A recent blog entry posed this question: “Can one be de-churched yet faithful?” The blogger based his query on the book “A Churchless Faith” by Alan Jamieson which deals with this phenomenon:
“The numbers of people who claim to be disciples of Jesus but want nothing to do with a church are rising, a trend that is expected to continue. Focusing on the evangelical, Pentecostal and charismatic movements, this book talks about people’s journey out of the church, the struggles this involves and how they find a meaningful church-less faith. It also suggests ways that churches and their leaders can better understand and respond to members who are thinking about leaving.”
Can one be de-churched yet faithful? A number of responses come to mind.
First off I think we need to define church. If we understand church to mean the people of God then one can hardly leave the church. To be in Christ is to be related to His people. The first relationship defines the second (1Corinthians 12:12-14). I will not enter into the debate as to whether one can lose one’s salvation beyond saying that my leanings are Calvinistic on this issue. Nevertheless this is not a key point since the folks in question still desire to follow Christ.
If one is a follower of Jesus then one is related to others who are followers of Jesus. This is a given. The question then is how healthy is this relationship.
I understand “church” in this debate as a local manifestation of the church of Christ. Here the bible is also clear. The universal church, all of God’s people throughout time and space, is manifested through local communities, local churches. Church in the bible is never just a concept. It refers to actual groups of people who gather on a regular basis to function as the family of God.
When folks talk about leaving the church they probably mean they stop meeting up with some manifestation of the local church, like X Baptist Church, or Y Assembly of God. Here I am very sympathetic to those who feel burned or burnt out by many manifestations of the local church today.
God’s people are supposed to be relational and caring. Many churches are anonymous collection of individuals running themselves to the ground running programmes. They are places where nobody really knows you and you are made to feel valued only when you have something to contribute.
God’s people are supposed to be for the weak and broken yet many churches are run like goal driven corporations where only successes are celebrated and so you end up hiding your pain and failures and wonder after awhile “why bother.”
Jesus promises us rest and we desperately need the rest because we are running ourselves ragged trying to survive in the new global economy. But when we go to church we are given another to do list as demanding and as tyrannical as the one in the office if not more so.
God has created us as “beings” with “feelings.” Yet the church seems more concerned with how much I support the church programmes and how well I get cerebral definitions of doctrines correct, than with who I am or how I feel. Often I feel they see me as a “doing” who needs to get his “thinking” correct. But I am also a “being” with “feelings.”
In short, I can fully understand why many are choosing not to equate their relationship with Christ with their participation in a particular local church. Some churches may be toxic and people need to leave such groups to regain a healthy understanding of their faith.
Therefore, instead of becoming defensive in the light of books like Jamieson’s, church leaders should take every opportunity to reexamine how they do church. The bench mark and template as always is the Scripture properly interpreted. Are we taking our cues more from the bible or from business? Can we be free enough from our cultural trappings to discern if our particular local church is really what God thinks it should be?
I believe the answers to the above challenges have implications for those disenchanted with the organizational church, our present church members, as well as for the non- Christian world looking on, wondering what is this thing called church/Christ, wondering if there any spiritual reality there worth exploring.
However, I am ever aware of the complexity of life. The truth is we live in a consumer society which daily tells us to be dissatisfied so that we can shop for the perfect product. There is therefore the danger that some of us are looking for that perfect church, just as we are looking for that perfect car/house/jeans/mediaplayer/supermarket etc. We may end up on a fruitless quest for the perfect church that exists only in heaven and in the life to come.
Furthermore, passages like 1 Corinthians 12 – 14 imply that the church functions best when it is an untidy mishmash of different types of people, people with different spiritual gifts, different social status, different age groups, men and women, people of different races etc. Diversity is God’s norm and the danger of being refugees from the institutional church is that we end up in enclaves of people just like us and miss out on God’s glorious diverse family.
Also, people who have been hurt and disillusioned tend to think of themselves as being morally superior to those who let them down. I know because I have been down that road.There is the danger that we end up thinking “we are the guys who really know how to do church. Those bozos are trapped in an old dysfunctional paradigm.”
Those “bozos” are our brothers and sisters in Christ. And, hello, we belong to each other no matter how differently we may approach ecclesiology and missions. We are all sinners saved by grace. We are children of the same heavenly father.
Elitism wears many guises. But charity is demanded of all starting with ourselves (1Corinthians 13). And we need each other including those who are different from us (1Corinthians 12: 21-26).
Recently, I received an email query from a brother asking if it was all right to move from his present church to another church. I told him it was an impossible question to answer because I needed to know him and the situation much better before even daring to offer any sort of advice.
So, can one be un-churched yet remain faithful to Christ? Depends. I wish we all had wise and honest spiritual mentors and friends to help us discern what we should do at key junctions of our lives. We do need others.
We may have to leave a particular local church. But we will always need community. We will always need church in whatever form because we will always need our brothers and sisters as we journey towards our heavenly home.
Your brother, Soo-Inn Tan