Kingdom Grace blogged the other day a very honest post about her current faith journey, and how it is taking to the very edges of organised church. A heartfelt, searching piece was quickly followed by a long (and growing) list of encouraging comments. Its really worth a read.
I’ve already ‘stuck my oar in’ in that comment stream, expressing an opinion which isn’t really shared with the other commenters. I feel a need to attempt a clearer expression of my thoughts on this subject, but I wanted to do it way from Grace’s comment stream, so that it could be more general thoughts on the subject and divorced somewhat from her current journey (although using that as my example, as it is the inspiration for posting). Its very important that in reading this you understand that I am not intending to criticise Grace or the decisions she is wrestling with at present. I have a great deal of respect for Grace, for her well reasoned and passionate writing, her openness about her faith journey, and her as a person (from what little I know of her).
This is a post about church, not a criticism of any one individuals faith journey.
So, the question is ‘is it possible to have a churchless faith’? Certainly, a lot of the regulars at Kingdom Grace seem to think it is. If you haven’t already guessed, I’m not so sure…
‘Faith deconstruction’ is kinda the ‘in thing’ at the moment; it is a journey that God seems to be taking many of us through. We look at the implicit and explicit assumptions in our understanding of what church ‘is’ and what church should ‘be’, and try to strip back to something less inculcated. We end up with loads of perfectly understandable question marks over church practices, and often with a hunger for what Grace describes as “some church thing that [is] amazingly awesome”; ie, something that is not like church as we currently experience it.
Certainly there are lots of reasons to question church as it is often expressed in all its institutional forms. Why are we meetings focused? Why is that guy (and too often it’s a guy) at the front doing everything while I just sit here? Why are we not more open and honest with each other…? In my own journey I’ve frequently got frustrated with the church community I’m part of, and with the others I see around me – some of my journey and frustrations have been played out on this blog. So I understand why people get to that place…
I also understand how difficult it can be, once you have been uprooted, to get rooted into a community again. Somehow each new community you encounter doesn’t seem to offer anything close to the value of the long-term relationships from our previous home. In short, I get it: if, like Grace, you find yourself going through a real faith deconstruction alongside leaving your long-time spiritual home, it is going to be really hard to find any spiritual community that seems to cut the mustard.
My problem is that, how ever understandable it is that you have reached that place, abandoning participating in ‘formal’ spiritual community is really a step too far: to me it’s the proverbial from the title above. Hebrews 10:25 was quoted in the comments stream, and although I agree with the commenter that we can apply this too narrowly, it, like many other biblical passages, is encouraging us to keep meeting together.
The argument implicit in there is that there is actually something beneficial to us in the process of gathering with other Christians. We are fed, we are encouraged, we are challenged, we have our rough edges worn off, by other Christians. Other Christians are, I would say, the primary mechanism by which God changes our character and builds in us the fruits of the Spirit. (And don’t we just know how much you need meekness and patience and self-control if you are in the Church for any length of time!)
I would go further, as I have in the past, by pointing out that almost every time in the New Testament the word ‘you’ is used, it is plural. We are the body of Christ, the temple of the Holy Spirit, only as a corporate identity. It is our love for each other that is what makes us known as Christians. I would go so far as to say that it is impossible to be a Christian in isolation. We can only follow Jesus when we do so as part of a community.
Now, you would probably say to me that just because you leave the organised church, it doesn’t mean that you stop ‘meeting’ with other Christians. We can be in fellowship with people who are not part of our institution. We don’t need to be part of an institution to be part of The Church.
I agree with all of that.
BUT, I have two issues with taking that route (without invalidating it as a possibility).
1) If you are not part of some form of intentional gathering (however informal) it is much much harder to ensure that you are experiencing fully honest and open communion. You have to establish fresh ground rules with each and every person you fellowship with. Yes, it can be hard to have genuine openness and accountability in a church setting, but at least with ‘formal’ groupings of Christians there are shared values, ground rules and understandings: these can (and should) make openness a more realistic possibility.
2) Without being part of some grouping that you yourself do not define, you can effectively (and easily) pick and choose who you are open with. In fact, you are very unlikely to have real fellowship with anyone you don’t like, or don’t have a great deal of similarity with, or find ‘difficult’. But like I said before, it is the difficult and the different people that God so frequently uses to shape us and to enrich us.
Like I said, babies and bathwater. There are many reasons to be tired, frustrated and really hurt by and with church. Many reasons why you might (quite legitimately) want to leave. But even our very broken, imperfect and human institutions are real tools that God uses to shape us. And without them, I think we are poorer people.
If God is calling you into a new season, then you’ve got to go with where He leads you. But if you feel that He is leading you away from any form of ‘church’, then I think you need to ask yourself some searching questions. I’m not saying you’re wrong. Just that ‘church’ even though it is broken, even though it is much need of deconstruction and reconstruction, is still something God made, and God loves.
That’s my two cents (as they say across the pond). I hope it has come across sensitively enough; if not I apologise.