Can I be honest? There are actually some things I miss about my life in the institutional church.
[Collective gasp from the crowd.]
I guess with my particular story, it might make sense that I’d miss some things about institutional Christianity. If you read back through the history of this blog (or if you’ve been tracking from the beginning), you’ll remember that I didn’t walk away from this thing in a huff. It was more like God dragging me out by the feet while my fingers clawed the dirt. Even when I was doing house church, I was in such denial about where I stood with the institutional church that it took a real wake-up call for me to recognize that I truly was no longer part of it.
I didn’t like a lot of what I saw on the “inside”; I just didn’t want to give up the sense of belonging. I thought I could be an agent of transformation by sort of running alongside the mainstream. I thought I could somehow find a better way to do things while still remaining a member of the club.
I was wrong. When you don’t play ball, you’re out. So here I am.
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t have regrets, and I really don’t want to go back to the way things were. There’s a lot of stuff I sure wouldn’t want to replay. But I guess I just wish I could have kept the good parts while giving up the bad, instead of having to walk away from the whole thing.
I think mostly, as I’ve already alluded to, I miss the sense of belonging. That’s the part I miss the most. Not everyone feels like they “belong” in the institutional church, but I did, for quite awhile. I grew up in that culture, after all. Furthermore, my talents were coveted, and I was able to work my way into almost any “inner circle” of leadership as a result. I wasn’t always a “wayward son;” I knew how to be the “good boy,” how to go along to get along. I knew how to curry the favor of spiritual leadership, and I did it with zeal. Even when I saw things that were less than Christlike, I learned how to pass them off without actually affirming them. I never saw anything explicitly scandalous that couldn’t be overlooked, like catching a pastor hiring a prostitute or anything like that. But I did experience the more subtle sin of spiritual abuse, and I watched others being spiritually abused, and I remained silent, telling myself that the Holy Spirit would take care of it. This was God’s “church,” after all, and even with all the broken people in it, everything would work out eventually. This was my place to belong, and belonging is apparently a huge inner need for me. I didn’t want that go away because things were wrong in the church. So I kept going along to get along, trying to effect change as best I could from the inside. Even when I broke ranks with the church where I was on staff, and moved to another town to start my own work, I didn’t want to revoke my club membership, so to speak. I just wanted to learn from the mistakes I’d seen made, to try to do things differently while still belonging to the larger club of the institutional church. It took nearly ten years to break that stronghold–ten years for me to admit to myself that I was no longer part of the club.
So yeah, belonging. A sense of community. That’s a big one.
There are other things I miss, too. I miss the corporate worship, where some of the most powerful spiritual moments I have ever experienced have occurred. I don’t particularly miss feeling obligated to attend meetings every time the doors were open, nor do I miss being the first one there and the last one to leave; but I do miss the sense of anticipation for holidays and special occasions, and things like that. I miss the times when times were good–when everyone seemed to be getting along. That did happen once in awhile.
I guess what I’m saying with this rambling is that not everything I saw within the institutional church was bad. God was there, and He blessed us, many times. While I certainly saw my share of hypocrisy, even participated in my share of hypocrisy, I also saw moments of brilliance, where people’s Christlikeness was absolutely inspiring. There were some amazing times, things that filled me with wonder.
So why did I feel like I had to rescind my membership in the club?
Mainly, it’s because at some point in this journey I began to recognize that institutional Christianity and the Body of Christ are not synonymous. I realized that the good things I experienced within the institutional culture were not because of the institution itself, but because of the Christ-followers within it. I realized that what we have come to know as “church” is not the church at all.
And from that point, I began to see how many times the institution actually gets in the way, preventing the Body of Christ from being all she is meant to be. I realized that the moments of brilliance I’d seen were happening in spite of the institution, not because of it. I could also see how many times pastors and leaders were provoked to do un-Christlike things because they felt compelled to uphold an institution that they’d convinced themselves was of God, but was actually man-made. I saw how frequently I myself had fallen into that snare.
It wasn’t an instant epiphany; it happened over time, as my thinking was adjusted more and more over the years, as I continued to pursue the truth. But it was enough to let me know that I could not in good conscience continue to support something that was obviously more of a hindrance than a help to the mission of Christ. There had to be a better way.
So even with all the things I miss about those days…here I am.
But here’s a little secret; I didn’t really drop out of the club.
Oh, I’m no longer a card-carrying member of what I call the institutional church. But I’ll never rescind my membership in the Body of Christ, which is the real church. I’m still a brother, even though there are some who probably would like to suggest otherwise. The Body of Christ is a family, and you can pick your friends, but you’re stuck with your relatives.
I don’t want to suggest that I’m intolerant of the imperfection of Christians, for I’m as imperfect as the rest. I didn’t walk away from the institution because good people did bad things, but because I saw how the institution encourages good people to do bad things. My dream is that one day the real church will break her self-made shackles and put on her bridal robes, to draw some imagery from the Scripture. I do believe the church still belongs to Jesus, and that He has a plan for her. I look forward to the day when she will become the glorious church, free of the things that have gotten in the way.
And in that day, I will once again be able to enjoy all the good things I now miss.