I grew up going to church, but it wasn’t until my teenage years that I really fell in love with what church and Christian community could be.
Church is awesome when you’re a teenager. Don’t get me wrong — being a teenager is terrible a lot of the time. Middle school is the worst. You’re dealing with bullying, hormones, and struggling to fit in or feel valuable. High school is pretty overwhelming, high pressure, and confusing.
But church — particularly my teen-centered church youth group — was a spot of light in this stressful and challenging season of life. In youth group, I met Christian leaders who quickly became my role models. Our youth group pastors were young, funny, wise, and intelligent. They cared deeply about us students. They wanted to get to know us: to buy us ice cream, talk to us about our lives, and pray for things we were struggling with.
They valued faith immensely, but they were also very intellectual. They didn’t reject science or God: their faith was informed, nuanced, and always grounded in love. The cared about people. They also loved to dress in retro costumes and have disco dance parties. They laughed, cried, prayed, and lived life with us.
My youth group pastors were real, authentic, and selflessly caring. They were everything I wanted to be when I grew up. They made living for Jesus feel fun, exciting, challenging … basically the most rewarding experience I could have.
That was 15 years ago.
I haven’t been a teenager for a long time. I haven’t been to youth group in ages. But I’ve realized: because youth group was such a formational time in my spiritual life — because I learned so much about Jesus and about how to live out my faith through them — parts of me still expect my church experience today to be a little like youth group.
When you’re 28, pastors don’t take you out for ice cream to talk about life. They don’t ask every week how they can be praying for you. You don’t get to eat donuts, play dodgeball, or have disco dance parties at church. And that’s okay.
In the decade since I finished high school, I’ve been a part of a various church communities and para-church programs, and my understanding of church has changed.
I’ve learned that church leaders aren’t flawless superheroes.
My youth pastors invested deeply in me, and never let me down. But that’s not the role that pastors in my adulthood are meant to play.
My church is one of my favorite places. I adore our pastors. I love our focus on relationships and service. I love the people in our community. I feel deeply connected to my church’s mission and values, and I have gotten more and more involved over the past couple years.
But I’ve also seen churches do real harm to people: judging, gossiping, or rejecting in ways that make God seem very different from what I have experienced God to be. I have left churches or Bible studies that I’ve felt were harmful. (Either in their theology — teaching a harmful, clique-y, or misinformed view of Christianity and faith — or in their actions: prioritizing wealth and material possessions, or teaching a feel-good Gospel accompanied by rock concert worship that ignores the costliness and personal responsibility of the Gospel.)
No church is perfect
But even in my church, where I value the mission and support the theological foundation it is built on — it is not perfect. I look at my pastors, how selfless they are, and how whole-heartedly they support, encourage, and serve our community, and it’s easy to think of them as superheroes. Then something reminds me that they are still human. They aren’t perfect. They still need rest, encouragement, and everything us regular humans do. They might disappoint me. And that is okay.
My hope is not in a church. It’s not in people, for how people can mentor and encourage me. Relationships with people are a way to learn how to live out Christian community. They are not a one-way street. It’s not all about me, and how the church can feed, support, and encourage me. I’ve learned that it’s not realistic to expect my church to be perfect. Or to expect that I’ll never feel upset, hurt, or sad. These things are all a part of being in community. I experience so many benefits and joys of community. I need to be able to accept the downsides and growth opportunities, too.
Sacrament of Communion
Even if I feel upset, or if there’s been a misunderstanding or conflict, I still want to be with my church community. I still want to take Communion with them. I want to stand with them at God’s table — to partake together in Jesus’ body and sacrificial blood — to remember his death, which gives us all forgiveness and life.
Even if they have disappointed me. Even if I have done something to hurt them. Because that is how relationships work. That is how community works. It might not always feel happy and tension-free to be together, but it is good to be together. It is so good.
When church communities become abusive or teach a Gospel that is dangerously misleading (based on what my prayer, study of theology, how I’ve felt the Holy Spirit leading, and my careful examination of Scripture have led me) then I am all for leaving those communities.
I want to be in a church community that pushes me to see people like Jesus did, and live a life centered on obeying God and being Jesus’ hands and feet. Even if being a part of that community isn’t all sunshine and marshmallows all the time. It is still so, so good.
When I was a teenager, the youth group approach to church is exactly what I needed to make Christ feel real, and to encourage me to live a life focused on God. Years later, my view of church — and what I need from a church community for continued growth and maturity — has changed. Sometimes it is my favorite part of my life. Sometimes, it adds confusion or stress. But I am always learning something new or growing.
It isn’t comfortable 100% of the time, but it is exactly where I want to be.