by Barnabas Piper
I grew up in the church. No really, I grew up in the church. I am a PK and spent countless hours in church and doing church activities. I am a church native and familiar with all its quirks and cultural oddities, with all its strengths, and with all its failings. As the son of prominent evangelical pastor John Piper, I not only saw the inner workings of my own church, I was exposed to church leaders from around the world and saw the good and the bad from their churches too.
Many people like me, who grew up immersed in church, have given up on it. Church is archaic, domineering, impersonal, hypocritical, irrelevant, contentious, petty, boring and stale. It’s institutional instead of authentic and religious but not relational, they say. I have seen all this in church and can agree that each accusation is true in instances. A PK sees all this up close and far too personally and feels each fault even more intensely. It really is enough to make one want to bail on church.
And I had my chance. Despite growing up steeped in sound Bible teaching and a loving context, I grew up empty in my soul. I believed but didn’t fully believe. I obeyed but kept parts of my life for myself, bits of dishonesty and secrecy. I knew Jesus and knew He was the only way to be saved from my sin, but I didn’t give my life to Him. In the end, it blew up in my face and I was faced with the decision: stay in church and work through my mess or leave and be free. I stayed.
While leaving was an option, it was one that I looked at and saw emptiness. Sure, the church can cause a lot of pain and annoyance, but it’s where Jesus’ people are connected. And really, that’s what it is about—Jesus. That’s what made it so clear to me that staying was best.
The church is a messy place by nature. That’s what happens when a bunch of sinners come together anywhere. But it is a messy place designed by God to be his face to the World, and all those sinners reflect Him in unique ways. Nothing reflects God to the world like the church does. No, we don’t “do” church 100 percent correctly, and we never will. No, church is not a perfect place. Yes, church displays the sins of all its people very publicly. But none of that changes what it is or can be.
To leave the church is to hurt yourself and to hurt others. I don’t mean hurt like a slap in the face (though in some cases it’s a bit like that). I mean hurt like malnourishment. We were created by God to connect with others and, in that connection, reveal more of Him to each other and to the world. When we depart, we deprive ourselves of those aspects of God others reflect and we deprive them of those aspects we reflect. Leaving is starving our souls and others’.
Solitude is wonderful. But many things in life, maybe most things, are better enjoyed with others. Including God. That’s why we’re called to worship with others, to study with others, to pray with others. And church is the outlet for that, an imperfect outlet, but the outlet nonetheless. God wants us to experience Him to the fullest and that is done with others in song, in study, in reflection, in prayer, in tears, in confession in celebration—with others, doing church.
Leaving the church is escapism. You may find stresses relieved and conflicts avoided. It may feel like a breath of fresh air to leave behind traditional stuffiness and legalistic hypocrisy. Even now, I often want to slap the stupid out of the church. It can be such a maddening collection of people. (And I suspect I contribute to the stupid that needs slapping just as often.) But none of that changes what it is: the organism of God’s presence and kingdom in the world. It is His means of connecting people to the gospel, to hope, to life. No matter your frustrations and hurts, it cannot be abandoned. You need it now whether or not you know it, and someday you will have a need nothing and no one else can meet. And the church will be where Jesus shows himself to you.