Moving beyond Church as the practice of the faith

I’ve been writing about the institutional model of church and understand both Catholicism and Protestantism to hold to this model, gathering people to worship and then respectively the Eucharist and Message. Yet the church is not an institution but rather an organism consisting of the people who are the Ekklesia. Nevertheless, despite the reality of the Ekklesia as the people the practice of the Christian faith as Catholics and Protestants has long centered what it means to be a practicing Christian on attending a meeting held in a building, by ordained staff or clergy with approved volunteers, and makes attendance and membership synonymous with a saving faith.

My most immediate concern with this lies with the fact that the Church serves as a barrier to people seeking God from outside the Church and prevents many within the Church from truly finding God by making a relationship with God synonymous with faithfully attending, supporting, and serving within churches. People are left starving for God outside and within the Church. meaning that they lack for a meaningful and consistent relationship with God.

While those outside the Church are left with questions as to whether there is a god and of the gods which is truly God those within the Church are left without a meaningful relationship with God in the practice of their faith. Within the Church we make a relationship with God synonymous with worship and Eucharist or Message while finding ourselves uncertain and insecure about whether and how to hear from and experience God. Furthermore, we are often weirded out by the notion of what it means to experience God and what the value and purpose thereof is. And we are often not happy with what is both hyped and pushed onto people and boxed up as an experience of God.

For a faith that’s ostensibly about a relationship with God, Christianity is curiously conflicted about what, whether, when, why and how to experience God and confused and uncertain about what the practical value of such may actually be.

Much work has gone into questioning and evaluating the institutional model of Church, but not enough had gone into exploring the practice of the presence of God and he role thereof in the gathering of the Ekklesia.

The answer to the problems associated with the institutional model of church isn’t the institution of a yet another model of doing church. Yet this is precisely where most of the focus has been the past few decades — questioning the older forms of the institutional church only to focus on creating newer institutional churches. The whole goal of Church Growth as a field is on how best to grow churches and most churches simply buy into it. And many church movements consider churches and church planting as their number one priority, for example is the Vineyard Movements 2018 conference where speakers such as a John and a Carol Arnott, Phil Strout, and Costa Mitchell affirmed that the faith and professional ministry is all about church and churches. I’m sure other movements wouldn’t disagree with this, evidencing how entrenched the doing church paradigm is and the degree to which it defines our priorities.

Yet many have been questioning what exactly we’re doing when doing church and whether there is another way.

  • Leonard Sweet and Brian McLaren have long considered the shifting cultural foundation and the expression of Christianity in relation to such. McLaren’s A New Kind Christian and The Church on the Other Side are still well worth the read as is Sweet’s So Beautiful: Divine Design for a life and Church. However, the Emerging Church is more a reboot of doing church around cultural identity and values coupled with a review of the institutional model as determined by modernity as the only and way way of doing church. Though the emerging church hasn’t grown into and proven itself as a movement in itself, it plays a vital role in envisioning and renewing existing churches and enabling innovation around when and how we do church. Many, such as Gerardo Margi and Gladis Ganiel in The Deconstructed Church: Understanding Emerging Christianity, provide a seemingly sound critique of the emerging church while seeming to completely miss the point of the movement itself. It is evident both that Christianity is among those religions shrinking in the postmodern world and rebuttals often contrast the values of one culture against another. They’re not actually engaging in the fundamental transitions in our society. What’s complicated for the emerging church is that they’re both questioning the institutional church and recognizing the fundamental shift in society while acknowledging with humility ha hey have no set answers. Here others, like Fresh Expressions, are more accepted because they’re only dealing with the change in society rather than questioning the institutional model of doing church. A reading of Jacques Derrida’s Religion sans Religion or John D. Caputo’s Repetition and retrieval quickly establish that the institutional model is being defended by many and the real change in society glossed over on the premise of a faith that Johannes Krüger establishes as fideism between Metatheism: Early Buddhism and Traditional Christian Theism and Sounding Unsound: Orientation into Mysticism.
  • Fresh Expressions and Frank Viola are among those who argued that the church is invitational and see the decline of the church as rooted in a reduction or loss of purpose and mission — the church has no reason to be and has lost relevance. Fresh Expressions argues for a missional expression of church centered on the missio dei or mission of God while Frank Viola argues for an embrace of the kingdom of God as the vehicle of personal and social change. Both, however, embrace the institutional model of doing church though Viola also seeks an organic model and Fresh Expressions seeks new versions and expressions of the institutional model. An exploration of both will certainly draw out and nuance their differences, but the former emphasizes the missional approach for establishing churches and the latter the kingdom of God as a measurement of whether we are playing real church’s that enable personal and social change. Such explorations differ from the emerging church in being less about arguing about and questioning the institution of the church than in questioning how the church may recapture it’s vitality and purpose. Where the Emerging Church questions the identity and purpose of the Church here only the Purpose and Activity is in question. It’s easier to work out what we must do than what we must be.
  • Phyllis Tickle, in The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why and Emergence Christianity: What it Is, Where it’s Going, and Why it Matters, provides us a retrospective as an overview of the fact that Christianity radically redefines itself every 500 years or so, encouraging us not to get riled up about such a “Reformation” is once again in motion. Such forward-reflecting historical theology is fantastic as it helps us understand that the church not only does but also must change.
  • Yet there are others who simply question and deconstruct the institutional model, bypassing the angst filled philosophical and theological problems of others. Anthony Anderson, in Deconstructing Church: The Allure of the Machine and the Hope for a Better Way exploring demands and costs of the institutional model. Jim Henderson and Matt Casper explore Christianity in Jim and Casper go to Church: Frank Conversations about about Faith, Churches and Well-meaning Christians, providing us with an outsider-insider atheist-Christian conversation about church and what’s communicated through the services of churches. Richard Jacobson, in Unchurching: Christianity without Churchianity simply deconstructs the underlying paradigm governing the institutional model uncritically accepted by Catholicism and Protestantism and determining their centering of the faith in the Church. Hess are potentially most fruitful to read because they’re not written by philosophers and theologians.
  • In Church Refugees: Sociologists reveal why people are DONE with church but not their faith the general assumptions provided by the institutional paradigm as to why people leave churches and the expected results are proven incorrect. People are leaving the institutional church in the postmodern world for good reasons. As I see it, their diaspora is less accidental than the deliberate work of God.

And though there are many well-researched and -written explorations and deconstructions of the institutional Church and church leavers, as evidenced above, there is not yet any real alternative to the institutional church that isn’t in itself just another institutional model of gathering people to do church and grow churches. And though the institutional churches tend to evolve and incorporate changes to how they do church the only real revolution took place in the Protestant Reformation and transitioned authority from the papacy to the Bible and therewith the central activity of doing church from Eucharist to Message. We can change up the style of what we’re doing, but if all we’re doing is changing our style of teaching and participating and our venues, are we really embracing an alternative paradigm? Neither the Catholic nor Protestant paradigms continue proving life giving by enabling Christians to grow in their relationship with God and seekers to find God. And though such does happen, it happens more despite what than by what the Church is doing when doing church.

I believe that we can let go of the institutional Church and be better together as co-contributing collaborators. But this doesn’t happen by establishing yet another institutional expression of Church that gathers to meet about God. This would only perpetuate the practice of the Christian faith as the practice of doing church. Instead the answer lies in enabling the Ekklesia, as individuals and as individuals who gather, to embrace the practice of the faith as the practice of the presence of God. We need to move from doing church to being church, from attendance to practice, and from membership to relationship.

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We’re better together

Human beings live, work, and socialize with each other. We are inherently social individuals who may have our own private inner lives but who also need the company of and interaction with others. And when doing things together, and for the reciprocal benefit of ourselves and others, we prove to be mutually enriching, enabling, and contributive. It should not be surprising then that exercising and practicing spirituality is both a social and a relational endeavor rather than individualistic or self-centered.

Christians often contrast spirituality as self-centered and faith as Christ-centered, with the institutional expressions of Church demanding the sacrificial activity of going to a church, becoming an official member, and then volunteering and giving financially toward the work of the Church in service to God.

The problem I have with this contrast between spirituality and faith is that it’s a false dichotomy that isn’t being sufficiently critiqued. It also makes any questioning and critiquing of the institutional church synonymous with an offense against God. The truth is that we are not simply better together but instead only when mutually enriching each other through contributive participation. We need to question what the practice of our faith is, and the degree to which our religious institutions are enabling that practice or crippling it. And when seeking alternative gatherings, question whether we are simply changing the manner in which we organize our gathering or properly transitioning from gathering to meet about God to meeting with God.

Church, practiced as meeting only about God, may be likened to gathering for a meal where the guest of honor never pitches and where you may only ever or and eat a starter. On the menu may be a whole host of potential meals, but you don’t have access to them. Over time, a deep hunger grows within you and is coupled with a deeper frustration that something is amiss and disappointment that though you’re eating you are never truly able to get either full or nourished. But you are told to buy into the support the institution because it is the Church. You believe you are doing the right thing by doing so, perhaps even believing that you need to go to a Church in order to relate to God. But when do you meet with God? How do you meet with God during Church? How does Church enable and nurture a relational spirituality rooted in the immediate presence, voice and activity of God? Many attend and serve in Church for years and are quick to ask how we know we are hearing the voice of God or discerning God’s presence and activity. This is foundational stuff and evidence of the degree to which the Church may replace a relationship with God.

By doing church, many are doing the wrong thing for the right reasons. Let’s meet differently for the purpose of meeting with God.

In the next post we’ll look at meeting with each other and the following post meeting with God.

Inbounding Podcast …

We’ve long debated a podcast for Urban Mystic and I’m happy to announce that we finally have one inbound. On the podcast we’ll explore what we’re doing and why in order to motivate the adoption of relational spirituality as an alternative paradigm to the current dichotomy between religion as institutionalized, and commodified, and spirituality as privatized, and completely interiorized.

Regarding the schedule, we’ve got a monthly gathering the last Sunday of every month and the podcast will follow that event. This month will include a podcast ahead explaining what we’re doing as a monthly gathering and why we’re doing it.

We’d appreciate you looking us up at http://urbanmystic.podbean.com ahead of launch and subscribing.

The church as organism

When deconstructing church many analogously refer to the Church as an organism rather than as an institution. This enables a critique of organizations and institutions which take on the label of “church” and demand membership from believers but which are in fact only Christian flavored and inspired institutions whose essence is a legal incorporation as not-for-profit businesses and public-benefit-organizations. This distinction enables us to critique Church without rejecting the Ekklesia as a body of people headed by the risen Lord who remains relationally connected with His people, leads them in His ongoing mission, and unites them in Himself as a cross-cultural people. We therefore speak of the people as the Ekklesia and the institution as the Church. Where the essence of the Church is legal the essence of the Ekklesia is personal.

Continue reading “The church as organism”

The church as people or institution

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Christianity has long maintained a detachment from the self and attachment to Christ as part of individuals maturing toward Christlikeness. However, as an institution, and not-for-profit business, the Church proves quite the opposite. It is as though attachment to Christ had become synonymous with attachment to the Church.

A commonly held and reinforced assumption is that following Christ of necessity, and through divine ordination, includes membership to the Church. This view originates from the pulpit, is reinforced at church conferences, and gets regurgitated during conversations. The whole goal of church appears geared toward getting visitors to become members and volunteers who turn bring others into Church. And the purpose of a calling from Christ, or in response to the pulpit, is understood overwhelming by churches to mean schooling people toward professional careers in ministry as related to planting, maintaining, and growing churches and, if we must, parachurch organizations.

Continue reading “The church as people or institution”

Why I’m “post-church”

Credit: Unchurching.com

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.

Continue reading “Why I’m “post-church””

Opening to God

The third key conversation that’s regular at Urban Mystic is about how to cultivate, nurture or develop a relationship with God. This conversation is tied up with people’s past experience of God and their present lack thereof. And the questions asked differ depending on whether people are spiritual but not religious, committed to spirituality and not religion, or committed Christians. Common to each is the realization that they’re not meeting with and experiencing God.

What’s common to each is that everyone has the capacity to recognize God’s Presence and hear God’s voice. Everyone has an awareness of God expressed as having recognized God’s Presence, activity and voice at some point in their life. Virtually everyone remembers a life experience where they were aware of God being there. This may be in a dream but that’s less common than being awake during the experience. Most experience God drawing near to support, assure, strengthen and encourage them during a life crisis while experience God protecting them during a life threatening situation. Also common to the experience is the tendency for others to explain their experience of God away. People don’t often tell this story because of the way others respond, but it continues to challenge the default faith position in society that God is not. Continue reading “Opening to God”