“I’ve often wished I could write off church… It certainly would make life easier in many ways and at least I’d get to sleep in on Sundays. But, I’m beginning to think that if I truly understand the Gospel… I just can’t. ”
Now that’s a great opening paragraph 🙂 After an overdose of some more “institutional” aspects of the Lutheran church the last two days 🙂 which includes a 12 hour marathon Ministerium meeting which at the end affirmed my convictions about mutual accountability and corporate discernment, and also another 8 hour EXCO meeting closing the chapters of our 2 year term and preparing for the convention, and in the process I’ve been thinking i parallel about the local church (especially after our church anniversary celebrations last Saturday) and my personal discipleship (infant baptised but returned to the church as a teenager) and ministry (wow it’s already a decade!)….
I’ve often wished I could write off church… It certainly would make life easier in many ways and at least I’d get to sleep in on Sundays. But, I’m beginning to think that if I truly understand the Gospel… I just can’t.
More and more people are declaring “I want to follow Jesus… I just can’t handle church.” The rise of the free-range Christian along with its attendant cynicism towards all things institutional has been one of the big stories of the last couple of years, most notably highlighted in George Barna’s book Revolution.
In it, Barna describes a new movement that “entails drawing people away from reliance upon a local church into a deeper connection with and reliance upon God.”
He envisions a generation “choosing from a proliferation of options, weaving together a set of favored alternatives into a unique tapestry that constitutes the personal ‘church’ of the individual.”
“The personal ‘church’ of the individual”?
To be fair to Mr. Barna, I haven’t read the whole book, just clips, and when I heard him speak at the Off-The-Map conference last November, I loved much of what he had to say and got the distinct impression that he was really talking about people being involved in small house churches, and other ad-hoc groups/gatherings of Christ-followers.
But the problem with what he is describing is that while many are leaving the megachurch for smaller, more simple, missionally-focused expressions of community (something I’m all about), many are choosing simply to disconnect and not engage in Christian community at all, choosing the very “personal church of the individual” that Barna at times seems to be advocating.
Now, before you think I’m going to write off or condemn any and everyone who finds themselves disconnected from church community, let me say a couple of things. First, as I mentioned before, I’ve been there. Oh, man, I’ve been there. Disillusionment, anger, hurt, burnout??? Check , check, check and, uh… check.
Second, the community I pastor tries hard to make room for people who’ve dropped out at some point, the “formerly churched” who come tentatively with questions, doubt, and more often than not deep cynicism and suspicion of anything that smacks of “organized religion.” I get the dynamic and I love those who find themselves there. For a number of reasons, I feel like they are my tribe (though they may not feel like I am theirs).
What I don’t get, however… what I struggle to understand, are those who, rather than seeing this as a (sometimes necessary) phase that many of us go through, something to be faced, experienced and then moved on from, seem to see it, and indeed embrace it, as a permanent state. The perpetually churchless Christian wants to experience a bit of what the “spiritual but not religious” all around us seem to have. In other words, they want Christ, just not His Community.
And while I certainly could give you a long list of things I’d like to change about the Church in the West, declaring one minute that we love Jesus and the very next that we hate His bride… well, I’m not just sure how He feels about that. (I can tell you what I’d do if you told me that while you liked me just fine, you couldn’t stand my wife. I’m afraid it wouldn’t be pretty.)
Barna writes “Whether you become… immersed in, minimally involved in, or completely disassociated from a local church is irrelevant to me (and, within boundaries, to God).”
You know, I couldn’t disagree more. I don’t care if it’s house church, simple church, emerging church, purpose-driven church, little bitty baptist church or big ol’ ginormous megachurch… God cares if you connect to community. It’s not “irrelevant” to Him. In fact, in a way… it’s the very point of the Gospel.
It’s God’s intention to build a redeemed community living in a renewed earth in relationship with Him, the God who is Himself a Triune community- that’s the whole point, the telos of the Gospel! And if I really believe that, how could I ever seek to live life as a Christ follower apart from the community that God is building? How can I see the call of Christ as anything but the call to community?
We planted Evergreen, our church community, three years ago. And one thing I can say after 3 years of ups and downs, dreams realized and hopes dashed, even having come from a place of serious disillusionment with the status quo of the American church… I love the Church more now than ever.
I love it mainly because I love Jesus– and loving Jesus means loving His body, loving this way that He has chosen to manifest His hands and feet to the world, this community that He is building. It’s been said that the church is God’s Plan A for the world and there is no Plan B. I may not like that… but I believe it. I may wish for something other than this beautiful mess of a community with all its warts and stains… but because Jesus loves it, and desires to bring it to maturity and spotless perfection, I love it and know that my place is in it.
I also love the church because though imperfect and full of hypocrites like me, I have seen through it the poor fed, the despondent given hope, the lonely brought into family, and I have seen people change. I can think of other places, other groupings of people who do bits and pieces of all that… But nothing that does all that I see God doing in and through the church around the world.
There are places that are church where God is not at work, or maybe I should say, at least where it’s hard to see what He is doing, mainly because He is being actively resisted. I know that there are churches out there who seem far from the New Testament descriptions and life in the way of Jesus; it was mainly seeing those marketing-driven, competition and consumer-oriented institutions that pushed me towards involvement in the emerging church movement.
There are also places where God is at work where the Church is not, places where modern-day Corneliuses await obedient Christ-followers who will come and be, show, preach Jesus to them. I understand that not everything God is doing in the world can be traced to a visible, local “church.”
But my contention is that there are no places where God is at work where He does not intend the Church to arise, to be, to join in the work. The point of the Gospel is to place fallen people like you and me into the community of the redeemed.
So what do you do when you find yourself at a breaking point, but understand that the call of Christ is the call to community? When you understand that the Gospel isn’t about the individual getting his or her own rear into heaven but about the creation of a Community, a Body, a Bride?
First, without completely giving yourself over to church hopping and shopping tendencies, there may come a time when one needs to recognize that some institutions have chosen inertia over change, form over function and have lost the plot of the missio Dei. In those cases, finding or indeed starting a new community may be the best thing. Done for the right reasons and in the right way, this doesn’t need to involve the drama and hurt it often does. And doing so sooner rather than later can safeguard you from a faith-destroying cynicism that often comes over those who stay too long in dead and dying churches.
It may be, though, that you are in the “later” rather than “sooner” category and hurt, bitterness and cynicism are exactly where you find yourself. Take some time off. Disconnect from church so you can reconnect to God (hmmm… sounds like Barna!)
But do so with the right mindset- the mindset that says time away from community is medicine for my pain, not a diet that can possibly sustain me. Time away should be undertaken with the idea that it will give you time to breath, to reflect, to pray… but most importantly to let the bitterness fade and the thirst for community to rise again.
Done correctly, a fast from church should make us hungry for the community of Christ followers again. It should renew in us a desire to lean in and give us the distance we need to recognize that our hurts and disillusionment with church often have just as much to do with our unreasonable expectations of community as they do with what fallen people have done to us.
I’ve been the lead pastor of our church community for three years now. I’ve seen people lean in and I’ve seen them lean out. I’ve even seen a good number lean so far out they never came back.
But here’s a common thread between both groups (those leaning in and those leaning out)- church frustrated them. Yes, both groups. Whether you are on the fringes or fully committed, chances are that participation in a community is a frustrating experience that often just plain hurts. But what’s different is that those who walk away often see that frustration wasted in their lives while who lean in have the opportunity to see something beautiful come out it. Whenever you get people together, fallen people, at various levels of commitment to ideals and living them out, you are going to have a place where toes are stepped on and where you are given many, many opportunities to work out what mercy, grace and forgiveness really mean.
Like I said earlier, I’ve often wished I could write off church. But, if I truly understand the Gospel… I just can’t.
And even beyond the Gospel call to community, practically speaking what it comes down to in my life is this: I’m not done with church because church isn’t done with me. Or maybe I should say, what God is doing, can do and wants to do in my life through intentional participation in the community of Jesus followers isn’t done yet. In spite of all the inherent frustrations, and more often than not through them, God intends to form me through my participation in the community of Christ followers.
Painful or not, there’s more that needs to happen in my life through a disciplined presence to the community of Jesus. I need to know what mercy and grace mean, and I can’t think of a better place to learn it, both the giving and receiving of it, than in the community of people trying hard, but often failing, to live life in the way of Jesus.
Bob Hyatt is the lead pastor of the the evergreen community, an emerging church community in Portland, OR. More importantly he is the husband of Amy and the father of Jack and Jane. He’s also the editor of Next-Wave.