Every other Sunday, a friend of mine and I have coffee together and talk about whatever. Some of what we discuss is religion (his beliefs are close but not exactly the same as mine), but we talk about everything else under the sun, too. So, as he reminded me, we can’t strictly define our conversations as “fellowship” in the Christian (or Messianic) sense.
And that concerns him.
Many of you know that after a two-year experiment in attending a local church, I found it necessary to leave church again. For sometime now, I’ve pondered joining some sort of virtual religious community via the Internet, but I know that virtual relationships can’t take the place of face-to-face connection and communication with human beings. It’s just not fellowship in the truly realized sense of a community of faith.
A few weeks ago, out of the blue, my wife (who is Jewish, not Messianic, and who does have community) asked if I missed having a congregation to go to (and I am pleased that she seems to be making attending services at Chabad on Shabbat a regular thing). I have no idea what brought that comment up, but I played it off like it wasn’t an issue. Most of the time it’s not, at least consciously, and I relegate the idea to some dark closet in the back of my mind. But then Sunday before last, my friend challenged me over coffee.
He really, really thinks I should be in religious community. He isn’t the only one. I receive emails occasionally from people who believe I should not set aside fellowship indefinitely. In principle, I agree, but as a matter of practicality, I have nowhere to turn for two basic reasons:
- I have no idea how to go “church shopping” and the very idea of randomly visiting churches in my area hoping to get lucky and find a theological match is not even slightly attractive.
- The effect of my going to church has on my wife.
I sometimes receive what I feel are mixed signals from her. I know that she believes I should be in community too, but she’s already embarrassed by having a Christian husband, and my being in Christian community only makes it worse. I used to struggle within myself every Sunday morning as I got ready to leave for church while she was staying at home and being uncomfortable with the thought of my going (not that she’d say anything about it, of course).
And the one time I went to Easter services just about crushed her. I could see it on her face, in her eyes, as I walked out the door. I guess it would do that to any Jewish wife of a Christian husband.
I’m not doing that to her again.
Which led me to download a book (it was a special deal from Amazon so I got it for free) called Loving God When You Don’t Love The Church by Chris Jackson. Jackson is a Pastor who uses his book as a forum to talk about how damaging church experience can be to some people (including him), and damaging to the degree that people don’t (necessarily) leave the faith, but they do leave their churches in droves.
I can relate.
But I don’t relate to most of the reasons these people are leaving. I wasn’t kicked out, scorned, called a “sinner” or “demonic” or anything like that. The Pastor, who I had become friends with and who knew exactly what my doctrinal position on the Bible was (and is), directly contradicted everything I believe and called a Messianic faith a “misuse of the Law“.
He had to have known how I’d feel listening to his sermon.
(I should note at this point that I have no ill feelings for the Pastor, leadership, or members of the church I used to attend. I met many genuinely kind and caring people, all of whom were serving God and other people in their walk of faith with Christ. But in the end, I was an elephant in a roomful of gazelles. I was never going to fit in.)
I’m only about a quarter of the way through Pastor Jackson’s book, but it’s an easy read. At the end of each chapter there are study questions, so I guess the book can be used in small groups of people who have all felt alienated by their local churches (or “the Church” with a big “C”).
I guess I’m looking to see how others have responded to this situation and I’m finding that (of course) I’m not a typical Christian. It’s not just a matter of being burned by some snobby clique at one local church (although that also happened to me back when I first came to faith). If that were the case, I could just go to another church, since the theological dissonance between me and other Christians would be slight (if it existed at all since I’d be blissfully ignorant of everything I know now).
But standing on the foundation of the Jewish Bible and declaring myself a Messianic Gentile (in two parts), means that my theology and doctrine differs significantly from the vast majority of people you’ll find in most churches on any Sunday morning.
However, for lack of any other course of action for the reasons I specified above, I’m going to work my way through Pastor Jackson’s book and see if there’s anything he presents that I can somehow adapt. Jackson seems sincere, reasonably transparent, friendly, and approachable. But knowing myself as I do and getting a sense of who he is in his writing and on his blog, I suspect he’d drop me like a hot rock if we ever entered into conversation and I told him exactly what I believe about the New Covenant, the Bible in general, God’s promises to Israel, and the specific sort of “connectedness” we Gentiles have to all that through Messiah (Christ).
I suppose it’s not a coincidence that Derek Leman recently wrote a blog post called How to Read the Bible if You’re Not Jewish, highlighting the focus of scripture on national Israel and the Jewish people and not so much the rest of the world (that is, the goyim).
The uncomfortable truth of the Bible in general and my faith in particular is that I continue to find myself where I left off at the end of this missive. Both church and synagogue (and I would be fine with Jewish community if it could be with my wife) of any variety are out-of-bounds for me and as concerned as some people are for me because of that, I simply see no viable option.
I’m sorry to keep revisiting old ground. It’s not like I’m the only person without community. Both Gentiles and Jews find themselves in this situation as part of the consequence of being Messianic. I’ll keep reading Pastor Jackson’s book and post my thoughts about it here in the coming days, but this is as much in God’s hands as it is mine. I’m still trying to decide of He’s painting me into a corner or if I’m the one doing it.
Here’s the link to Part One of my book review.