About the Church and Thinking Outside the Steeple

the-steeple

I was browsing a thrift store recently when I spotted a pair of ceramic geese. I had a visceral response—part embarrassment, part nausea. Those geese brought back memories of a time when my kitchen was saturated in them. Theme decorating was a trend then like burlap, barn wood and chalkboard paint are today.

My geese years coincided with the breakup of my marriage and a tough walk raising my three children.  The memory of geese canisters and geese candle holders and geese napkin rings and geese salt and pepper shakers and geese curtains and geese dish towels and the geese welcome sign on my front porch also mark a time of disillusionment in my Jesus-following.

I had adhered to and been sorely disillusioned with certain dogmatic church trends and practices that, like decorating fads, came and went. I wish I could take space to describe them here.

As I throw down the words to this post I realize I have an unintentional series going on—it’s this thing about church that I’m wrestling with and trying to figure out. I suppose we could consider this Part 3 in a series of Who-knows-how-many-and-hopefully-this-is-it-for-awhile!

Speaking of throwing down words, there are numerous experts on the subject of church reformation. One of the beauties of not being an expert myself is that I get to offer ideas for discussion. If those ideas happen to spark curiosity in you, Google could be your best friend!

Speaking of friends, a good friend commented recently that she wished she could find a faith community like the one I am part of.  I’ve been there. Her comment started me thinking and questioning:

  • Why can’t we start an organic faith community simply by meeting with a few like-minded believers?
  • Has the traditional church model conditioned us to be spectators, leaving us needing  permission to function as the body of Christ portrayed in Acts?
  • Have we developed a false-notion that only certain people can plant communities of faith—that only credentialed people can grow the church?
  • Have we become a little consumer-minded with regard to how we view faith gatherings—that we have to go somewhere to get what we are shopping for?
  • Are we intimidated by Church, Inc. and fearful of its criticism?
  • Are we afraid we’ll be labeled radical, rebellious, deceived, or contentious?
  • Are we too lazy, too private, too afraid to go all-in for what our souls really desire and just so happens to be what God has called us to?
  • Are we terrified of failure? Are we steeped in apathy?

It’s commonly known in Christendom that the church in China has flourished in the house church setting. Persecution and government controls drove them underground, out of the building and into homes. Years ago I remember hearing stories from missional visitors to China  that went something like this:

“They don’t have Bibles, only pages of scripture they conceal and later copy by hand—which are then passed to the next house church. They memorize whole books of the Bible for fear what little scripture they do possess will be confiscated. They don’t have musical accompaniment in their worship or convenient church schedules. They gather, often after long work days, and crowd into small spaces, choosing fellowship with other believers over food and rest. They have no freedom to assemble and when discovered are beaten, fined, tortured and imprisoned.”

Fortunately, government controls in China are relaxing. In some places believers are allowed to gather outside the confines of the governmentally controlled registered church system. Though not available for purchase in the open market, Bibles are more accessible now—many obtained electronically.

You’ve heard stories about the way the church is expressed in other parts of the world. The church is flourishing among believers who have substantially less freedom, significantly less wealth and selectively fewer educated church leaders.

Can we North American Christians think outside the steeple

and be the sent-out ones? 

Can we shift our paradigm? Can we follow the Spirit’s lead as the life and will of Christ are expressed through us, His body?

It’s dangerous and terribly unproductive to enter into an excessive debate about how to be the church. (2 Tim. 2:23) The moment we think we’ve ironed out enough theological wrinkles to assert a definitive conclusion and formulate a recipe, another shift appears on the horizon—a new move is on the wind.

Debate, schisms and polarization have always plagued the church. Two thousand years ago the apostles adamantly opposed Gentile inclusion—they were rigidly stuck in the law of Moses, unable to recognize what God was doing among them. The Roman Catholic church considers itself to be the only true church, stuck in piety, power and control. Throughout the centuries countless denominations have sprung up, composed of people lost in dogmatic zeal, fear and rigidity.

After the geese came the cow decor. After the cows came my Americana era, Country followed, then Shabby Chic, then…. You get my meaning, right?

I have included scripture references at the end of this post that describe some aspect of the church, either in form or function. Let me offer this reminder about the church:

The church is God’s possession —

“…Which He obtained by His own blood?”  (Acts:20:28)

The Lord builds His church 

“…I will build my church and the gates of hell with not prevail against it.”  (Matt 16:18)

We are the temple (building) God dwells within 

“…For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.”  (1 Cor.. 3:17)

As we humble ourselves in this search to understand what God is doing in and through His church, can we cultivate a motivation and response born of love for Him rather than our love of being right?

Unless the Lord build the house, they labor in vain who build it!                   Ps. 127:1

If I am pursuing depth in God and submission to His headship, then my main concern about the church should be whether or not I am contributing my part, in love and faithfulness, with intention of bringing glory to Him and furthering His kingdom.

As long as we have a biblical world view, we never need the permission or parameters of another human or human institution to dictate if or how we are allowed to be the church.

Grace and peace!


• Hebrews 10:24-25 ESV • And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.

• 1 Corinthians 14:26 ESV • What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up.

• Ephesians 2:21 ESV • In whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord.

• Colossians 3:16 ESV • Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.

• Romans 12:5 ESV • So we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.

• Ephesians 4:16  ESV •  From whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.

• 2 Timothy 2:22 ESV •  But keep away from youthful passions, and pursue righteousness, faithfulness, love, and peace, in company with others who call on the Lord from a pure heart.


Why I Stopped Going to Church

church

I was in the seventh grade, sitting on a hard wooden pew in a small country church.

It was my first or second visit and to be honest five minutes after the service I couldn’t have told you what the sermon was about. I was too preoccupied with the awkwardness of my foreign surroundings, navigating my adolescent insecurities and managing the shame of what was going on at home.

An invitation was made for the unsaved to come to the altar, confess their sins, and invite Jesus into their hearts. My classmate Susan leaned in close, her vanilla musk oil momentarily replacing the sacred mustiness of old wood, old hymnals and old people. She whisper-shouted over the pianist playing Just As I Am, “You need to get saved or you’ll go to hell.”

That day was the beginning of what would become nearly five decades of church attendance. I’d be hard-pressed now to list all the churches I’ve joined in that time—everything from Little Country Churches to Prosperity Mega-Churches, Christian Missionary Alliance, and Pentecostal Freewill Baptist. Foursquare. Church of God. Baptist. Assemblies of God. Vineyard. Presbyterian. Independent. You can imagine how many church “membership” classes I’ve taken.

In it all I found that church going was often confused with Christ-following. There was a disconnect between the church I observed in scripture and church I experienced as a gathering place.

Before I lose you, I need to say that most of the churches I joined were populated by authentic Jesus-followers and led by sincere leaders following their God-calling to the best of their abilities. Many of them contributed to my growth as a believer and some provided a taste of the faith community my soul desired.

Others were unquestionably exploitive and even abusive.

Like the boyfriend everyone thought you should marry but your heart could never fully trust, Church and I broke up several times. Guilt and hope always pushed me back to try again.

With all that church hopping I came to know a lot of bunnies. I discovered a remarkable number of them had also stopped going to church. That was in the days before a demographic was identified and labeled the Doners—Christ-followers done with traditional church.

Discussions ensued. Stories unfolded. Hurts were laid bare and resentments unveiled. Sadly, some had abandoned their belief in God all together while others just simmered in a stew of disillusionment and indecision.

I remember asking a good friend, “Is this God’s doing or are we being led into deception?”

Some railed against traditional church practices while others simply wanted an environment that supported a deeper walk with Jesus and a fuller expression of body life–one-anothering as some identified it.

I’m not going to kid you, there was a conflicted and significant interval between leaving the institutional church setting and discovering a faith community that invited the kind of participation we desired. Until then, I dreaded the where-are-you-going-to-church inquiries that popped up in conversations at Costco and Safeway.

Not surprisingly, in that season we didn’t feel any less Christian. We found ourselves detoxing from some of our religious thinking and challenging long held practices. We  laid hold of Acts and read newly discovered books addressing this church debate and the ineffectiveness of some traditional churches. We recognized a migration of Christ-followers from institutional church settings to a deeper, less structured expression of church-being.

I desired a living, interactive faith community of authentic Jesus-followers pursuing what it means to be the church–the functioning body of Christ. Unfortunately, as someone has said, that’s harder to find then hens teeth.

That said; let me quote one of the thinkers in this church debate. Frank Viola asserts,

Body life is PROFOUNDLY costly….face-to-face community exposes everyone’s flesh, so it’s not an easy ride. It’s a marriage of glory and gore. And that’s where the transformation occurs. That is, if you can learn the cross and not skirt it. When it comes to authentic body life, many are called, but few can stand it.

Nonetheless, we have aligned with a group of unconventional Jesus-followers near our home. We’re identified as Simple Church and we’re learning what it is to go deeper with Jesus and be church.

  • We come together, no one more important than the other.
  • We greet and visit like family members.
  • We worship acoustically.
  • We read significant portions of scripture.
  • Each one freely participates in the gathering.
  • We each operate in our individual gifting and contribute accordingly.
  • We lovingly challenge as well as affirm one other.
  • We help each other in practical ways outside the weekly gathering.
  • We’re missional in our scope and mutually ministerial in our function.
  • Most importantly though, we allow the Holy Spirit to express Himself in and through us, for His glory and our good—to achieve His kingdom purposes.

Do we have it all figured out? No way! Are we still growing in our understanding of what it means to be the church? Absolutely! Do we have the capability of inflicting wounds and hindrances every bit at crippling as those we’ve received in traditional church settings? Yes. Yes, we do.

It never stops being scary. This endeavor requires spiritual maturity and great love to embark on and succeed at something as intimate and vulnerable as Simple Church.

This image may raise fear of a petri dish environment that could breed heresy and cult-spawning. That possibility exists I suppose. The health of such a faith community isn’t based on where it meets or its non-traditional-non-structure. The health of this type of faith community succeeds on the transformational journey of its parts.

Just because we’re a house church does not mean we’re on the fast track to emulating a biblical first century church.

I’ve used the term organic church in the past attempting to describe this community but it has become overused and misapplied. The faith communities I describe vary like families; each are uniquely representative of and responsive to their community, culture and demographic.

There appears to be a good bit of church reformation taking place but it doesn’t mean someone can’t be the church while going to the church! It doesn’t mean house churches are the only answer.

Consider this, wherever you express yourself as a member of the body of Christ, keep in mind that there is an entire population of pre-Christians who will not encounter Jesus in the organized church setting because they refuse the building and loath the politics.

Some will only meet Jesus as He’s expressed through the church–His sincere followers fleshing out the life and mission of Jesus.

Grace and peace!