In the past two posts, I’ve rambled a bit about the idea of leaving the institutional church, and shared some more of the story of how I came to leave it. To sort of wrap up this train of thought, I figured it was worth discussing whether there is any circumstance under which I might return to the institutional church.
First, in case I haven’t already made it crystal clear (I’m prone to redundancy, so forgive me)…unlike some who “leave the church,” I make a clear distinction between leaving the institution and leaving the organism. I no longer subscribe to the institutional form of Christianity, but I still consider myself very much to be part of the Body of Christ, and as such, a partaker in the mission of Christ. I just look for ways to participate in that mission more organically, without the trappings of institutional Christianity that in my view only get in the way.
So having said that…the question on the table is, what (if anything) could make me come back to that form of church?
To be honest, I have a hard time even thinking that direction, because despite all the wounds I sustained under that system, my decision to break ranks was not a matter of being offended or hurt. For many people still “in church” that see me on the outside, their whole approach to trying to get me to “come back” is based on the assumption that I was hurt, and I just need to be healed, and if they are nice to me, I might come back. That assumption is misguided. I was hurt, but I didn’t leave because of it; I left because it became clear to me this is a broken machine. And unlike others within the system who still believe the broken machine can be repaired, I am of the opinion that we need to ditch the old machine and find a new model. So in one sense, asking me to “come back” is tantamount to asking me to pretend that the machine still works, when I know in my heart it doesn’t. It’s kind of like that movie The Matrix; once you wake up and find reality, you can’t go back to the fantasy world, no matter how bleak reality looks in comparison.
On the other hand, while I’ve ditched the notion of institutional Christianity, I have never given up on the idea of Christian community. I still hold the community of faith in high regard, and when the trappings of institutionalism aren’t getting in the way, community with other believers can be completely beautiful and life-affirming. I also haven’t given up on mission. The problem is that in so many cases, you can’t seem to find community and mission without the institutional thinking attached. From what I’ve seen, at best, the institution gets in the way, and at worst, it injects toxins into the milk.
So all that rambling is to say that apart from a direct mandate from God to return, I cannot see myself ever returning to a system I believe is broken. But because I still believe in the community and mission of faith, I am looking for a new expression–something that integrates these with a true heart for God without the toxic elements. If I truly found that combination, I’d love to be part of it.
To be honest–I’m still looking.
Now, I realize some would just chide me for holding my standards too high, suggesting that I’m looking for a utopia that won’t be found this side of heaven…people are imperfect, people make mistakes, and so on. I get it. That’s not really what I mean. I don’t expect perfection from broken people, especially since I happen to be one of those broken people. But broken people within a broken system only breeds more brokenness, and I don’t see the point of that at all. It’s more about finding a healthy environment in which we can be healed together, one in which we can find solidarity and encouragement while working together in the world (which is in itself a highly toxic environment). I’ve just not seen very many examples of this, although I’ve noticed a few glimmers of hope here and there. There are ministries and pastors I respect, even in my local area, but I haven’t borne witness that these are my “tribe,” so to speak.
I’m going to confess something: despite being an ordained minister and coming from the standpoint of church leadership, it was never really my ambition to pastor or to lead a church. I basically did it for two reasons: first, I believed I was supposed to do it; and second, I didn’t see the type of ministry I envisioned being modeled anywhere else. When The Wild One and I were first praying about leaving our post at the church in Texas and moving to Tulsa, the thing that convinced us both to start our own congregation was a word in our spirits that said, “The only way you’re going to see what you’re looking for is to start it yourself.”
I feel the same way at this point in my life. I’m deeply invested in doing missional things, and have done so for the past several years, but I don’t have this great ambition to start a new kind of church, and if I found the type of community I was envisioning, I could be part of it without having to lead it. I just think maybe I’m looking for something that doesn’t exist yet, so I feel like the only way to see it is to be part of creating it. The difference is that this time, I don’t feel compelled to make something happen, but rather to enable it to happen in the timing of God. I hope that makes sense.
That said, there are some things in the incubator that I’m pondering, praying about, thinking about, and getting a bit excited about–some mission-related ideas I have that could result in an emerging faith community. I’ve deliberately not been in a hurry about making these happen, but the urge is strong enough in me that I know this story isn’t finished yet.
So all that to say, I don’t see any scenario in which I would return to institutional Christianity. But again being part of an organic community of faith–or indeed, spearheading one–that’s a very real possibility for me. I don’t want to go backward, but I’m very interested in moving forward.