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  • S Oliver

Unchurched and Unchained


My struggle with church began years ago. Somehow, I was always able to quell the quaking in my soul by staying in my comfort zone. I stayed with a sigh, side-eye, and smirk, but I stayed. I would assure myself that doing “the work” was enough. I vacillated between traditional expectations and the weight of becoming an outlier. “God has prepared the way before you. Do not be afraid to launch into the deep”, I wrote in my journal one February. By May, my journal entry was a cry of desperation. “This struggle with church and ministry is unbearable. I feel smothered in church and full of meaningless busyness… I do not want to die with my work undone. I guess that means I must get to work. With or without the church behind me”.

My attendance began to wane but by mid-summer, I toyed again with the idea of staying in the place God was nudging me out of. There is simply something comforting in belonging. Besides the well of my heart is filled with love for the church and all she stands for. I love God, the fellowship of believers and connecting with like-minded people. But sadly, the church I had known and loved all my life was lacking. It did not matter where I went to worship. It was not about worship style, denomination or the personality leading the church. No matter where I went, I found the worship experience stale or unpleasantly entertaining. The preaching was powerless and unconvincing. Teaching left me unchallenged and beloved community was absent. The music was great in most places! Yet, I missed having an anchor. I longed for a church to call my own. I was wandering. Each Sunday a different place of worship. My heart wanted a home. The uncertainty of not belonging was overwhelming. What if something happened? Who would I call? Where would my family gather for the funeral? These were genuine concerns, but that uncertainty did not conquer the need to be free from the bondage I was in.

I knew God was calling me out of the religious structure I was so familiar with. I could not continue to justify supporting systems that are sustained by the labor and finances of women who have no places at the decision-making table. Women whose voices are silenced and who are left discouraged by the preaching and teaching of a poorly interpreted gospel. I could not. But I still found myself trying to shrink and shrivel into spaces that I had out-grown long ago. One day I had a flash of insight and I decided that I could not attach myself those places any longer. I would not allow anyone to exploit my gifts and silence my voice. I decided that I did not need leaders who wanted to use my talents and abilities in the service of their visions, but not empower me to use the gifts and vision God gave me. I decided that if I could not find the space that nurtured my spirit and honored my gifts, I would create the space I so desperately needed.

What I found was I didn’t have to create anything. What I needed, I already had. What had been nurturing and sustaining my spirit for years already was gathering with other Jesus loving folks around kitchen tables and in coffee houses. Sharing a meal, sharing in prayer, studying, and expounding on the Word. Having the safety of being transparent in our struggles. A common sharing of our walks. Our faith, failures, and fears. Our misadventures, mediocrity, and merriment. What I found was that I did not need an organization called church to be church. I did not need an organization called church to have church. All of this, I already have and for right now, it is good. It is very good.

It was good, too, when I realized that Jesus also had a habit of connecting with people at tables. Whether sharing a meal or turning over tables in the temple, He imparted lessons of the kingdom while serving up large doses of love and compassion. He didn’t discriminate. One of the accusations against Him was that He ate with sinners. But truth is Jesus ate with his friends and his enemies. He ate with misfits and outliers. He never had a “members only” club because the story of God’s love and salvation knows no bounds. No one had to come in to receive it, He stepped out to share it. So, I think I’m in good company, don’t you? I am feasting at the table with friends and strangers. In my own way, I’m a table turner. I am unchurched and unchained. For where can I go from His Spirit? Where can I flee from His presence?

“For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.” (Matthew 18:20)

And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Hebrews 10:24-25)

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