Babies and Bathwater

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.

God bless

a

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5 thoughts on “Babies and Bathwater

  1. This was a very kind response to Grace and those of us who commented. These are exactly the reasons we are trying to figure out what Father has for us in the future. No matter what you say about the early church and how they did or did not do gatherings you have to come to the point where you have to agree that there were intentional meetings.

    I think some of what Grace and the rest of us are trying to figure out is what are those ‘intentional meetings’ supposed to be like.

    In reality, I think we are asking not, is it possible to have a ‘churchless’ faith but is it possible to have a ‘institutionaless’ faith. And with that question, I think we all agree that it is possible.

  2. Very good thoughts and a positive encouragement. My own journey and battle against the business of church has been rough, but I, like you… just cannot get away from the Spirit inspired Scripture that draws me back to his living Family!

    Structure
    Form
    Shape
    Substance are not bad words…

    And more than that, they are words that reflect the nature of our Church. We cannot let the abuse be an excuse not to pursue Divine “one another.

  3. grace says:

    Andy,
    I appreciate the thoughtfulness of your response both here and at my blog.

    As I said in response earlier, I very much agree with you about the intentionality of relationships and the need for a corporate experience of the body of Christ.

    I really never expected to be in this undefined position, but I do believe it part of God’s process for me, maybe only specifically for me. I don’t presume to think that everyone has to go this route. I am sure that it has to do with issues of letting go of control and trusting in the Lord’s ability to position me within the Body according to His plans and purposes.

    I do believe that He will root me somewhere, and I have no idea what the plant that develops from that rooting will look like. Towards that end, I will attempt to trust Him and follow His lead in pursuing the relationships around me.

    Thank for sharing your perspective and wisdom on this topic.

  4. This is a great post! And a good model of how we can dialogue with sensitivity to move toward mutual understanding. (Love is the goal, right?) 🙂

    I left church primarily because I was I was discontent with my own spiritual barrenness, and the barrenness of the churches in my city. None of us were producing new believers. People were switching churches, so some churches experienced ‘growth’ from that. But the kingdom was remaining static. It was not growing in my city, and that broke me. I began to question why we were so inwardly focused on our own spiritual transformation while millions of hurting people outside the walls were ignored.

    I left institutional church because I realized my Christianity cannot be about me (and my growth). It cannot be about my community of believers (and our growth). It has to be about love. Yes, love for each other (the faith community), but why do we stop there? The statistics of North America (from a missiological perspective) are deeply disturbing to me and they break my heart. When I was confronted with my own personal barrenness and took personal responsibility for contributing to these statistics, I cried out to God this simple prayer: “Lord, heal my barrenness.” Barrenness in scripture has always been considered a curse, but I fear we are comfortable with it here in North America as normal Christianity. Normal Christianity is reproductive.

    I left institutional church because God called me out (a lot of people, maybe not you included, would not believe that God would do that). But I believe He is retraining many of us as a process of healing our barrenness, and giving us an outward, apostolic focus that seeks to expand his kingdom (rather than merely maintain the believers we have now). I think sometimes we confuse the church with the kingdom of God. I am just beginning to learn about Jesus’s message of the kingdom. (He preached the majority of His messages on the kingdom, and mentioned the “church” only 2 or 3 times). Have we confused ‘church’ with the kingdom of God (and our goal of its expansion)? I think we have. In fact, I think we’ve replaced the latter with the former (and in a way, made the church into an idol. We cannot substitute the church for the work of the Holy Spirit and the supernatural, otherworldly kindgom of God).

    Yes, relationship and relationships of diversity (in denominational background, personal opinion and gifting and calling etc) are very important. But I believe a relational form of ‘church’ outside of institutions can reflect that kind of diversity.

    For some of us, it isn’t bitterness or hurt that brought us out. I know that some have left because of toxic, unhealthy environments. And I also know that not all institutional churches are toxic. Some are very healthy, and I continue to learn from healthy leaders who are within those systems. However, my journey was a little different, so I just wanted to include it in the dialogue in hopes to contribute to mutual understanding. 🙂 Thanks again for your thoughtful post!

  5. If we’re to avoid “throwing the baby out with the bathwater”, then let’s exert a modicum of effort and GET THAT BABY OUT OF THAT BATHWATER…because I for one am pitchin’ that bathwater. No ifandorbutts. Done.

    Tom

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