I (Still) Believe in the Church

In 2016, I stepped into the pulpit of a church I had quickly fallen in love with. I had hopes, dreams, and visions for us—and so did many others. For many, it was a shift in trajectory for not just my denomination, but for evangelicals. A woman had stepped into the helm of a large and historic church where previously only men had led. At first, it was a dream. Maybe things were shifting in evangelicalism? Maybe misogyny was crumbling at last?

Within the first couple of weeks, hundreds left the church for various reasons, the main being that a woman was leading. Then began the very public campaign called “Save PazNaz” started by those who left. Their premise? Save the church from the woman pastor—the church has lost its favor because there is a woman at the helm.

I could go on about navigating the 2016 election, or pastoring through critical conversations on race, or my brushing against misogyny, or the idolatry of success, or neo-Christian Nationalism…and on and on. During that time, it wasn’t just within my local church that I bumped up against these issues; it was happening from coast to coast. And I would lament and bemoan this with other pastors around the country. What I learned was that the pain I was experiencing wasn’t about me, and it wasn’t just a local reality.

Something was amok.

At the same time, I could also write a million words about the beauty of the church. I could tell you about the ways the church held me through the pain, or about the ways the church opened her doors for immigrant children, or I could tell you about the times the church showed up and stood in solidarity with the mourning Black community after the shooting of another young Black male, or I could tell you all the ways the church fed hundreds of thousands of hungry bellies. I would certainly tell you that the church’s beauty far surpasses the pain she can cause.

Yes, something is amok…but something is also stunningly beautiful about the church. Something is amok, but something is also stunningly beautiful about the church. Click To Tweet

Hi, my name is Tara Beth Leach. I’m a millennial who has been hurt by the church. I’m also a pastor that loves the church, and this dual reality is what I write about in my book Radiant Church. As a child born into and pastoring in traditionally-white evangelical spaces, I wrote this book as one of lament, confession, truth-telling, and also hopefulness.

Many of my friends have by now walked away from historically-evangelical churches. I don’t blame them, but I’ve observed many in the church blame them. I’ve watched many in the church blame culture and engage in culture wars. Instead of looking at the mess in our own house and asking how we’ve participated in harming our neighbor, we’ve pointed the finger outward and called it “persecution against Christians.” Instead of doing the work of examen, we’ve declared war on the very people we’ve been called to love. I can’t blame my friends for walking away from the church. I blame us.

So why do I stay?

To stay is hard. To stay means more hard conversations. To stay certainly feels vulnerable. But I stay because I believe Jesus. I believe Jesus when he says, “The gates of hell will not prevail…” (Mt 16:18). I stay because when Jesus preached about the radiant kingdom community in the Sermon on the Mount, I think he believed we would taste and experience that kind of beautiful community on earth as it is in heaven.

I stay because when I read about the resurrected community in Revelation 21, I not only believe it is possible one future day, but I believe we can taste it today.

I stay because Jesus laid his very life down for the vision of a holy us.

I stay because I not only believe Jesus, but I believe that Jesus believes in us. I stay in the church because I not only believe Jesus, but I believe that Jesus believes in us. Click To Tweet

C.S. Lewis once wrote in The Four Loves:

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one…Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.

If Jesus believed the church is something worth giving his life to—as vulnerably and courageously as he did—then so do I. Now, I’m certainly not condoning anyone ever stay in an abusive or toxic situation—certainly, those situations require a speedy exit and justice. What I am talking about is for those who have either been put off by the church or to those who see no problem in the church.

To those who have been put off: let us stay in the conversation and participate in the revelation of the Spirit by pulling open the curtains in love. Let us look to the teachings of Jesus on his vision for the people of God and then cry out, “I believe Lord, help my unbelief!” Let us keep showing up in spaces with the hurting, marginalized, hungry, imprisoned, immigrant, widow, and orphan, and let us do it in the radiant name and love of Jesus.

To those who see no problem in the church: let us pray the deep, slow, hard prayer of examen:

Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.

—Ps 139:23-24

Let us put down the defenses and lay down our swords of correctness. Let us flee from the narrative of individualism, that my faith is all about me. Let us stand up from the altars of success to which we’ve bowed down, and let us flee from the idolatries of success, partisan politics, and nationalism. Let us confess that Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not, and as we do, may we fall to our knees and lament.

May our laments turn into confessions.

May our confessions turn into repentance.

May our repentance turn into reconciliation.

May our reconciliation turn into healing.

May our healing turn into revival. And may our revival turn into a born-again, Spirit-filled, radiant church.

Let it be so, Lord.

We invite you to a free event, Restoring the Credibility of our Witness, on Tuesday, February 16th at 7 p.m. CST, featuring Tara Beth and friends in an evening of conversation, confession, and prayer about the future of the church. For more information and to register, click here.

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