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A typical week “outside the box” of organized religion

April 23, 2008

Image © Clint McManamanWhen one’s life has been so focused within institutional Christianity (whatever you choose to call it), there is a predictable pattern or routine that recycles every seven days: Sunday worship services followed by an optional menu of mid-week events, such as prayer meetings, Bible study, choir rehearsal, men’s & women’s ministry meetings, church-based sporting events, children/youth activities, and small group meetings. Your spiritual commitment is measured by how many or how few of these events you can fit into your schedule; and church leaders never fail to push people into more and more activities, especially when they have a captive audience on Sunday mornings. I often remember how similar it seemed to going to see the latest Hollywood blockbuster, but having to endure twenty to thirty minutes of mind-numbing advertisements running up to the featured film.

Those who have opted out of this approach to Christianity are often criticized for “abandoning the church” or “divorcing the bride of Christ” when in fact, they are just tired—perhaps even burned out—from attending endless meetings. Many Christians around the world are finding greater fulfillment in a more loosely organized or less structured gatherings with other believers. They are not “neglecting to meet together” when they no longer attend the meetings of a particular religious organization and it’s really bearing false witness against your brother or sister when you accuse them of violating 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.

So what could a typical week look like for an out-of-the-box Christian? While it may seem strange or unthinkable to those who have never considered such an approach to the Christian life, I would challenge you to compare the following “diary” with the above passage of Scripture. Try not to read God’s Word with your particular bias forced upon it, but simply let the words say what they say and nothing more.

  • Sunday — A wonderful time of family worship this morning with my wife and children! We packed a picnic lunch and drove to a large park where hundreds of people gathered to enjoy the glorious Spring weather: walking their dogs, playing frisbee, watching their children on the playground equipment, and making new friends. We spotted another family that lives in our neighborhood, so we ended up sharing lunch and getting to know one another. Marcus and Stephanie are not Christians, but we got into a really interesting conversation about birds (they are avid bird-watchers) that opened the door for my wife to share her faith while she and Stephanie were supervising the kids splashing around in the fountain. Around 3:00 pm several Christians joined us for a game of croquet—we had mentioned our plans to them last week—so it was really great that Marcus and Stephanie got to meet them, too. Everyone was invited to our house for an impromptu barbecue later that evening. Our neighbors almost agreed to come until they remembered a previous commitment. After dinner we shared some really great stories from our previous week: one brother got the job offer we had all been praying for, a young single woman praised the Lord’s restorative grace during a recent trial that involved her health, and there wasn’t a dry eye among us when one of our teens read Psalm 91 and then taught us a new song he had composed recently.
  • Monday — A really difficult day at work. My boss has been riding my case regarding a new product that has fallen behind schedule in production. It’s not my fault that the sales department misjudged the shipping date. I talked to a good friend later that evening and he prayed for me over the phone, asking Father to give me the strength to maintain my Christian testimony among work colleagues. My wife reminded me of His faithfulness over the years and I fell asleep with a grateful heart.
  • Tuesday — An uneventful day. Our family played a couple of the kids’ favorite board games before tucking them into bed. It’s so nice to have an evening to relax and just spend time with Donna and the kids. The phone didn’t ring once! Thanks, Father!
  • Wednesday — Movie night! It’s become a standing tradition among five or six Christian families to get together—sometimes all of us in one place, but that’s rare—and watch a movie together. Tonight, six adults and three teens met at the local cinema to see an early matinee of The Forbidden Kingdom with Jackie Chan and Jet Li. Another group decided to rent a children’s movie, Ratatouille, so the rest of us dropped our younger kids there before going to the big screen. After the movies, we joined the others for a quick meal together (pizza) and then dove into two gallons of Blue Bell ice cream. Got home a little later than we hoped, but it was an encouraging mid-week lift just to hang out with brothers and sisters in Christ.
  • Thursday — Another normal day. It rained all afternoon and evening. Oh, I almost forgot that I had lunch with Tony, a work colleague that I’ve been building a relationship with over the past couple of months. Our times together are always limited by time, but I got the feeling that he wants to go a little deeper in our friendship. He describes himself as a backslidden Baptist who gave up on church in his teens, but he really has no understanding of God’s grace. His previous fundamentalist church really did a number on him, so he’s convinced that he doesn’t stand a chance with God because he couldn’t keep up with their legalistic rules. We talk openly about Christianity, but I’m letting him set the pace. I think it’s time to invite him to spend an afternoon with me and a couple of Christian brothers on the golf course some Sunday morning. It may blow his mind when he finds out that none of us “goes to church” (as we used to say), but it may prove valuable in the development of our relationship. He’s one guy that all of us are praying for right now.
  • Friday — Donna and I enjoyed our “date night” by an early dinner at Outback (one of my favorite restaurants) and then an evening at the symphony. We’re really thankful to have so many Christian friends who are willing to have our kids over while we spend time together each week. It really gives us something to look forward to each week and it makes us more conscious of the need to invest in one another in the midst of a very hectic pace.
  • Saturday — We try to focus on the kids each Saturday: encouraging them in the pursuit of hobbies, sports, or other interests. It varies throughout the year. Right now, our son is taking karate lessons on Saturday mornings and he’s got a big tournament coming up in a couple of weeks. Donna and our youngest daughter enjoy all sorts of crafts, so right now they are taking needlepoint classes at the local community center. Our oldest daughter has been pursuing all things equestrian, so she spends Saturday afternoon at a local stable and riding center where she gets free lessons in exchange for cleaning out stalls and grooming the horses after they return from a group riding event.

Did you notice that there’s no “house church” meeting in the above diary? Leaving the institutional church does not necessarily mean creating something else to take its place: not even a house church! Worship happens throughout the week as we fluidly move in and out of relationships at home, at work, and at leisure. Every event and every activity is an amazing opportunity for both witness and fellowship. Evangelism is low-key, long term, and relational. And when we gather with other believers, it’s never in a rigid structure or liturgical way, but rather creatively looking for ways “to stir up one another to love and good works” as the writer to the Hebrews urges. We meet together—sometimes spontaneously and at other times planning a few days ahead—for the purpose of “encouraging one another” (please read the above Scripture passage once again). And did you notice how this particular passage says nothing about listening to sermons, meeting in church buildings, attending worship services, Sunday School, praise and worship music, or various programs for everything under the sun? It’s just not there!

4 Comments leave one →
  1. May 5, 2008 3:49 pm

    This sounds okay but what about if you are the only Christian who has left church in your locality?

    Church has so consumed my life that now as I head to the door I fear that I will be alone out there. Making new friendships with non-Christians is possible but retaining Christian connections without going to Church or creating a new church seems a tad unChristian.

  2. Bill permalink
    May 5, 2008 5:43 pm

    Hi, Joe. I think it’s possible to find fellowship with other believers whether they go to an institutional church or not. If you really think about it, every Christian is a member of Christ’s body—the true Church—so we need to adjust our thinking to fit the spiritual realities. There will be no denominational distinctions in heaven.

    Here’s the way I look at it: if I can develop a genuine relationship with a brother/sister from an Anglican church while I am still attending a Baptist church, then why can’t I do the same thing outside those artificial boundaries? A few of my closest Christian friends do not attend the same church. It seems like we get together quite frequently. Our kids enjoy spending time with one another and our wives go shopping together. My plans to leave the institutional church (sooner rather than later) should have virtually no impact on our relationship.

    Yes, there may be a few questions at first, like “I heard you guys aren’t going to ______ Church any more. Is that true?” And I can honestly say, “You know, we are trying a more organic approach to the Christian life right now. Not sure how it’s going to look right now, but we’re really excited about it.”

    I read a statement by Peter Brierley stating that 53% of committed Christians in the UK are no longer attending the institutional church. If that’s true, then you may find a LOT of fellowship out there, Joe. Just trust Father to bring the right people along in His own timing. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

  3. Todd permalink
    May 6, 2008 7:12 pm

    This is interesting. Do you ever feel like people involved in the emergent church are more concerned with being “Anti congregation” than being “for” something else?

    Your week is really no different than mine. It is almost like you are getting away with not being a part of church. Like an authority problem. We who attend a church weekly do the same exact things you do. Except we also formally gather and worship God for an hour.

    We pay a guy, through our offerings, who is really an expert at dissecting the Word of God. He is teaching about spiritual transformation. We call him a “pastor”, but he is essentially a trained teacher. He even has a doctorate that has helped his own abilities in translating God’s word into our words we can relate to. His expertise has been used by God to transform the way I look at being Angry, human relations, conflict resolution, and other essential transformational items in my life.

    Part of our offerings also go towards people that are gifted in music and the arts. They are really good at it, and especially good at tying in the message with songs and artistic expression. The last week our worship expert led an absolutely awesome pop choir through songs that were so authentically sung and delivered that THEIR passion brought be to tears. It silently taught me to be passionate about my gifts.

    At our church, we are all happy to give to this organization to bring experts in the fields of teaching, worship, and most notably persons with gifts at inspiring young children, adolescents and young adults to seek after Jesus.

    During the week, yeah we meet with brothers and sisters, encourage one another, witness to friends, go on impromptu BBQ’s, etc. We go on dates, watch each other’s children. I looked through it all…it is no different. Remotely, no different. Recently I sat and talked about God for an hour to a best buddy of mine. God brings us together too, with other seekers.

    It seems like the focus of the emergent church simply revolves around power. You dont’ like someone else having power over you. You see the bad in some stories. The “bad” stories of pastors using power wrong. Or you have experienced this? Maybe you went to share in the power and were rejected. It is a classic authority complex, almost.

    We are all one in the body. I do respect your lifestyle on paper, your method of worship. I really do. Part of it sounds neat. But part of me puts you in a group of people that complain and disrespect those of us who are authentic, and are seeking greater knowledge and focus on God.

    It almost seems like you worship the method of worship, rather than the God over all the worship.

    Crying over the teen’s music must have been a special time, but part of me wonders if you were again worshiping the experience. This amazing BBQ that “just happened” happens to all of us *all of the time*. To you though, you are really focused on it. It is something really special. I bet you sit back and go, “See? That just happened. Only in the emergent church. Only in the emergent church.” Nope. Happens all the time.

    Have you ever heard a speaker talk, and a lot of his focus is himself *inside* the speech? Like he will make a mistake, and comment about the last time he made a speaking error. Or he will constantly talk about the speech itself, and what went into the speech, and what happened just before the speech. That is the mark of an unprepared speaker.

    Worship is like that too. We sing, “Come, now is the time to worship”….or “We gather in this place” or songs that are more about us being there singing and how great it is to sing together. This is in contrast to songs that have us as individuals singing before God. We are not prepared to worship if we are singing more about how great it is to sing together and be in this place to sing.

    The whole thing seems great on the outside, but ultimately, when you talk with these Emergent Church types, you end up with a feeling that the person is just bitter. Bitter at a lack of results, bitter at power struggles. One man even lambasted actual evangelical leaders. Talking of key members in the Body of Christ as if they were losers, idiots, old fashioned.

    Even having an attitude that involves thoughts of “losers, idots, old fashioned” is simply wrong. That is, if we are “one in the body”-minded.

    Obviously there ARE problems with the church organizational structure, but your branch is just a different organizational structure.

    In fact, in 10 years I wonder if emergent church types will probably feel lost again, having sought after a new organizational structure and realizing the void you were feeling wasn’t about THEM (the church), it was about YOU all along.

  4. Bill permalink
    May 6, 2008 11:53 pm

    Todd: You said,

    Your week is really no different than mine. It is almost like you are getting away with not being a part of church. Like an authority problem. We who attend a church weekly do the same exact things you do. Except we also formally gather and worship God for an hour.

    Thanks for making my point! Those who live outside the boundaries of institutional Christianity—what you would call Sunday “church” meetings once a week—are no less committed to living in relationship with fellow believers and our unsaved neighbors. And if attending a large gathering of Christians each week makes you happy and encourages you to grow in your relationship with Jesus, then please carry on! No one’s asking you to stop…we’re just asking for a little respect for those who choose not to do so any longer. I write this blog mainly for those who have made that choice.

    If avoiding weekly “church meetings” (in your mind) equates with getting away with something or having issues with authority, that’s quite revealing of your own attitude toward those expectations. Most post-congregational Christians no longer attend weekly services because they do not see it as a requirement of the New Testament to do so. We have no problems with those who voluntarily choose to continue that tradition and we would never try to talk others into leaving the institutional church. It’s a personal decision between them and the God of heaven.

    I already responded to your usage of the “emergent church” (EC) label in another comment (the “Jesus is my boyfriend” music), but again I see it being used like a mantra in your comments here. Are you on some sort of witch hunt, seeing emergent people behind every tree or under every bush? No one here is emergent, so I’m afraid you’re just going to have to deal with what I actually write about and not paint me with the EC paintbrush so you can then feel better about your criticisms. I’m a Reformed evangelical Christian who has been involved in a large, conservative denomination as an ordained, seminary-trained minister for many years. And right now I’m serving the Lord in Europe as an American missionary, but making plans for a transition into a secular vocation and remain on the mission field at my own expense.

    But I’ve grown increasingly disillusioned with the whole man-made religious system, which is why I’m bailing out along with millions of others. I’m not hurt or angry, and I don’t have issues with power and authority except when used inappropriately to load guilt and shame upon God’s precious flock. We are His church, the bride of Christ, whether we gather together in a large multi-campus church or over a gas grill in the backyard while the kids enjoy a game of hide and seek.

    So please, stay close to Jesus and continue to share your faith. I do appreciate your interacting with us here.

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