I love the Church. I believe in the Bride of Christ, the gathering of believers, the second chapter of Acts, and all the mess that living this way of Jesus entails. Yet, this love has been tested again and again. My friend Beth once said of her husband’s stint on their church’s elder board, “I like sausage, but I don’t want to know how it is made.”

I recently read Dani Shapiro’s beautiful book Devotion. The book jacket describes this spiritual memoir as “…the story of a woman whose search for meaning ultimately leads her home.” Shapiro was raised in an Orthodox Jewish home, left the tradition as a young adult, and then wrestled in mid-life with how to integrate her Jewishness with other spiritual traditions that feed her soul. She writes of her friend Steve:

“As I sat with my new friend, I realized that perhaps he was doing the hardest thing of all: living inside the contradictions. Buddhism, yoga philosophy, the high Episcopal tradition in which he had been steeped as a child, were all able to coexist for him and create a greater, richer equilibrium. This wasn’t spiritual laziness. To the contrary, it required even greater effort and clarity.”

I digested this paragraph, laid the book down in my lap, and sighed. Yes, the hardest thing of all.

My list of contradictions does not include Buddhism, but it does include a deep appreciation for yogic spirituality, the high Episcopal tradition, and the Evangelical Christianity I have been steeped in my whole life—all of that covered with a sauce of social justice activism.

Living with this tension has made church a bit of a conundrum.

My own journey with organized communities of faith has included transformational, radical, life-altering seasons (hence my stubborn love); yet it has also been characterized by the most painful, relational discord and dissonance of my life.

I understand why many of my peers have left church. Not only can church communities be a hot mess organizationally and relationally, but there is often a lack of integration with different traditions and spiritual practices.

Yet, for as many times as I have been tempted to give up, I don’t.

There is something about a group of people who love Jesus and each other that is pure magic.

Perhaps church, as we know it, needs to be redefined. Perhaps church and organized religion need to make a clean break.

Perhaps a more expansive definition will help so many of us that don’t want to know how the sausage is made.

Last year, when I traveled into the heart of the violence in Eastern Congo, our team of 15 felt like a church. We faced danger, heartache, unending brokenness, and we did so because of a compelling Divine mandate to live in solidarity with those who suffer. Maybe it was being on such a specific mission that made it feel so holy. Maybe we weren’t together long enough for the interpersonal chaos to be unleashed. Regardless, we bonded in our love for God, sacrifice, and service for others, and we prayed a lot. This experience has made me question whether the best examples of church are the roving kind—a group mobilized for a task (preferably a dangerous one). When we are stripped of comforts and forced to live in the moment; the result is a reliance on God that is rare.

Or another example of church for me is when I am in an intense yoga class. The work done on my mat is some of the most contemplative and embodied effort I have ever engaged. Plus, when a room full of us sound like the waves of a human ocean with our Ujjayi breath, perhaps we are a unique gathering of saints—offering our bodies as living sacrifices to the Creator God who breathed this precious breath into us in the first place. Perhaps there is a sense of distillation in this scene too—all I have is my breath. This is what marks the difference between life and death. Time on the mat reminds me that this fleeting life is a gift.

Another facet of my quest for spiritual equilibrium is the ancient practice and liturgy I find at the Episcopal parish a few blocks from my house. On March 1 of this year, I practically collapsed on the altar of this neighborhood church. After yet another season of questioning my voice and purpose in the emerging landscape of progressive Christianity, I was ready for ashes. I was desperate for the ancient reminder that from dust I came and to dust I will return. The arched ceiling, stained glass windows, and the robed priest in his loveliness ministered to me as the church in my time of desperation and confusion. I found myself craving the centuries of habits and exercises that millions of people have observed for hundreds of years. I knelt in a long line of others who have also encountered the Holy in the dust.

And, like Shapio searching for meaning and coming home, I had a full circle feeling recently as I read Psalm 27 in both services in the suburban megachurch my husband and I helped start in an abandoned mall almost 20 years ago. I was reminded that regardless of how tricky this place has been for me over the years, it is still my church. “One thing I ask from the Lord, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord…” So perhaps this is the community and building that I claim on a Sunday morning knowing that my faith is not limited to one community or one building. I will continue to seek the dwelling of the Lord.

A hodge-podge group of global activists, a cluster of sweaty students offering their whole selves, a formal denomination with an ancient tradition, or a contemporary Bible church with a complicated past, all of these “churches” have been places of divine encounter for me.

I need to be reminded often that the concept of church might be a bit tangled, but God is not. And, when I do the tricky work of living inside the contradictions—seeking “greater, richer equilibrium”—it is powerful. And, when I engage this effort with other Jesus followers, it truly is pure magic.

Ruth Bell Olsson
Ruth Bell Olsson is an activist at heart. After over a decade of HIV/AIDS advocacy, Ruth now pours her energy into changing the world’s approach to the global orphan crisis through her work with Bethany Global. Ruth earned her Bachelor of Arts in philosophy from Wheaton College and her Master of Arts in global leadership from Fuller Seminary, with a concentration in peacemaking. Ruth writes and speaks on a variety of subjects and loves to wrestle with the deep mysteries of living a life of faith in a complicated world. Ruth and her husband Jeff are founding members of Mars Hill Bible Church and they live in Grand Rapids, MI with their three children: Zinnia, Oskar and Kagiso.

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  1. Yes, I love that scripture…let me dwell in the house of the Lord forever… and let it be, Lord, that I will always love your Church and see its beauty, over and above all that might frustrate or annoy me. thanks for this authentic expression of love for His people, Ruth.

  2. I love your honest and heartfelt eloquence Ruth. You have been blessed with an earnestly seeking spirit. He finds us in many places and brings peace and understanding sometimes in the most unusual (and often difficult) places. Grace and Peace, Peggy

  3. that’s real cute the part about false religions. keep in mind they are false because the source of their spirituality is darkness. check out the Biblical warnings about darkness. they’res bunches.

  4. This really hit home, especially about living inside the contradictions. I have recently started to think that my search for spiritual fulfillment does not come from one place or source, but many. It is comforting to know that I am not alone in this thinking.

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