April 7, 2008 by

The Great Shift–and My Unwitting Part In It


Categories: changing mindsets, church, My Story

(The following entry is part of a synchroblog sponsored by Glenn at Re-Dreaming the Dream.)

Two or three years ago, a national Christian magazine published an article about the growing number of “stay-away saints” in America–millions of professing believers who are not regularly attending organized church anymore, but many of whom still maintain a vibrant faith. The article attempted to cover both sides of the trend, quoting people who expressed concerns about it and those who felt perhaps it is the sign of healthy change. But interestingly, the underlying theme of the article, and indeed the entire issue of the magazine, was this: “Come back to church.” Instead of addressing the issues that caused these Christians to feel disillusioned, discontent, or out-of-place in institutional Christianity, the message was just that these people should return to the very institutions that had alienated them, for more of the same.

What some see as an unhealthy development in the church, I actually see as a good thing. I have this sense that there is something happening that is bigger than we are. Prophetic voices have been saying for years that there was going to be a major structural shift in the church. And it has been my understanding that God almost never does things the way we expect Him to. I believe that this is not a sign of spiritual laziness, but rather of a growing hunger for more. And many of the people leaving–sometimes after a period of “de-toxing”–are seeking more organic forms of Christian community. I believe the church is on the cusp of a great shift.

My family and I actually never set out to be part of this trend. We didn’t actually “officially” leave institutional church behind; we left a church to plant a new one. It was actually in that process, and in our hunger for something new, that God shifted us from a typical church format to a house church format.

We didn’t jump on any bandwagons, and we didn’t join any movements. We were so naive about it that we actually thought we had coined the term “house church.” During our transition, we actually spent a good deal of time in a sort of cocoon, isolated and lonely, feeling very much like an anomaly. (Living in the land of mega-churches didn’t help our self-image much, either.) But in recent days we’ve gotten glimpses of the outside world, and have discovered that there are many more like us–many whom God has moved outside of traditional forms of church.

We’ve been a house church for eight years. We (and mostly I) spent the first five of those eight years in denial, still trying to belong to the institutional church club. I saw the flaws with institutional Christianity, but I felt the flaws in the system could be reformed from within. But over time, I grew less and less comfortable with the typical structures, and more and more alienated from traditional church leaders who looked at us with increasing suspicion. A public confrontation from a local pastor finally woke me up, and I was able to fully embrace the fact that God was detaching us from the institutional church. And that realization opened up a whole new spectrum of possiblity for us, as we began to have eyes to see what Jesus was doing outside the walls.

I understand that many of us have come into this place for a variety of reasons. Some have simply grown bored or disillusioned and left their local churches; many have been wounded by broken leaders within a broken system, and are in a healing process. And the truth is, alternative communities of faith don’t automatically solve our problems. There is still unbalance, brokenness, and sometimes error. Some folks even get just as disillusioned with house churches as with traditional churches. The fact is, though, we are in a season of transition, and transition is always messy. I think it’s important to show grace to one another, knowing that what things look like today won’t necessarily be what they will look like in a few months or years. The shift is not complete; the shift is just beginning.

Glenn over at Re-dreaming the Dream posed some questions on his blog about what people in this “revolution” feel they need during this season in their lives. I have a few thoughts on this.

  1. We need connection. I think probably the most acute need is a sense of community and connection. I also think this sense of community needs to remain organic and loose-knit, simply because the last thing any of us probably wants is anything that even looks like more institutionality. (I personally wouldn’t go for joining the “National Association of Spiritual Revolutionaries”, for example.) But certainly we need ways to connect and fellowship and network.
  2. We need healthy servant-leaders. Some who have been abused by leadership might wince at this one…but I think as things evolve, there will need to be some leadership that emerges. I am not suggesting that this leadership look or act like what institutionality has modeled for us, nor do I think we need to be in a hurry about it–because many of us still have some warped ideas about what leadership is. But servant leadership, and authority that is functional rather than positional, are both Biblical concepts. The early church had leadership, although it looked much different than what we have today; and I believe over time godly leaders will emerge naturally. I don’t think we need to appoint them, but when it is apparent that someone is taking the lead in a healthy way, we should recognize them.
  3. We need resources. As we continue to de-construct and re-think, fresh ideas are going to emerge for how we can touch the world around us with Jesus’ love, without the trappings of religion. Those creative new visions will need to be funded in some way, and the traditional church coffers aren’t necessarily going to open up and pour out their bounty upon the people who cast these daring visions. I’m thinking about Grace, who shared something she was thinking about doing in this recent post. What if there were some way available, for example, to fund her where she didn’t have to go into debt? What if someone could network to connect her with grant money or investors with a kindred spirit? I realize money has been a sore spot for many because of the abuses and manipulation we’ve seen, and I also think God will give us new paradigms for handling money. But during this transition, wouldn’t it be great to have a way to pool resources to help innovative missional works get a head start?

When the church began, she was actually very fluid, like water. The church could meet anywhere, shift and change easily, take the form of any container, so to speak. Over time, our structures hardened, and for centuries we took the form of ice–hard and unmoving. I see this current trend as a “melting” process. As more and more people get dissatisfied and hungry for more, they are “melting” off the block of ice. The church is gradually becoming fluid again. And I see this as a very promising thing. I’m thankful that even though I wasn’t looking for it, God allowed me to be part of this liquifaction. I can hardly wait to see what comes of all this.

Below are the other synchroblog participants:

Alan Knox: A Revolutionary? Who? Me?
Barb: My Response
Erin Word: Are We There Yet, Papa Smurf?
Jane: Onward Christian Soldier
Jeff Greathouse: So You Want to Change
Jeromy Johnson: A Safe Place to Experiment
Jonathan Brink: Re-Emerging Church
Kathy Escobar: Surviving Spiritual Vertigo

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Musician. Composer. Recovering perfectionist. Minister-in-transition. Lover of puns. Hijacker of rock song references. Questioner of the status quo. I'm not really a rebel. Just a sincere Christ-follower with a thirst for significance that gets me into trouble. My quest has taken me over the fence of institutional Christianity. Here are some of my random thoughts along the way. Read along, join in the conversation. Just be nice.

8 Responses to The Great Shift–and My Unwitting Part In It

  1. glenn

    Jeff ~ I think we have been drinking from the same fountain! You have a good grasp of the big picture and what is needed. Thanks!

  2. kathyescobar

    jeff, i so agree with you, that the church is becoming fluid again. and it is a beautiful thing. this is what i need to remember–fluid is good because it means we are listening to God and following what we think he is asking us to go even though it doesn’t have some of the stable ground, structures, underneath it that were so comforting. thanks for your thoughts.

  3. Tera Rose

    ok, I have questions about house churches. We thought about 5 years ago we would open our home to worship, read the bible and serve one to another.

    Well, we had a worship band in our back yard, we cooked food on the grill- honestly we had a great time of felloshipping UNTIL…..

    the discussion came about what we would study in the bible, who was “mature enough” to teach…..

    oh good lord, you would think it was like the book Lord of the Flies.

    Almost like a bunch of kids that left the church because they wanted the annointed position of pastor/ worship leader or prophet.

    It made me sick. So we ended it.

    What we had intended to be a time to lift up one for another became a micro- organism of the very church that we had left.

    It seemed like some were more interested in being the next bigwig of the group than in looking for the eyes of Christ.

    So, this started as a question.

    How does one have a small group fellowship while not reproducing the dysfunction of the large church?

    How does one allow for the individuals to seek Christ for their own lives- and does one do this?

    I guess I think I would be interested in being part of a small group- but the few that we visited felt “off” to me and like I said, our experiment went sour quick.

    I don’t want my hands to create anything that brings harm to anyone. period.

    Just curious.

  4. Jeff McQ

    Great synchroblog, as far as I can tell. Thanks for making it happen.

    Thanks for the comment; enjoyed your post as well, added you to my reader too.

    Tera Rose,
    Great questions, worth discussing. Significant enough for me to write a separate blog post about them. Watch for it in the next couple of days or so.

  5. Alan Knox


    I loved this post. I haven’t read your blog before, but I’m looking foward to coming back.

    Thank you for being willing to share about the 5 years that you tried to have it both ways. It was encouraging to read that part of your journey.


  6. Erin

    Wow I love your analogy about melting and fluidity…that is so good. Water can take the shape of anything it needs to, it can stand still or flow, it can move slowly or rush…there is a lot to that idea.It’s unlike a box, that no matter what is still a box.

  7. Jeff McQ

    Alan and Erin,

    Thank you both for your encouragement. Found a lot of kindred spirits yesterday. Looking forward to more dialogue.

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