This is the rest of the chapter from the book I’m working on, “I Grew Up In Church”. (If you missed the first installment, click here to read it.) This excerpt is copyrighted material, so please do not copy it without my permission. Any comments are welcome.
When Jesus said “church”, He meant only one thing. It was really, really simple. “Church” was the collective group of people who believed Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and chose to live in that truth and put their trust in Him.
Out of that one definition for “church”, we’ve created dozens more. Is it any wonder we are so messed up?
Being raised in church, I thought I knew what church was. It took God lifting me (kicking and screaming, mind you) out of the system to show me that I was as confused about it as anyone else. I considered myself to be a progressive, innovative, cutting-edge kind of Christian, especially in the area of worship, and I knew enough jargon to impress people who liked “edginess.” I would readily admit that the church was the people, not the institution, but I had not really lived in the reality of that truth until God put me in a place where I had to walk it out. Even then it took a long time to sink in; but there’s something about having nowhere to meet except your teensy living room that causes you to really get into community with the other people who are crazy enough to meet there with you. You begin to stop focusing on “having church” and start laughing together, living life together. And that’s just what happened with us.
As we continued to meet as a house church, most of my institutional church leader friends began wondering why we had not closed the church, because from an institutional mindset it looked like nothing was happening. I wondered myself at our persistence. But we just kept on meeting. In times of discouragement (which were many), Shelby and I considered whether we were just keeping a dead thing on life support out of pride. But then every time we thought about closing down, in our minds we’d see the devastation on the faces of those few people who were coming and laughing and crying and loving each other at our home week after week—and we couldn’t bring ourselves to send them away. We couldn’t send them back into an institutional format that none of us really believed in anymore, and we didn’t know whether they would go to church anyplace if we stopped meeting. So we just kept going.
I’ve said several times as I’ve described this season that nothing was happening. Now I can see that this was not true. Maybe nothing was happening on the surface, but something was happening—something very deep, often invisible, but very, very real. Slowly but surely, as we lived out being the church, the real meaning of the word church began to sink in. Obviously, we could survive without a building, without programs, without all the trappings that most people call “church”. With all that stuff stripped off of us, we were not just surviving, we were growing on the inside. One person who was coming at that time told us, “This is the first church I’ve been in where I’ve grown because of the church rather than in spite of it.” It was becoming ever more clear to all of us.
At times, ironically, I was running to keep up with the shifting mindsets with our people. One time my wife took our ladies to Dallas for a weekend shopping excursion. They left Friday afternoon and came back Sunday night. One of the ladies asked where they would go to church on Sunday, and my wife (hooray for Shelby) said, “We are the church wherever we go. We’re not ‘going to church’ on Sunday; we’re going shopping.” There weren’t enough of us left to really bother with meeting, so we called off the Sunday service, and my friend and associate Robert and I went out to breakfast instead. Even though we’d been outside the walls for years at this point, the religious pastor part of me still felt guilty for not having a service that weekend. As we sat in the restaurant among all those other people who weren’t in church, I admitted jokingly to Robert that I felt like a bit of a heathen for not being “in church” that morning.
“I don’t,” Robert said quite seriously. “I used to go to church on Sunday out of a sense of duty, because I felt I had to. Now I go because I want to—because that’s where my family is.” Point: we don’t GO to church. We ARE the church.
The pastor stood corrected. Good for Robert.
The upshot of this moment, and many other moments like it, is that God has really brought us back to His original definition of “church”. We’ve learned–not by deep theological study, but by living it out–that “church” is the followers of Jesus. And when believers are gathered in His name–however many or few, and wherever they happen to be–that is an expression of the church. All the other trappings that I thought were “church”–buildings, pulpits, pews, liturgy, programs–that’s all stuff we’ve added on to a very simple concept. And when I really came to know this, I realized I needed to change my definitions, and even adapt my vocabulary.
I’ve been using the terms “institutional church” and “institutional Christianity,” and when I’m feeling particularly sarcastic, “the machine.” Let me tell you what I mean by those terms. In my own journey, as God has deconstructed both my mindsets and my religiosity, I’ve come back to the one definition for church, which means the other things aren’t really “church” to me anymore. So whenever possible, I try to use different terminology to express the difference. When I refer to the church, I try very hard to keep it to what Jesus and the Bible meant by it. Sometimes, like earlier in this chapter, I’ve used the word “church” the way most people do, either because I’m describing my past or because that’s how most readers would understand it. But “church” was never supposed to refer to the building we meet in, or the governmental hierarchy we created to rule over it, or a Sunday morning meeting. We are the ones who organized all that stuff into a structure, and that’s what I mean by the institution—the building, pulpit/pew, clergy/laity thing—all the stuff we have attached to the church, and the religious system that has evolved to contain it all. The real church consists of the people, the believers, the followers of Christ, most of whom still participate in these institutions.
Most believers I know will readily agree that the real church is the people, but in reality, most of us still live like the church is the institution itself. We do not differentiate. We somehow have been programmed to believe that we are the machine. Because of that, many within institutional Christianity will fight to protect it, even though deep inside they know that the institution is imprisoning them. That’s why when I talk about living outside the box, or abandoning institutional Christianity, people might think I’m talking about leaving the church, or encouraging others to do so. I am not. It’s just that I now understand what “church” really means, and what Jesus really meant by it.
When you fully get hold of the idea of the Biblical meaning for “church”, it can create a paradigm shift—a whole change of perspective. When you look at how the early church functioned, without the hang-up of the pulpit/pew/steeple mentality, you’ll see that it functioned as an organism rather than an institution. There were leaders, there were vision-keepers, there was order. But it was fluid and functional, not a hierarchy or a system. The whole idea of church buildings didn’t even come until the 300s AD. That’s when the governmental style of “Christendom” was established, and most of the church continues under that type of system to this day. But although God has never abandoned His church (and never will), this system was never really what Jesus intended. Its presence has actually created a lot of the confusion we see today. I believe God has worked in His church over the centuries in spite of the institution, but the institution itself has never worked well. In fact, at this point, the institutional system really polarizes us from most of the world, so that we are now very far from “turning the world upside down” like the early church did. That’s what I mean when I use the analogy that the machine is broken. It’s like riding a rusty bike with warped wheels when we should be able to fly.
So when I talk about getting free from institutional Christianity, I’m not suggesting that we abandon spiritual leadership, sound doctrine, or assembling ourselves together. Those are all Biblical mandates, and we cannot ignore them. I’m talking about admitting to ourselves that we’re riding a rusty bike, that we’re pushing the chocolate button on a machine that can’t make anything but vanilla, and make a decision to try to get back to what we were really meant to be.
Some have readily agreed that we need to try to become one church again. But their solution has basically been to try and gather all the fragments together, figure out how to get along despite our doctrinal differences, and things like that. I’ve been on that bandwagon myself. But the problem is, so much of our fragmentation as the church is based on an institutional system that will never work. Even if we could find a way to settle our differences and be united again, I don’t think it can happen under the broken system that helped create the fragments to begin with. I think it’s a lot more likely that we will come into the “unity of the faith” (Eph. 4) and become one church as we embrace a different paradigm, one that simplifies our definition of “church” to what Jesus meant by it. That’s when I think we’ll realize deep inside that we truly are one church, and that we always have been.
I believe God fully intends to unite this one church into a glorious, spotless bride, as he calls us in Ephesians 5. But God has never been one to be limited by our human institutions. Perhaps He intends to basically strip off the excess and start over with the basics. That may seem kind of rash, but honestly, it’s not all that radical a maneuver in God’s view. It’s a given for all true disciples of Christ that at several points in our journey of faith, God will strip us back to the foundations and let us re-grow. Jesus called it “pruning” in John 15, and He does it so we will bear more fruit. Just as He does this with us as individuals, is it too much to think He would do it with His church when the situation called for it?
My personal belief is that the Lord will prune His church one way or another. We can work with Him or against Him, but He will have His way. We could cling to our comfort zones and our legitimacy lies, keep believing we are an institution, and fight to preserve it, believing as we do so that we are fighting for our own preservation; but if God intends to prune His church of her institutions, why go through all that extra pain? It makes a lot more sense to be honest with ourselves, see our broken machine, drop the junky bike, deconstruct our religious mindsets, and let Jesus teach us all over again how to fly.
Copyright 2008 Jeff McQuilkin. All rights reserved. Please do not reproduce without permission from the author.