Over the last several years, I have encountered the following situation several times. Someone who has been very involved in the church their whole life disconnects from the church. It’s often a gradual process. Regular worship becomes less regular, and eventually they don’t come to church at all. For years they were involved in a particular ministry and then informed the leader that they had enough.
It usually takes me and other pastors a while to notice that the once active person is not around much. In a congregation of several hundred people it just isn’t possible to keep track of everyone. When we finally realize their absence, we wonder what has happened. Are they upset about something? Has there been a life altering event—sickness, job loss, divorce? Sometimes this is the case. But the answer we get as often as any of these is one I heard not too long ago: “church just isn’t working for me anymore.” There usually aren’t a lot of specifics given, just a general sense that this season of life may have come to an end.
Why isn’t church working for these people? I am not really sure. However, I have a hunch that it has something to do with unfulfilled expectations. For some it is unfulfilled expectations about God. For example, some people expect that if they worship God regularly and try to live a good life everything will more or less workout. This may work for a while, which only supports the illusion that a carefree life is possible. Eventually, they find out that faith in God does not provide immunity from misfortune, and when things go awry they wonder what went wrong.
For others, it is unfulfilled expectations about the church. Somewhere along the way they got the idea that the church wasn’t made up of sinners who will let each other down. Somewhere along the way they got the idea that churches aren’t made of people who are always loving. Somewhere along the way they got the idea that the problems at the last church they attended would not be present in their current church family. Often people go through a “honeymoon” period at a church, which might well last several years, but eventually they discover that this bunch of Christians is just as flawed as any other.
For still others, the unfulfilled expectations have to do with their personal development. Although I firmly believe that God has the power to change human behavior, there is much about us that will never change. If we think that the Christian journey is a self-help program that will make us the person we always hoped we’d be, we have a rude awakening coming. There are things about Roger Greene that have changed over the years and things that have remained the same. The challenge for me is to accept that there are unpleasant aspects of my personality that aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.
When the above expectations go unfulfilled, and we feel that the “church isn’t working for me anymore”, we are exactly right. That church isn’t working and will never work in the end because it isn’t really the church. What is happening is that our expectations about the church, the God it worships, and our individual life are dying, and such a death isn’t pleasant. Grieving these lost expectations isn’t easy. However, if we can hang in there—and this is a big if—a new understanding of God, church and ourselves can be born. If your expectations for God, the church and yourself aren’t working right now, can you let those expectations die and wait for something better to be given to you?