In chapter two of his book The Four Loves, C. S. Lewis points out that nature, for all its staggering beauty, is limited for the seeker of God; natural beauty can’t communicate God’s truths about salvation and about the contemplative life of following Christ. “Nature cannot satisfy the desires she arouses nor answer theological questions nor sanctify us. Our real journey to God involves constantly turning our backs on her; passing from the dawn-lit fields into some poky little church, or (it might be) going to work in an East End Parish.”
For all of its foibles which at its worst include lousy preaching, political infighting, self-centeredness, stagnation, a gaggle of special-interest groups, the poky local church in suburbia is still the most fertile environment for spiritual development there is. Genuine spiritual progress doesn’t happen without a long-term attachment to a poky local church. I’m all for improving the organization of a local church to make it more biblically effective, but the maddening frustration that prompts someone to leave one church for another may be the precise thing that holds great potential for spiritual progress if one stays. “Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in his book Life Together. “Only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God’s sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is given to it.”
Disillusionment with one’s church, then, is not a reason to leave but a reason to stay and see what God will create in one’s life and in the local church. What I perceive to be my needs “I need a church with a more biblical preacher who uses specific examples from real life” may not correspond to my true spiritual needs. Often I am not attuned to my true spiritual needs. Thinking that I know my true needs is arrogant and narcissistic. Staying put as a life practice allows God’s grace to work on the unsanded surfaces of my inner life. In the seventeenth-century Francois Fenelon wrote, “Slowly you will learn that all the troubles in your life, your job, your health, your inward failings are really cures to the poison of your old nature.”
I would add “your church” to his list; that is, all the troubles in one’s church are really cures to the poison of one’s old nature, or, as the Apostle Paul put it in Romans 7, the “sinful nature.” The biggest problem in any church I attend is myself and my love of self and my penchant to roam when I sense my needs aren’t being met.
Staying put and immersing oneself in the life of a gathered community forces one into eventual conflict with other church members, with church leadership, or with both. Frustration and conflict are the raw materials of spiritual development. All the popular reasons given for shopping for another church are actually spiritual reasons for staying put. They are a means of grace, preventing talk of spirituality from becoming sentimental or philosophical. Biblical spirituality is earthy, face-to-face, and often messy.