My good blogger friend Kathy wrote a very insightful post this week called “leaving church to save our souls.” It’s not often I find someone who not only “gets it” but expresses “it” so well–especially considering this came from a pastor. 🙂 (I’m so used to getting subtle guilt trips from pastors, but that’s another blog post.)
Anyway, this post did what it was meant to do–it got me thinking. I know this whole blog is basically about my journey out of institutional Christianity, so it might seem a bit redundant to do a post about “leaving.” 🙂 But as I progress on this journey of faith, I seem to gain more perspective and more of a vocabulary to express what I think and feel. So I felt a(nother) blog post processing these thoughts was in order.
I know Kathy understands and agrees with what I’m about to say, but the title of her post captures a turn of phrase you hear a lot in this discussion: “leaving church.” That phrase sort of drives me nuts, much the same as “going to church” (which also drives Kathy nuts). The reason is that “church” is not what most people think it is. It is not a building, nor a structure, nor an institution–it is a collective organism that encompasses everyone who professes faith in Christ. The only way to “leave church,” in my view, is to deny one’s faith in Christ. For me, that’s not happening. I’m still part of the Body of Christ. I am sure there are some who would like it if I went away, but they should be so lucky. You can pick your friends, but you’re stuck with your relatives. I might do them the favor of not being around, but my membership in this collective is irrevocable–for life or longer.
So what did I leave, actually? I left behind the institution many perceive as “church.” For many, that has been a one-time, conscious decision; for me, it was a gradual departure, rather than a one-time decision. I won’t go over all the details here (you can find ’em in the back posts), but as pastor of my own house church, I still tried for some time to walk alongside the institutional structures. It’s just that my pursuit of relevance and significance eventually took me so far off the beaten path that I looked one day and realized my convictions were completely incompatible with the agendas and demands of institutional church as I knew it. That’s when I decided to embrace the fact that God had led me and my family down a different path.
And even with that said–I hold the not-going-to-church thing pretty loosely. I still believe in and value community. When we moved to Denver, we left our house church behind, but even now I consider myself a minister-in-transition, on a journey to discover a new expression of community. We’ve just determined to stay within our mission field, form relationships and build rapport, and look for ways to let community happen rather than make it happen.
What did I leave?
- I left the “show-must-go-on” mentality that bound me to the institution.
- I left behind the pressure to prop up the structure for its own sake, sucking up energy that could be better used in actual missional efforts.
- I left behind the politics of position that created a chasm between me and the people I wanted to reach, and put undue pressure on me to push those people down in order to protect said position.
- I abandoned a long list of things we were doing just because they were expected as part of the institution, but which were making no significant difference for the Kingdom of God.
- I gave up majoring on the minors.
- I gave up the stress, the inconsistencies, the unhealthy encumbrances, and the false sense of community, to find expressions of faith that were based more in faith and less in mere expectation.
What I did NOT leave, was the Body of Christ itself. Nor my sense of mission. Nor the call to ministry. Those are all still part of me, and always will be.
So the next question is–why did I leave? That’s a whole other talk, and will probably require a separate blog post. For now, it’s worth mentioning here that my thoughts here and in other parts of the blog are simply the processing of my own journey, not necessarily and admonition for anyone else to follow. I don’t advocate “leaving” as a doctrine, or some sort of trendy thing to do. This isn’t the path for everyone, but when I do get into the “why,” you’ll hopefully see that for me and my family, this was exactly what needed to happen for us.
So no, I don’t specifically encourage people to “get out of church.” What I do encourage them to do is to “get real.” Find the place where your faith can be expressed authentically and tangibly, without unnecessary baggage. Don’t be afraid to question what isn’t working, and find better ways to do things. Not everyone will have to “leave” to find that place–but I think the church as a whole would be much healthier if we did find that place somewhere. An authentic, vibrant faith that makes a genuine difference in the world–that’s what I wish for myself, and for everyone else.
Even if that means leaving.