I began this summer series by giving seven reasons why I found it necessary to leave the church. Then, two of weeks ago, I showed that the word “church” is a very good word not found in the Bible to describe an institution not found in the Bible. Last week, I offered a definition of ecclesia that I consider in line with Jesus’ intent.
If you haven’t picked it up already, I am conflicted about church. I would have no problem if it was all bad. I would kick it to the curb and move on. But it’s not so simple. Church has been the source of great blessing in my life. For example…
Christian Heritage. Church is an important part of my family identity, going back as far as we can see.
Friends. I made my closest friends in church. These are exceptionally good people. They are my high school and college buddies.
Music. I love church music, everything from Palestrina, to Bach, to Rutter, to the old hymns.
Education. I owe my education to my denomination.
Income. For twenty years, my church fed my family and paid my mortgage.
Cathedrals. When Julie and I visited Italy, the cathedrals made my heart soar. As we drive through the southeastern United States, I am the steeples that dot the countryside inspire me.
Charity. Earlier this summer, when I was bit by a tick, I went to a church hospital.
So when I talk about leaving church, I get a knot in my stomach. How can I throw all this away? Church may not be a perfect vessel, but it carries the holy. Surely, I shouldn’t throw out the baby out with the bathwater.
But in this case, the bathwater has been mixed with the baby for so long that it’s hard to tell the two apart. In fact we don’t even call it bathwater anymore. We call it holy water.
But bathwater is not holy, and babies were never meant to live in bathwater. It is meant to be drained, and regularly. Unfortunately, we haven’t had a good draining for centuries. The water is so polluted it’s choking the baby. If ecclesia is to thrive in the new millennium, we must find a way to separate the two.
But is it possible to separate good things like I described from church? Yes. In fact, they will be stronger without it. These good things were never the product of church in the first place. They are ecclesia.
The church is like mistletoe. It has attached itself to God’s ecclesia. and so completely covered it that we think the church is ecclesia. Today I will focus on the seven things I mentioned above: Christian heritage, friends, music, education, income, cathedrals, and charity. I’ll take them one at a time, seeking to separate the baby from the bathwater.
1. Christian heritage
Maybe you’re a first generation follower of Jesus. If so, it might be easy to dismiss church. But for me and many others, Church is part of a family heritage. To leave church doesn’t feel like draining the bathwater. It feels like spitting on the graves of your ancestors.
I love my family and am proud of my heritage. My great grandparents were homesteaders in New Mexico. They packed up everything and headed west. When they reached their promised land, the first thing they did was build a church. My own dad followed suit. When we moved to the Pacific Northwest, the first thing he did was help build a church. This faithfulness to church filtered down to me and my own children. Not to attend church feels like a rejection of my family.
It helps to remind myself that what I love about my family is their faith. Frankly, my ancestors wouldn’t recognize a modern church service. About the time the drums and electric guitar kicked in they would run screaming for the doors.
You see, it is not the form of their faith that is sacred but the substance. And there was substance. They were honorable people who loved God and were good neighbors. They embodied ecclesia. This is what I cling to and honor.
I honor the courage it took to pack up everything and leave for parts unknown. I honor their grit. They faced some real hardship trying to scratch out a living in the dry cap rock of New Mexico. I honor the fact that their lives were defined by joy in hard times, and love at all times.
When I think about my own children, I can't help but wonder what they will make of their dad, the pastor who dropped out of church. But I decided however puzzling this may be to them, I don’t want to pass down a legacy of devotion to a dying institution, but a legacy of vital connection with the living Christ.
When all else fails, it also helps to remember that the failure to honor tradition is one of the main things he got Jesus in trouble. Holding tradition loosely is one way to follow the Master’s example.
Until two years ago, my whole life was lived inside of the church. It’s no surprise, then, that all my friends were church friends. It was hard even to imagine friendship outside of church. But I ran into some problems.
Church taught me to view only church people as family. Inside the church were brothers and sisters. Outside the church were lost sheep. Inevitably, relationships with those outside the church were shallow. They weren't family.
But our family had troubles. Church had away of dividing us from our friends over fine points of doctrine and church practice. People were important, but Church was sacred. If friendships had to be sacrificed to the church, so be it.
Ecclesia’s understanding of friendship comes as a relief. Remember that ecclesia is the love of God, calling all things to oneness with Himself and harmony with each other.
Since God's love is the center of all things, there is just one human family. I can call rightly anyone “brother” or “sister” and treat them accordingly. Since God never closes the door on a member of his family, I am never justified in writing another person off. I am to be like my heavenly Father, who sends the ran and sunshine on his good and bad children alike. I must love and not be choosy about it. I must forgive without counting.
Rather than packing up on Sunday to go meet with my “true family” at church, I can walk across the street and get to know my family across the street.
Church family extends to the limits of its doctrine. If you leave a church, it stresses your friendships. People don’t know what to do you. Your definition of family may includes them, but theirs no longer includes you. You have gone from friend to missions project.
When Julie and I were in Savannah, Georgia, there was a free concert at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist. It was a stunning cathedral with perfect acoustics for the antiphonal choir that sang Allegri’s Miserere.
I loved it. But as a church dropout, I must confess that I wondered if I was being a hypocrite. How could I sit there feasting my soul on the stained glass light and ethereal music? Hadn’t I forfeited my rights to such things?
As I thought of it, it came to me that the crowd gathered for the music that night included a people from many faiths. I would venture to say I was the only former Baptist preacher. When the music began, creeds meant nothing. In the presence of the music we felt the love of God, calling all things to oneness with Himself and harmony with each other. We felt ecclesia. This wasn’t Catholic or Baptist or Lutheran or Agnostic. It was heavenly.
Music conveys the invisible God to the human soul. It is universal language. In its presence we are powerless to deny that we are a single human family in which there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. We are all one in Christ Jesus.
It is a mistake to define any music as “church music. You might as well define “church air” or “church water” or “church sky.” Even worse, when we cordon off some set of music and proclaimed it “sacred,” we imply that the rest is “profane.”
This is why, as a pastor, Music was the source of more grief than joy. What exactly constitutes “church music?” Organs? Pianos? Choirs? Drums? Electric guitars? Ancient hymns? Modern choruses? People get uptight about these things.
Actually, this makes sense if the Christian life is a defined as church, and church is defined as Sunday morning worship. There is only time for so much music on a Sunday morning. Choices must be made. These choices draw lines. Music defines us. If you don't sing my kind of music, you’re not my kind of person. This is the reason why church is the most segregated hour of the week. We don’t like the same tunes.
But if ecclesia is a way of life, not a Sunday morning experience, and if God's love reaches every created thing, then all people and all music are sacred. We can be one glorious family singing an endless variety of songs.
I thank God for my seminary education and the passionate teachers who helped shape my life. But my seminary, like most seminaries, was owned by the church. As a tool of the church, it had a carefully defined system of beliefs. In spite of statements to the contrary, my school did not exist to freely pursue truth but to defend its position and steep its students in its doctrines. I felt this when I became a professor. I had to sign a document promising to keep my teaching in bounds. Ultimately, I felt too constrained by this. It’s one of the reasons I had to resign.
But if there was no church, how would people learn?
Traditional education is undergoing a revolution. Educational institutions used to be repositories of information. You went to a school because that was where the information was. Now, information has flown its ivory tower and is available to anyone who can do a Google search.
This Wild West of education may threaten the church and traditional institutions but it is a perfect fit for ecclesia. Ecclesia loves wideness. Just as there is no such thing as “Christian music,” there is no such thing as “Christian education.” Each person is free to seek the knowledge they crave, trusting love to hold us together and believing that we are pursuing the same center, even though we may be on different paths.
No doubt, there will always be church-owned seminaries. But perhaps some seminaries will spring from the ecclesia. Such a school would find its center in the love of God and leave room for diversity. They would not train people to serve their church but to love their neighbor.
But the most exciting development in education is the rise of individuals teaching the things they are passionate about. Just as the record industry and the film industry and publishing industry have exploded their institutional forms, so education is as well. Today, any good teacher can gather up a class and have at it.
I have experienced this first hand. I developed an extensive online course for the learning biblical Greek and hundreds of students have taken advantage of this. But you don’t have to be an expert in Greek. Everyone can do this. As a poster my wife has on her mirror proclaims, “Teach everything you know!”
What will become of all the the paid church workers? Are they out on their ear? Not necessarily.
There was a day went being a pastor was a prestigious role. I remember when golf courses let me play free because I was a pastor. Those days are gone. Now they’re more likely to charge me double. They assume that since I’m pastor, I’m a charlatan.
If you're thinking about becoming a minister, let me give you a little preview of what you’re in for.
You'll start out by attending as much school as doctors, lawyers, and rocket scientists. Next, you'll throw your hat in the ring with a bunch of other pastors, hoping to be hired by one of the few churches that can still afford to pay a salary—sort of. If you're lucky enough to be interviewed, you’ll be grilled by the board and congregation. If you pass, you’re in!
You’ll be given a job description that our Lord himself could not fulfill. Actually, you’ll be given dozens of job descriptions, one from each church member. Everyone has a different idea of what a pastor should be. Plan on regularly disappointing people and making a few hopping mad.
If, after a while, you decide you want to to do something else, you will discover that listing “Pastor” on your resume won’t help. Most people will assume there is something wrong with you. Weren’t you called by God? Why did you quit?
But what if we abandoned this narrow understanding of “church” and “pastor” and assume that ecclesia is the love of God, calling all things to oneness with Himself and harmony with each other?
Just as there is room in this world for mechanics and doctors and storekeepers, there is room for those who specialize in spiritual matters. In fact, people are starving for it. They gobble up all kinds of books that promise to help them find meaning. Usually these are filed in the “self-help” section. What is noticeably absent from these books is a Christian voice. Instead, the Christian message is, “Go to church.”
If, like me, you are a Christian professionals who has left the church, I have a soft spot in my heart for you. I know how hard it is. But you have gifts. The trick is to find a way to offer them to those who need them. If you do, you’ll never go hungry. People are remarkably generous when you meet a need in their life.
Like me, you may find that the online platform offers a way to do this. But if that's not your thing, there are abundant opportunities in the face-to-face world as well. When you find a place to plug in, you may discover you are more alive to God than ever before, and more useful to people. You no longer pastor a church. You are part of God’s ecclesia.
In Florence, Italy, Julie and I stood in awe of a massive cathedral, called the Duomo. Looking up at the vast ceiling, it was impossible not to feel the grandeur of God. But I was conflicted. The art on the ceiling depicted Jesus casting hordes of people into eternal flames where they were tormented by demons. Circling the top of the Duomo, even above God, were portraits of the patrons who had given big donations for the building of the structure. It was a dizzying mix of piety and propaganda.
I have the same ambivalence as we drive through the southeastern United States. The landscape is dotted with quaint churches, many of which date back hundreds of years. They look like little slices of heaven. But as a pastor, I know the insides of these buildings are like the Duomo, a mixed bag. There, friendships are made, God is worshipped, and people are taught to live better lives. But also, lines are drawn between insiders and outsiders. Friendships are shattered. And the building itself is a big drain on the peoples’ wallets.
The skyline of Charleston, South Carolina is defined by steeples, not skyscrapers. It’s very pretty. The mass of steeples is a symbol of Charleston’s tradition of religious tolerance. But they also raise a question. In a medieval village there was one church and one steeple that stood for one God and one government. In Charleston, whose church has the real God?
The Christians in the New Testament never built a building and slapped a name on it. The moment you give something in name, it takes on independent existence and its greatest concern becomes its own survival. It’s “us” against “them.” Churches can’t help but be partisan. The ceiling of ecclesia is the sky. It stands above the whole town.
A building can be an expression of ecclesia without being labeled a “church.” Icons like the Golden Gate Bridge or the Eiffel Tower or the Space Needle, or Fenway Park, remind us of our common humanity. They bring people together and help us remember that beneath the surface we are one human family.
And lest we become enamored with a sacred building, it’s good to remember Jesus’ words about the Jewish Temple.
As He was going out of the temple, one of His disciples said to Him, “Teacher, behold what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!”
And Jesus said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left upon another which will not be torn down.” (Mark 13:1-2)
Buildings, like any human art can reflect the glory of God. They can never replace it.
So what about charity? Doesn't the church do lots of good in the world? Doesn’t it care for the poor?
Well, actually, only a tiny fraction of a church’s budget goes to charity. Most is gobbled up by the maintenance of its own building and organization. Of the 50+ billion dollars given each year to churches, very little winds up actually helping the poor.
Also, charity work done by churches usually comes with strings attached. There is an agenda. The goal is not just to meet the need but to use the kindness to lure them into church.
The early Christians were know for their love. For example, they would rescue abandoned infants and adopt them. They did not do this in the name of church. They did it in the name of love. The best charity work is always accomplished by the person who meets the need of the person standing right in front of them.
If the church is so bad, why is it so full of good? Because the church has attached itself to God’s ecclesia. It has been this way for so long that we can’t imagine one without the other. Many good things have been come to us by means of the amalgam. The question is whether the amalgam is necessary. Would all the good things I have described in this episode have been possible without the church?
Yes. Church is not the source of any of these things. In our culture, the church and the ecclesia always come to the party as a couple. Only the ecclesia that comes bearing gifts.
So is church bad? That’s like asking if apples are bad. It depends on the apple. The church is a human institution, just like any other human institution. Some are better than others. In good churches, the focus is on ecclesia. There is freedom. The work of God is highlighted and the institution minimized. In bad churches, the human organization restricts human freedom and takes on the role of God.