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.