Why Church Can Never Be Fixed
For as long as I can remember, people have been trying to fix the church. The idea is that if we find the right formula we can get things back on track. We modernize the music, reformat the service, put a finer point on the theology, change the meeting place, make it harder, make it easier, make it sexier, make it stodgier… In spite of endless tweaking, the statistics all point in the same direction: church is dying.
The reason why no modification of church can fix the church is that church itself is the problem. Church is a human institution born of marriage between following Jesus and political power. It is the triumph of Rome, not Christ. It is almost exactly like the Pharisaic Judaism that Jesus opposed. It is sustained by tradition, rituals and creeds, not a living connection between the soul and its Maker.
Ecclesia, not Church
To modern Christians, these words are heresy. We are so steeped in church that we can’t imagine anything else. Jesus comes in one form, and one form only: church. To reject church is to reject Jesus. To be out of step with church is to be at odds with God.
This assumption has no basis in the teachings of Jesus. The word translated “church” in the New Testament (ekklēsia, ἐκκλησία) does not refer to the human institution that developed much later.
Ecclesia is God drawing all things into oneness with himself and harmony with each another. It has no borders, no creeds, and no religious rituals, no Pope, no clergy, and no buildings. It could never marry Caesar.
Ecclesia is an ocean, a sky, a universe. It is free. It cannot be contained. It releases people to be fully themselves. In the years immediately following Jesus’ death, ecclesia transformed the world. In the fourth century, Rome harnessed ecclesia for power. By the fifth century the marriage was complete and ecclesia became church.
But ecclesia cannot be stopped, not by Rome, not by anyone. It continued, both in the church and out of it. This summer, I will show the difference between ecclesia and church. My goal is to return to the glory of ecclesia. Today I’ll give you seven reasons why I had to leave the church to follow Jesus, but first, allow me to share a bit of my personal journey.
Why I Went Into Hiding
As I write, Julie and I are living in a small travel trailer we call “Peregrino” (Spanish for “pilgrim” or “wander”). Two years ago, I left my job as a pastor and resigned my post as a seminary professor. To most people, it appeared that we had retired and set off on permanent vacation. But we’re not on vacation. We’re on the lamb.
One of the things I most dislike about church is that you can only be close with people in the church. Those outside of church are always some kind of missions project. I was aware of this. I knew that by leaving church, I was changing my status from “friend” to “missions” project.
As hard as that was, there was something worse. Church had defined my life. Now what? I felt like the people on Wall-E who can barely walk after being cared for by machines for so long. I was wobbly. Disoriented. I went on a spiritual walkabout—to be more accurate, a spiritual wobbleabout. I tried being an agnostic. I meditated on the Bhagavad Gita. I strained to follow the Buddha and detach. I tried being an atheist. This journey was rich in discovery but I kept missing Jesus. I realized I’m stuck being a Christian. I decided to take a second look at my faith.
For two years, I have been rebuilding from the ground up. Part of this is rethinking my beliefs. I am sharing that journey here on Curb Your Dogma and at my blog. Also, since my lifestyle was no longer defined by church, I had to discover what it meant to follow Jesus. The result was Anchorpoint, a way of life based on the seven core teachings of Jesus. So my beliefs and way of life are taking shape. But what about relationships?
In Search of Friends
Church once provided me with an endless supply of kosher friends. It even told me when and where to meet and what to do. Without church, who were my friends? How would I meet them? Were there any restrictions?
I seek authentic Christian living outside of church. But is there such a thing? Can you leave church and still be a follower of Jesus? I wrestled with this question for years but now answer with an emphatic “Yes!” In fact, leaving church for ecclesia has been like moving from a boarding house to a mansion.
I have no desire to bash church but my story would be incomplete if I didn’t describe what led me to take this drastic step. I have hesitated until I could at least trace a way forward. I am a fellow pilgrim. The one thing I know for sure is that I must take this journey. If you choose to join me, all the better. I thank God for you and welcome you. I would love some friends who don’t draw lines.
Thanks, Friends & Family!
What makes me cringe, what made me almost not do this at all, is the thought of offending the wonderful people I have known in church: my family, my friends, and my former colleagues. If it weren’t for your living faith, I would have missed much of the glory of God. I owe you everything. But I am grateful to you, not to church.
I hope my story will be useful to you. If you’re looking for a template, look to Jesus. But if you’re looking for an honest account of someone seeking a fresh way to follow Christ, you’ve found it. I begin this week with seven reasons why I was compelled to leave the church.
Seven Reasons I Left the Church to Follow Jesus
Reason #1: Church kept messing up my friendships.
My first church job was as a youth leader in a big church. It was my first behind-the-scenes look at church. I was surprised at how much tension lay beneath the surface. From the outside, it was all smiles and halleluias. But those on the inside knew that, beneath the surface, the ground was riddled with fault lines and that at any moment the whole thing might come tumbling down.
I experienced that very thing in the first church I pastored. After only six months, it split. I took the “good half” and started over. We thanked God that we weren’t like the “bad half” and wouldn’t have to go through that again. But, over time, every last person in the “good half” became annoyed about something and left.
I had a few safe friends, but they were on the outside. The closer someone got to the center of church the more certain it was that that something would come along and wipe out our friendship.
Julie and I puzzled over this. Why were church friends unsafe? The answer was those fault lines. It was just a matter of time before some issue emerged that forced us to take sides. In most cases, the issues were trivial. The divisions were not.
I hated the way church kept destroying my friendships over trivial issues. These were good people, every last one of them of them. I loved them. I still do. I finally decided that I loved people too much to go to church with them.
So friendships within the church were difficult. But friendships outside the church were impossible.
Reason #2: Church divided the world into “insiders” and “outsiders”
Here is song I grew up singing in church. My dad reminded me of it just this week. As a child, I never even considered its meaning. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wl8yW-zIzQc
One door, and only one,
And yet its sides are two:
"Inside' and "Outside."
On which side are you?
One door, and only one,
And yet its sides are two:
I'm on the inside,
On which side are you?
On which side are you? This raises at least three hard questions.
- Who defines inside and “outside?
- How does an insider relate to an outsider?
- Which side is Jesus on?
Almost every time Jesus got in trouble it was for treating outsiders like insiders. This made insiders furious.
I refuse to think of the world as insiders and outsiders. I only observe that people experience the love of God to greater and lesser degrees. If someone is missing the party, it’s never because they are on the outside but because they have not yet drawn near to God.
Reason #3: Rather than setting me free to think, Church told what to think
Since the world of the church is made of insiders and outsiders, it is necessary for experts to draw and defend the lines between insiders and outsiders. Much energy is spent defining and defending these lines. Many churches make a pretense of free thinking but in reality, only the accepted view is acceptable. As Emerson put it,
“I hear a preacher announce for his text and topic the expediency of one of the institutions of his church. Do I not know beforehand that not possibly can he say a new and spontaneous word? Do I not know that, with all this ostentation of examining the grounds of the institution, he will do no such thing? Do I not know that he is pledged to himself not to look but at one side,—the permitted side, not as a man, but as a parish minister? He is a retained attorney, and these airs of the bench are the emptiest affectation.”
I think of truth as a magnetic center, drawing all things inward. As we move away from truth we experience pain. Pain is a good teacher that will eventually bring every lost sheep home.
It does not bother me that I am on a different page than others. I trust the power of truth in their life and enjoy hearing about their journey. What I don’t like is when people tell me what they have been told to believe or, worse yet, what I must believe. I love to hear what others think and remain open to being shaped by their insights. I lose interest when they prescribe their beliefs as the “one true path” and tell me what I must think.
Reason #4: Church turned me into a clergyman
My Baptist denomination loves to talk about the “priesthood of the believer.” The idea is that every person has the same standing before God. I wholeheartedly agree. In practice, however, it isn’t true. We congratulated ourselves on not needing a priest like the Catholics. But a pastor is just a priest in street clothes.
In every denomination, pastors are thought to have a special connection with God. Why else would their name be plastered on the church sign? Why else would they be the main one to speak for God each Sunday? Many pastors try to teach their flock not to to think of them this way—I know I did. It’s no use. If you’re the only person qualified to speak for God on Sundays you’re the only one qualified to pray for them at the hospital. Like it or not, you are clergy.
I can tell you from experience that pastors have a terrible time keeping their sanity. Too much is laid on them. Laypeople develop a dependency. It is a spiritual welfare system.
When I tell people they can live a Christian life without church, the response I have come to expect is, the question, “Who will feed me?” If an adult asked this question about physical food we would smack them on the head and tell them to grow up. For some reason in the spiritual realm it is perfectly acceptable to be dependent. We need a mother bird to chew our food for us. It’s lose-lose. The pastor gets burned out. The people don’t mature.
Reason #5: Church reduced a transcendent connection to a weekly routine
In church, everything revolves around Sunday. The pastor polishes his sermon. Musicians rehearse. The announcement lady practices getting the right tone. The projectionist loads up all the right fonts and images. Greeters greet. Ushers ush. Everyone plays their part, even the audience. “Greet each another.” “Stand and sing.” “Sit down and shut up.”
It’s a repeat of last week: second verse, same as the first. An hour later, it’s all over. It was like setting off fireworks. Sometimes it’s exciting and we walk away saying, “Wow! Did you see that?” More often, it’s a dud.
Dud or not, it’s all we have. Everything hinges on that one hour show. The Sunday morning extravaganza is when the sheep get fed—or not. One of the most common reasons people give for leaving a church is, “I’m not getting fed.”
Even if you pull off the show every week and people leave with tingles running up and down their spine, there is no escaping the fact that it was a show. How did following Jesus get turned into this? Is the weekly pageant really what Jesus had in mind when he said “Follow me?” If so, why didn’t he say a single word about it?
Reason #6: Church has an abominable history
As a scholar, my specialty is the New Testament. As a pastor, I was up to my neck in the local church. What I saw was that when I compared the two things was a sharp contrast. What I read in the pages of the New Testament was not what I saw in church. I wondered how this happened.
I went back to my church history to see if I had missed something. I made my way through Justo González’s, Story of Christianity. It just made things worse. There it was in black and white: We had veered off course in the fourth century and never recovered. The church is a hybrid of Jesus’ teachings and Roman power. The fact that being off track has a long tradition does not sanctify the error.
Of course there are wonderful people in church history who left us with a magnificent heritage. I’m not suggest we throw that away. What I am suggesting is that the glory goes to the Spirit of God working in individuals, not to the human institution. We revere those who heard a living Voice and followed it, even though it meant breaking tradition.
Reason #7: Church is an idol
What finally pushed me past the point of no return was the fact that for many people, church is a substitute for the living God, in other words, an idol. Church is where you meet God. Church teaches you how to live. Church is how you get to heaven. As Bill Hybles loves to say, “The local church is the hope of the world.”
Watch how easily the word “Christ” replaces the word “church” in the preceding paragraph:
Christ is where you meet God. Christ teaches you how to live. Christ is how you get to heaven. Christ is the hope of the world.
Christ may be the Savior in heaven but church is the Savior on earth. Being a good Christian means going to church. If you remove the church from many people’s lives there is nothing left. That should give us pause. Is our life rooted in the living God or are we dependent on a human institution.
I know that what I'm saying steps on toes here—more like necks. These ideas threaten livelihoods, question traditions, and call for the abandonment of institutions.
More personally, the transition from church to ecclesia may shake your whole sense of self. If your life rests on the church and the church is called into question, you entire existence is suddenly insecure.
If it helps any, I don’t enjoy this. I have just been through it. I know firsthand how miserable it is. I wish it were not necessary. But I am convinced that if Christianity is to survive in the new millennium, it must recapture the wildness and glory of ecclesia. It will never do this as long as ecclesia is chained to the church. Two things must take place.
- The chain of church must be broken.
- The life of ecclesia must be entered.
That is what this summer is all about.