People often reach out to tell us that they lean on our podcasts, sermons, and articles in lieu of church. While there’s something undeniably encouraging about the gratitude being expressed, at the same time it always makes my heart ache. I worry about who will bring them a casserole when their mother dies. I worry they will miss out on the experience of being with people they find mildly (or very) annoying but who God loves anyway. I worry because church is truly the last place where old and young people come together every week. And we really need each other.

That said, I want to fully acknowledge that there are some awful churches out there.

I have friends who grew up in religious schools who tell me they do not go to church now because they have already “put their time in.” The same goes for those who grew up in that ilk of Protestantism which demands attendance on Sunday nights, Wednesday nights, Thursday nights, and, of course, Sunday morning. Legalism–and missing really good television–have made them church-avoidant as adults. Worse still, there are those individuals who have been made to “confess their sins” in front of an entire congregation, only to be ostracized rather than comforted or absolved.

So I’ve heard too many heartbreaking stories not to empathize with those who’ve given up on the whole Sunday thing, for whom the word ‘church’ itself is just too painful. And yet, grateful as I am for the work we get to do, I still yearn for people to find an in-person church.

In that spirit, I thought I’d offer some advice about how to find a church that works for you.

Images © Chris Arnade, “Dignity.” Sentinel, 2019.

For starters, please feel free to ignore sermons that make you feel burdened or overwhelmed. Preachers are just people trying to explain the unexplainable. Some weeks we can connect the Gospel to the profound trials of your life, and some weeks you would be spiritually better off transcribing your Aunt Olga Jean’s recipe for pineapple salad. I feel like this goes without saying, but do not hang your salvation on the sermon. That’s a lot to put on the preacher.

Liturgical churches are wonderful for this very reason. Someone can get up and tell me that I need to solve the healthcare crisis by Wednesday in the name of the Risen Lord. But that same well-meaning fool will also get up and speak the words of the Eucharist:

He stretched out his arms upon the cross, and offered himself, in obedience to your will, a perfect sacrifice for the whole world.

And I can find my rest there.

But also, I would suggest that you think more broadly than this. You might try churches where the people do not look like you or think like you or vote the same way you vote. Not because you are benevolently woke. But because they might be speaking about mercy and Jesus in a way that you simply will not hear in your comfort-level denomination. If you grew up in a church that might as well have been called St. Vain of the Beautiful, then cross the tracks and find a church there. Or go to the church that rents out a bar for Sunday morning worship. If you grew up worshiping in a giant dark room with lights and a smoke machine, then google “cathedral,” show up, and see what the Lord has in mind for you.

Perhaps the most daring bit of advice, though, would be to advocate for just staying in whatever church is driving you crazy. Because, in many cases, they already know and love you. And that actually counts for a great deal.

My grandmother faithfully attended her tiny First Baptist Church in the Mississippi Delta for a literal lifetime. She endured many, many bad sermons. I attended worship with her as a child and heard the preacher explaining how bad hell was going to be. He gestured his pointer finger to us and said, “Now I dunno how many of y’all don burnt yer hand on an oven. But I have! And it is hot! And hell is hotter!”

My grandmother, who had a master’s degree in education, sat through sermon after sermon offered by loud men with nary a high school degree attached to their names. I marvel. But that was her community. Those were the people who had seen her through the births of four children and a terrifying healthcare crisis for the baby. They had seen her through an alcoholic husband and his subsequent early death. It mattered not one iota how abysmal and legalistic the preaching was, Memaw was likely not there for that anyway.

What I am trying to say here is that you need a church, whether you know it now or not. God loves you, and we love you, and it would be wonderful if you could find someone to show up at your hospital bed in person when whatever inevitable diagnosis comes your way. Or when your husband leaves you. Or when your kid stops speaking to you. Please find a church. These are things they can handle.

If you are a pastor or in ministry somehow, I would like to offer a word for you, too.

I want to advocate for preaching grace. Because ultimately, people reach out to me/us because their local churches refuse to preach the forgiveness of God in its entirety. And that makes me sadder than anything else.

Images © Chris Arnade, “Dignity.” Sentinel, 2019.

I have heard preachers feel the need to offer grace one week and a good solid “challenge” the next. This is confusing for your people. You sound like you are doing a good cop/bad cop routine for Jesus. He has not asked you to do that. He has asked you to point to Him and to herald that the captives have been set free.

I have also been told that some of you preachers keep telling people that they need to be getting better or making the world better. Please stop that. Everyone knows that they need to be better and that the world needs to be better. I do not know if you’ve read the news lately, but it is not working. You sound utterly out of touch with the reality of the world and the reality of sin.

I apologize for the harshness of my rhetoric. I know how hard the relentless expectation of preaching is. But if the headlines about plummeting church attendance are telling us anything, it is that the pulpit has nothing to offer that NPR and a self-help book cannot already manage from the comfort of a warm bed.

So I want to suggest that for three months you do something entirely different: preach grace without hesitation.

You will not stand in the pulpit and tell people what to do, you will not burden them with another worry (they have a boatload already, and in your pastoral care, surely you know this), and you will definitely not tell people that the Gospel is to love the Lord your God with all your heart and to love your neighbor as yourself. That friends, sweet and holy as it is, is the Law. It is the ultimate commandment. And if you have been preaching it for a few decades and have noticed that the world is still a pretty tough place for people, then try something else for a season.

The Gospel is that Jesus came into the world to save sinners, like you and me. This is a message that actually changes hearts. I promise. And since we are still not going to tell people what to do, then God gets to decide how these redeemed people respond. Remember, do not tell people what to do, just tell them who saved them.

I once served at a church with a regular Wednesday 7 am service. And there were a few dear souls who would show up every single week. One such morning after worship, an elderly man, one of our regulars, walked up to me and said, “I want you to know that your preaching is such a relief to me. I grew up with so much guilt and worry. I always felt worse after church. When you preach, I feel like Jesus loves me. Like I might be free.”

On an almost weekly basis, I get emails from people who are desperately trying to find a church where they can hear the consolation and relief of Jesus. I do Internet searches for your churches. I send these people to you. And I hope and I pray that you will offer them a word of grace and mercy. Because they are struggling with a world that feels like it is on fire and with their hearts that feel ablaze with pain. They are desperate for something beyond what this broken place can offer.

Preach grace for them.