Prayer and Church Shopping
My wife, Jess, and I went out for a rare and simple date night that included a not so fancy dinner and grocery shopping… by ourselves. We had been married a little over two years and Landon, our first born, was 6 months old so this date night was much needed. However, it was not all about waffle sandwiches and coupon war. We had a big decision to make. Just hours before, I was called into my boss’ office where I was told that the company was not going in the upward trajectory that we had all worked hard for, but was diminishing and changing structurally to try and stay afloat. That meant I was getting laid off, with a few others, and I had 30 days to figure something out. I left work that day completely devastated, worried and uncertain of what would happen and what I could do to help keep our new family financially stable. I sent a text message to a few guys that had been friends and mentors to me in various ways and stages of life and I got a strange reply from one of them. He asked, “Would you be willing to move to Phoenix?” I thought there is no way we could pick up and go with a new baby and on top of that, Jess never lived outside of her mom’s house until we got married. Even then, we only lived up the street from her entire family. Every day was a literal scene out of Everybody Loves Raymond. But, we discussed it over dinner and decided to take the next three days to pray over it and see where God would lead us.
On a warm June day, we put a padlock on the door of a moving truck and started our trek to Goodyear, Arizona. We were excited and nervous for what new opportunities awaited us in a new job, new state, new everything. As we were settling into our new place and getting situated at a new job, the question eventually came up that I was dreading,
“Where do you want to go to church?”
I was not looking forward to “church shopping” because I was disconnected from the church. We walked into a church that seemed very familiar to the one we had been a part of for so long in California. Similar worship, kid’s ministry, café and a similar surface-level message that tried to appeal to an emotionally distraught congregation with a couple of verses that were taken out of context. Sounds a little crass right? That’s exactly how I felt. We went from church to church and I constantly found myself being judgmental and overly-critical of every aspect of each service. And it wasn’t long until Jess caught onto my frustration and it started to have a negative impact on our family.
One night, I was talking with my longtime friend, Rob, over the phone and after describing our arduous journey in finding a home church, he tells me very bluntly, “I hear nothing but whining and crying and blah, blah, blah. Jesus calls the Church His bride and continually sanctifies it. You need to go in a room by yourself and get on your face before God and pray”
That hit home. How did it get this way? How did I let pride and selfishness take the appearance of wisdom? Why did I have such a negative attitude towards the Church? More importantly, why am I leading my family down this destructive path?
Belief Based On Feelings
This attitude towards church was the culmination of a few things. First, when I was a freshman in college, I decided to start going back to church after a couple of years saturated in the world and sin. I had grown up in a “Christian” home and I missed that. I hit what I thought was the bottom and was an emotional wreck. I remember walking into the church I had grown up in and was immediately drawn in through worship and the message. I walked up front after the sermon for an alter call, prayed a prayer with a bunch of people and walked to a back room where someone told me that I was now saved. I was so wrapped up in the emotions of the night that I really didn’t know what was going on. That was the foundation of the next 2 years of my faith journey. Every week, I sought after the emotional feelings behind worship, messages and my own quiet times reading, praying and journaling. I would listen to popular Christian pastors, read extra-biblical literature, attend church conferences and I essentially regurgitated everything I heard or read and acted as though it was knowledge built on years of personal study in the Word. Soon after I learned to say and do all the right things, I began to lead others in ministry teams and small groups. I was so used to using my serving and status as a crutch to my faith and so used to striving for acceptance that I was not prepared for the storm ahead. Not only was a storm coming, but the house I built was sitting on the biggest pile of sand.
“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.” (Matthew 7:24-27 ESV)
Sin and Empty Relationships
Towards the 2 year mark of my journey, what was really going on in my heart was about to be revealed. And what God was about to do in my life was going to be hard but necessary. Jess and I had just engaged and everything was going well, I thought. However, because my faith thus far was built on emotions and not a true repentant relationship with God, I allowed to let habitual sin in my life over and over again. Jess and I had not been faithful in our relationship before marriage and I continued to cover up my sin with a fake, plastic, cookie-cutter type Christianity. When one of my roommates who happened to be a pastor at our church, called me out on my sin, the first thing I could do was try to lie my way out. When that didn’t work, I was told I was no longer allowed to serve at the church and the next day at a pre-service meeting with the leaders of the young adult ministry I was a part of, the same pastor brought up my situation and all of the shameful details that took place and that everyone should learn from my example of hiding sin when leading in ministry. When I heard this I became enraged, saddened and hurt. This was a guy that was a friend and mentor for a while. I understood that I needed to repent of my sin and go through a restoration process, but to blast that information like a trumpet for the whole church to hear completely destroyed me. Within a few weeks, we left that church once person after person that I once called brother and sister ignored us and walked away. When I should have turned towards God for forgiveness and let Him work in my heart to bring me to restoration, I focused on my anger towards the empty relationships which translated into anger towards the church as a gathering of believers. We eventually got caught up in the “church isn’t a building, we can do church by ourselves” thought. We isolated ourselves and built friendships with people who were also burned by the church in some way. That only fostered incorrect theology and unhealthy spirituality.
The Journey Since
What happened in the time since that conversation with Rob was a roller-coaster. I realized that I needed to sit down and shut up. I spent more time praying and digging into a systematic study of God’s Word. I surrounded myself with Godly men who had their own stories of brokenness that could hold me accountable and together, we could sharpen each other. I have never experienced the grace of God like this before, and it wasn’t based on emotions. It was built on the knowledge that I am a depraved and sinful man in need of salvation that comes by faith alone through grace alone and in Christ alone.
After being residents of Arizona for almost 2 years, we walked into Phoenix Bible Church on a weekend after Easter. Since then, we have been stretched in our faith and have grown in maturity. I have learned that I was completely wrong in the way I felt about the church despite the circumstances I used to justify them. I also realized that I had an incorrect understanding of how God had designed the church and what His purposes were for it. Most importantly, I have learned what it means to properly lead my wife and children closer to Jesus.
Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. (Ephesians 5:15-17 ESV)
That term “understand” literally means to set or bring together. Like building a puzzle. As a husband and father who is charged by God to build and maintain an environment of spiritual growth within our family, I have to ask if every area of our life is in line with God’s design.
We have faced new challenges in our life and by no means are things easier, and in fact in some ways they are harder than before. However, we are rejoicing in hope and learning patience through these challenges. We also have incredible people that we get to share life with every week through PBC.
During the dedication service of our baby girl Charlotte Grace, I shared the timeliness of her arrival to our family and how the meaning of her name carried significance to that time. I also read a passage from Romans which we constantly meditate on.
Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality. (Romans 12:9-13 ESV)
I know there are many people that walk into churches every week that have been either burned or let down. I can’t simply share our story and leave it at that. Here is my challenge: If you are the one that is going through a similar circumstance or has and not ever fully recovered, stop, get on your face and pray. Have you surrendered to the power of the Holy Spirit? Do you have a desire of God’s glorious design for His Church? Are you elevating the needs of others above your own? Men, are you elevating the needs of your family above yours? These are some questions I needed to face and likely you do, too.