Leaving the Church


By Josh Ross

(This entry is re-posted from Scot McKnight's blog at patheos.com)

It has been said that Memphis has more church buildings than gas stations. You would want a city with so much religious influence to not have to face the past demons of Auction Street where over 1,000 slaves were sold per year, or the noticeable racial tension that still exists, or the reputation of being a crime-ridden city, or the place where Dr. King was assassinated.

But if you’re going to tell stories of Memphis churches fueling racism, protesting the Civil Rights Movement, or not engaging its people with compassion to restore dignity, you also have to tell other stories. It was the local church that cared for thousands of people who laid dying and sick from the Yellow Fever epidemic in 1878. There were numerous churches that did fight for civil rights. And today, churches are reaching into their communities and local schools to implement change, and to be the change.

So is this just my experience? How have you seen the local church act as a means of restoration?

I have a close friend in Memphis who has been the Chief Jailor of 201 Poplar (a infamous city jail) and the Director over the Penal Farm (a local penitentiary). Occasionally he goes before the County Commissioner to ask for grant money. Believe it or not, some of the very best rehab programs are in correctional facilities, and grant money often provides training and preparation to reengage into society. However, he is often denied grant money by the Commissioner, who says, “I’m not going to give you money for that. The church should be doing it.”

Where does he get this idea from? Whether he realizes it or not, the County Commissioner is making a pretty bold statement about the local church.

Some people are right; the church has made a mess of itself throughout the years. She has gotten off track. She has lost her way. But when it comes down to it, the church was God’s idea. And I think the powerful force of the local church still remains God’s idea.

Recently, I asked my friend, Kemmons Wilson Jr.—a native Memphian, the family behind the successful hotel chain Holiday Inn, and a passionate Jesus-follower in our city—about the influence the local church can have in a city. He told me, “The local church is one of the most critical components to any area or region.” And I think he’s right.

Scripture is pretty clear that God cares about cities. I think it’s one of the reasons Paul argued from baptism more than he argued for baptism. The water symbolized more than status change, but that they were now ushered into a movement that existed to spread restoration, redemption, and resurrection power.

When the local church is on, we bring entire communities to life. When the church is on, weekly worship gatherings are so much more than a destination or a place you go to balance out the sin in your life; it’s a the space where people are launched to live differently throughout the week.

A few years back, Barbara Brown Taylor challenged the church to do something different when celebrating the Lord’s Supper (Eucharist). Usually we take the bread and wine either facing the front of a church building or walking to the front. She encouraged the church to take a week to set up the elements outside on the sidewalk, and to take communion with your back to the facility and your face to the community. As the bread touches your fingers and the cup touches your lips, open your eyes to the community around you to be reminded of our mission and purpose.

The local church doesn’t just gather and we don’t just scatter. It’s a dance between the two. And when she is moving with this rhythm, she is a beautiful and powerful force in this world.

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1. k wilson wrote:
Thank you for this blog. I am a member of the church in Billings MT and just having a hard time with "church". I have been a Christ follower all my life. I'm a working wife and we have 3 boys. My husband hasn't gone to church in a few years. He is a believer but has his own issues with church. recently, last 6-8 months, I have been attending about once a month. I really don't know why my fire for going has fizzled . Can you please provide scriptures for church. I think my view of church has changed, I am discouraged. I am not blazing anyone, our minister , our shepherds. I know its me. I need to study this more. Thank you. K wilson

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