(Continuing the “But What About…?” thread…in this series we’re discussing various concerns people have about the growing number of people exiting insitutional churches for more organic forms of expression.)
When I was deeply entrenched in institutional Christianity–especially as a leader–I would categorize someone who migrated away from “church” in one of four ways:
- They are backsliding.
- They are deceived.
- They are rebellious.
- They have their own issues.
In my mind–and I believe in the minds of many within institutional churches–leaving the church is essentially breaking a cardinal rule of Scripture. Many of us know the Scripture by heart…
“And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works: not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is…” (Heb. 10:24-25, KJV, emphasis mine)
Like many others, I interpreted this Scripture as a mandate to “go to church”–meaning, find a church building, an institution, to belong to, and go there regularly. I saw institutional Christianity as the one true expression of the church.
Indeed, people who are leaving the church often say things like, “I don’t need to go to church in order to express my faith.” Or, “I can worship God in my own living room.” Do I agree with them?
Yes. And no.
Assembling together is a Biblical principle, and I honestly don’t believe it’s healthy for people to be isolated. Even socially speaking, we are not created to be hermits, and when we spend too much time alone, we actually start to lose a handle on reality. But I do not agree that the institutional church is the only way for believers to assemble together.
You see, there are principles in Scripture, and there are methods we use to put those principles into practice. When we confuse method for principle, we start shifting into religion.
Check this out yourself if you don’t believe me…but there is no real Biblical support for the institutional structures we call “church” today. That doesn’t mean everything about the institutions is bad; it just means that our church structures are a method, not a principle. (The structured church actually emerged in the early 300s A.D., long after the New Testament was completed.) This means that attending institutional church can fulfill the principle of assembling together…but Scripture doesn’t rule out other ways of fulfilling that principle.
In fact, the Bible gives us a good picture of how the early believers assembled; but it actually leaves things pretty wide open about how church should be expressed. It tells us to assemble, to be in community, to love one another, to feed the poor, and a lot of other things; but it tells us very little about how those things ought to be done, or by what means.
Okay, so let’s take all that theoretical talk and put some flesh and blood on it. I’ve found that for most of the people who are leaving institutional churches (and there are a lot of people doing that), they are not forsaking God, or falling into sin. They might or might not be hurt or jaded. But most are leaving simply because they are hungry for something more. They do not feel they fit the system, or they are spiritually dissatisfied within it.
So once these people leave, what do they generally do? They might stay alone for awhile, just to get themselves re-oriented or take a break; but before long, they will start seeking out the company of other believers. Many of these people are now finding community and fellowship in loose-knit groups like house churches, informal Bible studies, or just getting together at Starbucks for coffee. And many of these relationships are extremely healthy and life-giving. These people are not forsaking assembly; they have just changed the method by which they are doing it.
The truth is, the assembling of ourselves together meets another very basic need we have: community. Or fellowship, if you will. The institutional church claims to be the system by which this need is met, and so chastises people who do not seem to recognize its value. But in my experience, I have felt much more alone in that system, unable to relate, unable to be truly myself for fear I might break some unspoken rule. I have a whole lot more sense of fellowship and belonging within the house church setting and my other circles of believer-friends than I ever did as a lifelong attender of institutional church.
My point? Healthy followers of Jesus need community, and they will instinctively seek out that community with other believers–within, or without, the institutional church. Yes, there are those who backslide or retreat into isolation; but they would be doing that, anyway. That isn’t what’s happening with most of us who are leaving.
The same Bible that tells us not to forsake assembling together also says that where two are three are gathered in Jesus’ name, there He is in their midst. Maybe we need to start thinking bigger–by thinking smaller. Just a thought.