“I don’t think it’s going to work,” my husband said, sorrowfully.
I stared ahead through the windshield. “Yeah,” I agreed after a moment’s silence, and fumbled for words. “It’s just not working out. Nobody did anything wrong, but–”
“Yeah,” my husband replied. The set of his jaw was grim as he glanced over at me. “At this point, I think it’s best we just go our separate ways.”
We were breaking up. With our church.
For my husband and I, this was a new experience. The first church we had shared, while dating, was a small rural family of dedicated members: the church of my parents and grandparents. We still feel like members there and we might as well be; we attend services every time we go home. And the church we attended after that, a much larger congregation that emphasized traditionalism and committees but boasted warm, loving members and a dedicated desire to grow in Christ, also felt like home. We led a youth group there; on the night that we left, we met with the members in a Taco Bell, and we cried. Somewhere, we still have the empty bottle of celebratory sparkling grape juice the kids paid for to send us on our way.
And then came the church that, now, we’ve decided to leave. On paper, it was everything we wanted: large, with contemporary worship and intimate small groups, multiple services, and a bunch of college kids eager to start a study. In practice, though, our experience turned out much differently than we expected: the church was so large that we didn’t meet many people and to this day only know a handful, the small groups we attended all dissolved over time, attending the early service made us ships passing in the night with the people we did know, and the study group we led soon expressed a desire for more fellowship and less study.
I think we feel particularly disappointed because this, more than any other church, was a church we chose. In our previous move, we’d ended up attending the church closest to us that aligned most with our beliefs – and that worked. For this church, we’d scanned tons of potential prospects and then settled down with the one that we felt best met our needs. But the honeymoon period is over, and as we look for a church where we feel we fit more comfortably, I realize how closely the relationship between believers and their church mirrors a relationships between lovers.
It’s easy to go in idealistic and hopeful, to be attracted by a church’s best qualities and to ignore what might be potential problems down the road. A shiny exterior seduces and attracts, and churches these days market themselves like candidates on The Bachelor. Honestly, as I sit and look through websites at local churches, it’s hard to tell them apart: they all tout themselves as Bible-believing Christian churches with the same creeds and the same types of services and the same smiles in similar photos. And so the temptation is – or at least was for us – to go to the place that instantly made us feel happiest and most excited, where we could feel enthusiastic about the future, where the worship and the atmosphere and the vibe felt like they “fit” us.
But what we failed to consider and what I suspect many church-hunters fail to consider is what the photos and smiles and brochures cannot reveal, which is this: to what degree will this church be a place where you can learn and grow? What potential do you have with this church for a long-term relationship that extends beyond awesome worship and friendly people? Because eventually the allure wears off; enjoyable services and cheerful smiles won’t substitute for the spiritual nourishment you crave, and if the believers and the body do not provide a place where you can grow personally, then in the long term the relationship cannot last.
“To grow and build itself up in love” is the Christ-given duty of every church. But the ways in which churches accomplish this differ. The church that my husband and I are leaving has a distinct ethos, a way of ministering that blesses and reaches out to a lot of families in our community. It is a good church. But it’s not the right church for us. And as we seek another, we’re trying to keep in mind how like dating this is: to temper ourselves and to remember that while first impressions matter, and while finding a church that to some degree suits our preference is ideal, the ultimate goal is to find a place where we can build up others and where we can be built up, where we can become in love the people that Christ intended us to be.