In 2008 I graduated from university. I had been living in North Philadelphia and had joined a church nearby. When the lease on my apartment ran out, I moved home and after getting my first “real” fulltime job I decided to stay in the area. I also decided to come back to (or stay at) MPC—the church I had attended since birth. This, however, was not a given for me.
During my time at university I spent time, lived, prayed and worshipped with people from a potpourri of church backgrounds. I also regularly attended two churches (one for a while and then the other) which, while both Presbyterian (both PCA if you’re keeping score), were a bit different than MPC (PCUSA). For these two things I am most thankful because when I returned home and worshipped at MPC everything in the worship service and life of the church had new meaning for me. Each prayer, each response, each, dare I say, “ritual” was purposeful and beautiful. Each corporate act focused my heart on a different aspect of my personal relationship with God. You might say I was “being fed”, but I prefer to say I was “feeding”— my heart developed much like an infant learns to feed; a loving mother is required, but the child must work at it.
But I still didn’t know if MPC was to be my church home. Is this where God wants me? I wondered.
In the meantime, I stuck around and engaged. My mind and heart often move slowly—it took till November 2010 for me to begin to make a decision. At that time I was serving on a search committee for an associate pastor and in a sermon recording from a candidate (actually it was the candidate) there was mention of a Benedictine vow: the vow of stability. I promptly did a Google search and came across a great paper on the subject by Gerald W. Schlabach. Schlabach explains:
“Benedict’s rule requires a ‘vow of stability’ — the uniquely Benedictine commitment to live in a particular monastic community for life. At first, this may seem to apply least of all amid other ways of life. Yet precisely because it contrasts so sharply with the fragility of most commitments in our hypermodern society, the Benedictine vow of stability may speak more directly to our age and churches than anything else in the Rule.”
Similarly to how we foolish postmodern, or “hypermodern” as Schlabach suggests, Christians have a tough time choosing a church home, monks also face a similar conundrum when choosing a monastery (though admittedly not many of us make a life commitment to a local church). When they take the vow of stability they are committing to stay at a monastery and committing to ignore the stray naggings of the heart that say “the grass is greener over there at that other monastery” or “you could go much further in your studies at the monkery across town”.
This was something that made sense to me—something I could get behind: being committed, staying planted and not coveting the life of another faith community. And so, I decided that short of an extenuating circumstance or big life change (getting a far away job and getting married were the two examples that came to mind), I was going to stay at and be committed to and invest in MPC. No divisive issue, no petty disagreements, no lure to a denser population of gorgeous single Christian ladies at the church next door, no conflicts or power struggles or disappointments were going to be reasons for me to abandon ship. I had found a body I was willing to commit to and that was that.
And like many vows or disciplines or covenants or commitments, this has been a tremendous source of freedom to me. I don’t have to worry every six months whether I’m going to stay or go. In the midst of transitions, while I have certainly had my opinions and dissentions, I can submit and recommit to the greater community life. Amidst times of struggle, it’s not that I don’t have a choice to stay or go—it’s that I have already made my choice ahead of time to stay.
No church is perfect. In fact, most can be pretty rotten upon occasion—myself included in saying rotten things and doing rotten deeds. But Jesus decided that even though it was going to be made up of a bunch of flawed people failing daily to follow Him, He was still going to make the church universal His bride.
Are there good reasons to leave a local church body? Of course, and I don’t want to minimize situations of abuse or endangerment (if you’re in an abusive situation—leave now!) or a dismissal of the core of the Gospel (no, your favourite hot button issue is probably not a part of the core), but most of us leave for much lesser reasons.
We are given only so much time to live our lives. From dust we come and to dust we return. So in between being dust, it seems to me to be a horrifying waste of time to deliberate over the lesser things when I can be feeding on the sweet nectar of the Gospel and making humble attempts at loving my neighbor.