May 21, 2015

Leaving Church

A few years ago I asked the question, “Is church essential?” I believe that the answer to that question helps inform an approach to the currently more pressing question, “Why are Millennials leaving the church?”

Yet to begin to succinctly approach the second question, the term church must be clarified. Are Millennials leaving the Church, the global body of Believers—their faith in Jesus Christ? Or are they merely leaving a church, a particular gathering or liturgical tradition of Believers? And if the latter, are they just trading it for another expression, or are they actually leaving that broadly accepted western expression called “church” to build or discover an entirely new one, all the while remaining deeply committed to resting in the heart of God?

These are important clarifications. For there is a certain set of questions that must be asked if someone is leaving their faith because of the Church or a church. There is a generally different set of questions, however, if they are leaving one church for another church; or even another set of questions if they are inclined to leave the current expressions entirely to explore other ways of gathering in the name of Jesus.

While the subject of “church” is not one that I am particularly interested in focusing on, I cannot deny the fact that I have been part of the Church nearly all my life. It is important. I have invested most of my life so far attending, volunteering for, and working on staff at churches. Not to mention that my parents and various other close family members have invested most of their lives so far attending, volunteering for, and working on staff at churches. I have not led a church, mind, nor do I want to.

The conversation is evolving. For years, it seemed to center on liturgy (i.e. how a church worships). This mostly had to do with music preferences. While I suspect that liturgy still influences many perspectives, the conversation does seem to be shifting to what I call “church structure”, which refers to how a church’s vision, priorities, and actual initiatives interact—how a church justifies and maintains its existence, to put it bluntly.  

Of course, it is very difficult to address such a subject concisely and cohesively. There are just too many variables. If you are not afraid to engage every facet of current church structures, I highly recommend reading Frank Viola and George Barna’s Pagan Christianity: Exploring the Roots of our Church Practices. The book is incredibly well researched and asks a lot of important questions without being dismissive of the good in church tradition.

Unfortunately, many American Christians are uncomfortable with such questions. For the questions inevitably turn the analysis inward toward their own personal assumptions. Yet identifying one’s influences is crucial to awareness, and awareness is crucial to growth. The world needs more followers of Jesus Christ who are like this, who are truly living as his disciples.

To be a disciple of Jesus is not a static state. It is a growing, active obedience. Too many Christians passively accept whatever conceptual milk is fed to them, or dutifully attend a few activities to feel “active” in the faith, with only a few actually digesting whole food. In their occasionally bulldog adherence to one teacher or body of teachers, many of the latter even seem to be only consuming the same entrĂ©e over and over again, all the while neglecting the diversely dynamic spiritual feast that the Holy Spirit provides.

I aim to recall what is possible unfettered by personal prejudices. We who comprise the Church can do better than be content with consuming or providing lukewarm spiritual milk. We can offer the world something better because God offers us something better. He calls us to it.

So for a moment, I will address the third of the aforementioned questions:[1] to consider why people may be leaving the current expression of church entirely, all the while continuing their walk with Jesus. The other questions are important, but I think that they have been examined enough already by minds keener than mine.

What is church?
The Holy Spirit of Jesus dwells wherever his disciple dwells: in solitude,[2] in the gathering of two, three, or more disciples.[3]

Has the definition of church, therefore, become too narrow, too contained within a certain structure or setting? Who is to say that three disciples gathering regularly for mutual edification and support are a less successful or effective church than a gathering of three-thousand members? I suspect that some frustration and disappointment are mounting because most people have only experienced and been taught one particular expression of church, taught by one particular community of leaders, in one particular theological tradition, in one particular culture and nation; and that such an expression has proved to be somewhat hollow.

The world is full of beautifully diverse expressions of Christ-centered community (churches). Does the diversity suffer because a few well-meaning, well-resourced authorities—e.g. celebrity-status Christian teachers from the western nations who write many books and speak at many conferences—laud their own expression as the best?

This dampening of other expression has long happened politically, economically, culturally, and religiously. It has become more subtle, perhaps. But human power, most notably through money and structures, still seeks to govern all—whether literally (politics), influentially (culture), or spiritually (religion). This can easily become human nature unchecked, which our spiritual enemy, the “prince of this world”, Lucifer,[4] quickly preys upon. Church leaders are as susceptible to being deceived or deceiving themselves as anyone else. We must be aware of this to be able to approach this conversation humbly and productively.

Where are the disciples?
There are plenty of people who believe in Jesus Christ. It is just that his actual disciples are hard to recognize. One simple way of distinguishing between the two is that a believer has accepted Jesus, which is an absolutely necessary beginning, but who has yet to holistically follow Jesus actively (i.e. a disciple). Have churches focused too much on teaching people what to believe—or not to believe—rather than tangibly modeling how to live as disciples of Jesus?

Getting Connected
The Millennial generation has been marketed to more than any other generation. This has fostered significant wariness. Who really trusts the promises of advertisements anymore—at least without further research or reference?

Churches seem to be overselling themselves, promising more than they should—stretching themselves too broadly by trying to address every kind of need and person at every stage of life. Instead of the churches of a city joining together to each offer its unique strengths, too many churches seem to be trying to provide everything alone—to replicate every facet of a kingdom in every neighborhood—to meet all human needs in one small well-groomed package. It is no wonder that so many church leaders are burning out, or why so many church budgets are in the millions of dollars.

I suspect that the predominant “product” being oversold is the idea of community. Church community is generally lauded as the combination of a weekend worship service and weekday home group (e.g. “Small Group”). To be really engaged, however, one quickly realizes that she should also volunteer in a ministry and attend some kind of Bible study (e.g. “Sunday School”) as well—at least. This too often translates into spending half her time at the church. These initiatives can certainly point people toward God and intimate connection with one another by providing safe and intentional environments, but in the end I wonder if they mostly contribute to a shallow perception of being connected—busyness masquerading as community. If the scheduled structures are taken away, what is left?

For community to ultimately take root, it must transcend such a structure. It must enter the realm of spontaneity: at work, in homes, at cafes, on city streets, on wilderness trails. Real community is about the freedom and responsibility of individual people along with the mysterious gift of personal connection that only the Holy Spirit can provide. What most people call “church” may be a beginning for community, but it certainly is not the end.

Hallelujah, regardless of such structural flaws, the Holy Spirit moves. But the structures fall short of their aim. More to the point, some people just expect too much from such structures, not realizing that there are no guarantees of connection, to say nothing of too many peoples’ lack of consistent personal investment into such gatherings[5]. Regardless, have churches contributed to this unrealistic expectation? Are churches trying to take too much responsibility for community away from the individuals?

While an initiative like a small group can certainly be a catalyst for community, is it the best approach? Does it justify the resources—staff, money, and time—used to promote and maintain itself? I am not sure.

It is important to first ask another question: What is community?

Allow me to provide a metaphor.

Distance Runners
As a distance running coach, I can tell a runner how to maintain discipline in training, attending to the need for holistic awareness about strength and conditioning, nutrition, biomechanics, psychology, and adventure. Yet the truth will only really be known if I run those miles with him each day, week, month, and season—if I first model it with my own awareness. To really be known, in other words, the teaching must be reinforced through servant leadership—through others-focused integrity in action—again and again, consistently. We must journey together. We must grow together, realizing that we need each other to succeed. The team, which is a kind of potential community, must go from sharing cognitive beliefs to sharing physical habits. The mental and physical cannot be dissociated.

Yet being on the same team does not guarantee that we will connect, that the athletes will understand what I am trying to teach. As a coach, that is the risk that I must take. But I do so because I know the good that is possible. I have witnessed success, not only in improved athletic performance, but in matured character and leadership in my athletes. Therefore, knowing that is possible, I choose to continue working based on faith.

Furthermore, while I may be in a position of leadership as a coach, to truly succeed, I cannot act as though I am greater than my athletes. I may be more experienced, and hopefully wiser. I may be their teacher—a shepherd, really—but that does not mean that I am no longer fundamentally one of them as well: a runner. I still have much to learn myself. My story is just at a different chapter than theirs.

We distance runners share a unique community. The athletes and I need not become intimate friends for that to be true, for the main purpose of our community is to improve our character and athletic performance. If a friendship develops, transcending the sport, then that is an added gift to be received. But it does not define whether we are part of community or not.

The purpose of the community of a running team must be clearly communicated at the onset, for there are different expressions of community. Expectations must be aligned. That begins as my responsibility as coach. It must then be reiterated and demonstrated regularly, first by me as coach; and then, to really take affect, it must be championed by those athletes who not only believe, but have begun to model that purpose as well. In time, as the culture solidifies, we are transformed from merely being a team to being a community of family—in the strongest sense of the term—where individuals begin to perceive how they can belong: the unique and necessary role that each can fulfill and offer one another as well as those presently outside the family. In time, memories are made. This is a gift as well, one that is essential for that deeper community to grow.

The revelation of community should not end there, though. It must be shared. The athletes will eventually disperse into life, ideally still championing the values that I have taught and that our team has shared. Leaders grow. The message is shared. Others are invited in. New teams are formed with the potential for deeper community. The legacy continues.

This illustrates Jesus’ commission to his disciples. Belonging begins with personal acceptance of the Gospel, rises with belief, but only thrives with the freedom and responsibility of disciples joined together (the Church) in the vision of knowing and sharing the truth in hope and gratitude.

Freedom and Responsibility
Everyone seems to agree that relationship must be at the heart of a church, at the heart of what it means to be disciples. For at its most fundamental definition, discipleship simply means to intimately follow Jesus. To follow Jesus is about knowing God. Knowing God is about actively living how Jesus lived. In this relationship there is both obedience and hope. For Jesus obeyed in the hope of God's mercy, which at one important level is about gratitude or praise: a heart awakened to the wonder of God's goodness, which is God's love, and my human helplessness in the face of it. Thus I am humbled. Thus I worship in solitude and with others.

In a way, I am tiring of the word community because, like many other popular marketing terms currently employed by churches, it seems to have really lost a depth of meaning. If it indeed has been oversold, it has also become or is in danger of becoming a spirit without flesh to people—a lovely idea just beyond reach. Yet community is a living organism because it is comprised of living beings. Therefore, it is also fragile and unpredictable. That is its strength. That is the Gospel. It recalls something that Henri Nouwen wrote: “life is precious. Not because it is unchangeable, like a diamond, but because it is vulnerable, like a little bird. To love life means to love its vulnerability.”

Is there another term that can guide us? For the moment, allow me to use one uncommon to this conversation, one used by Thomas Merton in Thoughts in Solitude. Society. In a way, that word bespeaks something grander than community. I am drawn to society because it connotes the reality that a gathering of disciples (a church) is inseparable from the gatherings of people around them, of which there are many—the comprehensibly largest of which is a city. “To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints,” Paul writes in the beginning of his letter to the church in Rome (1:7). He opened many of his letters like this. Such an address reminds us that churches are not insular. They are physically part of human society. They are meant to be united, not dozens of units scattered throughout a city.

Society can only begin to truly form when it is full of people—not numbers—who recognize their freedom and responsibility. A person's freedom and responsibility are to accept the gift of being part of society. For a disciple of Jesus like myself, society is significant because at its heart is love, which begins with God and my accepting His love; but which must extend from me to the rest of society, for otherwise I cannot say that I really know love.

Society, or love, then is a gift. A gift is only a gift when it is received. It cannot be bought or traded as a commodity. Furthermore, it only remains a gift when it is not hoarded or treated as a product to be multiplied for commercial use. In its marketing, I am concerned that the idea of community is beginning to be treated by churches in this way. It is not intentionally commercial, but in its subtle marketing—the branding, campaigns, systems, etc.—the emphasis is beginning to seem too much like selling a commodity balanced by the currency of attendance. Now, consistent participation or presence is absolutely necessary for community to grow. It is a starting place. Numbers can inform. I am just wary of all the resources pouring into the selling of community rather than the actual modeling and shepherding of it. It is the nuanced difference between selling something verses inspiring it. The latter demands a lot of faith: “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things no seen” (Hebrews 11:1).

Overall, a gift must be shared generously and selflessly. For only in receiving and sharing a gift can it grow organically, taking on new life as it passes from person to person, from gathering to gathering. Hence each person bears some responsibility. The freedom is that the gift of community, of love, can be accepted or denied. This is because faith can only rise as the result of freedom and self-determination, not automatism.

Against Automatism
Automatism, another term used by Merton, is the result of a society that predominantly relies on human resources—money and man-made structures—to define success and influence. In the United States, at least, more and more churches are openly modeling themselves after the corporate business structure. There is likely greater fiscal responsibility in this structure; however, I wonder whether the result is too easily an automated society. Automatism, or overly streamlined structures, suffocates healthy faith and solitude. Healthy solitude is about confession and purification in a state where I must rely wholly on God for my needs—like Jesus in the desert. It is about facing and overcoming lies and despair—for the devil dwells in the desert as well—by the power of the truth. Only in such solitude can I come to recognize love—to hear God’s voice—and thus know how to live.

There is just so much noise, so much distraction. Have discussions about structure become a distraction? It is not about physical isolation. It is about a focused state of the heart. Where are people of solitude?

Knowing the truth is rooted in the Word of God, the revelation of Jesus made alive right now by his Holy Spirit. Hallelujah, this is taught in churches today. People do hear the truth. Sadly, it just seems to rarely go from concept to habit, from mind to heart. The most common struggle that I have heard from Christians is to be consistently reading the Word of God (the Bible). Considering the church resources poured into the telling and showing, it is incredible how few laypeople actually prove to be holistically living by the Word, which then suggests that they are really not coming to know it, which then suggests that something about the church’s approach is not working. Again, a church is not the only thing to be questioned here. People are free and responsible, after all.

Still, there is a tragic disconnect in current expressions of church. The heart is good. The truth is present. The flaws of its structure—approach, philosophy, or whatever term you prefer—however, are becoming increasingly clear.

So what are churches to do?

How to Live
The questions about whether church is essential or why Millennials are leaving church are ultimately not as important as the question that each of us must address: How to live?

The question is not so much about how a church worships or how its leaders teach, or even what the community looks like. It is about how its people live in solitude and together. That is what I want to focus on. There just seems to be too much pretense, too much spirit without flesh. Jesus is both spirit and flesh. They are not mutually exclusive. Church members appear to be falling discouragingly short of this unity, emphasizing one over the other. Or worse, and perhaps most common, their actions demonstrate tepidity—lives marked by laziness and fear.

Hallelujah, there is grace. Hallelujah, the Holy Spirit works regardless of human frailty. God can redeem and transform anything. But that does not mean that it will cost me nothing. It will cost me everything. Forgiveness is costly. It is risky. Being part of the Kingdom of God, which is larger than the Church, demands that I risk everything, that I offer everything at the feet of God. If I truly know Jesus’ love, his hope, then I know the courage and strength to do so. Today. Tomorrow. Again and again.

I cannot do this alone. I have God’s Spirit within me, but He ordained that I have others as well. I cannot dissociate myself from society. I am part of it. What that means, however, is far more subjective, far more diverse and beautiful than most churches seem to realize or acknowledge.

Leaving Church
Can I leave church?

As a disciple of Jesus, I am the Church. We are the Church. The potential is always there. It does not really matter what structural expression that potential takes, as long as we follow Jesus alone and together, growing in our love of God and all people. By the power of the Holy Spirit, this society requires our daily freedom and responsibility to thrive. It requires our courage to participate in sharing its story: the story of mankind, Israel, Jesus, the Church, ourselves.

We must be more present with one another. Listen. Share. Ask. Pray. Study. We must encourage each other in gratitude of God’s mercy. To me, this is gathering, this is church. It just may not be those churches.

Thus the church building fades. The ceilings, walls, and barriers crumble. The wind clears the dust. Fresh air fills our lungs. The sun shines down to reveal a wide world full of people weighed down by despair—people who need hope, who need to be told and shown a story of mercy: what the life, death, and resurrection of a rabbi from Nazareth has done, is doing, and can do through each of our stories.

This love is changing the world. I have seen it. I do not know where Jesus will lead me or us on this road, to what mountains, deserts, or seas—successes or failures—but I choose to follow.

[1] The following thoughts were sparked by a conversation regarding yet another article about why the Millennial generation appears to be leaving churches. (Take a look at the conversation here.)
[2] Consider Ezekiel 36:26-27, 37:14, Matthew 3:11, Mark 1:8, Luke 3:16b, 17:21b, Acts 19:2a, Romans 8:9-11.
[3] Consider Matthew 18:20.
[4] i.e. Satan, the devil.
[5] Disclaimer: I currently live in San Jose, California—the Silicon Valley—where commercialism and busyness reign; therefore, certain challenges for a local church may be more pronounced here than in other places.

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