Church and Me

Several times each week my wife and I talk about how to redesign church. We’ve come up with numerous ideas. Here are a couple of them, once-a-month-church which literally only meets once a month and doesn’t require a full time pastor. Or here’s a church that non-believers wish someone would start tomorrow in their neighborhood, it’s called Nothing But Kids, adults serve while the kids do church and the non believing parents learn the bible by teaching the kids.

What makes these conversations ironic is that I stopped attending church twelve years ago making Barbara and I sound like a couple of dry religious drunks.

However, since I’m also a fairly public part time paid-to-be-Christian my religious life is still more active than most. On most days you’ll find me counseling, coaching pastors, leaders, non-Christians to follow God, Jesus and even attend church.

Add to that, that several times a year I’m invited to speak at a church service affording me the opportunity to compare and contrast how church may or may not have changed from what I remember twelve years ago. It might also help you to know that for 25 years prior to dropping out I planted two churches preached several times a week, led mission teams overseas and wrote articles and books about worship, evangelism and leadership.

I say all that to say that from my perspective I get all the church I need. I just don’t go to church anymore and no, I don’t miss it.

The most common question people ask when the topic of my non-church attendance comes up is what I do for community. It used to be “The Lords Table or Teaching” but those have somehow been replaced with deep concern for community, so let me address that.

I pastored for 25 years, meaning “I get church” – I understand, the soap operas, the hopes, the idealism, the pain, the disappointment and the periodic sense of satisfaction one experiences as a pastor. I also understand the powerful sense of corporate worship people can experience in some churches.

Biblical community is less about a group of people standing together singing songs in a room from 11-12 and more about a deep sense of commitment to Christ, his cause, each other and last but not least – the people Jesus misses most – The Outsiders. When I was attending church this kind of community was episodic at best. Maybe your experience is different.

It may help you to know that I was not born into the Christian church culture. I parachuted in as a young adult. I thought I was joining a movement, a mission but I discovered that people don’t go to church to be on a mission. They attend largely to remind themselves that they’re Christians. They attend to feel a sense of belonging to something bigger than themselves and to be inspired to keep going. Many go simply because if they stopped going then their wayward husbands or kids would stop attending. And they prefer making that trade

Using this definition of community it turns out that I have as much biblical community as I need both online and in real time. I even participate in a once a month small group of believers trying to figure life out and how to keep things real with Jesus and His mission. I doubt that many Christians would count that as “church”.

What about that scary word Christians love to pull out when all other options have failed– accountability. Accountability can’t be legislated, demanded or organized. It can only be experienced between two people who trust each other. I have several people in my life who have “walk in rights”, my wife being one of them. They have my permission to tell me what ever they think about me (good or bad) anytime they feel like it. And yes some of these people have “challenged” me about my lack of not belonging to an institutionalized church. I take them very seriously, listen carefully and explain my thinking to them. I don’t allow everyone this privilege but in order to keep growing I must provide a few people this right even when I choose to not do what they wish I’d do. I think of them the same way I do about the people who edit my books. I will never publish a book that someone else has not edited. It is impossible for us to edit ourselves. We are too easy on ourselves. We are too idealistic. We avoid pain. Nevertheless I don’t accept all the changes editors wish I would.

The good news for my church going friends is this – Most people are not like me. They do attend a church. Many of them really, really like it. Others feel that on balance attending church is the lesser of two evils (at least that’s the way some of them explain it). I challenge them back by wondering if they don’t trust themselves enough to follow their hearts and walk away. They disagree with me and we keep meeting and praying with each other and laughing about how weird all of us humans are.

Here’s what I think. I think I’ve graduated from church. I carry enough Bible in my heart to keep me busy for the rest of my life. I’ve had enough encounters with God to nourish my soul till I get to Heaven (or purgatory :-). I’ve acquired so many friends who are heartfelt followers of Jesus that I’ll never have time to get to all of them and finally, I have so many people depending on me to keep my promise to Jesus that I’ll always try to put him first that if I started messing up too much they would chase my ass up one street and down the other until I got back with the program.

I’ll bet some of you were with me until I used the word “ass” 🙂

Which of course is exactly why I did it.

31 thoughts on “Church and Me

  1. Jim, great thoughts. I may not have the former 25 years of pastoral experience under my belt, but I struggle with the whole concept of church, too. I have felt guilty for not going, but every time I tried to engage in a church something would happen that would cause me to disengage. Finally, I decided that God knew me well enough to know that I would do better work on the outside. That’s the truth that I was finally able to accept. Likewise, you do great work outside the walls of church and you get to do it while being your totally true self. I say you’re blessed.

  2. Jim – I am a P.K. and I can totally relate. You articulate a lot of my thoughts and I have seen what pastors experience for many years. I have attended your OTM seminars and it’s your cutting edge thinking that will contribute change in worship in the future. Keep on keepin’ on.

  3. Jim, as usual you thoughts and how they are articulated have moved me and I will be sharing this blog with several people. Keep on being bold in the truth- today’s Christianity needs your refreshing observations!! 🙂

  4. Gosh, has it been 12 years since you stopped attending church! How time flies. I was already dancing on the edge when you introduced me to Brian McLaren. Discovering that even a pastor was struggling with many the same questions that I had, was very affirming for me.

    Officially, it has been 8 years for me – not counting a few false steps with different forms of church. In the first few years after leaving my church staff position (and church), I visited many different denominations thinking that would make a difference. It didn’t.

    For someone who never knew life before church, it was quite an adjustment to stop attending. I missed the feeling of “oneness” that flooded over me when we were worshiping together – in one voice.

    And I’ve discovered God is so much bigger, grander than I imagined within the limits of organized religion. Taking a course called, “The Stages of Faith” using Integral Theory and James Fowler’s “Stages of Faith” helped give me a context for my evolution of my faith. Here is a simple chart that gives an overview based on Fowler’s and Peck’s work:

    And, I’ve found for me since leaving the church that I have had many powerful conversations* with others about their spirituality and beliefs. And the conversations are more likely to be about the mystery of God then I ever did in church. It is now safe to talk about my doubts and reservations. I have taken ownership of my faith and opened space for others to discover their own path.

    For now, I am a Church Refugee.

    *Some of the most powerful spiritual conversations I’ve had have been at A Small Group gatherings – an association of people who are working to bring about social change, each in their own voice.

  5. Yes, yes, and yes.

    I had a meeting the other day with a pastor of a church we’re considering going to (we moved a few months ago and are looking for a new church for that reason) and I told him that in general, I really don’t get a lot out of going to church and that I think too many are focused first on the big group gathering and that I am actually drawn more to a more “organic” style/outlook of church. He seemed ok that I wasn’t going to be a “normal” churchgoer. 🙂

  6. I enjoyed reading this – I’ve had similar conversations with my husband, (and friends, one of whom is a pastor himself).

    I know I told you part of this story, Jim, but for background…I left church a year and a half ago, after having grown up in it. I’m familiar with the ups and downs and all of the drama and other things that I think are probably just a normal part of human experience — especially in groups. I’m sure that’s not why I left. Instead, church just started to feel like it was hindering my integrity over the years, and then there was a big breakdown in community that affected me personally and hurt me deeply. This was the final push that encouraged me to walk away. It wasn’t easy – for all of the reasons you’ve described here, but honestly it was the best thing I could have done. Walking away has been a blessing in many ways. Yes, I was hurt by church, but I also feel in a way, as you’ve described that I’ve “graduated” in a sense, that something has changed in me and I can’t go back. It’s not even that I don’t want to – I just can’t enter into that as it was before.

    I think personally, I’m ok with this. The reality that I feel I can’t be part of church and hold onto my integrity at the same time causes some heartache, but I’m ok with it. I can also identify with having “enough bible in my heart” and community outside of church to be healthy and growing – I really can. But one thing I really struggle with is that I have three small children, ages 10, 9 and 5. Since church was such an integral part of my upbringing – I can’t imagine their lives without it. There are good things I learned, (and a vast knowledge of the biblical stories and themes that still propel me come to mind) but there were also so many harmful things. So, as a mother who’s left church, I constantly struggle with a paradox of wanting my kids learning these themes and stories in community – but without the propaganda. I’m seriously concerned that, for my children, the potential for harm in a church outweighs the benefit.

    What to do with that?

    I still don’t have the answers. Thus, I love your “Nothing But Kids” suggestion. 🙂

    Anyway, just thoughts…and sighs.

  7. April – Jesus was able to “define himself and stay connected” – thats what you are practicing

    Jim M – Thanks for your supportive words

    Stephanie – repost at your own risk 🙂

    Kelly – he sounds like a good pastor – keep talking with him – many pastors believe what Im saying but cant afford to “come out”

  8. amy- Im reposting one of your comments on my facebook in hopes that it gets some response from a pastor

  9. Repost at your own risk. Wait. Didn’t you just say that? 🙂

    I actually unpacked my fundamental discomfort with church here, called “Losing Church”:

    Warning, strong words within, (no, not ass – just strong connections between our ideas of church and violence). But, when I finally left I just realized I’d felt so violated – and I needed to unpack that. Written from the heart.

    I’m not in facebook land, but I’d love to hear pastor thoughts.

  10. You. Have. Put. My. Life. On. Paper. A 25 year worship leader that cannot do it anymore. My husband and i also had our own church for 8 years at the end of my worship career and i now cannot step into a church. Everyone i see asks me what church i am going to… I make up names, i lie, i use my pastor wives friends churchs names that i know will not out me;) I feel a deep sense of guilt that the establishment i once so publically supported i now cannot stomache. I am “in the closet” so to speak…I am very, very happy and closer to a real, authentic walk with God the further i get away from church. It is so confusing to me but I cannot pretend anymore. Thank you for your honesty.

  11. Friend- I lie sometimes too – I use my friends church who I know wont “out” me but more and more I just tell the truth and then watch their eyes – Very few have the courage to “challenge” me to my face- some say “Ive felt that way too” . I lie periodically to save the person the embarrassment of not knowing what to say to me.

  12. first, the word, “ass” was used in scripture, so you totally get a hall pass from me. you know how i hate swearing, jim. 🙂

    second, i love the idea of re-inventing “church”. rather than being program driven with a checklist of what “good churches” do, paying attention to what the community inside and outside of church needs and providing THAT. constantly re-inventing based on the specific needs of the people. shift. change. the only thing that remains the same is looking at people through the lens of Jesus’ commitment to each of us and being committed to each other, even when we are complete assholes.

    what if we reversed our assumptions of what church SHOULD look like and innovated “community” based on those reversals?


  13. Nice article Jim.

    Brave of you to stick your neck out on the ‘church’ issue or as I refer to it ‘the Sunday Morning/Evening and Wednesday night Linus Blanket Road show.

    After years of endless hour long sermons most folk have had enough and skip church to find a whole new way of being a Yeshua follower.

    Keep up the good work in deprogramming ‘church addicts’



  14. Jim,
    I think this is a trend I am struggling with as a pastor of a church. Is having a Sunday service even worth the money it takes to rent a building? We find our services are “optional” even to our elders. It’s interesting because a majority of the people that find our church service “necessary” are the people that we feed with Grocery donations from Trader Joes, New Seasons and Whole Foods. The people that we feed on a particular Sunday have a reason to come: they need food. The people that fill our chairs might have something better to do. The ratio is 6:1 people who need groceries to people who want “community.”

    I don’t blame anyone for seeing a Sunday service as something they can take or leave. I personally agree, there are much deeper spiritual times that I have that aren’t on Sunday; and rarely do I actually have connection on a Sunday because I am a chicken with my head cut off trying to take care of something, or put away chairs, etc.

    For our church’s demographic there are more people like you than you think, so my question is this: What would be worth renting a space for? I’m not talking about a business proposition more like a spiritual endeavor. If more and more people are finding less and less worth in a group gathering as is. What would be something that “Christians” would say “if _________ happened on a Sunday morning I’d want to be there”?

  15. Geoff

    First of all I want to make it clear that I am not asking anyone to follow me in my choice. As I said in my post most people like church. I am a big fan of pastors and I try to help them think about these kinds of questions quite often in private conversations.

    Geoff- I respect and admire your sacrifice and willingness to stay in reality with your situation. Some of my other pastor friends (Randy Siever you there?) might be able to help you with the practical issues

    Here’s my solution – Limit your large public meetings to once a month (thats often enough for people now a days) Have a real church meeting with music, preaching, communion – the whole enchilada ( these meetings are especially helpful to bring new people to)

    Do the rest of your ministry THROUGH OTHERS in small action groups

    Get a day job or develop a profession for yourself -have a life outside of the church – you will feel better, make more money and if you have kids they will be happy to have two ways to answer “what does your dad do?”

    Discover how to allocate your time the way Jesus did – the smaller the group = the more time spend with them – that should help answer your question about the big church meeting

  16. Way to out me as a pastor, Jim.

    I am a pastor who doesn’t lead a church, but who is ordained and seems to be called on to pastor people who mostly don’t do church…and mostly when they are in crisis. It’s not a living, but it does seem to be a calling.

    I attend a VERY small Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) service in my neighborhood when I’m in town. It’s really more like a small group that meets on a Sunday morning in a chapel that seats 80. We rarely see more than 30 or 40 attend except on religious holidays. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, and frankly most of my former evangelical friends and pastors either think I’ve lost my faith or wonder what the hell happened to me. I don’t currently know how to answer any of them, frankly. I think I’m still in recovery.

    I don’t know what the solution is. Jim’s suggestion in the comment above seems worthy of consideration to me. Most solidly committed church people only go to church about two Sundays a month on average anyway. We used to have (at my old mega-church) people who came twice a year who would proudly tell people that we were their church. So a once a month big church party/experience sounds doable and realistic, but only if you are willing to be ok with people only showing up to about six of those a year. I guess it wouldn’t matter that much if they are plugged in to some kind of mission with a few others on a more regular basis.

    In my new tradition, the focal point of our gathering is communion. I like sharing that moment with Jesus and whoever else shows up every week. Maybe that’s just my recovery talking, but it’s a big deal to me.

    I know that my daughter, who is married with two kids and grew up a PK, is in the Henderson camp. She just doesn’t find church worth the time and energy, and has formed a little group that eats together at her house (so she doesn’t need a babysitter) each Tuesday night. It’s a closed group of about four or five couples, I think. I wasn’t invited.

    I don’t know what Jesus had in mind when he left this venture up to us. Personally I think it was reckless to let us have so much freedom in this regard. But I guess he thought it must be worth it…or that it really doesn’t matter that much after all.

  17. jim, i really like what you outlined to geoff, especially because we are currently do the things you suggest (geoff and angie, co-pastors, both have full-time jobs outside of their pastor roles and at this point really aren’t getting paid for their full-time pastor roles), we do a TON of “work” outside of sunday via, intensive journaling (based on the works of ira progoff), transformation groups, classes on uncovering our ostracized self, can we talk? sessions, etc.

    maybe moving to a one-sunday-a-month WOULD benefit our community. i am curious, was this the answer to his last few questions, “What would be worth renting a space for? I’m not talking about a business proposition more like a spiritual endeavor. If more and more people are finding less and less worth in a group gathering as is. What would be something that “Christians” would say “if _________ happened on a Sunday morning I’d want to be there”?”

    or, do you have more thoughts regarding this? would love to pick your brain…i won’t eat the bugs like a gorilla would, though.

  18. except for the names and a few other changes my story is the same one. now have a home church, our home is our church, our life is our ministry, and my wife still attends a traditional church and gets a lot from it, God bless all who walk the path set before them

  19. I feel you, Jim. I’ve been no pastor (well, I interned for a year or so). I’m only 40, so I’ve been a Christian for 18 years.

    Man, I told my wife last year: You know? I just want to have people over and fellowship and talk about God and his kingdom. Maybe we even pray and read the Bible and sing. Or maybe we just “hang out.” But the key is the community in the Spirit.

    I don’t get that between 11-12, as you say. And neither do you. Something’s got to give!

    Of course, I’m a bit afraid, to be honest with you of quitting church. I have children, for one, and I think the commitment to meeting together for worship and teaching is important.

    But what if I didn’t have children. What then? Well, I think I’d still be afraid of the Lord’s displeasure with me. That’s not on you–that’s on me. Obviously, I have things to work on with my relationship with God. I dunno man.

    But I feel you, that is for sure! Church seems so rote. And my list of complaints about mine are long.
    But as I said to a guy in church just yesterday, “You know what? I love so many people here, and I just love seeing them and saying hi and talking it up and loving them. All of this, and I really don’t care for the actual “worship service.”

    So, I go to church.


  20. One more…

    Some folks meet at their homes and do /rigorous/ teaching for the youth, training them in theology and apologetics. Then they take them on ‘philosophical mission trips.’ Once per month, they do a service project in the community.

    I’m down with that, for real.

  21. Jim, I always find your voice refreshing. Thanks for pouring it out there.

  22. Jim, you beloved Son of God, you are church. Some people form the cells and structure of the kidneys, while others are the free roaming white blood cells found everywhere, and nowhere specifically. ItI appears to me that you have stepped into your identity as a free roaming part of the body.

    I, on the other hand, represent the ass comment more closely. I have become the anus of the Body… I don’t get many acollaides, but when I shut down the eyes fog ever and the lips pray for relief. Never disrespect the ass. God even SPOKE through Ballum’s ass…

  23. Nice article, Jim. I’m glad there are people willing to share the raw realities of church life. It’s inspiring. We need people like you to show that us it’s OK to leave.

    God called my wife & I out of the institutional church a few years ago. He’s done some truly amazing things through us in the community, but we’re still looking for a church we can connect with comfortably. Haven’t had much luck so far. Maybe we’re just too weird for church.

    You’re a blessing my friend.

  24. Crystal – email me at jimAToffthemapDOTcom and we’ll chat

    Praying Medic- why is it that some of the most productive Christians I know are not involved in church- seriously- what do you really think about this BTW _ we’re still pitching Save Me – keep praying

  25. Pingback: re-defining “church” | kathy escobar.

  26. Ok, so the Church does not consist of a building, or choir, or pews etc. It is a community of believers worshipping, loving, and serving each other and the world around them. But, what you have written Jim, does not look like the picture of the Church in Acts.

  27. i note with interest that Acts is the only book with no ending, that he would write of things that sound like Acts means we are on the right path, just a thought

  28. David – I never claimed that what I do looks like the book of acts – by my way of thinking that is a false comparison anyway- no churches today look like the book of acts – who taught you that?

  29. I’m a pastor.
    I love church.
    I have liturgy.
    The church frustrates the hell out of me.
    I love your perspective.
    I love do-able evangelism.
    I hope we gather to experience grace and to be formed into Christ.
    We still hold grudges.
    We judge people as deserving and undeserving.
    We look down upon people who have the wrong faith and ideology.
    I honor your choice.
    And we need you among us.
    And I wish I could give up the deal.
    I feel trapped.
    And I do feel called to stay.
    It is all so confusing.
    I love you all.
    And church folks often annoy me the most.
    The end
    Peace to all

  30. Pingback: re-defining “church” – Guest Blog by Kathy Escobar | ieastgate

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