I had a comment posted this week which said, in part:
“A mate of mine has been pondering leaving the church where he’s been worshipping; where he’s been preaching; where he and his wife have been (for a short time) counseling the youth; where he’s been a small group leader and a respected servant of Christ amongst the community. A few weeks back, I asked him to explain himself and he mentioned how he had been reading your blog and how this had prompted him deeper into thought and he felt that church was meant to be more than what it was at the place where he was currently worshipping. Fair call. I’ve also had – an continue to have my moments of the same. Last night he officially withdrew from the community. What’s more surprising is that he’s also stepped away from the small group he was leading. very interesting. all this and this blog have led me to ponder a few things. Is this your desire through this blog? that people should be stirred to leave? to walk away?”
In short, no.
The comment goes on to suggest that I am setting a bad example as a ‘Christian Leader’ and that I can be lumped with the reasons why people outside the church think of Christians as hypocrites. Reading through all of this I got the sense that there was some pain about a friend leaving and I was to be blamed.
Let me say this as clearly as I can:
1. I don’t want people to leave their churches.
2. I don’t have something against Church.
What I’m trying to do here, and admittedly falteringly, is to be honest about the holes I’ve seen in my years of working for churches. I want to do this because, for the first time it doesn’t mean my job if I ask the honest questions that have been burning in me for a while. I also want to do this because it may provide solace for others out there who have the same concerns. But mostly I would love this to lead to a discussion about the way forward. I have tentatively offered my own thoughts along the way, and will continue to flesh them out as things become clearer for me. I can understand how this threatens people who think there is nothing really wrong with the church and no changes need to be made, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that there is a move of people, as happens again and again in history, to ask the hard questions and look to make radical changes to get back to the good stuff. May I suggest something radical for those of you who are worried that I’m just being critical for the sake of it: stop reading!
For the rest of you, I really believe the church is going through a big shift. People, en masse, are becoming disillusioned with mainline churches and hungering for something more authentic, more communal, more effective in changing the world. But they step outside the church and there just doesn’t seem to be anything else, and so many just walk away altogether.
‘Devil’s Advocate’s comment went on to say, “how the heck will any sick people be healed if all the doctors flee the country? does every doctor expect to walk into a hospital that has zero illness?”
I think this shows a lack of understanding about why people are leaving. It isn’t generally because they are ‘nit picky perfectionist doctors who are so arrogant they can’t stand being around imperfect working conditions in the hospital’. I think its more like they are ‘doctors who love to see people made well and they are fed up of watching the rest of the staff hang around in their fancy tea room’ and conscience pushes them to move.
Those are the ones I’m interested in anyway, and there’s a growing number of them.
This guy’s friend, the one who left the church, could be doing so for a number of reasons. Maybe this blog was just the excuse he needed. Maybe he really does feel this tension, but now where does he go? Down the road to a slightly different version of the same? It leaves people in a very difficult situation. Most don’t have the courage to start something new so they either sit in the back row of the church down the road, ever trying to silence the nagging questions or just give up altogether.
I believe we need to be braver than that though. Walking away from Church isn’t the answer. Maybe your local church is willing to make the changes. Great! But for those who chose to move I really think we need to look at ways of being Church in the world that respond to this hunger in the hearts of an increasing number of God’s followers because, maybe, just maybe, this move, this change, this shift is His doing, and its good… even though it’s difficult.
So where to from here? Well in my humble opinion I think Church is going to get simple again. This isn’t a time to find a new model or trend, this is a time of stripping off the extras we have been piling on for centuries. I also don’t think there will be any revolutionary idea, just a return to some very old ones.
Many asking these questions are asking, ‘what is Church then’? ‘What are the bare bones’?
‘Church’ simply means ‘gathering’.
Some of you will know that the root word is the Latin word ‘Ekklesia’, which means ‘gathering’. It meant, in its original usage, a city which had submitted to the rule of the Roman Empire, and so became a ‘gathering’ of people who accepted the Pax Romana (the Peace of Rome). They believed they had found a better way to ‘do’ life and so they gathered together to live it out in community. This looked very different all over the Empire. In true 1st Century Christian tradition the early Christians borrowed this phrase from pop culture to mean a ‘gathering’ of people who believe they have found a better way to live, in following Jesus teaching, and they wanted to live it out in community. When you read Acts you get the sense that there were only a few things which were important, and they were done for the love of it, not out of duty.
1. They ate meals with each other in their homes, and at some point in the meal they would break bread symbolically and tell stories about Jesus.
2. They would share all they had with each other even selling things sacrificially to provide money for those who needed it.
3. They met together often to connect with God and each other, all the while better learning how to live in this new direction.
4. Because they believed so strongly in what God was doing they were moved to get out and heal people, feed people, care for people, and connect them with Him again.
The interesting thing is that the bible says that this Church was loved by the people and grew daily. Lets be honest, that speaks of something different from what we have become.
Now for me I want to move away from traditional institutional church but not away from Church (capital C). I am reading a great book at the moment by Floyd Mclung where he speaks about ‘Simple Church’. This is an American pastor’s kid who grew up struggling with his father’s church, moved to Amsterdam and began a series of house churches among students, then moved to Afghanistan where he began a house church, and now he lives in the next valley in Fish Hoek where he trains people in starting and leading simple house churches.
I’ve been thinking more and more about this idea of ‘simple church’ recently.
The most meaningful ‘gathering’ I have ever been a part of was a group of 20 somethings in Joburg. I had noticed this tension in a lot of people my age, leaving the church with no where else to go. So on top of my commitment to my local church at the time, I started a group who met on Wednesday nights in each other’s homes. We spoke about God and life, checked in on each other during the week and tried to get involved in things outside ourselves to make a difference in the world. We called this group ‘Something Orange’ and it was a real mix of people. Some left church because they had been burnt by people, we were a bit of healing for them as a community. Some felt this frustration and this group was a place to just be simple church. Some weren’t sure why they were there but they kept coming. One girl even said she was there to observe us as a social experiment and she was welcome to. We shared together each week, prayed for each other, someone would teach a bit. We had big slap up meals together where we would quiet the tone at a stage to remember Jesus and His death. It felt like real community, simple church that went way beyond our wednesday nights. To this day that feels like the most honest expression of church I have been apart of, and I started it almost by accident.
The more I think about this idea the more excited I get. I mean imagine a Church which covers the globe, made up of people meeting in each others homes, who pool all their resources to take care of each other and change the world for the better. What kind of world would we live in if churches were obsessed with God and people, and not the less transient fluff which often saps our time and energy?
For the first time recently I have thought about starting something small. Not right now, but maybe soon.
There will be nothing radical about it. It will be small and simple. Just a group of people following God and trying to work out what ‘simple church’ is again. I have heard of so many others who are doing the same just in the last month.
When I think about the Church at this time in history I get that picture of Jesus in the temple driving out anything which wasn’t specifically about connecting people with God. His ‘Temple Tantrum’! (Come on thats funny). He was mad because of all the extra things the priests had made the Temple about, all the subtle things which had crept in overtime to dilute the purpose of the Temple. Whilst I think it may be too strong to say that God is mad at many churches, I do think that this frustration felt in the hearts of many may just be a holy one, calling us to throw off some of the distractions and move back to a simpler, more purposeful way of being Church.
Ok, so let the stones fly:)