In April 2009, at the end of my four-month Congregational Journey, God finally got it through my thick skull that He no longer wanted me to try finding a home within a traditional, institutional congregation. Basically, He made it clear to me that I didn’t belong there, so I should stop trying to pretend I did, or that I could find one where I fit. Wasn’t gonna happen.
It hasn’t been the smoothest ride since. It’s been difficult to find a lot of Christian fellowship outside traditional Sunday services (albeit, not as difficult as it is to find Christian fellowship within traditional Sunday services!). I haven’t discovered a single active “house church” in the county, and the one Christian group I found on Meetup that wasn’t exclusively for singles was already in the process of breaking up when I joined. I do get together with friends on occasion (one on a regular basis, but he’s going to be out of the country most of autumn), and I communicate with other believers online. But it’s a subsistence diet at best.
So there have been times when I wondered if maybe I was on the wrong track, that maybe I hadn’t heard God correctly and I needed to strap myself back into a traditional congregation. Usually I lie down until the feeling goes away, or, failing that, ask the Supermodel how the last Sunday service went where she attends. (That would be enough to cure anyone of the urge.) But given the lack of palatable options outside the usual “church system,” I can’t be blamed for reconsidering the unpalatable ones inside it.
Funny thing, though — today I got a solid reminder of why I don’t go back. And all because I wasn’t sure what to write about today.
The thing about a blog is that, if you’re writing in it every day (or in my case, attempting but failing to write in it every day), you go through a lot of topics. And there’s nothing more tedious than repeating yourself. So I keep an Excel spreadsheet (I loooooove Excel!) listing potential new ideas for blog columns, with possible titles, applicable Scripture references and the like. Whenever I think of something to address that I’m not planning to use that very day, I add it to the spreadsheet for future consideration. That way, if there’s nothing popping at the moment, no subject that I just gotta gotta deal with immediately, I can go back through the file and pick something out.
Well, the last thing on my “need to address posthaste” list was the one-year mark of Sean’s illness, which I covered yesterday. So today, I cracked open Excel to look through the “potential topics” sheet. And what I found was that about half the list dealt with things that happen at those Sunday services I’m not supposed to be going to!
I kid you not — of the 24 ideas I have on the list, ten directly address stuff that typically takes place during institutional church meetings, and another four are about larger issues in which the institutional church figures prominently. Among those — which I may or may not expand upon at length in later days (and if there’s one in particular you’d like me to do, let me know) are the following:
- how some people are content to give God their second-best, or even their leavings, or nothing at all.
- unnecessary restrictions on behavior in church meetings, and how they stifle believers’ childlikeness without encouraging maturity.
- how so many pray using stilted and artificial language, and without even attempting relationship or conversation with God.
- taking the Lord’s name in vain in prayer and preaching (using it as punctuation or repeating it mindlessly).
- the general lack of devotion to God and Jesus as opposed to programs, political and psychological agendas, and economic profits.
- how too many congregations confuse dedication to the government or democracy with commitment to Christ.
- the disconcerting amount of control that some folks insist on holding in congregations, regardless of what the Holy Spirit wants to do there.
- the way the institutional church has adopted the state’s view of marriage, rather than the Bible’s view.
- how behavior in the church is often at odds with reason, faith, the Scriptures or observable reality.
I could go on, but you get the idea. As I looked over these and other potential subjects, I felt unqualified to write about them, because it’s been so long since I’ve seen them demonstrated …
… and then I realized why it’s been so long: because I haven’t been stuck attending those meetings every Sunday! When I stopped spending several hours each weekend in the midst of what had increasingly become to me a religious freak show (if not a house of horrors), I stopped seeing all the silliness, insanity and outright sin I listed above. The only contact I ever have with any of it is when I hear about it from my wife Sunday afternoon (usually in tones of despair and disappointment), or from some other believer still trapped in the System. I never have to see it if I don’t want to … and believe me, I don’t.
Seriously, what a relief!
In what is considered the earliest of his letters to the churches he helped found, the Apostle Paul wrote that “it is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1). He’s talking about the slavery of sin, but if “sin” can be defined as “anything that is against God’s will” (and that’s pretty much how I define it), that encompasses most if not all of the bullet-pointed list above. Those are things that I’m free of, after over twenty years of belonging to Christ, and I want to stay free.
There has been a price to this freedom — the scorn of many in the institutional church system (including some that I looked up to in the past), less contact with some believers (though not a lot less, candidly), and the stress of being in a different place in life in regard to the church and having to adjust to that. But it’s more than balanced off by the rewards — a clearer conscience, a greater opportunity to conform to Scripture, less pressure to conform to artificial modes of public behavior, and a simpler, more restful walk with my Savior. Not to mention more free time on weekends, but that’s minor in comparison. Suffice to say, the benefits far outweigh the cost.
So I thank God again for pulling me out of the System and helping me to stand without it, in “the glorious freedom of the children of God” (Romans 8:22). It’s lonely sometimes, I admit. But nowhere near as lonely as I was before I left.