I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. ~ Ephesians 4:1-3
There’s been an article making its rounds on my Facebook wall about why certain people feel disenfranchised and are leaving the church. I don’t want to deal with the article itself, but I want to consider something in its background and I want to do it from the angle: what keeps me ‘in’ the church?
This may sound odd coming from a pastor who has been a part of various churches since nine months before I was born, but: staying engaged in church is not the easiest thing in the world. There have been times that I wanted to walk away, thinking I could do this better on my own—especially after an experience at one place I pastored that left me feeling chewed up, spit out, stepped on, bowled over, burnt up, and pierced through.
Part of the problem is that life is messy and sometimes Sunday gatherings seem so…sterilized.
I have not been kept in church by the sermons. Again, that might seem odd coming from someone who gives a sermon almost every week. Don’t get me wrong—I think it’s vital to have God’s word read, talked about, explained, applied, and all of that good stuff. But let’s be honest, only about a quarter of the population is drawn in by and learns from a lecture, and even then it takes a really, really good lecturer to keep the listener engaged. And that’s what most sermons tend to be and what most of us preachers tend not to be.
It’s not the music, either. Or the programs. Or the websites.
No, the thing that has kept me plugged in: people—the ones who get that life is messy and in that mess they have truly tasted the glorious grace found only in Jesus, the One who bears our mess and makes us clean. These are the people who see the priceless value of Jesus himself, and let him work through the mire and the struggle to bring something new. These are the people who want to know Jesus and grow in Jesus, and they’re willing to push others and to be pushed by others for the same.
Within church—both my own local church and my friends (truly, my brothers and sisters) in the church wider—I have found these people who try to fit into Ephesians 4:1-3.
Yes, they want to live a life that honors Jesus in all things, but they do this with humility because they remember from where they came and to where their heart is still prone to drift. They do it with gentleness towards each other, even though sometimes they have to speak strong words like a kick in the pants to get a point across to stubborn ears. They are patient with each other, knowing how slow growth into Jesus-likeness has been in their own lives; they bear up in love, knowing there are times that others might offend, just like there are times they have offended others; and they want, above all, to have that unity of family that only God’s Spirit can give.
But here’s the thing with this: these relationships just don’t happen. Maybe they should. Church is to be a family—there is to be a genuineness, an openness, a love, a care, a joy, and a concern that manifest themselves more naturally. But that’s rare. We have a thousand and one reasons (excuses) as to why we stay guarded from both sides.
So some show up, week in and week out, a sanitized grin forced across their lips and an everything is fine attitude when it’s not. And others grow tired of white-washed facades and walk away.
We have to work from both sides. Truth is, it would be a whole lot easier to disengage and go through the motions. It would be a whole lot easier to walk away and not look back. It would be a whole lot easier to be left alone and leave others alone. It would also deaden the heart.
The answer is to open up and reach out. We’re not going to find ourselves in true community with others that engages the heart unless first we’re longing for it. We have to be willing to put our own hearts, minds, and lives on the line. We have to be willing to let others in, to let them encourage and judge, to let them help us delight in the good but also challenge us in the bad.
By his grace to us and by his grace displayed in others, God meets us where we’re at and accepts us where we’re at but refuses to leave us where we’re at. Dealing with the mess is, well, messy; and God uses others to help poke and prod and clean out the crevasses, but we have to be willing to have it happen.
We also won’t find ourselves in true community unless we’re reaching out for others. Too often we wait for someone to grab our hand and lead us along. More often we need to grab someone else’s hand and say, “Come with me.”
It is here that we see community grow in Christ, that we truly find brothers and sisters—the very ones God has given us to help hold us in.
 This answer seeks to be secondary to “the grace of God producing a love for Jesus and his people,” by the way…