Asher Witmer

rediscovering Jesus

What Are We Looking For? in search of something we are not getting where we are

If I were to ask you what you are looking for in a church, would you know? If I were to ask you what you value, could you put words to it?

aw_looking

alebloshka/Depositphotos.com

Many of us could probably come up with a few things like community, life, faithfulness to God’s Word, family, peace-making, brotherhood, and many other things. But those are all actually really vague. None of them differentiate one church from another.

*This is Part 4 of a 5-Part series of posts called, “What’s the Big Deal about Being Mennonite?” If you’re just now joining, catch up with Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

Mennonites value family; Mormons do too. Everyone values community, especially Mennonites. Yet, would that be a reason one might leave the Mennonite church (or whatever Anabaptist church you are a part of)?

What do we mean by “faithfulness to God’s Word,” “peace-making” or “brotherhood”? I’m not sure we really know.

To begin this post, I am proposing these are not the defining things we are actually looking for in a church community.

 

Now, stay with me as I seek to fillet through peripheral issues and identify what we’re actually after.

An example of a value, in my opinion, is taking the Bible literally. If my values have not changed when I leave one church for another, then am I still taking the Bible literally? And if I am still taking the Bible literally, why would I let go of something taught in the Bible, such as the head veiling. The head veiling is more clearly taught in Scripture than the Trinity. But all orthodox Christendom accepts the Trinity while some reject the head veiling. If I really value taking the Bible literally, why would I let go of this?

If when I chose to follow Christ I chose to enter into community with this particular church group, but then I got confused and disgruntled and decided to leave, something changed. I could have plugged into any church community when I first came to the Lord, but I chose this one. Now I’m not choosing this one. Something has indeed changed. Something about what I hold dear and important has at least shifted. That is why I am now leaving.

I’m not saying this is wrong. I’m simply saying, from my understanding, it was a free choice to choose which church community to be a part of. And it’s totally understandable that one may discover later in life that the community is different than what he thought it was. But what I’m trying to get at is heart honesty. Saying “my values haven’t changed” but then also declaring I am leaving something or changing churches or the way I do life, is indeed to say, “something has changed.”

So, let’s be honest about that.

 

Many of us wrestling through these questions are still under thirty years old. Which means that it has likely only been within the last five to eight years that we left home. Which then means figuring out what our values are in life, faith, family, church fellowship, and so forth, has been a relatively recent process.

I’m not sure it is so much that our values have or have not changed as it is that we have simply discovered our values are not the same as the church community we have been a part of. It is not so much a change, then, as it is a discovery. And discoveries usually result in a change.

And change is actually okay, as long as we’re honest about it.

 

But this leads me to a deeper question: if indeed I discover a great chasm of difference between my values and the values of my church community later in my adult life, on what basis did I choose my church in the first place?

Again, I’m not trying to dismiss the possibility of fluidity: what we thought we were joining may have changed and is no longer what we joined, or our perception of what we were joining may be different than reality. Or our church community may have gone a different direction, and we may have gone a different direction then where we started from, and all this is okay.

But it still signifies a change.

 

The very fact that one would tell someone “We are no longer Mennonite (or you fill in the blank),” and then turn around and say, “But our values haven’t changed,” presents a dichotomy. If their values didn’t change, why are they leaving?

I ask all of this not to place judgment or condemnation on anyone. Rather, I am deeply convinced that unless we are honest with what we are looking for (and what we’re experiencing) we will not find what we are looking for. We may find something different, and it may feel better. But when it comes to walking with God, the best, to me, would be walking more closely with God through His Spirit and more faithfully to His Word.

That’s what I am assuming we are all looking for, and I am suggesting that we will not get it if we cover our hearts in language that isn’t honest to what we’re wrestling with.

You see, I’m not sure we are necessarily making decisions based on what is most biblical when it comes to leaving a church.

 

Most of us who have grown up in Christian homes did not choose our church based on values. Some of us may have not even chosen Christ because of a sincere recognition that we need a Savior. I’m afraid it was, instead, a decision between whether we would accept and embrace the community and faith our parents hold to. There was little (maybe no) thought to what Jesus set forth when He came to earth. We didn’t wrestle through what Scripture says about church and community. Instead, we simply became a part of a community, and caught onto (whether through observation or direct teaching) what this community believes and stands for.

And I’m not sure any of this is wrong.

But unless at some point parents walk with their children (or pastors with their adult members) and wrestle as honestly with Scripture as possible, seeking to understand it with the best interpretation as possible, the inherited community simply becomes a club. It is not a fellowship centered around the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And when children in the church become adults in the church, when new believers become mature believers, and realize that’s all the community is and they want something else, they will inevitably step away.

Essentially, what I am suggesting is that our decision for which church we attend is primarily cultural.

 

I’m not saying a person cannot develop a deeper foundation for his decision. I’m simply saying that even with a deeper foundation, the decision is still primarily cultural.

We are looking for an environment that gives us something, and if we’re not finding it in the Mennonite church (or Baptist or Pentecostal or whatever) we begin looking for it somewhere else.

Furthermore, we interpret the Bible through cultural lenses. Some use this fact as evidence of a faulty interpretation. But it’s true of everyone. We always interpret a piece of writing through our framework for viewing life.

So, when someone leaves one church for another and changes something we think is biblical, his new culture has most likely provided a space for interpreting that passage differently.

 

One commenter on this series touched on it when he said,

For myself, unfortunately, the prayer veiling was one thing I really struggled with because I was so preconditioned to read that passage in a certain way. I ultimately decided that the things I valued in my new church were more important than that particular application. I had gotten the impression from my Mennonite background that the prayer veiling was this all important “make or break” issue, but I began to believe there were other things that were vastly more important. Mennonites would always resort to the argument that “no church is perfect” whenever you point out the inconsistency of a certain rule or practice–I had heard this more times than I can count. I figured that if my new church were inconsistent on only this one interpretation, I’d be fine with that, as they seemed to do so much better with actual heart and belief issues. Years later, I began to actually interpret that passage differently, so now I can see multiple legitimate interpretations.

Heart and belief issues. He was willing to accept a possible interpretive inconsistency in one area for the purpose of gaining life and clarity where it matters most.

At the surface, it could be said he was adapting a closer walk with God and becoming more faithful to His Word. But that’s debatable. And the fact that it’s debatable is part of the problem with spiritualizing our reasons for leaving.

At the heart, he was adapting a church culture that more effectively met emotional and spiritual needs.

 

Now, maybe you think I’m sounding contradictory. On one hand, I’m saying our goal should be being more faithful to God and His Word, while on the other hand I’m suggesting that’s a problematic reason for leaving a church. That really, why we leave is cultural.

I do believe our goal should be to be faithful to God and His Word. But I’m also concerned that many of us are using that as our reason for leaving when in actuality it’s not. I think we do that, in part, because we feel that unless our reason for leaving is to become more spiritual or more biblical, we don’t have a valid reason to leave.

But I do not believe becoming more biblical or spiritual is the only reason to leave a church community. I think our focus in the whole journey should be to walk more closely with Christ and be more faithful to His Word, but our journey may include multiple different church communities.

The pressure to spiritualize our reasons signifies, I believe, that our reason for being there in the first place was indeed cultural.

 

We were embracing the community and faith handed to us. So, to leave is personal, as if to say we are now rejecting what our parents or grandparents gave us.

Again, what I’m trying to get at is that there is a big difference between a statement of faith and practice and the environment the community that prescribes to that statement actually creates. While on paper, we may agree with and support and believe the statement of faith and practice is most biblical, the environment we discover later on may actually feel completely unbiblical to us.

And so, we leave.

Someone else I’ve been dialoguing with wondered if because the conservative Mennonite denomination has so strongly asserted its Biblical interpretation as the closest to Scripture, or the best, or in some cases the only interpretation, when someone leaves the Mennonite church they feel they had better be prepared with very strong arguments for leaving. So, they have to conjure up these incredibly strong and spiritual arguments for leaving and when they don’t end up being more spiritual after leaving, the Mennonite world scoffs and says, “see we told you so”—further alienating them.  He further wondered if the intellectual dishonesty of conjuring up these “strong and spiritual” arguments for leaving actually creates a lifestyle of dishonesty in a way which causes further spiritual un-health.  So sometimes the strong rejection Mennonites feel from people leaving the Mennonite world may be because the Mennonite world has been saying “we have the best handle on Scripture.”

Biblical interpretation is extremely dynamic.

 

Meaning, there are many different elements that go into understanding a passage. While all Bible scholars (and any literary scholar) knows there is always a best way to interpret something that is written, there are still often many possible accurate interpretations.

I began understanding this more fully as I wrote more publicly. I am absolutely astounded, sometimes, at what people think I said in an article. I thought it was as clear as day, but they took it totally differently. Why?

There are usually many reasons why. The most common reason is they don’t understand who I’m writing to. If they understood who I was writing to, what they thought said would probably seem a bit ridiculous. Furthermore, they are reading my writing through their own experiences and surroundings, which is often totally different than my experiences and surroundings. If they were in my shoes, what I said would make sense. If I was in their shoes, I would have said it differently.

Another reason is misunderstanding my motive for writing the article in the first place.

 

Some people assume a motive that is totally not my motive, so they conclude things about what I wrote that is an ocean away from what I was actually saying.

All of these things—who I’m writing to, the experiences I’m writing from, and my motive for writing—are elements that will not necessarily be clearly defined in a piece of writing. Sometimes they might be, but most often the context gives enough clues that it is simply unnecessary to define.

And the same is true with the writings of Scripture.

It’s not so much that people are “throwing out the Bible,” but that they have discovered things within their faith community that cause them to wonder if the way they interpreted the Bible is actually the best way to interpret it.

Which brings me back to the suggestion that we make church decisions based primarily on culture (or environment and atmosphere).

 

I think, for many of us, we’re simply looking for communities that live out the Gospel. It’s one thing to believe the Gospel and to know what the Gospel is. It is quite another to live it out in your relationships, your lifestyle, your work, your play, and  any area of life.

The Christian faith hinges on the Gospel, the fact that God pursues a broken creation, and that He has reconciled us through His Son. None of us deserve salvation. None of us deserve God’s favor. We are all damned for hell, for destruction, complete separation from our Father.

Except God did not hold it against us. Instead, He paid the penalty Himself. He graciously continues to pursue us as we wrestle with belief. While some of us waver between belief and unbelief, God gently stands by, walking patiently with us as we learn to trust.

But few communities in life actually create this kind of atmosphere.

 

Indeed, few Fathers father the same way God does. This is very current for me personally, as I tend to be a domineering, drill-sergeant sort of Dad. “My way or the highway!”

But it’s not what I see in Scripture. It’s not the way I have been fathered by God. And this grieves me. I pray daily to more accurately lead my family in the way of the Gospel.

I’m not suggesting taking on a permissive approach to parenting. In fact, I believe that is as flawed of a demonstration of the Gospel as a domineering approach is.

Most Christian communities live as if we’re all on a sinking ship and there is only one lifeboat. We’re busy trying to prove to each other why we deserve to make the lifeboat. We’re busy pointing out how we are better than the others, how they shouldn’t be trusted or listened to because they have these particular flaws.

But when Jesus came, He totally eradicated the idea of a lifeboat. The faithful son and the frivolous rebel are given the inheritance of being with the Father no matter what their tract record.

That doesn’t mean obedience doesn’t matter; it means it’s not a prerequisite for being accepted and loved.

 

(But even what we believe we need to be “obedient” to is dependent on our interpretation of Scripture.)

I could be wrong, but I think we’re all looking for a place to live the vibrant Holy Spirit life in a community of love and care. Some of us find it in the church we’ve grown up in; indeed, some find it in the Mennonite church.

Some of us don’t. In fact, some find our church community of origin to live out the exact opposite of the Gospel. There is no space for imperfection. No care for someone who can’t seem to get his act together. No trust for someone who questions whether the way we’ve always interpreted Scripture is really the best way to interpret it.

So, we go out looking for something we are not getting.

 

My prayer and desire is that in our search we are honest. Honest about what we’re frustrated with and discouraged by and honest about what we want. I pray, too, that we hold fast to God’s Word, walking in His Spirit, constantly trying to interpret It as best we can.

Because without His written Word, His Spirit, we will not find anything that meets what we’re really looking for.

Tomorrow, I’ll close out this series by getting fairly vulnerable with my own experience and a journey my wife and I are currently on. I’m going to share the direction I believe the church is moving toward, in America, and where I may or may not align with it.

Until then, share your thoughts in the comments below.

Access Exclusive Content
This content is for Patrons pledging $1 or more on Patreon

About Asher Witmer

I am a son of God, husband, father, and difference maker. I love helping people sort through hard questions they face and rediscover Jesus. I have written three eBooks dealing with church frustrations, and send out daily posts addressing faith, church and relationships.

  • Dennis

    Maybe the person, who feels it is the right decision to leave a conservative (Mennonite) setting, needs to understand that no amount of scriptural reasons will ever validate the change to the majority of people in the mennonite community they just left. When you leave the Mennonite name you are unequivocally WRONG to most of the community you grew up with, and it is best to accept this fact and not try to be the first person to prove everyone wrong. The path of proving you are right if followed long enough will end in being a bitter person.

  • Landon

    Great thoughts Asher (other than the trinity versus covering comment)! I think we’re fooling ourselves, as Mennonites, if we think that we have the monopoly on Biblical Interpretation. I think our tradition does most of the interpreting, some of which is good. Personally, I’ve found myself bothered by some of the sloppy exegesis and proof-texting that I hear in our communities. But, similar to what you mentioned, those who leave seldom do so because of a desire to be more faithful to God’s Word.

    This is hard stuff. I appreciate that you’re taking the time to work through it and share your thoughts with us.

  • Lowell Miller

    Thank you for sharing, there’s a lot of good food for thought. I would love to sit down with you sometime and have a one-on-one. 😁 be blessed

  • Mrs B

    Thank you for this. We are currently on a slow and excrutiatingly painful journey out of the conservative culture our parents handed to us, and I will say one thing I am learning is that things are not as they appear. I have repented much of my judgment of people who left before us, and realize a little better how misunderstood they must have felt. I think you have done a great job of describing what we’re all looking for, and it echoes our hearts’ cry. For me, it has required far more humility than I ever imagined, to leave and make changes without feeling like I had to have a strong scriptural argument for everything we were doing. We have found many dear Christian friends who are so busy loving God and loving their neighbors, they have neither time nor need to create convincing arguments to procure for themselves a superior position in the kingdom of God. That is how I want to learn to live.

  • Alaina Gingerich

    “I think we’re all looking for a place to live the vibrant Holy Spirit life in a community of love and care.” Yesssss!!!!!! And when it doesn’t “feel like the church we attend is just vibrant and overflowing,” I think too many people, myself included, take this frustration out on church standards.

  • Jeremiah

    Thank you beyond words.