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.