There is a great deal of transition going on right now. More and more people are at different stages of re-thinking the institutional forms of church that we’ve had for centuries. That process can be admittedly a bit messy at times, even within our own souls. We may change opinions frequently as we try, with God’s help, to figure things out.
I think each of our stories lends a certain unique perspective. In my case, I never had a point where I “officially” left, but rather found myself outside the walls. Also, I seem to have an ability to identify trends and patterns, to step outside my own situation once in awhile and view the bigger picture. And as I see different ones grapple with this issue or that issue–and as I grapple myself–one common thread that seems to run through it all is an underlying question which I will call “re-defining vs. rejecting.”
Say Lucy gets hurt in church, or disillusioned, or maybe just plain bored. Whatever the case, she make a decision to leave–and not just leave one church for another, but to leave the entire church system. She doesn’t renounce her faith in Christ, she just stops going to church. In the eyes of most, she is now considered “un-churched”, and she’s okay with that label, for now. But in her mind, and often the minds of others, she has rejected the notion of “church” as it has been presented to her. And the more emotional the departure, probably the more intense the sense of rejection. If Lucy was just bored, she’s just abandoned something she thinks is useless; if she got hurt, it’s going to be a stronger rejection.
But Lucy still claims to belong to Jesus. So did she really reject the church? Is she “out”?
Let’s say that over time, Lucy’s relationship with God, which continues to grow during this time, prompts her to seek out fellowship with other believers. She finds this fellowship in coffee shops, or Bible studies, or maybe even a home group. She finds community, accountability, and encouragement–all the things she had hoped to find in the church she left behind. So…again I ask: did Lucy really reject the church?
I say, she did not. Why? Because that building, that structure, that institution, was never the church to begin with. According to Scripture, we are the church. Lucy, having never rejected her faith in Christ, was part of THE church the whole time. She’s just re-defined what “church” really is, and she’s found a fresh expression of it.
This is what I mean by re-defining vs. rejecting. A lot of times, in the short term, we feel compelled to reject an element of our spiritual life because of the way it was wrongly expressed. But many times what we need is not to reject that element, but simply to re-define it.
Many people feel they must reject the church systems. But the church itself should never be rejected; just re-defined. The principle of assembling together (the verse in Hebrews that is often used by institutional church leaders to guilt us into “going to church”) is still in the Bible, and you can’t tear it out. That does not mean we all need to start going back to the institutions. It simply means we should find better ways to fulfill that principle.
Another issue that’s being raised often is the issue of leadership and authority (which will probably have its own post sometime in the near future). A lot of people have been wrongfully treated and manipulated by church leaders, and so the impulse is to reject all human authority, at least when it comes to spiritual matters. That’s understandable; I’ve actually been on both ends of that line–both hurt by my authorities, and having hurt people under my authority. I’ve asked a lot of questions about this issue myself. But I look in Scripture, and I still see that authority and leadership are there. So to me, this becomes not an issue of rejecting authority, but rather re-defining what it should look like.
This goes for a lot of other things, too. Teaching, fundraising, evangelism, just to name a few. So many things have been modeled wrongly, misinterpreted, and manipulated, and so look nothing like what Jesus intended. It’s right and natural for us to de-construct and re-think. But in the process, I think it’s important for us to differentiate between re-defining and rejecting. If there is something we’ve taken for granted that truly has no merit, either in Scripture or in practice, then naturally we should reject it. But we must be careful not to alter the principles of Scripture in re-thinking our methods. Lots of what we are re-thinking does not need to be rejected, but rather re-defined. If we do not mind this concept, we may end up rejecting things we should have kept, and in so doing, maybe years down the line, we will have re-invented a form of church that is just as broken and flawed as the institutions we left. And then our descendents will eventually have to fight through the same kind of de-construction we did.
I don’t want that to happen. I want whatever this looks like to be authentic, vibrant, alive, and as close to what Jesus intends as we can get–something that can flow with the times and pass to our descendents until Jesus returns for us. I think God has a plan. I’m looking forward to seeing what it looks like.