Reflections on "going but not
another Sunday morning at the church on the corner. For the tenth
time in two years I am listening to a message on the identity and
authority of the believer. I look around and see that, as usual,
people are enjoying the message. Afterward, I talk with a few people
who say, "what a good word that was!"
By the next Sunday, most have forgotten it.
I ask a few, "Do you remember the sermon from last week?"
Out of four questions, I get three blank
stares. A fourth question brings a semi-coherent response. How can
anyone remember last week? Our lives are filled with information. I
feel like St. Francis in "Brother Sun, Sister Moon," as he listened
to the uncomprehending Bernardo..
"Words, Bernardo. There was a time when I
believed in words."
None of these are walking in more authority
than last week, and in many cases no more victory. No lives have
changed. Some of those who heard the message continue to struggle
with a sense of calling. Others long ago gave up the struggle. Still
others have found their place in ministry within the walls, whether
it is setting up chairs, teaching Sunday school, or leading small
groups. But most could not identify their ministry, though they
might identify some of their gifts. Few of these have any idea what
it means to walk in the authority of Christ.
What's the problem? Is the problem with the
messenger? Is it the message itself? Is the problem with the people,
or with God? Why do we hear the same message again and again yet our
lives remain the same? Why do most of God's people sit passively
Sunday after Sunday, never really "knowing" what ministry and the
kingdom are about, because after all “knowing” in the biblical sense
has to do with life and experience and not merely information we
store in our heads.
In a study in 1994 under the title
"Barriers to Belief" in Scotland, Rev. John Campbell says, "many
have indicated that one of the greatest barriers to belief in
God is the Church itself." If the problem is the system, then
even our best solution is part of the problem. That leaves even
the most dedicated, visionary, passionate and revived Christians
trapped in a system which is sucking their very energy and is
simply overpowering. The way forward, therefore, may not be
hidden in slight changes and adaptations to some new forms in
"Church as we know it", but in a much more radical rediscovery
of the very nature of Church itself. Wolfgang Simson,
Houses That Change the World
What's the problem? This is an important
question, because until we know the source of the problem, we aren't
likely to find a solution. And the solution is important. Apart from
a solution, the church of Jesus will continue to sleep on, like a
mighty giant, while the world goes largely untouched. What stops us
from living a response to the good word of who we are in Christ?
This question has occupied much of my reflection in the last twenty
years, though sometimes I wasn't aware of it.
Could it be that people are lazy? Could it
be that we really don't want to live the message anyway?
Many Christian leaders believe this to be
the case. They are convinced that spiritual maturity will simply
never come to many in the body. They are convinced that there is a
block to the spiritual growth in many believers that is unlikely to
change. Some leaders fear change because it would threaten the
system that supports them. Whether it is fear or false beliefs, they
stop from considering other alternatives.
In my experience, some believers really are
content with the status quo. They don't mind sitting idly Sunday
after Sunday, doing exactly what they are told to do. Stand. Sit.
Listen. Say hello to your neighbor. Make superficial conversation.
Mostly...we sit passively.
But I would say that most believers are
uncomfortable with the status quo. They think there might be
something more to the priesthood of believers than what they
experience. They suspect that the neatness of Sunday services may be
hiding something. They wonder why the poor aren't among them. They
wonder why the revolving door is so active. They are surprised that
their relationships have remained superficial. They wonder why we
aren't making more of an impact on the world around us. And these
people are actively asking, "What is wrong with the church system?"
So what is the problem?
Facing the Problem
Could it be that the message is wrong?
Are individual believers truly called and
commissioned by Christ? Are we all to take the message of the
kingdom out into the world? Are we all called to proclaim good news?
Does the Lord give each of us authority to cast out demons, heal the
sick, and set the captives free (Luke 9)? A careful reading of the
book of the gospels makes that conclusion inescapable. We really are
called and appointed as servants of the New Covenant. We are all
priests of Christ (Hebrews) seated with Him in the heavenlies
(Eph.1!) and He has given us His authority (!).
If the problem isn't with the hearers, and
if the message itself is true...then the problem must be either with
God or with the messenger, right?
Or is there another alternative? Is the
problem with the church system as we know it, this institution which
has been around since at least the time of Constantine.
Recently I read Gilbert Bilezikian's
"Community 101." In his book he states that, "An increasing number
of Christians are waking up to the fact that .. the church has
become ineffective in fulfilling its mission because it has lost a
sense of its own identity as a community. They realize that not
every organization that calls itself a church represents the church
as Christ conceived it." He goes on to say that he asked fifty
junior and senior college students to write a one sentence
definition of the church. He continues,
"Their answers varied from "people who
are saved," and "places of worship" to "opportunity to put on a
Sunday disguise" and "sanctified gossip centers." Not one
described the church in terms of community or oneness. It
occurred to me that these people had been nurtured in the church
without ever understanding the nature of their experience. The
church was for them a habit without definition. They had been
trained to do church or play church instead of BEING the church.
Is it any wonder that they, like their parents before them,
perpetuate the survival of floundering, self absorbed,
defensive, stagnant, if not repressive pseudo-churches, thinking
all along that they are doing God's work? Is it any wonder that
the world should dismiss the church as irrelevant, treat it as a
laughing stock, and view it as a farce instead of a force?"
Zondervan, 1997, pp.48-49
Please note an important distinction. The
problem is not with "the church" per se. The church is both wheat
and tares. The kingdom is like leaven in a lump, it is an invisible
reality that sometimes becomes visible. It exists in the hearts of
people who are born again and joined together by a bond in the
Spirit. The real Temple is composed of living stones.
But the church SYSTEM is a human
organization built by man.
Each Person is Called to Ministry…
In June of 1958, Gordon Cosby from the
Church of the Savior was invited to participate in and to address a
meeting of ministers held in Geneva, Switzerland. The subject was
"world evangelism," and the following is an excerpt from his talk.
"One order of ministry is not eternally
more valuable than another. It is easy to absolutize the
significance of one type of ministry and leave the feeling with
many that they are second class members of the body, important
only as extensions of official clergy. This I cannot accept.
"One psychological reason for this may
be the minister's inability to be one among a number of equally
significant ministers. He may need to be the center of a
revolving constellation. He may find it difficult to decrease
while another increases. On the other hand, the layman may not
really want the responsibility involved in an ordination as a
lay minister of Christ and His church.
"Of greatest importance is our own
attitude…. Do we believe that the people in our congregation are
as vital to the life of the Body as we are? Do we give lip
service to the concept of the ministry of all believers while
being seriously threatened by the reality of it when these
ministries begin to emerge? These are not merely academic
questions; there is real threat experienced as the circle of
activities in which we excel gets smaller and smaller. Unless we
see the ministry of the layman in our world to be as of great a
significance as ours, we shall ever be tempted to use him as a
lackey in our personal fulfillment."
Leaving and Cleaving
I left the institutional church (IC) in the
fall of 2000, with my wife and family. I left because I was
convinced that the human organization was not achieving God's
greatest purposes, and in fact could not achieve them, in spite of
the fact that God faithfully indwells the people who gather together
on Sunday mornings. Well, yes...we also left because the Lord led us
I believe that the IC lives a contradiction,
saying one thing in its teaching, but another with its structure.
"The medium is the message." As a result, believers are equipped for
ministry but never released. Leaders end up controlling the laity
rather than empowering them. (For more see Identity and Authority of
When I left the IC I was not alone. In the
previous six months a number of other families had been making the
same journey. But "where" were we going?
In the fall of 2000 I attended a local
service where the preacher was sharing some of the early days in the
life of a particular church community. He quoted David Ruis' first
sermon, delivered there shortly after the church had been founded.
The title was, "Going, but not knowing," based on the life of
If you haven't peeked into the book of
Hebrews recently, I encourage you to do so. It's difficult to grasp
what a life of faith is like while living in our security focused
culture. But I am also reminded of some words of Elizabeth O'Connor,
one of the founders of the Church of the Savior in Washington, DC.
She wrote that "Our security focused culture must be willing to
allow that to be brought into being which might fail."
But the entire structure of Sunday services
is to ensure that there are no "failures," no "glitches," and that
everything flows along smoothly. We take no risks when we meet in
such settings. We know where we are going and where we will all
arrive. We hope that we will all be together when we get there.
Risk...faith...moving ahead into the
unknown.. Which of us really embraces such a journey? We prefer the
well worn pathways. And besides, we are "found" and not lost, right?
Surely we now have all the answers, right?
They have cradled you in custom,
They have primed you with their preaching,
They have soaked you in convention through
They have put you in a showcase
You’re a credit to their teaching--
But can’t you hear the wild? It’s calling
you. R. Service,
The Call of the Wild
Moving Outside the Walls
Well, maybe we don’t have all the answers.
What if someone steps outside the well worn paths? What if we stop
assuming that the Sunday gathering should be the pre-eminent
experience of the Christian life?
Suddenly a lot of other answers that were
taken for granted are less than obvious. The journey in search of
Christ outside the structures is not an easy one. I've found the
journey to be far more emotional and upsetting to my life than I
thought it would be.
First I dealt with guilt and self doubt at
leaving the church. Am I a rebel? Do I just have trouble fitting in?
Is there really a serious problem with this structure or am I
getting paranoid?" There were plenty of voices willing to answer
those questions in the affirmative!
The inner dialogue heated up. Who am I to
think I can do better? Aren't I just being divisive and proud,
thinking a few are finding the answers when the many are not, but
are lost in the system or merely going through the motions?
The internal questions didn't stop. I could
clearly see that I had not become perfect, and that I didn't have
all the answers. In fact, if anything, I had fewer answers than
ever. But I was bothered by the certitude of those around me.
"Surely everything is just fine," reminded me of Jeremiah 6:14, “And
they have healed the brokenness of My people lightly saying, “Peace,
peace,” but there is no peace.”
Over time I did see my own motivations more
clearly. I saw my own need for recognition and for power. This
wasn't a pretty sight.
As my family and myself resigned our
membership and stepped outside the IC, we began to deal with other
issues of identity. More than one elder asked us, "Who will be your
We went to the New Testament. The word
“covering” never occurs. We began to wonder what these men meant by
the question, which we had always assumed was a good one.
After some thought and dialogue I realized
that their question had to do with authority, and was based on the
assumption that if we resigned our membership and were simply to
meet with other believers casually, we would no longer be "under
authority." We would thus constitute an "illegal" meeting and we
would be unprotected, possibly in rebellion against God, and
vulnerable to attack by the enemy.
That was the positive side. On the negative
side, they felt that their authority was being challenged. It was.
Some feared the loss of financial support, particularly if the
movement outside the walls became more widespread. It requires a
great deal of money to support the structures and buildings of the
typical large church.
About this time I ran across a book by Frank
Viola titled, "Who Is Your Covering?" In the introduction Frank
"If the Bible is silent with respect to
the idea of "covering," what do people mean when they ask, "Who
is your covering?" Most people (if pressed) would rephrase the
question as: "To what person are you accountable?" But this
raises another sticky point: the Bible never consigns
accountability to human beings. It consigns it exclusively to
God (Matt. 12:36; 18:23; Luke 16:2; Rom. 3:19; 14:12; 1 Cor.
4:5; Heb. 4:13; 13:17; 1 Pet. 4:5). Strangely, however, the
Biblically sound answer to this question ("I am accountable to
the same person you are--God") is often a prescription for
misunderstanding and a recipe for false accusation.
"Thus, while the timbre and key of
"accountability" may differ from that of "covering," the song is
often the same. And it is one that does not harmonize with the
unmistakable singing of Scripture. (Please note that there is a
healthy form of accountability in the church, which we will
explore later. But the brand of accountability connected with
the "covering" doctrine lacks Biblical merit.)
"What do people really mean when they
push the "covering" question? I submit that what they are
actually asking is, "Who controls you?" The common (mis)teaching
about "covering" really boils down to questions about who
controls whom. In fact, the modern institutional church is built
upon this idea of control.
"If we critically examine the "covering"
doctrine, we will discover that it is rooted in a
one-up/one-down, chain-of-command style of leadership where
those in higher ecclesiastical positions have a tenuous hold on
those under them. And it is through such top-down control that
believers are said to be protected from error (a la "covered").
"The concept goes something like this:
everyone must answer to someone else who is in a higher
ecclesiastical position. In the garden-variety, post-war
evangelical church, this translates into the "laypeople"
answering to the pastor. In turn, the pastor must answer to a
person who has more authority."
Frank goes on to reflect that this line of
reasoning generates many more questions, like who covers the mother
church, and then who covers the denominational headquarters?
"The answers beg the question, for why
can't God be the covering for the "laypeople," just as he is for
denominational leaders? The real problem with the "covering"
concept is that it violates the spirit of the NT; for behind the
pious rhetoric of "providing accountability" and "having a
covering," there looms a system of government that is bereft of
Biblical support and driven by a spirit of control.” (For more
Suddenly aware of the convoluted structure
of the IC and the cultural nature of assumptions commonly held, we
began to discover a new freedom and authority. We began to look
again at our identity in Christ. By whose authority do I presume to
proclaim Jesus to my neighbor? By the authority of the church on the
corner, or by Jesus direct commission to all His disciples? By what
authority do I question established thinking like that above? What
does it mean to be a priest and directly connected to the head? How
do I fit in the body now? Who and where is my "church?" All this
soul searching, and searching of the Scriptures, can be exhausting!
A New Perspective
Today, 1700 years [later], we have
become so accustomed with the congregational-type church, that
many find it hard to even imagine any other form of ”real church
life” or ”worship services”. Those historical events created a
powerful system, a uniformed pattern, a sanctioned and later
even sanctified structure, which has molded the experiences and
the mindset of people over long centuries, and has created a
distorted picture of church that is not any more true to its
This whole process canonized and
institutionalized a devastating mediocrity, a middle-of-the
road-solution, simply functioning in religious and political
correctness of the day. The congregational church became a
”structural lie,” because it paints the right message in the
wrong colors, casts the right material in wrong forms, fills the
water of life into contaminated bottles, takes the redeemed
sinners and forms them into a harmless species of nice
churchgoers and program participants. It makes heavenly
promises, but does not deliver them on earth. It forgot to focus
on the extended family as the building block of Christianity,
and settled into occupying religious temples, more or less
heavily ornate, reciting worship patterns in a small but solid
haven of heaven on earth. Wolfgang Simson,
Houses That Change the World
Let's say you are driving down the road in
your car. You've been driving on this road with some friends, who
are in their own cars. You've been on this same road for twenty
Suddenly someone suggests that you stop the
car and take a look around. Hmm. Novel idea! You do so, and together
you pull to the side of the road. For the first time in twenty years
you step out of your car. Next you walk a bit of distance away from
your vehicles, and together you stand and look at them.
You have never done this before.
You would be struck by a whole number of
impressions, including the size and shape and color of the vehicles.
You might be struck by how dirty they are.
You might be amazed that what you thought
was an average vehicle is old and rusty, with the paint chipping
off. You might wonder how the bald tires have ever managed to hold
You might be appalled at the dirty smoke
issuing out of the exhaust pipe, producing black choking clouds
behind the vehicle.
You might also be struck by the friends now
standing nearby. Hmm.. they look just like me! They wear the same
clothes, talk the same, and drive the same kind of car.
But the main thing is, this is the first
time you have seen the vehicle from the outside. You are going to
find yourself on a learning curve. You might wonder why it has four
tires, and why they are so small. You might think it would be a good
idea to have a tinted windshield next time. You might wonder why you
aren't in a bus, so that you can share the space with friends.
Stepping outside the IC gives a perspective
that one cannot have while inside it. A whole host of assumptions
are seen for the first time. These presuppositions about the nature
of church, ministry, and community are widely held and rarely
examined. Some of them prove to be accurate and unchanging; but most
of them are temporal, cultural, and bear examination. Some of them
don't really fit well with a New Testament understanding of the
church. Square wheels are not a good idea!
THAT is a mouthful. If it doesn't bring a
sense of recognition to your heart, thank God. If it does, it should
bring tears to your eyes and a sense of shame. This, my friends, is
the state of Jesus body. What are we going to do about it? Will you
rise up with the spirit of Jesus as a true warrior and determine not
to play church games anymore? Will you stand up and make a
The IC vs Families of Faith
The institutional church fosters dependence,
passivity, and weakness among its members. Jesus wants to raise up
His children to maturity, to partner with Him in changing the world.
Are you ready to come along?
I believe that most leaders are ignorant of
the true condition of their congregations, just as they are ignorant
of the true condition of the car they are driving. How can they know
its condition when they have never stepped outside it? Isolated in
our Christian sub-culture, we have little idea as to its true
nature. The only clues we have come from the perspective of
outsiders who treat Christianity as irrelevant or a farce.
Most leaders think they are really doing the
right thing by leading, teaching, and preaching. And they are
certainly doing a good thing. Most church leaders are truly sold out
for God, and they have the hearts of true servants. Are they doing
the right thing in the right place at the right time?
A long time ago I studied counseling. One of
my professors warned about fostering the dependence of clients on
the counselor. It is very easy to do so. You see, the counselor can
come to need the client as much as the client needs the counselor.
And it is very easy for the less knowledgeable and often very needy
client to place the counselor on a very high pedestal. "I can never
be like that." "I can never do what he does, or be as free as her."
But the truth is quite different. And unless
the counselor helps the counselee to move beyond these lies, the
counselee will never really grow up.
In "Community 101" Bilezekian describes two
New Testament polities, two ways of thinking about leadership in the
community of the faithful. He calls one model "normal" and the other
The "remedial" model is meant for churches
that are very young or where there have been great problems. These
families are filled with immature children, not yet ready to take
responsibility for themselves.
The "normal" model is meant for ordinary
churches, where people are growing in the faith and discovering the
gifts God has built into them. In this model believers are
continually moving into greater independence as they mature,
themselves becoming leaders and pastors and teachers.
The problem is that the remedial model is
the one we see in many corner churches. The leadership rarely
changes, or only after an explosion or implosion. The structure is
hierarchical. The masses are passive. Leaders are placed on
pedestals as being and achieving things that the ordinary believer
could never achieve. In essence this is a professional ministry
model, and there is a priesthood in these churches just as there was
in Luther's time. No matter how much rhetoric one might hear about
"every member ministry," the medium is the message. The actions and
structure speak so loudly that no other message can be heard.
Many corner churches add home groups in an
attempt to develop community and get the laity to take
responsibility for ministry. These attempts usually accomplish some
good things; but they don't break the paradigm. The structure of the
institution prevails; it is still the few who do ministry to the
many. The professionals fix the rest of us, the non-professionals.
No wonder that in 1 Cor. 14 Paul restricts
the operation of the more powerful gifts with the caution that the
less spectacular gifts are even more necessary: "the parts of the
body which seem weaker are indispensable" (1 Cor.12:22-25). Graham
Cooke comments that,
"People who feel insignificant remain
ineffective and small. They become grasshoppers in their own sight
and may never inherit all that Jesus died to give them. Good
leaders take what is small and enable it to grow. Starting where
people are at, they take them through progressive levels of
encouragement, appreciation, and development to a place of
personal effectiveness and personal significance.’"A
Last fall my wife traveled to a conference
to assist in the prayer ministry there. She has been used very
effectively by the Lord in women's groups. Called on spontaneously
to do workshops on spiritual and emotional healing, she proceeded to
lead two sessions. In spite of the good things that happened, the
high point was at the end of her second workshop.
As she was finishing and women around the
circle were sharing, the turn came for a young lady seated beside
her. This woman was mentally challenged.
She said, "I just came because my spiritual
mother came. And I just love the Lord. And I know he is healing me
because I can walk better today, and my arthritis isn't hurting me
so much. And I just love Jesus and all he has done for me."
When she shared this the Spirit suddenly
came in power, and my wife found herself weeping and rejoicing in
the goodness of God. God didn't need her to elaborate, my wife
didn't need to do or say a thing more, and the simple words of this
woman of faith said it all.
In our culture we value power and presence.
We are impressed by those who use big words, or who dress in
expensive clothes, or who publish books. We value success. We listen
more carefully to the pastor from the large church.
Unfortunately, this is not the spirit of the
New Testament. "Those who would be great among you must be the
servant of all," and "the wisdom of this world is foolishness to
Why do we value the working of a few gifts
so much more than others? Why do we fail to create a place where all
these gifts can function together, and in fact imply by our order of
meeting that only a few gifts (and a few people) are really
important? Jean Vanier comments,
“So we have to create structures which
encourage everyone to participate, and especially the shy
people. Those who have the most light to shed often dare not
show it; they are afraid of appearing stupid. They do not
recognize their own gift.. perhaps because others haven't
recognized it either.” Community
Back to the Future
To be or not to be a community is not an
option for the church. By nature the church is a community and experiences communion. The
question before the people of God is: what kind of community will we be?
The New Testament invites us to formulate a
theology and practice of communion based on the nature of the Body of Christ.
John Driver, Community and Commitment,
Sometimes we have to move backward before we
can move forward. Sometimes things that seemed good have to die in
order for new things to be born. Sometimes we have to live with some
uncertainty and chaos before a new order can take shape.
We desperately need to recover a simple and
biblical Hebraic (rather than Greek) Christianity. We need to call a
prodigal church back to New Testament values and principles. We need
to remember the poor. And we desperately need to rediscover
My journey and the journey of my friends is
not yet finished. We haven't arrived. We don't really even have an
awful lot to show for the wear and tear to date. We just found out
that the car is rusty, the wheels square, and the frame bent. We
feel like beginners on the road, where not long ago we thought we
had come a long way.
The most difficult challenge of this new
journey has been the discovery that it was relatively easy to take
ourselves out of the church. It is more difficult to get the church
out of us (church in the sense of religion, cultural rules and
self-centered ways). In this sense Henri Nouwen was right when he
said that, "He who walks the mystical way is called to unmask the
illusory quality of human society. No mystic can prevent himself
from becoming a social critic, since in self-reflection he will
discover the roots of a sick society."
The Way of the Heart.
The joy is that we have a sense of
anticipation and hope; hope for ourselves and even for a prodigal
church. And in the process of leaving the church, we have not only
found the church, but found ourselves. Richard Rohr writes,
"Many .. give up their boundaries before
they have them, always seeking their identity in another group,
experience, possession or person. "She will make me happy," or
"They will take away my loneliness." The group may become the
substitute for doing the hard work of growing up. It is much
easier to belong to a group than it is to know that you belong
to God." Everything Belongs Crossroad Books, p.22.
We are determined not to play church games
anymore. We are learning to care for one another, and to take
initiative. It takes a long time to get passivity out of our
There are times when I miss what the system
gave me: a sense of belonging, a sense of power. I’m having to find
a new voice. The desire for recognition dies hard. It is much more
difficult to simply serve the people the Lord brings us day by day.
The rewards are slower to come, the cost is higher; but if this is
all there is to the Cross, what mercy!
I recall years ago hearing someone say that
"hospitality is not part of the gospel - it IS the gospel." We're
learning the deep truth of these words. Jesus invited us into His
family. "Church" is something dynamic and mysterious that occurs
within us and between us.. "where two or three are gathered," and
not merely in a given time slot on Sunday mornings.
We can no longer count on being fed by a 40
minute sermon each Sunday. We can't count on a great worship
experience every week. Until recently we couldn’t count on a regular
gathering. We are learning to anchor our lives in our own devotional
places, and learning again how much we need the body. We are
learning to take initiative when we need prayer or encouragement,
and we're learning to be pro-active in offering care to others.
My Lord came from heaven to serve. He
stepped farther down than I can ever reach. I want to know Him more.
If you are on a journey downward may the
Lord walk closely to you. Find some friends on the same path; we
aren't meant to walk this road alone.
Be hospitable. Remember the poor. God go
http://www.nextreformation.com and with some others is
involved in a street ministry in Kelowna, BC. He is married to
Betty, a registered nurse, who is involved with women in
recovery groups. They have two daughters, a cat and a sudden
flurry of rabbits. Len holds a MDiv from MB Biblical Seminary in