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Leaving the Church to Find the Church?

June 2001

May 2001

April 2001

 

March 2001



 

By Len Hjalmarson
Reflections on "going but not knowing."

It's 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.

The Problem

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 out.

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 the Believer).

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 Abraham.

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 and 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 covering?"

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 states,

"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 visit http://www.home-church.org/present/index.html).

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 original.

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 years.

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 the road.

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 difference?

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 "remedial."

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 Divine Confrontation.

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 God."

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 and Growth

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, Herald Press

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 community.

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 systems.

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 with you.

Len Hjalmarson manages 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 Fresno, CA.
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