings and bents are left at the cross, so that I can give God his worth and live proud of status on this earth: The Church.
Timothy Willard is the author of five books, including Longing For More: Daily Reflections on Finding God in the Rhythms of Life and the forthcoming The Life-Giving Adventure of Chasing Beauty (Eerdmans, 2019). He has collaborated on over 20 books and has written, consulted and served as spiritual director for organizations such as Chick-fil-A, Catalyst, Q Ideas and Praxis Labs. When he’s not riding the trails in the Appalachian mountains you can find him by the fire with his three daughters and his wife making up stories about Tom the back yard badger. He lives somewhere in the south Charlotte woods.