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The Preface to My Current Non-Fiction Project

How-I-Survived-1This is an excerpt from the non-fiction project I am currently working on. Tentatively entitled How I Survived the Church (Without Losing My Faith), this memoir-style project will trace my troubled upbringing, my conversion to Christianity and call to the ministry, and the eventual disbanding of my church. Along the way, I will introduce you to people and discuss events that have convinced me of one essential truth: Following Jesus means loving His Church… no matter how flawed she is or how painful the processIn an age where it is en vogue to bash the Church and bail on organized religion, looking in the mirror rather than pointing fingers is becoming a lost but necessary art. My hope is that those who have been wounded, abused, or disappointed by the Church would find strength to remain, wisdom to forgive, and renewed joy in the ever quirky, sometimes exhausting, always colorful fellowship of the saints.

* * *

Much like the band on the deck of the sinking Titanic, we were gathered there, not to entertain, but to placate. In the face of the icy Atlantic, going through the motions must have been incredibly noble. Or very pointless. In August 1997, some of my friends and family went through similar motions. However, we were not facing death.

Just the death of our church.

Seventy-some people joined us for our final church service. But despite the “thank yous” and “hallelujahs,” we could not make our praise sound any less bleak. Like the fateful Titanic band, we played on until the end, which was either incredibly noble, or very pointless.

At our inception, we were a mid-sized non-denominational church, maybe 200-220 members. I was one of two full-time staff pastors. We were byproducts of a church merger. That merger consisted of a congregation I had pastored for five years, and a sister church. This newly formed body had remained together for six more years until that day, amidst tears, confusion, and not a little anger, we watched her disappear under the cold gray waves.

The disbanding of the church was a tragedy on so many levels. It remains one of the most painful, trying experiences of my life. We launched with so much promise, only to run aground. Years of impassioned prayers and faithful service sunk under the weight of human frailty and sin. The church wasn’t growing, and the leadership could only look inward. Before long, we met the enemy, and it was us. Charges of pride and divisiveness were leveled. Pastors were disciplined as others left the church, drawing wounded sheep with them. Accusations flew. Sides were chosen. Scathing “words from God” scribbled on notes arrived anonymously on our office doorstep. Some accused us of running a cult. Others charged defectors with running from the truth. A noble contingent hung on until the end, believing that the gates of hell could not prevail against the Church. Tragically, a few young believers were left shipwrecked in their faith.

According to pollster George Barna, in America, 3500 to 4000 churches close their doors each year. So shutting down our church was not quite an anomaly. But the human cost was inestimable. No statistics can quantify the amount of toxins such a thing releases into ones heart. Bitterness. Distrust. Cynicism. Like a dog having been kicked one too many times, you learn to keep your distance. And for several years after I left the ministry, I did just that.

I kept my distance from the Church.

In a way, the collapse of our church reinforced something I’d been battling all my life. My father was an alcoholic who literally ran me out of the house when I turned eighteen. Having barely graduated continuation school, with no marketable trade skills, I wandered from one dead-end job to the next. I’d always had an artsy, philosophical bent, and with it came a hunger for something spiritual, something more than just hollow religious rituals. Something substantive. But the dry Catholicism of my upbringing had left me empty, unengaged. My abrupt launch into adulthood (via my father’s boot) sent me on an existential quest that led into mysticism, occultism, and hallucinogenic experimentation, eventually landing me flat on my back in a hospital bed. Until in the spring of 1980 at the age of twenty-two, I responded to an altar call at a local church and confessed Christ as my savior. My life changed immediately. Within five years, I would be married, on the way to my fourth child, ordained, and planting a church in my hometown.

You could say it was a set-up for failure.

It’s also something I wouldn’t trade for the world.

Surveying the emotional rubble of our church, having watched eleven years of ministry shot to hell, it seemed to confirm something I knew all along.
Organized religion was deeply flawed.

And so was I.

These two truths have sustained me during the dark interim. No one joins a perfect church. And the minute we join any church or any group of Christians, the more imperfect it becomes.

This ugly reality is not avoided in the pages of Scripture. Whether it’s Christ’s disciples squabbling amongst themselves about who was the greatest or the Corinthian Christians taking each other to court and bingeing at the communion table, the Church is a flawed Bride. It’s as true of its members as it is its leaders.

Like Moses.

Moses is typically considered the greatest leader in biblical history. Nevertheless, he too watched his “ministry” crumble. Having been miraculously rescued from the reedy Nile, summoned from the life of a simple shepherd by a burning bush, Moses wandered the wilderness for forty years, enduring the sniping, ever-unbelieving Israelite rabble that he was called to lead.

It finally took its toll on him when he raised his voice against God’s people— “Listen, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?”—and smote the boulder in his fury (Numbers 20:8-12). God quenched their thirst. However, He was very unhappy.

There’s some debate as to what “the sin of Moses” actually was—anger, pride, disobedience, false witness? Whatever it was, it brought the curtain down hard on decades of ministry. Moses was forbidden from entering the Promised Land.

Yet shortly before his death, God allowed him to see what could have been.

Then Moses went up to Mount Nebo from the plains of Moab and climbed Pisgah Peak, which is across from Jericho. And the LORD showed him the whole land, from Gilead as far as Dan; all the land of Naphtali; the land of Ephraim and Manasseh; all the land of Judah, extending to the Mediterranean Sea; the Negev; the Jordan Valley with Jericho—the city of palms—as far as Zoar. Then the LORD said to Moses, “This is the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob when I said, ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ I have now allowed you to see it with your own eyes, but you will not enter the land.” (Deuteronomy 34:1-4 NLT)

Today, the view from the summit of Mount Nebo provides a panorama of the Holy Land. The Jordan River, the West Bank city of Jericho and, on a very clear day, Jerusalem. From his vantage point, Moses could finally see the finish line. All those years trudging through the desert, communing with God, toppling golden calves, and faithfully mediating between quarreling parties. Yet now he could only watch as his “congregation” left him in the dust.

What went through Moses’ mind on top of Nebo, hair whipping about his wind-burnt face as he gazed into a land flowing with “milk and honey”? Were there regrets? Was he mad at God? Was he mad at the people of God? Or was he relieved to be finally free of a burden he could never really carry?

Some sixteen years removed from my individual exodus and the journey seems much clearer. I have perspective in a way I didn’t then. Some of this perspective comes at the expense of pastor friends, having watched them slog through the ministry as I did. Some comes watching the myriad of church-hoppers never able to find that elusive “perfect church.” Even worse are those who chuck it all, and abandon the faith for agnosticism or some gauzy, self-styled belief. Then there’s the perspective borne of my own sin, realizing that I have smote my share of boulders and profaned God before His people.

Along the way, I too have been tempted to leave, to join the growing chorus of naysayers throwing in the towel on organized religion. But while being “spiritual not religious” is en vogue these days, becoming so at the expense of “the communion of the saints” seems equally misguided.

As Augustine put it, “Yes the church is a whore; but that whore is the bride of Christ and she is your mother and you have no right to abandon her.” Truth is, no matter how unlovely she looks, or how many times she hurts us, the Church is our mother.

Later on in the Bible, Moses appears again. This time, he is with Jesus on another mount, the Mount of Tranfiguration, in glory (Matt. 17:1-3). Apparently, Moses made it to the Promised Land after all. He didn’t throw in the towel and give God the finger. He continued the journey home.

This is a story about how I survived the Church without losing my faith. It’s a story about being called into the ministry, and back out, and the beating that has made me better. It’s about finding a place to rest, a “radical middle,” where I can safely chart a way home. Above all, it’s a celebration of the grand, weird, wonderful diversity that is the family of God. My prayer is that readers, who find themselves on their own personal Nebo, teetering between faith and doubt, would pause with me to survey the land. And find the courage to continue their own journey.

* * *

If you would like to contact me privately about this project, lessons you’ve learned along the way or even share painful stories about how you’ve been hurt by Christians and/or the Church, I’d love to hear them. Drop me an email HERE. If you are a publisher with interest in discussing this project, you can contact me or my agent Rachelle Gardner.

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{ 18 comments… add one }
  • Margaret April 1, 2013, 8:52 AM

    I’m hooked.

    While I have not experienced a time apart from the Church since becoming a Christian at age 19, I know a good number of believers who left the Church for one reason or another and have not yet come home. And I have endured two major splits that caused a great deal of pain for all.

    Yes, indeed, the body of believers is an “ever quirky, sometimes exhausting, always colorful fellowship of the saints.” I can’t imagine living without it.

    Looking forward to your story, Mike.

  • Dennis April 1, 2013, 9:00 AM

    Mike, I look forward to reading your book. Though familiar with some of the story I am sure that I am not familiar with it all. I, too, went through a “dark night of the soul” that actually lasted about 7 yrs. as I found myself disappointed with God and disillusioned with the Church. It was only by the mercy and grace of God that I remain in the faith and remain serving/leading in His Church today.

  • Brandon Clements April 1, 2013, 9:33 AM

    Can’t wait to read the rest of this Mike!

  • Alan O April 1, 2013, 9:36 AM

    Very nice. The Titanic image is particularly apt, since disasters of that nature (The Challenger explosion, Deepwater Horizon, etc) are always the cumulative result of lengthy event chains. It’s never just one problem, one person, one misunderstanding.

    But when one bad decision couples with another, and those bad decisions are exacerbated by group dynamics (such as peer pressure), and the unforseen occurs (The Black Swan), and warning signs are left unobserved or unheeded, ships and airplanes and relationships and churches go down.

    One of the saddest aspects is, most of those on deck during the final moments had done nothing to contribute to the tragedy. They simply had the misfortune to be standing at the end of the long, improbable chain.

  • Jill April 1, 2013, 10:57 PM

    To be perfectly honest, Mike, I’m a little ageist. I will be more interested in your perspective of the church, looking back over the years, than I will be in the young man’s book you highlighted the other week.

  • Jason Joyner April 2, 2013, 8:02 AM

    I’m excited for you and for this project. I really appreciate your heart for the church and your testimony even after going through some of the worst the American church has to offer.

    I think your book and Caleb’s seem like a matched set. Caleb comes from the viewpoint of Millenials saying, “Don’t give up on the church too soon, before she has a chance,” and yours seems to say, “Despite what you’ve seen, don’t give up on the church.” It is too easy to walk away after getting burned.

    After my “experiences” last year, it would have been easy to hole up and lick our wounds. The best thing we did is to look at how we could minister to others and see where God was working and join Him in it. The community we’re building now, trying to show wounded people the Body in a good way, is such a blessing.

    I pray this will find the right home and audience. Good job brother.

  • Paula Cappa April 2, 2013, 1:45 PM

    I agree with you, Mike, that organized religion was (is) deeply flawed. I’m a Catholic. Leaving or distancing yourself from the church is sometimes a path to a deeper personal faith. True faith does not come from the church or from anyone else. Christ may have left us a road map, but we still have to walk it ourselves with our own feet. After all, it’s a journey inward, isn’t it?

  • Robert H. Woodman June 14, 2013, 6:06 PM

    I very much want to read this book. Do you have a tentative publication date?

  • Katherine Coble June 26, 2013, 1:04 PM

    I’ve seen this in the sidebar for quite awhile now, and something has been bugging me that I couldn’t quite articulate. Today in the communion talk it hit me.

    I think it would be perhaps a good idea if you changed the title to _How I Survived Church Without Losing My Faith_. Because there is a distinct difference between “Church”, ie. Fifth Avenue Presbyterian, and THE Church. Your problems as you’ve outlined them seem to be with various implementations of congregational worship, eg. a church, instead of THE Church, eg. The Bride Of Christ.

  • Rebecca LuElla Miller June 29, 2013, 11:50 AM

    Is that quote from Augustine for real? Awesome, Mike. I like it because it shows that the problems of the Church aren’t something new to 21st century western culture. You made that point clearly as well in your references to Corinth and the squabbling disciples.

    I really like this opening and am eager to read the entire book. I appreciate your willingness to revisit a period of time in your life that was most painful. Not everyone has that level of courage and commitment to others and the willingness to be transparent. Great opening, really!


  • Pamela Strange August 8, 2013, 6:23 AM

    I enjoyed reading your project on the church body. You are right, nothing about the behavior of church folk has changed in 2000 years; we are still sinners saved by grace. I look forward to reading the final book and will keep a few on my shelf for offended church goers who darken my doorway.

  • Mike September 3, 2013, 10:34 AM

    Looking forward to the book Mike, great writing!

  • Wounded Warrior September 15, 2013, 10:20 AM

    Everytime I think of “Church”, I feel pain in the midsection of my body. A few years ago God opened the door and it was like opening a grave on many levels and I find myself immersed in feelings & hurts & literally sick to my stomach at times as old buried stuff rises to the surface for review. Someone is going to win this fight and I am not entirely sure who that will be so it’s scary beyond words.
    Thank you for sharing some of your journey with us and please share more. It helps to know others are hurting along the same lines as you are and that you are not alone.

  • Metasyntactic variable October 14, 2013, 12:37 AM

    I think that Augustine quote is apocryphal.

  • Ron Williams January 23, 2014, 11:51 AM

    Having walked through much of this myself I eagerly await the chance to read the book. I know it must be hard re-living all of that ordeal. Having “surfed” several other churches one thing has always been a common denominator-the church has problems. The key is trying to get involved enough to help with the problems instead of magnifying them. I currently am active in a small church with its fair chair of issues. There is much satisfaction when troubles are recognized and resolved, rather than recognized and ran away from. We must always remember to never let our church leadership to be the “final authority”. There is only ONE KING.

  • Ron Williams January 23, 2014, 11:52 AM

    Having walked through much of this myself I eagerly await the chance to read the book. I know it must be hard re-living all of that ordeal. Having “surfed” several other churches one thing has always been a common denominator-the church has problems. The key is trying to get involved enough to help with the problems instead of magnifying them. I currently am active in a small church with its fair chair of issues. There is much satisfaction when troubles are recognized and resolved, rather than recognized and ran away from. We must always remember to never let our church leadership be the “final authority”. There is only ONE KING.

  • Alan R Joiner June 11, 2014, 2:57 PM

    Michael, I’m all in. Let me know when and how I can buy the finished product. I’m a senior pastor. I know at least some of the trials, tragedies, and triumphs you must have experienced. I can only imagine both the devastation of the end, as well as probably a bit of the relief.

    I get the impression that your time as a pastor taught you to seek His presence and comfort in ways that you may otherwise not have. I know it’s that way for me. Sometimes I feel like the kid in school that the teacher gives extra homework just to keep their attention in class. I feel like the pastor that needs to be a pastor, or he’d get lazy.

    Anyway… Praying for you and yours. Thanks for the insight into some of your pain. I look forward to the completed book.


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