04/29/2012 08:17 am ET Updated Jun 29, 2012

Why Stay in the Church?

One of the most surprising of all New Testament passages comes near the beginning of the Gospel of John (6:60-69). In that passage, some the disciples, after hearing some "difficult" preaching from Jesus, "returned to their former way of life and no longer walked with him."

Returned to their former way of life after having been with Jesus? It seems almost unbelievable. So many believers today would (literally) give our right arms to see and hear what the disciples saw and heard--to witness Jesus's astonishing miracles, and hear the carpenter from Nazareth spin out his parables, as he did in Galilee and Judea all those years ago.

How, we wonder, could anyone walk away from Jesus after having walked with him?

Yet it's really not that hard to understand. Sometimes, for example, we turn away from God's invitation to conversion out of fear. Change is frightening. What would it mean for us to change our old ways of doing things, our habitual way of relating to others, our familiar ways of understanding our place in the world? For true conversion is not simply a putting off of bad habits, it is a putting aside of our old selves. And that is pretty frightening. It's easy to understand people walking away.

We also turn away because the path is a rocky one. Life in the Christian community is hard. At one time or another, everyone wants to "walk away" from religion. The church can be a tough place. We hear things that we don't like; we see things that we don't approve of; we are forced to pray with people with whom we don't agree. And that's hard. Very hard.

But in these communities often come our most powerful experiences of God. As the theologian Jane Redmont pointed out to me years ago, that's one reason why so many of those stories of the Holy Spirit happen in groups. We are both naturally religious and naturally social, so we come together to worship.

Jesus understood this. Remember: Jesus didn't simply call one apostle to be his personal assistant, he called a whole group of people--apostles and disciples alike--together. At the beginning of his ministry, as he is walking by the Sea of Galilee, he calls Peter and Andrew and James and John--that's four people at once. And after his Resurrection, he appears to people individually (Mary Magdalene, for example), but much more often to the group.

The church is the place into which we Christians were born and out of which we will leave this life. We are called through baptism into a distinctive place in the church. That means that we are called not only to enjoy its fruits, but to labor in its vineyards--even when that vineyard is filled with thorns, the day is late, we are exhausted, the fruit seems scarce, and the sun is beating down on us, seemingly without mercy. It is in our church that we will work out, difficult as it may be, impossible as it may seem at times, our salvation, alongside other sinners--sinners just like us.

"Master, to whom shall we go?" said Peter in that passage from John. The church is not Jesus, but it is his visible body on the earth. And, like his body after the Resurrection, it has wounds. So you could also ask: "Where else shall we go?"

And during tough times, it helps to remember that it's your church, too. God called you into it, by name, on the day of your baptism. Never forget that Jesus called each of the disciples for a particular reason. They each had different gifts and talents, and were able to help build up the Kingdom of God in different ways. As Mother Teresa said, "You can do something I cannot do. I can do something you cannot do. Together let us do something beautiful for God." Though the disciples often quarreled with one another, Jesus wanted them all to be there. When you're tempted to leave, or when others say that they don't want you around, remember who called you.

There can be tough times in the church for all of us--from the pope to the people in the pews. But those aren't the times to leave. Those are precisely the time when the church needs you the most, just like Jesus needed the disciples--to stay.

This essay is adapted from America magazine's blog "In All Things."