A Good Church Is Hard to Find

We all have our ideas of a dream church, but we also know that we’ll never really find it.

Joey Goodall / 12.20.21

From the moment the credits began rolling on the final episode of The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, I’ve been troubled by a single question: what happened next? Mars Hill was massively popular. When it all fell apart, the wreckage was vast and left so many people picking up the pieces. Where did they go? Almost overnight, thousands of people had to find somewhere else to attend church – if at all. Many of us leave churches under less explosive circumstances. Some of us have to move for employment opportunities, some of us leave for theological or doctrinal reasons (minor and major), some of us leave for a change in worship style, or to find a church that has a better youth program for our kids, and that’s only skimming the multitude of possible reasons.

When we’re the ones ultimately making the decision to leave, it can feel like an obvious and righteous choice (whether it really is or not), but it can also be painful and one of the hardest decisions we ever make. When the reason for leaving is beyond our control, whether it is a move for work, or the church dissolves, et cetera, we still feel grief over the loss, but the inevitably of it can help to ease the pain. Unfortunately, though, this doesn’t make the process of finding a new one any easier.

In either case, it can take years to find one and really get plugged-in, and sometimes as soon as we’re feeling settled, something happens to make us have to start all over again. And sometimes when we leave one church, it can snowball into leaving something larger: a denomination, or even the Christian faith entirely. Occasionally just for a time, but increasingly for much longer, and often enough, forever.

In the “Church” episode of The Brothers Zahl podcast, John Zahl said, “in almost every case I know of a person who doesn’t like church, or had a bad experience, it boils down to the word legalism … it (church) was a place where they felt judged … that is so often the undoing piece.” When I first heard this claim I was skeptical. I thought, yes that’s surely a major factor, but there must be other equivalent reasons. With time, though, I’ve come to think he’s right. My older definition of legalism was just too narrow. I equated it solely with salvation-earning works righteousness, as that was how it was explained to me as a teenager. But now, I see it any time politics gain too much traction, any time the horizontal gets emphasized over the vertical, and any time church becomes about what we do instead of what God’s done, even when it stops short of being said to have eternal consequences.

I’ve left churches because of theology, politics, relocation, and leadership power dynamics. Some reasons I stand by, some I’m less sure of in hindsight. Some departures felt important and justified, and some can probably be whittled down to my own self righteousness. My most painful church experiences didn’t leave me worried about my standing before God, and I count myself as lucky for that. But legalism is often subtler than that, slier, more artful. Sin would be a lot easier to avoid if it were always so conspicuous.

In college, I left the conservative evangelical churches I loved as a teen due to the disposition of leaders and concerns about the increasing alignment with politics over what I felt at the time were the main concerns of Christianity. I thought a smaller, slightly more liberal-leaning church would be the solution. But what might have been gained by way of political agreement eventually came at the expense of the gospel. I found myself in places where it didn’t matter what anyone believed, as long as we embraced Jesus as a role model, and I tried to be Christ-like. This was legalism by a different name, a law completely divorced from gospel. These churches had their positive sides, of course: some lovely people, some beautiful spaces, some smaller ministries within them that did truly good work, etc., But in the end, the law reigned, and if the gospel isn’t preached to revive us, we’ll eventually find ourselves dead in our despair.

We all have our ideas of a dream church, but we also know that we’ll never really find it. What we have to decide is which parts of the dream are worth holding out for. It’s easy enough to judge someone for leaving a church for reasons we could write off as unimportant. It’s easy enough to think that a well-run youth program is nice, but ultimately inessential. Anyone who’s tried to get a couple of reluctant kids ready and out the door before ten a.m. on one of the only days they don’t already have to, to go somewhere they don’t want to go, knows it is not easy. If you’re already barely hanging on, and starving for even just an hour each week where you can bring your grief and be presented with something other than “do more, be better,” anything to get the kids out the door without a knock-down, drag-out fight is not negligible. This holds true to many other reasons that, in the abstract, may seem nit-picky, but in practice can determine whether a person goes to church at all. 

A good church is hard to find — you might even say impossible. God, on the other hand, isn’t so difficult. The perfect church might not exist, but God is far more than his imperfect followers — far better than wherever we might end up on Sunday mornings. Each time we move churches there will be positives and negatives, leaving us with both new possibilities and loss. But we can take comfort in knowing that God uses all of our steps and missteps to get us exactly where He wants us to be.

subscribe to the Mockingbird newsletter


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *