Church: Should I Stay or Should I Go?

I came close to leaving the church. For the past year and a half I have had awakenings that have shaken me to my core, and I have wrestled with questions that felt like I was being pinned down in the ring. Like any wrestling match, it has been tense. I have explored to the ends of my strength and where the edges of my faith have been.

It all started with a certain sermon from a certain “big name” within the Adventist denomination. I missed the sermon altogether because of the busyness of my job as a high school pastor and chaplain. After many people kept asking me about my thoughts on the sermon, I thought I better hear it, and with the aid of technology, it wasn’t too hard to find. While watching it, I was more amused than anything. I didn’t feel challenged at first by it. But seeds of doubt were planted. I began to question my calling. I took my eyes off of my calling, off of Jesus, and began to look at myself. I began to view myself through the critic’s lens that certain people within the church were viewing me from.

Then more conversations surfaced. I found myself in a church for a constituency session – the same church I had grown up in as a child. I sat there hearing people’s strong resistance against women in ministry, even people who had taught some church school classes when I was growing up…I’ll be honest: it hurt. And I felt angry that it hurt because it made me feel weak. I felt I should be stronger. So many feelings kept flooding me. I felt that I had been duped into believing that I was called. I felt like a kid who had been allowed to cook in the kitchen, only to be later told that my meal I had prepared had been secretly replaced by a more worthy chef. I felt betrayed. And I was angry that I felt hurt by this all. Had I really been this naive? And then I felt angry for letting it affect me so much – just do your job already! And I did. I kept working hard, trying to mask my pain with more work. But I still felt it.

But then more blows came. The Internet became a screaming voice of bigoted comments against women – comments cloaked in Bible verses and “righteous” anger towards women in ministry. It surprised me, really. I even received an email that used words that cut me down to the core. And I began to ask myself, Why am I here again? Why do I work for this church? Why am I putting up with this again?

That tension has been there a long time. To be fair, I have been blown away by the other voices that have risen to the surface in support of me and other women in ministry. I have been moved by my brothers in ministry who have had my back and who laugh with me about the ridiculous things people have said. (It’s funny how laughter is a beautiful vehicle for pain and anger). I even had my administration in the conference I work for personally send me a note stating that I was a valued member of the team. And the students that I worked for and love so much, I couldn’t leave them. But I still questioned my call. I still felt like I was experiencing a death.

And I think I now know what that death has been. My allegiance to “the church” has died. Any pull that may have been there for the politics of religion has been slaughtered. All the “right things to say” to be within the “right circles” has shattered. The mask of the beast of human religion has been unveiled, and in disgust I want nothing to do with it.

So why am I still here? Because something else has been surfacing. And it’s the definition of what church really is. It’s the strengthening of my calling. I am not here because of “the church.” I am here because of Jesus the Christ. I am here because I’ve been created for such a time as this. I am here because I have talents that have been bestowed upon me to make this world a different, better place. A lot of the things that are happening within churches are wrong, and that’s why I need to stay. Because if I leave, I am agreeing that I am not called. If I leave, I am agreeing that the beast of human religion is stronger than the call of the Divine. If I leave, they won. If I leave, I am throwing in the towel and the dysfunction that has become the church to so many people will only get stronger. And so I stay for the sake of the call – to call the church back to its true meaning.

Because, in reality, the church is not defined by what it has been. It is not defined by its location. It is not defined by its statutes. It’s not defined by the General Conference President. It’s not defined by Amazing Facts. It’s not defined by 3ABN. These things can be good, but they do not define church. The church is not defined by Christian music. It’s not defined by a political party or a fundamentalist group. The church is not defined by its institutions, conferences and unions. The church is not defined by the steeple or the tithe intake, or the attendance of people in the pews on the weekends. The Church is defined by YOU. It is defined by ME. Its defined by the calling we’ve been given. The church is defined by the radical message of Jesus the Christ, who was crucified by religion. It is defined by radical love – love that is carried in human canisters like you and me.

There is a question I ask myself when I’m in a tough place, whether it’s a place of apathy or a place of indecision, or a place of hardship. And the question is this: If this were a movie, and I was the main character, what would I want myself to do in this situation? And usually I want my character to do the thing that will be most challenging. If the music was building and in the movie the camera panned in on my character, what would I be rooting for? I would want her to do what she knows she has been created for. I would want her to change history. I would want her to make the hard decisions and then follow through. For some who have been in my situation, that means to leave. For others, it means to stay. For me, that is what I am to do at this point. And why should I leave – I’ve done nothing wrong.

There may come a time when I am pushed out because of my calling. There may come a time when I will be denounced not just because I’m a female, but because of the radical love of Jesus’ gospel. There may come a time when I will be forced to choose between allegiance to the church or allegiance to Jesus Christ – but in all of these instances, I won’t be leaving the church, because the true church consists of people who’s only allegiance is to Jesus’ love and embodying that love to the world. There may come a time where the decision will be forced that in order to be the true church we’ll have to “leave” the organized church. Because I know, in many great characters that have come before, that when we follow Jesus the Christ and live His radical love in this world, be ready for a crucifixion. But for now, in my story, in my journey, my character is supposed to stay within this setting.

I look at the people who have gone before me and who have faced a lot worse and who still pulled through. I am awed by their tenacity to keep going, to change history, to reveal the evils of mankind and to lovingly encourage a better alternative. They have brought light to us on our paths. They are passing on the baton to others who will continue this race. Their hands are in full swing, ready to release. Their leg of the race is over, and they need someone to take up the baton. If I leave, the baton will drop.

Imagine if the people who started this race had bowed out. People like: Jesus the Christ. Stephen, the first martyr. The Waldenses. The martyrs in all of Christendom. Martin Luther. Ellen White. St. Francis of Assisi. Mother Teresa. Martin Luther King, Jr. These are only a few. These had the fortitude to not be lured by the politics of religion, but to shine the light on what love is, and how that love can change the world. What if they had left when the going got tough? What if they had said “Screw this!” and left for greener pastures? It is because they kept going that we have an example and definition of what this radical love looks like. It is because they leaned into the storm that we understand what the true meaning of church should be. Without their example and sacrifice, we would have no way to measure the difference between religion and love.

I’m not sure what the future holds. But I do know that this calling is my canvas. This is my studio. This is my pulpit. And that I have been created for such a time as this…and so have you. Regardless of whether or not I will always “work for the church,” this I know: I will never leave the church because I am the church, and so are you. We, as humans alive at this time, are the church. I have been called for such a time as this, and so have you. As someone once said, “let’s stop complaining about the church we have experienced, and let’s become the church that we and God dream of.”

Krystalynn Martin is chaplain and pastor at Rio Lindo Academy in Northern California. She writes at Awakenings, where this article first appeared. It is shared here by permission.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/6987
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Thank you Krystalynn!

Yes, we are. But sometimes we aren’t the deonomination or even our home church. Sometimes we have to leave one or the other or both in order to stay in this church. I’m still struggling with the question: "how can I explain anyone interested in the faith, that my denomination insists on discrimination?"
I might still stay for a while, but I cannot invite anybody.

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Thank you Krystalynn!

Your struggle reminds me of this song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GqH21LEmfbQ

If I leave there will be trouble.
If I stay it will be double.

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This is awesome and represents something I have gone back and forth in my mind. I loved the part about how if you left, it would be admitting that the beast of religion is bigger than God. It’s an important fact to keep in mind never to confuse the voice of religious power with the voice of God.

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Thank you so much for sharing! Your story will be helpful to so many of us who are grieving the church also!

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Krystalynn is going the route many other disillusioned adventists are taking. The church is no longer the worlwide community, but the local congregation or a small group therein. Turning your back on The Church may sometimes be accompanied by guilt. But it is false guilt. The blame is not on those who experience an inner distance, but on those who refuse to recognise the signs of the times.

Current church leadership labours under the misapprehenssion that a church may be governed along bureaucratic lines. This is not only a biblical but also a theological and sociological mistake.

Biblically because it voids the major metaphor of the church as a body in which each lineament is equally necessary.

Theologically because it confuses servant leadership with authoritarian headship. The Andrews University faculty statement has sufficiently elaborated that point. https://www.andrews.edu/sem/unique_headship_of_christ_final.pdf

Sociologically because it misreads the current tensions in the church.

Church leadership cannot but be aware that large and important sections of membership no longer accept a formal centralised authority claiming to speak on their behalf. Its customary institutional reaction to this fact is counterproductive. In its attempt to (re)assert authority church leadership persistently appeals to an ecclesiology in which an impersonal body is the subject of the church. In the real world this clashes with another notion, namely that many members of the church consider themselves to be subjects and regard the church as a communicative web in which they voluntarily participate. They tend to remain in the church as long as there is a group of like minded individuals with which they can identify. Identification with central authority is minimal and in fact comes under further tension when leaders appeal to authority, be it bureaucratic or theological. It is a phenomenon which has been with us for many decades. One of the practical theologians who was aware of it at an early stage was, G. Schneider1 . He wrote in the early eighties of the past century. His concern was primarily the qualitative growth of the church(member).

Building up of the church

He looked at gemeindebildung as something that concerned emperically existing, distinctive individuals. The goal is not primarily the growth or the continued existence of the church as a corporate body, but the growth of individual members. Growth, he explains, consists in the creation of authentic relationships with others in which one’s own humanity may be experienced and developed. Because relationships are the catalysts of personal growth the church should not only be thought of as the sum of individuals but also as the sum of groups. It is within a group (often of like minded individuals) that personal development takes place. Such groups may be seen as representing the interest(s) of the individuals which belong. Schneider comes to the conclusion that a church, be it local or otherwise, needs to be led by a “board” in which these interests are represented. The “board” is the locus of conversation and communication. Plurality is essential.

The question may be asked whether this is not merely a sociological description and is the goal of such a body fully reached when individuals achieve ultimate personal development? A further question may be whether the notion of group interest is in line with the scriptural notion of a community as body of Christ? Schneider seems to be aware of these questions and as a theologian adds the necessary layer. A christian congregation or community, so he says, is present when authentic communication and acceptation takes place and where the cause of Jesus is never used as an instrument of power.

Now, whether or not we share his view two things are very clear. Schneider takes the the unique individuality of members seriously and questions the assertion that a bureaucratic leadership (in whatever form) is the subject of the church. In doing so he has read the signs of the times well.

Signs of the times

Leaders of the Adventist church seem to have missed the signs. Therefore they need to look about them and rethink the relationship between the individual member and the church as a body. Is the individual member a true subject, a truly independent voice or is he considered to dissolve into a larger body by means of representation? If so, is the larger body now the true and only subject of the church? It is clear that since Kant such a dissolution of the individual ought to be unthinkable. The twentieth century has shown us the danger when autonomy is surrendered to huge impersonal heteronomous subjects. Post modern analyses have shown us that strong independent ego’s are necessary if a healthy questioning of power structures is to remain alive.

But is the church then only a loose mixture of individual subjects? Is a balance possible between the individual subject and the church as a body to which he belongs?

The New Testament shows us that we are members of a body to which we are added when heeding the gospel. Jesus is head of that body. That metaphor should immediately make all talk about the church as subject impossible. The true subject of the body is Christ. Leadership in the church can never supplant this head and should therefore be continually wary of unhealthy identification. But individual members also must attend to the metaphor. The individual as subject needs to forego power and remain aware of the equality of others in the body.

The church as body may well be thought of as a community of individual subjects who, having heard the call of Christ in the gospel, feel moved to voluntarily create an environment in which acceptance, justice and reconciliation is practised. The task of leadership can be no more than to encourage, enable and maintain such a community, while continually realising that neither the community nor its leadership is an end in itself. It is there as an environment in which people may experience the gospel through interaction and help each other to grow into the body of Christ. To paraphrase Schneider again: A christian congregation or community is present when authentic communication and acceptation takes place and where the cause of Jesus is never used as an instrument of power.

K.A. Schippers introduced me to the work of Schneider in his article “Samengevoegd en bijeengehouden…” in Zelfstandig Geloven studies voor Jaap Firet, Kampen 1987

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the staying or going is fundamentally a doctrinal issue. The final generation misunderstanding of the apocalyptics of Daniel and Revelation creates a judgmental critical society of perfectionists. There are grave consequences to those who don’t buy in. Are you a two meal a day veggie, Do you guard the edges of the Sabbath? Wedding bands are touch and go. Do you agree that the corn field vision was God sent? Do you find your creed in the Bible or the Red Books? Do you study your Sabbath quarterly seven times? Is the Pope antichrist? Do you eat at restaurants that serve alcohol? Do you read books not published by Pacific a Press? This is just the partial list. Tom Z

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So well said. This is how I see it as well. My calling is to the students I teach in my classes, to help them see Jesus love in the midst of their everyday lives. It is my calling to try and show students how they can maintain a vibrant faith in God no matter what science may have to say about our humanness and earth history. It is my calling to love those within and without the church who may feel Christ’s love in no other way. I am a memeber of the church whose head is Christ.

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You are not alone in this struggle. This same concern has tempted me to give up on the church. But, what keeps me here is the realization that, since I am the only part of the church, and of Christ, that some may see, I stay to be a witness for the inclusive, non-discriminatory love of Christ.

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[quote=“Luna, post:4, topic:9029”]
It’s an important fact to keep in mind never to confuse the voice of religious power with the voice of God.[/quote]

Amen. It’s super important. That’s why people need to study their bibles for themselves.

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Amen and Amen!! What a Christ-like attitude.

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What message are you giving when your convictions about your church would prevent you from recommending it? Is it like recommending marriage as good for others while living in a miserable one yourself? Or recommending a restaurant where the food and surroundings or very unhealthy? There’s a word for that.

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I have questioned my decision to leave. I don’t hate anyone, not angry with the church, unless I attend. For years… no decades I prayed to have peace in my heart. That peace that passes all understanding. I would have fleeting moments but most the time I worried about everything. I spent ten years in the mission fields. When we returned and settled into our little family unit, nothing changed… still no peace. I struggled until I asked myself why I was an SDA. Then, the question became larger, why was I a Christian? Why was I anything. I was a third generation SDA. I was all the above because it was who and what those who came before me were and are. I left when I found that so much of Christianity was at odds with my perspective on the world. I believe God should be OUT of government completely. I am socially liberal when it comes to the rights of the gay community, and women do have the right to choose. These fundamental beliefs put me at odds, not just with the church, but with the teachings of the Bible as interpreted by Christianity. I threw it all out the window, became a total non-believer in any supreme being. Today I am an agnostic with the hope there is a God, and that God is who I think he or she or it is. I take every precept and faith based idea one at a time and examine and then accept them one by one. After praying for 40 years to have peace, I had to leave religion behind to find it. My heart doesn’t fret over ‘details’ I hear from ‘religious’ people because this is just their opinion from their perspective and life experience. I have never stopped speaking to God, and for now, I accept my spiritual peace as an answered prayer. I am willing to let God lead one step at a time as I formulate what I believe. I am not one of the lucky people who can disagree with a church on a bunch of issues and continue being happy and at peace in their midst. I do feel you are lucky in that you can find peace in the midst of it all. I just don’t have that type of personality, but its ok, because the God I am learning about and allowing back in my life likes both of us. Above all, I think we need to be spiritually at peace with whatever we surround ourselves. I think this writer found her peace, and I so appreciated her approach to finding answers. She found her peace with her God, what in life could be better than that?

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Thank you Krystalynn. Please stay. Teach my children and then teach my children’s children everything that you have written here.

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I appreciate her reflections a lot. I also appreciate that she noted that some might be called to stay and some to go at different times. I’ve learned in the work I’ve been doing for the past several years that it can be very unsafe and soul/faith-draining for some who are marginalized and oppressed in a church to feel they have to stay to “be the change.” It’s always those most oppressed who have to do the most heavy lifting, and it can just get exhausting. Some can and do feel called to that change agent role. And some find their soul’s best nourishment in other spaces (including other churches), maybe for a season, maybe for good.

It’s a highly personal journey, and I have learned that we can only walk that path for ourselves. I’m grateful to her for her willingness to be open and authentic about where she’s at right now.

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Krystalynne, thank you very much for your thoughtful and spiritual article. May God keep you strong as the winds blow against you. Be assured that those winds of opposition do not come from the Lord. He is the One who has called you and He will give you strength to remain standing in the storms. Those young people need you; men and women struggling in the church need you; many outside the fold need you and above all Christ needs you to continue to be His voice and hands. Be strong in the Lord as we stand with you and pray for you!

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It might help many to describe how not having the word ordained on your paper will affect your work. Can you give us examples of how it limits your ability to do the job you have accepted for example?

Krystalynne has given voice to all of our female pastors called, equipped and empowered by God, but who, as human beings, have been cut deeply by the politicization of their divine ordination. The legal entity called “denomination” has failed you, but God’s true invisible body (those hearing and responding to God’s Spirit and God’s leading) are not unmindful of your wounds. Lean into the wind and I pray other union constituencies and administration will lean with you soon in show of conviction and support by allowing WO in their territories. We will most likely never see a full embrace of ordination of women in ministry around the entire earth in global Adventism (and let that not discourage), but where circumstances and conditions that would allow for such, let them go forward.

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I’m of the belief that if we put ANYTHING above or equal to God that is pure heresy. It’s what the Pharisees struggled against and in modern times what the Religious Right has struggled with as well. The proclaimed wisest man wrote in Proverbs 16:25 that there is a way that seems right for man but in the end means death.
I relate with the plight of the author. Though I am not a female pastor I am and have been since baptism, an Adventist. She’s asking a question that I asked myself about 10 years ago one time when I put my hand over my heart to “pledge allegiance to my counrty”. In my opinion at that time my country was being led in questionable ways, in my opinion, and though I was NOT anti-American in any way I didn’t want to pledge allegiance to my country with my hand over my heart. When I wanted my heart to first go to God and secondly to family. I believe in the end of time a similar battle will be waged against church goers and believers. Our allegiances will be tested. In the Civil War brother fought against brother, cousin against cousin for what? For the principle of unity and for the civil rights of fellow Americans. If we think the enemy will not attack our allegiance we are sorely naive. And the courage of the author to bring about such discussion is admirable. Jesus said, “I am the Way, the Truth, the Life”. We HAVE to stay focused and vigilant in our quest for truth instead of getting on the Adventist ship and thinking that somehow exempts us from joining the world and being a lesser light reflecting off of the Greater Light. Thanks for speaking up!

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  There is a significant difference between building up the church and building up the denomination. Correctly defined the church is the body of Chirst.  He is the focus of our worship and service. Denominationalism is a curse. The recent General Conference session is a grim reminder of the folly of institutionalism. Prayer is used as an arm twister. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.   The Gospel of Grace is ecumenical.  Let us worship as Revelation teaches, The One Who has Creative power and redemptive Love.  He will return before man destroys himself.   Tom Z
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