In 2017 I returned to making the problem of God my professional focus and therewith transitioned from a ten-year break doing whatever my hands found to do. Before that break my primary work was with people on the same trajectory, albeit with different faith commitments, wrestling with the problem of God. Some were people starving for an authentic relationship with God within the church on their way out. They were tired and frustrated and many were abused and exploited by the church. And they would experience God draw near in Person and find some refuge in other churches and home groups. But I mostly spent my time with those who had long deconverted from Christianity and were now wrestling with what to do and make of their belief that “God is not” now that they had experienced God. And by “experienced God” I mean they had experienced God draw near in Person to speak directly and immediately to them and even bring healing to some.
I thoroughly enjoyed all sessions including courses, seminars, cuppas and gatherings with people. But part of the process was transitioning people over from the work I was doing to the regularity of church attendance. Both kinds of people, those finding God as Christians and those finding God as the long deconverted, experienced a strong discrepancy between wanting to further develop a relationship with God and the expectations and demands of the church that people not only do church but make church synonymous with worshipping and hearing from God. They were in church to pursue a relationship with God and rejected for being questioning and self-educating and for actually expecting to be meeting with God in and through church. But they were disappointed. It took from six months to a year for people to come back to me and not that “church is not about God”. And not only were they right but I agreed with them. Their tragedy was devastating for me. I’d see people literally transformed and renewed by experiencing God leaving as emaciated and frustrated as they were before that. But few supporting were willing to explore this and everyone beloved the answer was to plant yet another church.
I decided instead that I couldn’t do it anymore, that I was wrong in transitioning people to church. I hadn’t made doing church my focus because I believed the problem was one of people not experiencing God. I didn’t realize that my frustrations with church were also their frustrations. Yet where they were no longer willing to continue believing in a God they hadn’t and couldn’t experience I was wrestling with the discrepancy between experiencing God and the general absence of God in the church. I realized that I’d been naïve. People regularly experienced God but are schooled out of it in and through the Church (link). What’s more is that “doing church paradigm” is so strong that I didn’t know what to do if not doing church. I didn’t know how to build on what I was doing while concluding that I no longer wanted to do church or encourage people to do church.
So I took a long break … and then God spoke to me so I’ve been back working the problem of God. And I’m still seeing people being frustrated by the Church and leaving emaciated as excruciating schooled out of a relationship with God.
Last year I attended the Vineyard Conference in SA aware that after a ten-year break I would have to stomach the religious lingo but wasn’t quite prepared for speaker after speaker arguing the centrality of the church. It seems that, for them, everything begins and ends and finds its place in the church. But what really, really got to me was someone standing up and saying “Let’s worship God with our finance!” And then, what, spend our time listening to someone speak. Hmmmm. I’m sorry, that’s just not enough. I’m not “doing church” and want to “meet with God”. I’m not happy with a transactional tack on at the end. In church the highest priority is preaching followed by tithes and then perhaps worship. The lowest priority is immediately experiencing God. This is one small step away from other Pentecostal/Charismatic churches. For example where people say things like “Jesus gave his all for you so the least you can do is open your wallets … it’s all about the church” or “God is doing such amazing things … the church (business) has tons of money in its bank account in the middle of a recession so keep giving.” The tragic thing is those are actual statements from the pulpit with the last summarized. It’s tragic and disgusting and I won’t have anything to do with it.
I know many well-meaning professionals committed to the Church. They believe wholeheartedly that people like myself are against the Ekklesia gathering. We’re not. It’s right there in the usage of the world “Ekklesia”! Why do you keep accusing and not listening? The issue is not gathering but what the focus of the gathering is. And if you can’t recognize that the Ekklesia gathers naturally and intentionally then why should the Church be recognized? There’s a need for mutual respect here. But where I’m apologizing for you amidst other exploitive churches you don’t lend me the same recognition and validation? What people like myself are against is the institutionalism, extortion and sleight of hand. We’re against the business of the Church taking on the identity of the Ekklesia and making itself central to the practice of the faith and even definitive thereof. What’s more is that I’m infuriated that there’s so little willingness among those committed to doing church to fix what what’s wrong with the Church and with what they’re doing. Instead the Church and its professional leaders take the morsels of God’s activity as sanctioning and validating what they’re saying and doing and then rely on the Church to solipsistically promote themselves as its God-given leaders. Here the Church stands as the modern equivalent of the early “letters of recommendation” someone once told us not to rely on for ministry. Here’s the rub — it’s not the size of your church or the number of church plants that determines your status as a person so stop transferring this onto yourself as a minister and stop judging people done with the Church for not planting churches.
Moving forward I will no longer recommend the Church as established business and institutions. Sure some are different. But when the exception is being used to justify the norm something is incredibly wrong. I don’t believe in temporary refuges as they will soon enough be normalized. There’s a paradigm at work that schools people into doing church and that paradigm is highly persuasive and problematic. I’m committed to deconstructing it and replacing doing church with practicing the relational presence of God. In fact our heritage as a faith is largely generated by a rich heritage of church leavers (link). If I have to choose between the Church and the Ekklesia, as I’m forced, to then I’m outa here,
This year I skipped the conference …