Me and the American church: still off the map

Several years ago, a Christian teacher named Graham Cooke delivered a message entitled “Walking Off Your Map.”  The basic premise was that if you  follow Jesus for any length of time, there will come points when He will lead you beyond anything you’ve ever experienced — and often, beyond anything the people around you have ever experienced — into new areas of life and maturity in Him.  He made no bones about it being stressful, even frightening — but argued that it was necessary for continued growth in God’s will.  As he put it, “you don’t know where you’re going … but you can’t go back, because that’s killing you!”  It’s move on, or die where you sit.

“Off the map” is where I’ve been for awhile now.  And as far as many people I know are concerned, I’m “off the deep end.”  I’m not a member of any institutional congregation.  I haven’t been to a Sunday morning service anyplace in … (lemme think) … well, at least two years.  I’m bucking the trend of almost the entire American church setup.  And yet I know, with every fiber of my being, that I am where God wants me to be.

Not that that means it’s easy …

A quick recap: for several years I found myself increasingly disturbed by the huge gap between what the Bible teaches about Christ and His Church, and what I observed of the practice of actual congregations.  I wasn’t a pew-sitter, either — I spent almost two decades involved in low-level leadership in the congregations I was part of, and at one point was close to being a licensed minister in a denomination.  (That didn’t work out, for reasons that were never clearly stated to me but which I suspect, in hindsight, were the hand of God at work.)

For another couple of years, I actively searched among evangelical and Pentecostal congregations for one that resembled the churches of the New Testament — those messy, sometimes chaotic yet vibrant and growing bodies in Ephesus and Corinth and Thessalonica, full to bursting with the Holy Spirit even at their worst.  (Type “Congregational Journey” into the Search box on the right, and you can get details on some of those visits.)  But I found only various forms of what I came to call The System — a rigidly liturgical setup that forced God’s people to march in time to a preordained plan of a few people (the “leaders”) and that gave no opportunity for others to minister, to disciple or be discipled, to fellowship, or to worship (unless you consider singing along to/enduring a half-hour concert at jet-aircraft-hangar noise levels to be “worship”).  I met with pastors, only to find that in most cases they were only interested in me if I were willing to perpetuate The System under their umbrella.  (There was one exception, but he was fired by his congregation shortly thereafter.)

Finally, in April 2009, God called a halt to my search — rather dramatically.  And since then, I’ve been out here — “Outside-the-Camp,” I like to call it, citing Hebrews 13:13.  As far as I can tell, it’s where God wants me to be … at least for the time being.

It can be a lonely place at times.  Not because I don’t have any fellowship with other Christians, because I do.  My family and I study the Bible together, formerly every Sunday morning and lately every Saturday evening (more on that later).  I have an older brother in Christ that I meet with regularly, and I’m in conversation with dozens more via Facebook.  I’d like more fellowship opportunities, sure — but right now I have more than the average believer gets on Sunday morning (a few minutes after service, maybe a few before, plus 90 seconds during the service).  I find chances to worship at different times throughout the day, turning to God and listening for Him — and don’t end up with a headache or earache from doing so.  It’s not perfect, but it’s better than what most people I know are getting.

What makes it lonely is that every so often, I run into someone from a congregation I used to attend, and almost always they ask “where are you going to church now?”  (Note the use of “church” as something you go to, outside oneself, not something you are a part of, inside and out– totally twisted from Jesus’ use of the term.)  When I say I’m at home on Sunday, they show various degrees of disappointment and/or disapproval, and immediately attempt to show me the error of my ways.  In doing so, they haul out many of the arguments I learned in two decades of institutional congregation attendance:

  • “You need to be fed” — which implies that a) I can’t “feed” myself on the things of God, although almost all Christians are capable — the only exceptions are the spiritually immature or disabled (wonder which one they think I am); b) feeding can come only through attendance on Sunday mornings or during other officially scheduled meetings, even though studies have shown that passive listening to a speaker — which is how teaching is accomplished in most institutional congregations — is probably the least effective method for getting people to retain information (try to remember your pastor’s sermon from two weeks ago); and c) that the point of being a member of a congregation is to receive, when Hebrews 10:25 (people’s favorite verse to cite in these situation) says that the purpose is to “encourage one another” — in other words, to give.
  • “You need to be in fellowship” — implying that fellowship takes place in the Sunday morning service, which, by and large, it doesn’t (see above).
  • “You need to be in the church” — denying Jesus’ and the Bible’s definition of “church” — “belonging to Jesus and following Him” — and replacing it with a Greco-Roman (essentially pagan) definition — “being part of a regular assembly in a particular building.”  For more development on the weaknesses in that argument, I refer you to Frank Viola’s excellent work on the subject; I don’t want to reinvent the wheel here.
  • “You need to be accountable” — even though institutional congregations, in my experience, provide very little accountability for most of their members (I could give you numerous examples, but that would run another couple thousand words; maybe another time); even though I am accountable to God (above all, and for always), my wife, my kids and some mature Christian friends; and even though following their definition of “accountability” would mean denying what I believe is the express will of the God I’m supposed to obey before all others.
  • “You need to be in the body” — really, the same as “in the church,” only upping the ante to aver that if you’re not attending a congregation every Sunday, you have renounced your faith and/or no longer belong to Jesus.  Which is so obviously absurd and false that I won’t waste your time arguing against it.

There are other shibboleths like the ones above, but you get the idea.  I know those shibboleths because I learned them from institutional congregations.  And I now know that they are shibboleths because I read the Bible and found that it has different things to say, because I listened for God’s voice (you know, the one that in John 10, “His sheep hear”?) and He had a differing view.  Eventually I came to see that these statements I learned in institutional congregations served to justify the existence of the institutional congregations, not for the benefit of God or His people.  So, yeah, those dogs ain’t gonna hunt.

(Interestingly, one objection no one tries is “you need to be ministering to people.”  It’s like they know there’s little chance to minister much to anyone if you’re not a paid staff member — the System is set up in such a way that if you’re not in the hierarchy of an institutional congregation and you want to spend yourself in ministry to others, your only real choice is to leave and start your own institutional congregation!  Which pretty much just perpetuates the problem.)

But still, though I have more of what the brick-and-mortar congregations are claiming to offer than most people in those congregations seem to, I admit to wanting still more.  And it’s led me to consider starting the exploration for a congregation to be a part of, and for my family to be a part of.  That’s why we moved our usual Bible study to Saturday — so that we can check out someplace on Sunday morning without depriving ourselves of the study time.  I’ve even considered another Congregational Journey, this time of congregations from older traditions whereas the previous one involved exclusively newer  styles of ministry (i.e., from the last 200 years).  I know that the Lutheran “theology of the cross” is quite attractive, focusing on Jesus instead of the human-centered “theology of glory” that dominates what Chaplain Mike of Internet Monk calls “the evangelical consumer-industrial complex” …

So I’ve been thinking along these lines … and then God put the brakes on again.

See, in the process of “wanting more,” I’d forgotten for a moment that it’s God who calls the shots.  He was the one who ended my search two-plus years ago — I was quite prepared to keep digging through the proverbial pile of horse manure in search of the pony I thought would be there.  (If you don’t know the story to which I refer, I’ll expand on it in a later post, promise.)  He is the one who has told me — has had to tell me, repeatedly, as I can be awfully thick at times — that I am right where He wants me, and that I don’t need to pay mind to peer pressure from others.  He is the one who’s brought me through every crisis of the 28 months since that dream — my son’s illness, my mother’s death, a possibly-permanent estrangement from my father, marital difficulties, health problems and financial concerns — and while in many cases He’s worked through His people the church, He’s never required me to sign my name to a membership roll.

In short, it wasn’t the Almighty who wanted me to go back into the congregational world again, it was me.  And belonging to Christ means belonging to Christ; He calls the shots, He decides what’s necessary.  Not me.

So I’m still off the map, outside the camp, and in the minds of some in the institutional System, in the doghouse.  But I know in whom I believe, and what I believe He’s telling me to do.  In the end, I have to follow His dictates, because in the end He’s going to be the one judging my life — not Pastor Whoever or Sister Such-and-Such.  I have no idea where I’ll be headed years or even days from now — maybe to an established congregation, maybe not.  He’s my Lord; He’ll work that out.  My job is to follow where He leads, to listen when He speaks, to do what He commands.

And while that life can be lonely, it also means I’ll never be alone.  No matter how far off the map He takes me.

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3 Responses to Me and the American church: still off the map

  1. Grieta says:

    This, my brother, is so very true. I have experienced the same “outside-the-map” thing for a while. What makes this so very sad in my case is that I am an assistant pastor in a church! However, I have recently looked back a long way to find a place where I was last edified by anything which happened in a church. I could not remember one instance in the last year. At home this is totally different. I find that my devotional time is much more edifying and when I minister to people who crosses my path in day to day activities we are all learning from each other.

  2. Sue says:

    I think we often have this fleshy need to “belong.” It’s part of the trap of living in the world and something we all get entangled in. It takes great courage and a large bit of trust in our Lord to step aside and let Him lead the way.

    I still get tangled up in that feeling and will sometimes go back to my old congregation. It feels good when I am there, because it is filled with many loving people. But God always says, “listen, you need to concentrate on ME and not this need to be accepted.”

    He is teaching me much right now and I’m learning it without benefit of other, well-meaning church goers. You and your family are doing the same.

    Love ya Ray!

  3. […] react roughly as they might if I’d told them I was cheating on my wife, usually followed by some of the shibboleths I noted in a blog post last month.  It’d be nice to avoid that […]

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