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Flirting With Other Churches
Sometimes Christians look for new churches for all the wrong reasons. Here's how a Hollywood movie helped one church shopper go back to his home church.

I was whining to a friend recently about church. I told him I was disillusioned. Little things were bugging me and worship had lost its spark. "Well, why don't you check out our Sunday evening service instead?" he replied. "It's just your style." My friend goes to another church and, in fact (gasp), another denomination. It sounded good.

Flirting With Other Churches

So I took him up on his offer and dropped by his little church. Fresh music, new friends, warm smiles and a challenging message from a different kind of preacher—it was as refreshing as a cold drink on a hot day. The place was alive. I drove home tapping the steering wheel and singing one of their edgy praise songs. I had a rush of new hope. If that was what church could be like, I wanted to go back.

But as I stood on the doorstep, slipping my key into the lock, I felt a sudden pang of guilt. I had been flirting with another church. I checked over my shoulder to see if any of my elders had followed me. I ransacked my pockets—was I going to get caught carrying their bulletin? I felt that I was having an affair.

As I lay in bed that night, scenes from a movie I had watched recently flashed through my mind. There were some strange parallels between the movie Shall We Dance, starring Richard Gere, and my own experience. And my brain was putting a new twist on them.

Gere plays a man caught in a mid-age crisis. I could see that a craving for something exciting and different had crept into my own life. I tossed and turned, wrestling with my pillow and my conscience. Gere plays an estate lawyer bored with life despite having a lucrative career, a stable marriage and a beautiful home in the suburbs. He tries to spice up his life by sneaking out for ballroom dancing lessons and falls for his gorgeous instructor. But the movie takes a heartening turn. Gere takes stock of his life and realizes the treasure he has in his marriage. He stops short of launching an affair and confesses to his wife that he just wanted to be happier and is ashamed he couldn't find the sparkle at home. Their marriage is revitalized with his new-found passion for living. He vows to stay faithful and keep her as his one and only dance partner.

I loved the powerful message about remaining faithful to your wife. It was bang on. But that night I saw another way to apply the lesson, and it talked to me about my feelings about church—about being faithful to my home congregation.

There are times in my adult life when I've become bored with church. Like the lawyer on the grey commuter train to work, I've felt numb, lifeless and unfulfilled. Disconnected. Just going through the motions because it's what's expected of me. At other times I'm frustrated by the gap between what we read in the Gospels, what we preach and how we act.

Then, just when I'm at my lowest, I catch a glimpse of another church down the road, and I start to covet. Like Gere's beautiful dance instructor, they are intriguing, mysterious and exciting. They seem to have it all together. I start to wonder if maybe it's time to for me to move on and try a new way of worship. I'm tempted to leave the old church.

Like the clandestine, after-dark trips to the dance studio, my visits to the other church are cloaked in subterfuge and calculated risk. I park down the street, out of sight of prying eyes. I use only my first name and dodge questions about where I've come from. When my old church asks me where I've been, I say I'm working late these days.

It's exciting for a time. But soon the reality takes over from fantasy. The other church isn't so perfect. The preacher isn't adored by everyone. There is a grumbler's club. They have budget shortfalls.

The beautiful dance instructor, it seems, has her problems, too.

I would be a fool to think that the grass would be greener on the other church's lawn. It's taken me years and countless mistakes to learn that no matter which church I'm in, people will be people and we all fall far short of God's glory. We all need His mercy to survive another day. There is no perfect church.

The problem, I figured out, is within me. Like a disillusioned spouse, I try to blame my discontent on someone else. When I let it get to me and fantasize about leaving our church, I need to jump off the train and catch my breath. I need to take responsibility for my own affairs and confront these questions:

What is my part in the demise of the relationship?

How much time and effort have I put into the church?

How forgiving have I been toward the people who are bugging me?

If I'm driving others crazy, am I willing to be told that and change my ways?

Do I judge with charity or with a scornful eye?

When I read what Jesus and the apostles say about fellowship, do I get it?

Am I doing my bit to care for my own spiritual health or expecting the pastor and elders to fix it all for me?

By the end of Shall We Dance, Richard Gere did learn to dance elegantly. But he brought back that gift to his wife, and their marriage grew stronger because of it.

I may enjoy friendship and fellowship with other Christians in other churches, but I owe it to my church family and friends to come home …

I need to take the lessons I learn on the outside back to my own fellowship. I'm committed to my church for the long term, and I'm called to stick with them through thick and thin. I may enjoy friendship and fellowship with other Christians in other churches, but I owe it to my church family and friends to come home every night and shore up the foundations in my own congregation.

There are legitimate and often very painful reasons to leave a church and seek spiritual fellowship elsewhere. Many Christians have been forced to make that difficult choice, and rightly so. But too many of us look for a new church for the wrong reasons—out of boredom, discontent and a desire to spark up what we ourselves have neglected, instead of sticking it out for the sometimes difficult but ultimately rewarding long run of church membership.

By looking honestly at my own sagging, wrinkled reflection in the mirror, I can invite God to help me tone up my spiritual life where the flab really shows. If God is patient enough to work with me and rehabilitate me, then surely I can be patient enough with myself and my fellow parishioners to stick it out and make it better. I've got to be true to my vows.

I won't be fooling myself or my God if I'm anything less than faithful.

Fidelity to my church is a strange lesson to bring home from Hollywood. This week we celebrated our church's anniversary, and I quietly reaffirmed my vows. We might be an odd couple, my church and I, but we're devoted to each other. I will be sure to ask her for the next dance.

Steve Russell is a writer and doctor who is faithful to his church in Port Perry, Ontario.

Originally published in Faith Today, September/October 2005.




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