How Do I Stay in the Church? 

Sitting cross-legged in front of my boombox, I pressed “rewind” on the tape deck, carefully navigating to the right spot on the cassette. The radio was tuned to the Top 40 and I was dying to capture my favorite songs when they aired. 

Once my cassette tape was queued up, I sat and listened for hours, my finger poised and ready above the “record” button. By the time my family got home from church each Sunday, I had a pretty killer mixtape. 

Did I spend the 90’s skipping church to record songs on my boombox, as Casey Kasem and Shadoe Stevens counted down the Top 40? Well…not really. Or at least, I didn’t think so at the time. I genuinely woke up every Sunday morning with an upset stomach and a raging headache. So I stayed home and made mixtapes.

My rose-colored glasses were already long gone.

Today, shuffling through my box of old cassettes, I have a bit more perspective on my 8th-grade experience. My childhood involved a significant degree of church trauma. And though I didn’t know how to talk about it back then, or even recognize the impact it had on me, my body knew. Church felt dangerous. Each Sunday my body went into protective mode and forced me to stay at home.

That was almost thirty years ago. Since then, I have undergone years of therapy, wrestling with fear, and healing towards hope. I have grown to love the Church, the body of Christ, the oh-so-imperfect hands and feet of Jesus in our world. 

And so, as more and more of my friends experience their own church-related trauma, they come to me with a question: How do you stay? 

Not why necessarily. That’s a different question. But . . . how

I’ve always suspected that the answer went all the way back to those early years of skipping church, making mix tapes, healing from wounds I didn’t fully understand. Because my biggest “church hurt” happened in childhood, when I decided as a young adult to follow Jesus, I knew more clearly what this entailed. My rose-colored glasses were already long gone. Like someone getting married again after a disastrous marriage, when I agreed to join a church, I knew full well how complicated following Jesus in Christian community could be. 

I’ve spent the past few years writing about (and wrestling with) Jesus’ teachings about love and fear. He expected his disciples and friends to love God, to love and care for their neighbors the way they loved and cared for their own families, to protect and provide even for strangers. And, most shocking of all, he asked them to extend this posture of love and care to their enemies. 

But Jesus didn’t expect this way of life to be safe or easy. He warned would-be followers to carefully count the cost before signing on; to realize they were picking up a cross and potentially following Jesus to their deaths. 

So, when yet another friend asked me recently: Given how much pain you’ve experienced in the Church, how do you stay? the truth hit me with a bit of a shock. The Church has been a neighbor to me at times—a friend, the most certain source of love, care, and fellowship. At other times, the Church has felt like a stranger or even an enemy—believing and behaving in ways that take my breath away (not in a good way), fellow Christians turning their backs on me and everything I thought we were working for, together. 

My life-long journey has been learning healthy, boundaried, redemptive ways to love the Church in any case. 

It takes discernment to wrestle with Jesus’ teaching. Especially when it comes to loving strangers and enemies. Especially when the people who harmed you were Christian brothers and sisters. Jesus doesn’t ask us to remain silent in abusive situations. Ignoring evil is the opposite of overcoming evil. My body was right, way back in 8th grade. I did need to protect myself and step away. 

But—praise God—we cannot flee from God’s presence.

As much as I would wish for a less painful journey, I have found him in the darkness. When I decided to follow Jesus, I knew it was not a short cut to safety and success. I knew that Jesus invited—commanded—us to live out of love rather than fear, even while acknowledging that life and love aren’t always safe.

I knew that Jesus wanted us to extend this love to people we considered insiders, and people we considered outsiders. 

As a Christian, I wrestle with ways that the Church can become much, much better at loving our neighbors, strangers, and even enemies. But also, as a Christian, I wrestle with how I myself can love, not fear, the Church, fully aware that they are my neighbors—but sometimes strangers, sometimes even enemies. The sort of love that casts out fear is an active love, not one that passively accepts harm, but one that strives to tell the truth, works to overcome evil, and keeps on pointing to the subversive, dangerous love of God, made so very real and tangible in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. 

That’s something to mull over as I pop this cassette into my Walkman and throwback to the hits of the early 90’s. 

***

Catherine McNiel’s latest book, Fearing Bravely: Risking Love for Our Neighbors, Strangers + Enemies, releases today! 

More on Fearing Bravely:

Jesus commands us to love our neighbors. So why are so many Christians taught to fear their neighbors? The American church is known as a people who are afraid, who have been nurtured through fear into hatred, and who have moved from hatred to violence―or at least to neglect. This fear, too often lived out boldly in the name of Jesus, is a false religion.

God instructs us to welcome strangers. We are not to withhold hospitality or help from anyone in need. So why do we fear strangers, especially those needing hospitality, afraid that their presence may threaten what we have?

Jesus taught us to love our enemies. We are to pray for those who actively harm us. Instead, we create enemies in our minds, seeing anyone who thinks, believes, looks, or lives differently from us as dangerous, a threat to our way of living.

The Christian community exists to declare and demonstrate God’s love and to follow Jesus in practicing love over fear, even in unsafe times and places. It’s time to reclaim our brave fear of God and risk transformative love for the sake of our neighbors, the strangers among us, and our enemies.

We are people of the Kingdom. Fearing Bravely teaches us that we have nothing to fear. Instead, we can respond to our fear problem with a brave love that emerges from choosing to let our fear of God overcome our fear of everything else.

Catherine writes with conviction, wisely guiding us to recognize our fear and, with God’s help, not let it limit us to love courageously all who are among us.

You can find Fearing Bravely (NavPress) at Barnes and Noble, on Amazon.com, and at NavPress.com.

 

Header Image Credit: Eric Ward on Unsplash.

Catherine McNiel
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