No Perfect Church
The physical totality of my church is in the trash—chairs, cups, plates, and the half wall that divided the nursery from where the grade school kids colored during the sermon. My plate that I covered with chalkboard paint so I could advertise the coffee (French Vanilla! Hazelnut!) was also chucked into the trash, along with two boxes of Daily Breads, those little paper devotionals that manifest themselves in Protestant churches. No one ever took them except my three-year-old daughter.
She would grab two Daily Breads on her way out of the door, insisting that they were her story books. She would take them home and cover the pages with a palimpsest of scribbles. “Dis story is about a princess who dies,” she said. Every story was a story about a princess who dies.
In light of our church’s failure, her stories seem apocryphal. Our spiritual offspring, our church, is now dead.
Materials on church start-ups cite a failure rate between 70-80%. I’m not sure how this number was determined. I don’t know who keeps track of that or what the failure rate is for churches who start independently—without a denomination, without help. It must be abysmal. I know this, because that was us. We weren’t an offshoot of a bigger church; we had no denomination. It was just four families. Two pastors and their wives, who were tasked with preaching, music on Sundays, and organizing Bible studies. My husband and I managed the budget and the day-to-day needs like toilet paper and the copious amounts of coffee we drank on Sundays. The fourth family filled in where needed and managed our big events, like potlucks and outreach picnics. We had no outside help outside the piles of books and handouts we scraped together from the internet and Christian bookstores. After copious reading and planning, we staked our claim in the living room of a friend’s forest green, split-level home. Then, after a year, we leased a small building with drafty doors and cheap, maroon Berber carpet on the uneven floors. But after five years, we closed.
I’ve been reading advice on why churches fail, and it seems like we did everything wrong. We lost our vision. We had no accountability for our plans—so when our grand schemes of volunteering with after-school programs and hosting a free garage sale for residents in the neighborhood fell through, there was no one to ask why. We didn’t have a stable source of funding. Our power structure was never clear and because of that, one power-seeking personality, our lead pastor, hijacked our mission. He pushed away people who wanted to help because, in his words, “they wanted to tell us what to do.” No one spoke up because no one wanted to cause trouble. When this same pastor accused a woman of not understanding an issue related to our problems finding a worship leader because she was divorced and what did she know, his ad hominem attack was brushed under the rug by other leaders who encouraged her to “just forgive.” This happened over and over. Especially when the pastor lashed out with vicious emails at the people who questioned him. One of his plans was that we would “take over” a local Methodist church, by first holding Bible studies there and eventually taking over the whole building. How this was to happen was never made clear. When I questioned him, I was told I didn’t have faith, that I was speaking out of turn.
When finally, the church leadership did stand up and try to redirect our course, everything imploded. Am I being vague? Of course I am. Who wants to expose the people who meant the most to you for five years? Plus, even if I could point fingers, ultimately, we all sucked. This was our church, but we let one man run roughshod over all of us. We were passive. Instead of seeking action, we just prayed for resolution. When I pointed all of this out to my husband, he countered that if we had stood up to that pastor sooner, we would have failed sooner. Perhaps, or perhaps we would have had more energy and time and money to save what was left. Instead, all that is left now are a few trash bags in my car that I need to drop off at local non-profits. A woman’s shelter I volunteer for will get all of our napkins and paper plates and two bulk boxes of Bigelow tea.
At one of our last meetings as a church, I expressed my disappointment. One of our leaders shrugged and said, “There are no perfect churches, because there are no perfect people.” As if that could tidily sum up the tragedy of our collective failure. His response was a dismissive eye-roll to my faith, which at that moment lay beaten, bloodied, and robbed on the side of the road. We failed because we are human. Patch yourself up. Here is a tissue. Pray harder next time.
Since then, I’ve heard this phrase “There are no perfect churches” bandied about as a common response not only to the failure of my church, but the failure of all churches. Only a month after my church shut its doors, Mars Hill, the Seattle-based megachurch begun by Mark Driscoll, also closed down. At their peak, they had had a weekly attendance of 14,000 and several satellite campuses. You would think that kind of church could survive. But for Mars Hill, the trouble began when a radio host accused Mark Driscoll of plagiarism. Later, a Christian magazine revealed that Driscoll’s best-selling book Real Marriage was only a best-seller because the church had paid a consulting firm to boost the sales. Then came the revelations of misogynistic comments he made online. The swell against Driscoll gained momentum as people and fellow pastors came forward to reveal even more misogynistic and bullying behavior. The church tried to stay together, but in a statement on the church’s website, pastor Dave Bruskas announced that Mars Hill will be closed by January 1.
Our church also dealt with accusations of bullying and misogynistic behavior by a pastor. We too tried to hold it together, but we couldn’t. We shut up shop because we couldn’t make it without that pastor and his financial contributions, and because the wounds left in his wake were too deep. It’s the same for Mars Hill. I draw the parallel because in both a big church and a small church dismissing supporters, insulting women, and all in the name of God was brushed off as a mere flaw of imperfect people. And the more we excuse this behavior as just a “flaw” we need to “forgive,” the more we will perpetuate the problem.
The problem of misogyny doesn’t begin with my church or with Mars Hill, it is a systemic issue that I’ve witnessed my entire life. I grew up Evangelical. I have seven siblings and we were all home-schooled. For a long period of time we wore skirts, and my mom dabbled in head coverings. We weren’t balls-to-the-wall Duggar, but we were close. And I did my best. I prayed my prayers. Signed my purity pledge. Wore my ring. I went to Bible study and thought I would be a missionary. But I never belonged, not really. Simply because I was a girl.
Once, in response to my questions about a sermon, a pastor told me that “girls should just accept faith, not question it.” A youth group leader took me aside at a conference to tell me to have my opinions, but share them before God, not in church where other people could hear me. In high school, I found a youth pastor who encouraged my questions and my faith. But he was kicked out of the church for sleeping with one of the students. Not long after that, my parents caught me skipping school to play tennis. At a loss for my soul, and the clearly evil and rebellious path I was on, my parents sent me to a religious boot camp, who’s goal was to give Christian teens the tools they would need to fight the liberal influences of college and the outside world. The camp still exists, it’s called Worldview Academy. There, at camp, I was told I was like a wild horse that needed to be, tamed, broken and bridled.
And those are just the experiences that happened to me. A dear friend of mine was trapped in an abusive relationship for 15 years because her church told her she needed to stay married no matter what. She left the church when she divorced. Her abusive husband is still there.
To say that church exhausts me is like saying Rip Van Winkle had a little nap. It’s enervating to list out all the problems I’ve seen, and I’m not even telling the whole story here. Even after I left the Evangelical church and began to look for churches on my own, I saw many of the same problems.
When my husband and I banded together with our friends to start a church, we never expected church to be perfect. We were just tired of being wounded and told to forgive. Of being abandoned and told to love. I was tired of being hurt and ignored and told to come back next week for more. Perfection? No. All I wanted was respect.
And you know how that turned out.
In her biting satire of her father’s failed Utopia, “Transcendental Wild Oats” Louisa May Alcott, in a moment of grace, writes, “To live for one’s principles, at all costs, is a dangerous speculation; and the failure of an ideal, no matter how humane and noble, is harder for the world to forgive and forget than bank robbery or the grand swindles of corrupt politicians.”
My church was a failure of an ideal. But it wasn’t a failure because of the imperfect nature of humanity. It’s a careless kind of nihilism that excuses the baser nature of religious leaders as merely being “imperfect” and simply unavoidable. Many churches remain strong without being awful to women or safe havens for the power hungry. To brush off problems with churches as problems of the inherently flawed nature of people is to miss the bigger picture: that life and faith can function together in a place where all are welcome and respected.
Even as I throw away the detritus of our church, I love our bitter failure. Plastic forks (you can never have too many), expired creamers, empty plastic communion cups that rattle in the Ziploc bag and sound like something that should be crystal but falls short. You can love something and still throw it away.
I won’t accept what I’ve been given. I won’t accept that problems of misogyny most exists because of mere human imperfection. The reason I still cling to faith is that I believe in more. I believe in something else, something better, and that we should pursue it always.
I am not giving up on our hope that I can find a place to rest my weary faith. I am not looking for perfection. Perfection was never the point. The point was and always has been community. Where spirit and life commingle. Where I wrestle like Jacob with the angels. And so does everyone else. A place where we can belong. A place that accepts this wounded faith, and like the Samaritan, picks it up off the road, cleans it, heals it, feeds it. That’s not perfection. That’s just church.