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Leaving the institutional church behind

August 14, 2007

Image © Michael ReeceMore and more Christians throughout the world are choosing to follow what one writer calls “an unstructured church lifestyle.” They no longer “go to church” on Sundays and they have withdrawn from a wide variety of organized church programs and activities: things like Sunday Schools, youth groups, mission trips, choirs, worship teams, children’s church, prayer meetings, discipleship training, and the list is seemingly endless when you look at the website of the typical mega-church in America.

What should we think of such people who profess to know Christ and yet, seemingly, have turned their backs on the body of Christ? Are they simply backsliders? In Stan Firth’s book, Custom and Command (available as a free PDF download), he writes,

It is impossible, however, to categorize them as “backsliders”, for they continue in their personal devotion to Christ, and seem to display the generally accepted characteristics of Christian discipleship – except in the whole area of church life.

It is possible that you have not yet come across believers who could be described in this way; but as an increasing number of Christians are making this change, the probability is that you have met one or two at least—or soon will do! Such an encounter usually provokes one of three reactions: some people are highly critical of such a departure from normal Christian practice; others are delighted and start moving in this unusual lifestyle themselves; others again are just confused—as I was for several years.

This movement has been quietly occurring around the world with little fanfare or publicity, for perhaps forty or fifty years, some would say. However, it has recently been announced by George Barna through his book, Revolution. I heard someone comment a few years ago that he thought Barna was quoted in more American pulpits than Jesus Christ, speaking of the popularity and notoriety among evangelicals; but this famous researcher of all things Christian has risked his entire reputation by identifying with those he describes as “revolutionaries” who have grown weary of organized religion. He writes,

Scripture teaches us that devoting your life to loving God with all your hear, mind, strength, and soul is what honors Him. Being part of a local church may facilitate that. Or it might not.

Sadly, many people will label this view “blasphemy.” However, you should realize that the Bible neither describes not promotes the local church as we know it today. Many centuries ago religious leaders created the prevalent form of “church” that is so widespread in our society to help people be better followers of Christ. But the local church many have come to cherish—the services, offices, programs, buildings, ceremonies—is neither biblical nor unbiblical. It is abiblical—that is, such an organization is not addressed in the Bible.

In fact, if you scour the Bible passages included at the beginning of Chapter 3, you will find no allusions to or descriptions of a specific type of religious organization or spiritual form. The Bible does not rigidly define the corporate practices, rituals, or structures that must be embraced in order to have a proper church.… We should keep in mind that what we call “church” is just one interpretation of how to develop and live a faith-centered life. We made it up. It may be healthy or helpful, but it is not sacrosanct. [George Barna, Revolution (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2005), pp. 36-38]

Check out some of the links on this blog, then check out some of their links, and I think you’ll discover a whole new paradigm of thinking about what it means to “be church” and to follow Jesus Christ like one of the revolutionaries Barna writes about. Let me close with one brief quotation that I really like,

The Revolutionary mind-set is simple: Do whatever it takes to get closer to God and to help others to do the same. Obliterate any obstacle that prevents you from honoring God with every breath you take. Be such an outstanding example of the Christian faith that no one will question your heart or lifestyle—except those who see institutional survival as equally or more important than the alleged influence of the institution they defend. [Ibid., p. 39]

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