How to Survive Church

I thought it was about time I wrote something for those of you out there who are “emerging” as new kinds of Christians even though you are not members of “emerging churches” as such; for those of you better classified as “emerging” mavericks within “established churches”.

The forgotten stories of the stayers

I think there are a lot of untold stories out there, stories full of pain and gritty determination, stories more people need to hear. In fact I know that’s the case because I’ve heard a number of such stories from some of you.

It has tended to be in private though. I am very conscious that although much has been written on emerging churches, and a moderate amount has been written on churchless Christians who forsake community altogether, very little has been written about those of you who don’t fit conventional church but choose, for whatever reason, to stay within it. I think a significant reason for this is that the emerging church conversation is heavily weighed towards Missional ecclesiology. We mavericks simply don’t have as much to offer in that area do we? Other than an ecclesiology of endurance! But for what that’s worth that’s just what I am going to offer now.

So why do you choose to stay?

  • I know some of you stay simply because you have no other option, other than going solo. It may simply be that no emerging churches are within a commutable distance, and for whatever reason you are not in a position to plant one yourself.
  • I know there are others who find even the most innovative emerging churches are still culturally alien, even when they are geographically accessible. I have seen this amongst many post-liberals and converts to Christianity. For you, difference between the established churches and the emerging churches might be a much of a muchness for the time being.
  • Then again, maybe you stay for the sake of those close to you, for partners or kids who would be just as alienated in emerging churches as you are in established churches. Maybe your partner is more conservative. Maybe the emerging churches within reach are all young singles focus and do not cater particularly well for young families. Even if your preference is for reflective worship and street mission, it could be your life stage just doesn’t allow for it without neglecting others who’re important to you.
  • Maybe you stay simply because you realize that if all the mavericks left the mainstream it would suck the lifeblood out of it all that much quicker. So you choose to stay out of a commitment to serving the whole body of Christ.

Irrespective of the reasons, you find yourself in a community where you experience little in the way of communitas, where it’s a struggle to belong. How to you survive? Or even thrive? Here are a few lessons I have learned over the years:

1.    Focus of Jesus. One of the ways people can really come unstuck (and I have seen it happen many times) is to invest too much in overly romantic visions of church. Then fall down when the church lets them down. Two things to remember here: firstly, you are the church as much as anyone else; and secondly, the church is not God, so don’t expect it to be. When this happens, take it as a wake up call that you have begun to idolize church, and repent, that is, re-orientate your focus back to where it should be, on Jesus.

2.    Practice Forgiveness. Don’t let anger descend into bitterness. That’s not to say anger is not legitimate at times, but be wary of sinning in that anger. Remember that Jesus calls us to love our enemies – even when they’re family. Remember also that you are not perfect either so if you condemn them for imperfection you condemn yourself.

3.    Critique constructively. There is a place for critique. Just make sure it is constructive, that is, loving, and seeks the best for everyone.

4.    Choose your battles wisely. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Get perspective. I personally invest very little energy in encouraging established churches to shift their worship styles, even when I find running fingers down blackboards more pleasant. There are bigger issues at stake in this day and age.

5.    Choose your timing.
Similar to the last point, there are times to get fired up and times to just let things slide to more opportune times. Wait for God’s timing and don’t bang your head to hard on brick walls in the interim. Save you noggin for when it counts.

6.    Give credit where it is due.
Look, not everything about established churches is bad. Constantine is not responsible for all the disasters in world history. Give the establishment some space to sharpen you.

7.    Contextualize Christianity for yourself. You may have little scope to practice more culturally sensitive forms of Christianity in church services but who said it was all about church services anyway? It is important to remember that personal worship is featured in the Bible alongside corporate worship. Explore ways of contextualizing Christianity for yourself. But do note what I have previously said on the distinction between this and syncretism.

8.    Forge support networks. Don’t think you’re alone. Tap into wider support networks within and beyond your immediate community. I have personally found cell groups, mentors, parachurch networks and affinity groups to be of immense value in surviving church. In fact that is one of the reasons I blog.

9.    Take your pain to God in prayer. Don’t seek to do everything in your own strength. Read a psalm then lay your heart out. There is real power in this practice.

10.    Look for the extraordinary in the ordinary. Celebrate your small victories. Notice the blessings you do have. Therein lies hope and reassurance.

Maybe you can think of more? Maybe this has touched something in you and you’d like to speak to some more? Remember, if you don’t want to comment publicly you can always email privately. Just don’t think you’re alone.

27 thoughts on “How to Survive Church

  1. Absolutely fantastic post, Matt. Truly insightful and encouraging. As I’ve developed spiritually, I’ve increasingly felt that I don’t quite squeeze into the mold of the established church. Yet, I remain for almost, if not all, the reasons you suggest. Many people I know have become so disillusioned with the established church that they can no longer function in it. I’d like to avoid that condition, so thanks again for the survival guide.


  2. Surviving Church

    One my favorite online bloggers, Matt Stone, has posted a great article on How to Survive Church which I think has a great insights on how minister within the larger established church, even when youre dissatisfied with certain asp…


  3. I am glad you found it encouraging. As i said, I think there are a lot of unsung heroes out there and I think its time the emerging church conversation was broadened and recognition was given to alternative kinds of “emergence”.


  4. Well done, Matt. I am sure there are many “lurkers” who will resonate with your thoughts, too. A very timely word, indeed.


  5. Thanks. This post has been so timely for me — it brings me to tears. I do feel so alone at times. All I can think is focus on Jesus, focus on Jesus.


  6. Hi Matt,
    I came across this post via Brother Maynard’s link to it. As a minister in an established denomination, you have both set me thinking about the areas where I exist on the fringes of my tradition. I’ve written up at some length here. I’m really grateful for what you’ve written.
    Grace and peace,


  7. Good article but…
    The reason why many people (like me) stay is much more simple. This church is my family. I grew up here – I am a part of it and it is a part of me. Like my family there are parts that I find difficult and parts I think are good.


  8. This is an excellent post, Matt. Thanks for writing about these issues from “other” perspectives.
    fwiw, there are many people detoxing from church who would have preferred to stay, but the choice was taken from them by their own leaders. They would probably agree with your reasons for staying (I know I would), but lament the fact that they were forced out and didn’t have the opportunity to decide for themselves, either way.
    Love the post. Keep it up!


  9. Campbell, yes of course. The tension will vary for different people and for some it’s reasonably manageable. For them this wont be as relevant and that’s fine by me. But the concern here is for people who find it much harder.
    There are many other reasons why people stay too. One I neglected to mention is that for some it’s simply because it’s their livelihood. The reality is church plants tend not to be as financially supportive as established churches, not that established churches pay well anyway, so the transition is not always difficult to make for ministers, particularly when families are involved.


  10. Robby, you know, that’s probably worth a separate post in itself. I know one guy who was stripped of ministry position simply for linking to me and the other synchrobloggers. Those forced are following in the tradition of Luther I would say.


  11. Great article. Have we met somewhere? How do you know me so well? I just told a friend two days ago that the only reason I stay in church is because of my wife and kids. I wish I could be out on Sunday mornings being the church Jesus called us to be. I wish I knew more emerging mavericks in my area.


  12. I don’t know how I came across this blog, but on this Sunday morning it addresses a question I revisit regularly. My church has hired a new pastor and it seems that we are now taking pride in being “traditional”. But it still is the church with the most diverse membership of any in the area, any I’ve seen. And a church that supports missions. As long as we pass the test of Romans 12, I’ll stay with it. (see my breakdown on ) But I’m still not comfortable.


  13. Cathy, given your comments you might find a post I did a few weeks ago on church diversity interesting, even though its a bit heavy with missiological terms. You’ll find it here.
    We can’t all find churches that suit where we are at, near enough to where we are, so I more and more often counsel people these days: if you find a place where you really fit, great, but if you don’t, look for a church that is reasonably welcoming to misfits, where there are genuine people who allow for diversity, even if they’re not diverse in your kinda way. Hey, I speak from personal experience here 🙂


  14. So I went to church yesterday. Our new pastor looks like Rowan Atkinson, speaks on two pitches – high note, low note, high note, low note – like a Mr. Bean pastor, and yet I would be surprised if he knew who Mr. Bean was.
    But I really am glad I went. There was a true feeling of communion and joy. And that’s why I go to church. I get better sermons on the internet, and I can do better “Sunday school” study on the internet, but I can’t get communion and joy anywhere else as I can in my church. Deitrich Bonhoffer was right.
    I read your article and it makes me reflect on why my church has its great diversity (I think about this a lot.)
    I don’t think it is because of the efforts of our current leadership. Our deacons are generally good old boys, complete with puffy hair and cowboy boots. Our retired former pastor was an important factor … but so far, the misfits, such as me, that became part of the church, still feel very welcome.
    The multi-generational families contribute a lot to age diversity. And even though I am the only one in my local family who is Christian, I love to see that some couples CAN stay married, and whole families can worship together.
    Another factor is my son’s mother-in-law. She is from Panama and is as wonderful a Christian example that I know. She hosted a family of 5 in her very small house so that we could have Spanish-speaking associate pastor. When that family got their own house, she hosted another family so that we could have a Portugese-speaking congregation. She used her own money to fund the beginning of our ESL mission, the one that I’m involved in.
    Then there are the African-American members who are really quite diverse from each other, but who I think have great guts to go against social pressures from their community and attend a historically “white” church. Our youth group really sticks out at a Southern Baptist gathering.
    But, as our former pastor said. this a delicate thing. A precious thing, but something we don’t talk about, something we don’t promote. We are all pleased about it, but we don’t know how we’ve succeeded. Generally folks in our church don’t gripe and analyze and squirm the way I do. I’m pretty sure if there were a lot more INTJ’s we’d probably spoil the wonderful diversity we have. But I’m not too worried that a lot of folks like me will be around.
    I’m not doing a good job a leading to this conclusion, but here it is anyway. I think we have diversity because the amazing work of individuals. And that is not easy to create.
    Thanks for your interesting forum!


  15. Mr Bean … I know exactly what you mean:
    On church diversity, one book I found had some very interesting insights on this was “One Body, One Spirit: Principles of Successful Multiracial Churches” by George A. Yancey. I should blog on that sometime. It may help you understand some of the why. If interested you’ll find it here:
    And it’s an interesting comment of yours that “multi-generational families contribute a lot to age diversity”. You’re right of course. And that makes me wonder how that plays into my own situation. I’ll have to take that away to think about it.


  16. Hi Matt
    Fantastic article. By way of into, I’m Phil, a 40 something Reader (ie Lay Minister) in an Anglican Church 4 miles north of Liverpool,UK.
    Thanks to emerging church websites/blogs and a Pioneer Minister who has joined us recently, I have over the last couple of months begun to discover that there are a lot of people out there with similar views to my own. As part of the leadership team here I will often say things which I feel (mistakenly perhaps) are really important for us to grapple with, only to discover that it is as if I have suddenly begun to speak a completely foreign language and it can feel really isolated.
    I particularly love your two phrases “emerging mavericks within established churches” and “evangelical mystic”, both of which I really identify with.
    Keep up the great work, and if you are planning a trip abroad over the next few months, why not try out Liverpool, which is enjoying something of a renaiisance during 2008 as we celebrate our year as European Capital of Culture 2008. I am determined to get our folks here engaged with all that God is doing in the various cultures and sub-cultures that God has purposefully placed us amongst…and getting people to join in and possibly even (shock horror!) encounter him as they do!.


  17. Phil, though I’d love to travel to the ends of the earth (laughs) I don’t think my budget is going to stretch that far for a few years yet. Its great to hear your helping people to grapple with these issues though. And hey, while I can’t myself, you may find a few of my friends here are more out your way so keep an eye out.


  18. Thanks for the encouraging post Matt. Like Penny I will no doubt keep this one close at hand and in continual perspective within spiritual self examination!


  19. It was really good to find this article…my husband and I left a church about 2 years ago after being hurt there and we have found it so hard to ‘re enter’ the church scene. We are attending another one now but it is far from ideal or comfortable. We’re still burnt out and wary. It’s been so lonely and still is. But thanks for the tips. Good to know that there is a universal church we belong to.


  20. oh i wish i read this 14? years ago.
    we defended, then, what i call the last 3 phases of
    “church” knowing there were such stacked up severe problems
    but also still seeing signs of vitality[as people were leaving churches left and right]. then we were labeled by churches what i think they might have now called “emergent” instead using the word “fringe”. then when truly emergent folks hit the scene [now-ish] we defended again, because i have a habit of giving credit to anything good that has happened in the history of my measeley 37 years. now we have no place and i want nothing to do with any of it. i can’t stand the old ways and i hate the philosophical ongoing conversation about manifesting Christ.i also spent my missional butt off as a child in an organization which was considered highly “emergent” then, but is now probably what most emergents are in protest against,now. sigh. i do love your articles.


  21. Good stuff Matt – this echoes some of my own feelings right at the moment as I find myself back leading a regular church.
    For me it’s really important not to idealize church and believe it can be anything more than a community of broken people helping one another along. I find that when I expect too much I get critical.
    I’m not into having low expectations, but there is a place for reality.
    I don’t feel like a particularly good fit at the moment because my mind wanders off to ‘what could be’ rather than ‘what is’, but maybe it’s a learning curve for me and just time to suck it up for a bit after some genuine adventuring and pioneering.
    I imagine I can do it for a while, but hopefully I will be able to work in my areas of passion in the future as people feel safe and are willing to take risks


  22. I like Hamo’s approach here because it emphasises taking personal responsibility for ourselves into its configurement and is proactively relational. I also like the fact that these things are all personally do-able.


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