The Birth Pains of the North American Church

It’s a painful time to be an evangelical Christian in North America.

Sometimes it might feel like it would be easier to just leave the Church, the faith or the country. For years I’ve felt the pain but I’m beginning to see it with new eyes.

I watched the healing begin as I read Barbara Brown Taylor’s distinction between pain and suffering. She says that, while Job has the pain of his actual situation, what was worse was the suffering of feeling forsaken. Our interpretation of pain as forsakenness is often worse than the actual situation that causes the pain.

What if the pain we’re experiencing personally is connected to the pain of the whole Church?

What if we’re not as alone as we feel? What if we're not as alone as we feel? Click To Tweet

What if, in some crazy way, the pain is a sign of hope?

A miraculous moment

These questions remained only interesting ideas to ponder until a life-changing moment made them all too real to me during Missio Alliance’s last biennial gathering in 2015, Being Truly Human. Let me share the story:

As I led a workshop on failure with my friend, J.R. Briggs, I noticed a young man in the room who was obviously uncomfortable. Afterwards Jared shared his story.

As the National Director for Church Development for the Free Methodist Church in Canada, he had just spent his sabbatical interviewing church planters. He despaired to find how many plants were struggling, how many had failed entirely.

Several planters had not only walked away from ministry but from faith. He shared his brokenness, his sense of failure, his concern for the future of the Church. He used the word “desperate.”

Feeling his pain and wanting to hear more I invited Jared to join me for a dinner with other pastors of the Ecclesia Network. During the entire dinner I could almost feel pain emanating from him so I finally leaned over and said, “Can I pray for you?” Others gathered around and, although we had just met, the room of 200 US church leaders was filled with compassion for our burdened brother.

As we prayed, I had a strange experience—a sensation of pain traveling from my hand laid on Jared’s shoulder, up my arm and released through the heavy tears that dropped from my face to the carpet. I sensed God asking “Will you let some of his pain be released through you?” and I knew it was pain that was passing through me and yet it wasn’t painful.

I found myself surprised to be weeping for this stranger but also knew they were not my tears. Maybe they weren’t even his?

Remembering that moment

Months later, Jared and I recalled that day. Today he describes it like this: “Something did happen in that prayer. Something unmistakable was released in me. The basic facts of my situation have not improved in any tangible way since then, but what has changed is my relationship to those facts. I no longer feel crushing despair.

“I feel desperation driven on by hope. That might seem like semantics but it’s a world of difference to me.” I no longer feel crushing despair. Click To Tweet

The pain wasn’t removed and yet the suffering was. For Jared, and for me. Because in his pain I saw my own pain.

In fact, throughout the entire Missio Alliance event, as heavy as our conversations were, I rejoiced to discover the pain was not my pain. For years I had been suffering privately and interpreted it as a sign that God had forgotten me.

It’s only natural that, during a generation of upheaval in the North American church, American Christians would feel pain. For Jared the pain grew from church plants floundering, the increasing challenges of ministry in a post-christian context. For me, the pain grows from opposition from Christian brothers and sisters, division among Christians because of theological differences, dwindling resources, exhaustion. I feel desperation driven on by hope. Click To Tweet

It’s undoubtedly a painful time to be an evangelical Christian in North America. But the suffering is being removed—which feels like healing—as I’m learning to look at the pain in two new ways:

1. This is not only my pain.

However you’re experiencing the pain of this moment in the life of the North American church, you bear it in common with thousands of other Christians as the Church wrestles through what it has been and what it will be.

But not only do we share this pain with each other, it’s not even our pain. This pain is His.

The Lord is downloading into each of us a tiny corner of His pain for His Church. When I feel this pain, and when I see God not fixing it, I often assume I care more than He does, that I have a better imagination than He has. But He is asking me, “Do you think you long more than I long? What if that pain you feel is only a tiny corner of my heart? What if I’m giving it to you not so that you will languish in despair, not even so that you will fix my Church in your own strength? What if I’m giving you a glimpse of my pain so that you will join me in my work?”

The suffering that I have experienced from interpreting the pain as forsakenness is healing as I see that the pain draws me into His very heart. The pain is not a sign that He has abandoned us but an intensely personal insight into how deeply He cares. Pain is not a sign that He has abandoned us. Click To Tweet

2. This is not death pain.

Usually pain is an indication something bad is happening, death is at the door. But there is one kind of pain that is hopeful.

What if this glimpse into God’s pain for all that is broken in His Church is also a glimpse into all He is making new? What if this is the pain of God birthing His Church anew? Birth pain is excruciating for a short time and then, as we behold a new creation, it all becomes clear. The pain is not pointless.

How are you feeling the pain of this moment in the life of the Church?
How is it an invitation to feel God’s pain and be part of all He’s making new?

Breathe with me through this pain with hope of all that is emerging.

If you are looking for a place and a people committed to exploring all this together, I hope you’ll consider joining me April 27-29 for Missio Alliance’s next biennial gathering. The theme this year is, Awakenings: The Mission of the Spirit as the Life of the Church. We can see and experience together what new kinds of healing and hope the Spirit of God might bring to us, his Church!

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