Why I Stay
There are days when I wonder why I’m still in the Church. Days when I am so jaded by the politics and hypocrisy and scandals that too often haunt our Christian communities that I wonder if there is anything left of the Church worth staying for. Is there anything left for my children to learn, to experience of the Divine? Is there anything left of God?
That’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it? Is God still here in this messy, shrinking, divided institution we call Church?
On my worst days, I feel like the Church is just a shell of what it once was. I fear that God has left the building, that God crawled out like a hermit crab in search of a better home, leaving behind a chipped fragment of a once-glorious dwelling place. And if indeed God has left, I reason, then I must, too. I must pack up my children and move out, searching for any remnant of God’s presence left elsewhere in this world.
I was having one of those days when I was stationed at the check-in table littered with Sharpies and peel-and-stick name-tags, welcoming guests as they arrived for dinner. My church was hosting a fellowship dinner and prayer service for the war in Ukraine, so the space was decorated in sunny yellows and royal blues. Pierogis were slowly boiling in the adjacent kitchen alongside pots of cabbage and potatoes. Sitting next to me was my kindergartener daughter who was so ecstatic about her newfound ability to read and write that she appointed herself to create name-tags for every person who joined us for dinner. All 51 of them.
“Will you make one for me?” My daughter nodded at Anne’s request, sticking out her tongue as she scrawled the A so large it almost filled the rectangular tag. Readjusting the size of her lettering, she fit in one N, then another N, and a tiny little E in the bottom corner. Anne beamed and proudly stuck it to her shirt.
“This man’s name is Bob,” I told her as broad-smiling, bald-headed Bob approached the table. She confidently spelled out a giant B-O- and, when she ran out of space again, squeezed a smaller, lower-case b into the frame, nodding in satisfaction that everything fit, that everything was (mostly) where it belonged.
One by one, they came—Claudia, Donna, Larry, Barbara, George—each genuinely delighted to receive a barely legible name-tag written by a beaming 6-year-old child, each accepting the imperfection of her offering with unadulterated pride.
And as my daughter sketched letter after letter upon those sticky tags, something tight eased in my jaded, weary chest. With each encouraging word and kind smile in her direction, I remembered why I bring my kids to church, why we can’t stay away, why this mystical, maddening, beautiful Body of Christ draws us in again and again and again.
With each passing moment, my heart gradually awakened to the playful swirl of the Spirit all around, uniting the messy, diverse, disparate people of this particular church into a community of love and hope and light.
But it was when Allen stood before my daughter at the check-in table that the moment shifted and became spiritually charged, palpably sacred, as if God was saying, Pay attention, Laura.
My daughter couldn’t figure out where to fit the N after the large and loopy A-L-L-and-E. She was tired from writing 30-something name-tags, and I was about to call it quits on her behalf when Allen saw what I missed: the determination and pride on her face. With a smile, he coached and encouraged and praised her for the heart of service she so enthusiastically offered. With a deep breath, my daughter squeezed in that final N and grinned so broadly my breath hitched.
And that’s when everything paused. Time stood strangely still. My heart reveled in a sacred sense of rightness and I caught a glimpse—a tantalizing, momentary glimpse—of the Church in all its glory, of God unveiled in its midst.
I saw that the Church isn’t an empty shell. It isn’t a shell at all.
The Church is a scribbled name tag, a jumble of letters, delightful in its imperfect perfection, bearing the barely legible name “Beloved.” It is an earnest girl, determined to get everyone’s name right, to make every letter fit because every single one belongs. It is an accomplished man pausing to cherish a small labor of love, knowing it is not small to the laboring child, knowing that to love the least is to love the Lord.
And there, in the center of that mystical moment, was God. In the Sharpie ink and the smell of cabbage, in the imperfect letters and crooked smiles, in the child’s determination and the Church’s embrace. There was God, in the same belonging and seeing and welcome that surrounded Jesus everywhere he went.
The sight took my breath away.
Then in a heartbeat, the moment passed, time rushed in with a glowing swirl of warmth, and all that remained of this transcendent experience was the echo of my stunned soul: This. This. This.
This moment, this child, these people, this grace. This God who lives in the determination of my girl, who makes space for all the imperfect characters that are the Church, who doesn’t forsake us when we come close to ruining it entirely. This God who stays even when we long to leave. The question—Why am I still in the Church?—faded from my heart while I hugged my daughter and Allen walked away, shining like the ink still drying on his final N, shining like Moses after standing before the glory of God. This.
This is why I stay.
Laura Johnson is a pastor, mother, wife, friend, and writer, though not always in that order. An ordained United Methodist pastor serving the Raleigh, NC area, she loves inspiring people to connect with God in their everyday lives through her preaching, teaching, and writing. She cherishes time with her pastor husband and their two daughters, who regularly give her glimpses of the Kingdom of God. You can find her writing online at revlaurajohnson.com or on social media @revlaurajohnson.
To reflect more on the Scripture shared above, see Exodus 34:29.
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My heart is now full. Thank you!
We are incredibly lucky to have Laura as one of our pastors and even more lucky to count her family as our church family. Those two girls shine God’s love like a beacon on a hill – all four of them are some of my favorite people.
Hi, loved this article. I believe all christians sometimes feel this way, regardless of denomination. The church is a building. The people, Gods children, is the church. This is where love resides.