I have always loved going to church. Even as a small child, sitting in our plain rural church, it held my heart. Through high school and college—still beautiful. On to seminary, tasting different styles, I loved them all. Thirty years up front, leading services, preaching. Even as I experienced success beyond what many realize, I recognized that our high-energy, band-driven, community-oriented style was just one way. I loved and blessed what others did at church, knowing Jesus used us all.

So, yes, I have always loved going to church, what I now call church in a box, church at a location, church you “go” to.

Then why is it that I find myself, just shy of sixty, standing in the back row of a small inner-city church, arms folded across my chest, daring those leading to connect with me. I think to myself, “I hate going to church.”

We love this particular church. Tucked in urban poverty, they do great work. Normally, I would be delighted to be here. But nothing in me wants to be at church today; nothing in me wants to go to church at all.

What happened?

It began a few years ago with burnout, accompanied by depression. A high-octane, 25-year journey of leading a church from 100 people in the cafeteria of a middle school to 2500 people—it all caught up with me. Toss in a large, active family and life-long problems with sleep and you get a crash. I had been teetering there for a year or so until finally, down I went, off work for a couple of months.

I wasn’t sure I could come back, but I got help—significant help—and returned, feeling like I had turned the corner, excited to be back. But when back, it slowly became clear that the leadership was treating me differently than before. Twenty-five years of constant affirmation and support turned into criticism. I had always had good relationships with our leaders. Now, they seemed to avoid me.

It took months to get the truth out of them. In their mind, my age (then 57) and a bout of depression were reason to push towards a transition. An image formed. Like adult kids—believing they need to take the car keys from aging Dad—struggle to have a conversation with him, they never really talked honestly with me.

Finally, they told me their plan: Take a year to find my successor, a year for the two of us to serve side-by-side and then have a handoff. Their concern and plan were not, in my mind, outrageous. Finding a way to the end of a long-term pastorate is always hard. But the process was deeply broken and caused great pain and confusion for me and my family. I was not meaningfully involved in the decision and we never sat together, talking honestly, prayerfully asking Jesus to lead us to His outcome.

I felt a sense of betrayal at not being allowed to be a part of the discussion. And, although my termination date was two years down the road, it felt to me like I was being fired. No process, no meaningful discussion. An ultimatum.

I asked for a couple of weeks to pray, to hear from Jesus. Twice I sensed Jesus telling me I was done—He had other work for me to do and had another leader for this church I had loved and served for most of my adult life. My job was to finish as gracefully as I could. Wanting to protect the church, I said as little as I could. I had hoped that at the finish line we could get together to find some closure, but that did not happen. No exit interview, no attempt to be face-to-face. Nothing. Our farewell weekend was awkward and painful, deepened by the fact that most of the leaders involved in the decision didn’t come to our farewell.

Done with that, we now began to live the reality of what felt like an ugly divorce. We were still living in the same community and ran into people from our church all the time. We spoke as graciously as we could about the leadership and our ending, hiding the deep pain we felt.

A year later, when our call to serve the poor along East Colfax was clear, we were going to have a conversation about them partnering with us, something they had initiated.  I was, frankly, nervous about sitting with them—from where we sat things were badly broken. But it seemed if nothing else, we could get in a room and bring some closure, a time to acknowledge that the journey had been hard for us all, but that God had clearly used it. By then, we were on to our new ministry and they had a new lead pastor.

Instead of a conversation, I got a two-sentence email saying that after prayer, they felt led to not partner with us. The decision itself was somewhat understandable. What was not understandable was their unwillingness to even have a conversation. They said they had prayed about the decision and wished me well, but the tone said, “go away and stay away.” The only explanation I got was that they had decided to “err on the side of a complete separation.”

We felt like we had been excommunicated from a church that had been home and family for us for over a quarter century. What had already been a badly broken situation had, at least for us, become completely broken. Nothing that has happened in the following three years has improved that; several things have made it worse. The current leadership, when pressed, simply says they are a new leadership team and aren’t responsible for what happened in the past. In my mind that is only partially true.

I am sure they have their own perspective on this and expect it to be different than ours. That is fine. My real point here is to simply say that my family and I walked away from what had been an incredible 25-year run, deeply damaged by what happened at both the finish line and beyond, a damage we deal with to this day.

That is why I find myself, arms crossed, standing at the back of this church, wishing I was somewhere else, anywhere but church. I struggle with my own form of PTSD from the journey and there are people and places that trigger me, bringing back a cascade of pain from many specific, pain-filled steps along the way.  When triggered, I feel thoroughly whacked out.

So, guess what triggers me?

Yup. Church, church in a box, the kind of church you “go” to. Any church.

For two years I kept going, but every week ripped off the scab; I finally realized that without some space I might never heal. So, I stopped. Going that is. How ironic. Church had given life to me for nearly six decades and I had given decades of service to her. Now church became a place of deep and persistent pain. I lost the church and my place in it. Church in a box, that is.

But, in the way only Jesus can, He replaced what was lost by helping me find church elsewhere, away from buildings and programs, away from church in a box. He led us to East Colfax and to ministry in the motels and on the streets. Our friends—semi-homeless and homeless—struggle with addiction, mental illness, and brokenness of every kind. Prostitution and drug-dealing are rampant. The pain we see is at times overwhelming.

Few of them will ever consistently go to church. We found ourselves bringing church to them—in motel rooms and on the street—standing in small circles, sharing, listening, laughing, crying; then we hold hands and pray, inviting Jesus into that space, remembering his promise to show up where two or three are gathered. I gave it a name—Church Elsewhere—church away from a box, not so much a church you go to as a church you simply live. 

One week I counted and realized I had done Church Elsewhere about 40 times. I expect I have done it thousands of times in the past three years. It is beautiful beyond words, standing with the broken, inviting Jesus into that space. Not all of church, but the core of it.

I began seeing Church Elsewhere other places—team gatherings, house church gatherings, sitting with other leaders. Jesus is in our midst and we experience church. Beautiful!

After a lifetime of loving church in a box, the kind of church you “go” to, I am too damaged to get very close to her. I have healed enough to go a bit and even preach occasionally.  But it is still deeply painful. I thank Jesus for churches in boxes, churches you “go” to. I am glad to have served there for 30 years, proud of the work we did. I just can’t much “go” to them right now.

Now, I have fallen in love with Church Elsewhere, taking church to the hard corners where our friends live, finding Jesus vibrant there. Our journey from church-in-a-box to Church Elsewhere has been long and painful yet has led to an outcome of remarkable beauty and grace. We are grateful for the journey. Grateful, too, for the trade. We expect to spend the rest of our life doing Church Elsewhere.