The Church, locked in an institution

The world of religion has a way of sanctifying the last era and riding it until the next era is nearly over — a conservatism [that] gives religion a bad name, as if God isn’t strong enough or wise enough to deal with today. — Brian McLaren, Adventures in Missing the Point.

So yesterday, I picked up the Supermodel and our kids from the service they attend every Sunday morning.  And as usual, on the way home I asked her how the service had gone.  She gave me the basic description – a guest speaker was there, here’s what he spoke about, a lot of people who hadn’t been attending in recent months came back that day to hear him.  And that was it – nothing extraordinary to report.

After a long silence, I was surprised at the words that came out of my mouth next: “I guess I was hoping that I’d actually missed something.”

That’s a problem, don’t you think?  That a Christian of over two decades’ standing can stop attending Sunday services for months, and never get the impression that anything new or great has happened in his absence?  And the Supermodel agreed with me – as far as she can tell (and she’s there every week, and involved in ministry there besides), nothing notably transforming or miraculous has been happening there.  I wouldn’t call it dead – but if it’s living, it’s not very mobile or making much impact on its surroundings.  And this may be one of the more successful congregations in our city, in terms of membership, buildings and funds.  But in terms of activity and spirituality, they seem to be rooted in place.

And they’re far from unusual in that regard.  From the beginning of this year through late April (before God mercifully called a stop to it), I visited fifteen different evangelical congregations in the city of Stockton, representing maybe a dozen different denominations or independent movements.  With slight variations, most of them were doing the exact same things every Sunday morning – the same things within each congregation, and the same things as other congregations.  They were working toward similar goals (usually involving buildings and fundraising), planning similar events, playing similar songs in similar fashion at similar volume (with similar overhead projections).  The sermons often had similar content.  Most of the congregations treated visitors similarly (by ignoring them, for the most part).  There was a technological difference between larger (better-funded) and smaller congregations, and some major stylistic variances between congregations with predominately Caucasian or Hispanic membership and those with mostly African members.  But that’s about it.

And one other trait they all share: none of them are having a significant impact on the community, or even on their own members.  For all the noise made in many of them about “outreach,” it was hard to find one that welcomed a new attendee.  I found myself treated with token smiles and handshakes (what I eventually began to refer to as “church-friendly”), if my presence was noted at all.  Furthermore, as I observed the congregations during their meetings, most of the people attending act either bored or openly disinterested with the proceedings.  You can’t convince me that a great move of the Holy Spirit is happening in your Sunday service when maybe ten percent of the people in that service are interested in what’s going on.

And yet this is what’s being held up as the hub of Christian experience, on which everything else in the church is based and around which it revolves.  If the Sunday services I’ve witnessed are as good as it gets (and I’ve heard some pastors says that, using just those words), then I’d rather be a Muslim, thanks.  And I’m not the only person who feels that way – there isn’t one county in the United States, not even in the Bible Belt, where church attendance has increased over the last decade.  The organized church in America is shrinking, even as the population grows.  And I have to think that it’s because people are seeing through what we present as being the church, and are increasingly choosing to look elsewhere for their spiritual sustenance.  Can’t say I blame them, can you?

How did we get to this state, where congregations from all over the denominational map are not only doing the same things from week to week, and doing the same things as most of the other congregations, but doing things that are so woefully ineffective at accomplishing our stated goals?  I’m not totally sure, but I have a theory.  Or rather, Graham Cooke has one.

Cooke is an interesting cat.  He’s originally from Sheffield, England, but recently has been working out of Vacaville, California, less than an hour’s drive from Stockton.  And he has something of a prophetic ministry, seeking to prompt reform in the body of Christ.  He’s not perfect (which of us is, this side of Heaven?), but he’s got more insight into the ways of Christ and His bride the church than most people I’ve heard.

In one of His messages that I’ve heard, Cooke talked about how God is consistent, but unpredictable.  He’s consistent in His nature – who He is, His grace and forgiveness toward us, His holiness and righteousness – but unpredictable in what He does and how He does it.  He doesn’t operate by formula; one day He’ll be telling His people not to marry foreign wives, and the next he’ll make sure a Moabite convert hooks up with an Israelite and produces a royal line to rule His people (see the book of Ruth) or order one of his prophets to marry a prostitute (see the book of Hosea).  His nature doesn’t change, but His methods do – and the way He accomplishes things in one era may not be how he does so in another.

Meanwhile, as Cooke points out, we are often the exact opposite: unpredictable in who we are, loving one moment and harsh the next, but boringly predictable in what we do.  We’ll lock into a methodology for accomplishing some task, and then hold to it even when it’s no longer working because “that’s the way we’ve always done it before.”  We make extensive lists of rules for this, that and the other so that things are done exactly how we think they’re supposed to be done, regardless of the heart behind it.  We make laws specifying behaviors and practices down to the minutest detail (read some actual texts of state or federal statutes sometime if you don’t believe me), and when people follow the letter of the laws, we consider it good, even when they violate the spirit of the laws or the basic concepts of justice and love of our fellow humans.  That’s Homo sapiens right there.  And we bring that into the body of Christ, the Christ whose ways and thoughts are not like ours (Isaiah 55:8).

Specifically, what we’ve done in the American church in the 21st century (and before) is to take the ways God did things in previous eras and institutionalize them, so that we keep doing things in those ways even when God may want us to do things another way, even when the reasons for doing things in those ways are no longer the case.  As an example … Peabody, turn the Wayback Machine to 1970, give or take a year.

I was born in 1969, so I didn’t get to witness the “Jesus Movement” firsthand, but I’ve read about it, heard friends who were there talk about it, listened to the music that was the most public product of it.  It was the last broad-based revival the United States has experienced to this date, and combined with another movement (the Charismatic Renewal in many of the established denominations), it really shook up the American religious landscape.  A lot of people from outside the usual church culture came in – most notably the “Jesus people,” converted hippies who brought their musical and dress styles into their relationships with Christ – and a lot of people already in the church grew in ways they had never expected.  It must have been a lot of fun while it lasted.

But, as A.W. Tozer once reportedly said, “man is made of dust, and the tendency of dust is to settle.”  Pretty soon, the “new ways of doing things” became the “way we do things,” and that was that.  Some examples:

  • Rock music, originally used as a way to connect with the counter-culture and present the gospel in a way they could understand, became the modern “worship band,” even as the world outside moved on to new forms of music such as rap.
  • Theater-style seating focused on a raised stage (also similar to a rock concert) replaced the pulpit and pews as the norm for congregational architecture, and stayed that way even as the rock scene began to explore “house shows”, dance parties and other new ways of presenting their views.  (And even as the weaknesses in a theater-style setup in the context of religion – an inability to interact with one’s peers, a further separation between paid ministers and the rest of the body, the glorification of those on the stage vis-à-vis those who aren’t – became increasingly apparent.)
  • “Evangelism Explosion” and the “Four Spiritual Laws” (the latter was actually created in 1952, but gained widespread popularity in the Sixties) became the templates for further developments in systematic evangelism, even as people outside the church sought a paradigm based more on relationships than processes.
  • Even many of the independent, forward-thinking congregations that were at the forefront of the Jesus Movement, such as Calvary Chapel and the Vineyard, are now denominations, as cookie-cutter in many ways as the denominations they rebelled against a generation before.

Along with methods carried over from previous era (such as the centrality of the sermon as an impetus for the congregation’s spiritual growth), these ways that God once used to reach the world have been set in concrete by His people, who are now actually resistant to those who suggest things be done any other way.

And it often happens that way.  Look at chapters 10 through 15 of the Acts of the Apostles, or Paul’s letter to the Galatians, where many people involved in the first wave of God’s work in the church (saved, Spirit-filled devout Jews) are opposed to the second wave of God’s work (saved, Spirit-filled Gentiles).  Look at the attacks on the Anabaptists in the 16th century by Lutherans and other Protestants.  Look at how the early 20th-century Pentecostals were remonstrated with by leaders in the Holiness movement, from which the Pentecostal movement sprang.  It seems that throughout history, whenever God breathes a new wind of revival across the landscape, the people doing the most to set up windbreaks are those who were part of the previous revival.  It’s as if their mindset is, “this is how God told us to do it back then – if you oppose that, you’re opposing God!”  Instead, they could say, “God did things that way then, but it looks like He’s doing it a new way now – cool!”  And maybe even join in.  I’m sure God wouldn’t mind.

But you don’t see too many of those leaders (or their followers) doing that.  Maybe it’s just too easy to be content with the way things are, to pass on new wine and say, “The old wine is good enough” (Luke 5:39) even when the new wine is being served by Jesus Himself.  But the result is that we’re no longer the church God created us to be.  We become an institution, and I can’t believe for a moment that God saved us to put us in an institution – if anything, that’s what those who openly oppose God want to do with us!  So why would we conform to their desires instead of His?

Now, I don’t think the answer is to just do whatever, simply because it’s different.—toward that way lies madness.  I’ve seen people, even pastors (naming no names) abandoning even the basics of the gospel because they were tired of the same ol’ same ol’, and in the process threw out the living God with the dead rituals.  I’m not supporting that for a second.  Nor can I support going back to previous forms of congregationalism or worship, as many have done in leaving evangelical congregations for Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy or the older branches of Protestantism.  I agree that we can learn a lot from earlier teachings and things learned in the church’s long history, but to trade evangelical institutions for older institutions is nothing more than trading the structures of the 1970s for those of the 1870s, or 1670s, or 1370s.  That doesn’t get us moving out of the institution, it just transfers us to a different ward with different-colored straitjackets.

No, I think the solution for us is simpler, subtler and in the long run far more effective.  How about we, as a body, seek God and find out what He wants us to do, here and now, in 2009?  What if we let Him tell us how He wants to change us and spread his Good News to the world, through His Bible, through conversations with us (read: prayer), through revelations from circumstances, through dreams and visions, and through each other?  And then, having heard His will in the matter, we not only follow it – even if it means abandoning long-held practices that go against what He wants now – but continue to seek Him for whatever He has in mind after that … and after that … and after that, too.

Does that strike you as something that might work?  I think it would.  Heck, I’ve been working on doing that just to find His will for my life and my family, and while I’m still somewhat inconsistent at it (these things take time), it’s gone really well so far.  Not always the way I expect it to, but really well nonetheless.   I’d be delighted to join with other people in community who are doing that.  The problem is, I haven’t found such a community yet.  Candidly, I haven’t even run into very many individuals who are.  But I’m not giving up hope, and I’m not giving up going back to Him.

Because it’s sure a darn sight better than going back to being locked in an institution.  I may be crazy, but I’m not that crazy.

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3 Responses to The Church, locked in an institution

  1. Sue says:

    You bring up a good point Ray. I think the problem with many people is the same old problem…fear of change. Many will say God is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow and use that as their basis for not wanting to change or not believing change is ok.

    I think it’s time for a revival and it’s something we all should be praying about. I also believe God will make it happen in His own good time.

    I’m still sitting here waiting on God to tell me where He wants me and as I wait my relationship with Him is constantly evolving. It’s a comfortable relationship for the first time in a long time in my life.

    Wish we were in the same state, we could at least have a home fellowship together. I know my hubby would definitely be up for that!

  2. Brendan says:

    Hi Ray. Been reading your posts on 5L2F for a while now and after reading this I am now officially a fan. Great writing.
    I was talking with a friend just the other day about the same problem. He mentioned something taught him some time ago. If God is not moving where we are, find out where God is moving and go there.
    Now I don’t want to sound like a sheep stealer or similar, but I did just that 12 years ago. After suffering through bland ineffective congregations for 20 odd years and ending up backsliding altogether for want of reality, when I finally took stock of my situation I did precisely what you suggested. IO sought God. And He led me unswervingly into Seventh Day Adventism. Now sure, it took time, and for a while I resisted. But today I belong to a denomination that is the fastest growing protestant denomination in the world. It is Christ centered, community oriented, vital, Spirit filled (without the excesses of pentecostalism) and Bible based, and incrdibly evangelical. And growing by over 1 million every year. Might I suggest that is where God is working.
    Of course you are possibly aghast that I am suggesting this, but did you consider them in your tour of churches?

  3. Ray Anselmo says:

    Thanks for replying, Brendan. After giving your comments a lot of thought and prayer (four months’ worth, actually), I’ve found no indicator that the SDA is where God is leading me. I’ve had involvements with the SDA in the past, and not seen that they’re any closer to the Church in the New Testament than any other denomination. For me, I can’t imagine that the best solution to “the American church has become too oriented toward institutions” is “try a different institution within the American church.”

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