There’s something fundamentally wrong with the church, but it’s hard to put your finger on it – especially when people try to bite your finger off! And though there’s a ton of well researched and explored material related to the decline in church attendance and commitment to the Christian faith in the West, there’s little related to understanding what were actually doing when doing church and what the real problem is.
I stopped doing church back in 2006, which meant giving up my (successful) career in ministry as an urban missionary working with people seeking a relational encounter with God. I stopped doing this because people experiencing God would go on to join churches, then return a year later to argue that “church is not about God.” And I agreed with them as, after all, my relationship with God had little to nothing to do with conventional church. And though I had experienced God present in a church, specifically one focused on intimacy with God, this is, generally speaking, not what doing church is about.
Since 2006 I’ve defined myself as post-church, as detoxing from church and shedding anything related to the culture of church as synonymous with relating to God. And, in every conversation where the question of faith has come up, I’ve noted that churches make a relationship with God synonymous with doing church and that Christians seem very happy with a second-hand relationship with God reduced to doing church, devotionally reading the Bible, and contributing energy, time and money to keeping the business of church going. And though many are loving the worship and teaching in contemporary and traditional churches, tons of others are starving for relational engagement with God – even and especially within church. Though there are some people happy with church, what about the increasing number of people who are not? And what about the very real problems with church itself?
In odd support of what I’m saying, many Christians extremely committed to church have taken this to mean that I’m some form of backslider, have somehow turned to the dark side, am against Christ Himself, must be hurt and rejected, or am struggling with doubts. Many even suggest that I make a point of going to church, getting involved in the life of a local community, give of my time and money, and above all just have faith. After all, this works for them and is what is preached from the pulpit. I’ve generally noted that their assumptions about people leaving church are wrong and that this is not simply my opinion as there’s a fair amount of research on the topic. Also, they must clearly not know me or not be familiar with my past work. I’ve also noted that their recommendations don’t work for most. After all, if they did work, then surely everyone would be experiencing a meaningful relationship with God? What do they make of the fact that tons of people raised Christian and committed to their churches don’t experience God? And it’s usually here, when their rote assumptions and recommendations are in question, that a switch flips in their head. Well, if you’re not for the church, then you must be against Christ. After all, isn’t Christ all about His church? How can we say we hate the church but love Christ? Surely if we loved Christ we’d also love what He loves? After all, there are so many good things the church does.
Well, the risen Jesus Himself addresses very real concerns with the early church (reference). Surely this same Jesus would similarly review His as it stands church today? In fact, historically mounting concerns have periodically led to the drastic redefinition of where and the ekklesia meets and their agenda when doing so.
Clearly what many are trying to explore, and myself as one many others, is not being heard. Let’s briefly unpack that here.
I’m post-church because:
- There’s no middle ground. The key problem lies in the either/or assumptions. You must be either 100% for the church or you must be 100% against it. You either love the church or you hate the church. However, there’s a problem with the business of doing church. And that problem consists of the commercialization of faith and making the business of church synonymous with the ekklesia. There is simply no way I can be all in on the venture of doing church when there’s so much that’s questionable about the business itself. I can’t be all in if we can’t review and address the concerns and align the practice of doing church with pursuing, engaging, and relating to God. In the end, the true church is a living and loving collection of individuals and not the business and service itself. And that body of Christ, the ekklesia, can be found throughout our Western society and some of them can even be found mixed into churches. And the ekklesia is all about relating to God present in Person. The problem is that doing church is such a strong and controlling paradigm that it is not open to review, that it collapses a relationship with God into itself, and that it schools people out of relating to God experienced present in Person to believing in God solely on the basis of faith apart from any real or meaningful relationship.
- Church businesses are justified through incidentals. I’m only highlighting three incidentals, though you can find more.
- First, the primary service is a meeting about God and is justified as sufficient solely on the basis of a few exceptions where God is experienced. On the whole, where people aren’t learning there’s no teaching taking place. What then is the point of making the Message the primary focus of the Sunday service?
- Secondly, during the week the pastor and people occasionally intervene in a crisis or people experience God through church members. If the business of church is justified on this basis, we could justify the continued use of coal power plants on the basis of a few charitable donations; political nepotism on the basis of good family values; and every religion, including the atheisms and secularisms (“yes” they’re plural and “yes” they’re serving as religious worldviews). If you want to do good things, then do them. But you can’t justify what your doing intentionally on the basis of what happens accidentally.
- Lastly, genuine discipleship irregularly and spontaneously takes place through relationships. The business of doing church is, however, not about making disciples. It’s about building a financially successful venture through gathering people on a Sunday to do church and then, somehow, arguing that this venture and activities are synonymous with experiencing and relating to God. The church feels they’re doing well when making volunteers who help make church happen and sees these volunteer as disciples serving the Kingdom. Is this, however, what Christ has in mind? Sure churches try make volunteer-disciples out of church-goers, but is that the same thing as fulfilling Christ’s mandate as extending oneself into the world as image and representative empowered, enabled and led by the Spirit? When we make the primary thing the secondary thing and the secondary thing the primary thing, then our objective is not the same. By making doing church our primary work we’re not making our primary work either the ekklesia or kingdom our vocation, business, or calling.
Let’s not get trapped into either box. It’s not helpful.