It’s not me, it’s you

Ok, I am going to get a bit personal here and allude to some of my own story and am interested in hearing your opinion on this subject.

I believe it is important to forgive everything.  To move forward in life (eventually) as you come through painful chapters.  So how does this look, practically?

We have worked very hard to preserve friendships at the church we left a year ago.  It hasn’t been easy and I have felt that often the onus has been on me to reach out for contact.  But gradually we have shared our story with people and this has really helped, and in some cases even strengthened our relationships.  

But the thing I want to talk about is the relationships with the leaders and how to handle that piece of the puzzle.  See, we were very close friends with the leaders for years, and towards the end of our tenure at this church, we confronted them personally and intensively about what we considered significant ethical/moral missteps (this took an enormous amount of courage on our part as we knew we were risking relationships as we made our appeals to them).  We also recognized that the decisions we were ill-at-ease about were not isolated incidents but part of the ingrained culture of the church – things such as financial secrecy, closed door politicking, and a general sense of “Lord’s anointed entitlement”.  We had, as part of the small and close-knit deacons team, turned a blind eye to this or even advanced it in times past.

We still occasionally see/interact with these leaders (at baby showers, kids’ birthday parties, helping friends move, etc).  This is inevitable since we are keeping up our friendships with those in the church.  

So here is where I am asking for your opinion….. I simply can’t feel authentic about a friendship with these self-appointed leaders when the issues that turned us away still remain.  I have a fundamental and diametric opposition to the shenanigans that took place.  I always will!  However, I also want to offer an olive branch of peace and be a forgiving person.  How does one go about this, without letting people off the hook or making it appear their choices were no big deal?  How can I forgive them and still let them know our friendship has a boundary because of the wall of privilege that THEY built – that it’s not me, it’s them?

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Church leaders need people to need the church

When it comes to why people leave church, there are no shortage of blogs discussing the topic. But few are talking about the systemic issues that answer the question. Probing the systemic issues such as power, greed, codependency, legalism‚Äč, worldliness and control, instead of just touching on isolated and unfortunate things that have driven people out of church is a lot like the difference between hard hitting journalism vs delivering the local weather forecast. Leaders with a vested interest in the church system never go to the deep issues, for reasons that are obvious but always unspoken. They never talk about people wanting to pursue Jesus outside of the edifices of religion – to admit this is to allow for the possibility that the local church as an organization is failing and is obsolete. That something is fundamentally broken. That people are actually waking up. That God Himself may be calling them and that many are answering that call. You see, Church leaders need people to need the church. This is why they always talk about the church as flawed and imperfect, but…. still the great hope of the world, still worth giving our lives to, etc. The thing is, Jesus didn’t say that the old wineskin was “flawed and imperfect, but still worth working with” No. He said it was useless. Complete rubbish. It was no good for its purpose. We need a total overhaul in our paradigm, don’t we?

Why do leaders feel they need to present a front?

In response to Carey Nieuwhof’s post 11 secrets most church leaders won’t tell you

Why do leaders feel like they need to keep their weaknesses hidden? Where is the authenticity?  This is for all of us to take note of, not just those who call themselves “leaders”!

By presenting a false front, and failing to be vulnerable, by imagining (and maybe being right about it!) that the congregation expects a stalwart, strong, collected, perfect man of God, it only exacerbates the sense of artificiality and showy-ness that typifies the American church experience.  

Do leaders think it is a sign of weakness to need others in the body of Christ?  Do they feel it is only appropriate to reach out to their immediate family or peers who are in leadership?  If so, that’s terribly sad!  Such missed opportunity for comfort, love and care!

And why do people in the congregation put people under this kind of absurd pressure?  Making it difficult to open up and be real about personal struggles?  

There are many of us who actually don’t want to read articles explaining our pastors’ possible inner angst and burdens, but instead we want to share real community life, a vital part of which is genuine mutual self disclosure. Let the walls, pedestals, and masks come down!

Leaders, so-called, need to be set free from this harmful mentality that drives a deep wedge between them and others!  

Peace and freedom for all the saints! xoxo

Questions for my next church

I don’t see myself darkening the door of an institutional church ever again, but here are some questions I would ask right at the beginning if I ever did:

1) Money

Do you teach that tithing is a New Covenant practice?  Is church money an open book topic?  How do you spend money here?  Who decides how money is spent?  How do you get people to give?  

2) Dissent/disagreement

I left my last church because I asked uncomfortable questions that the leaders didn’t like and they considered me a troublemaker.  How do you deal with situations of conflict?  Are people free to disagree?  Must disagreement only happen through prescribed channels or can respectful disagreement happen in an open forum?  What are the non negotiables in order for people to fellowship here?

3) Authority & Accountability

Who is in charge here?  How are the leaders held accountable?  Do leaders here have titles?  What is the chain of command here like? Can anyone participate in meetings, as the Spirit leads?  What are your views on spiritual abuse?  What do you feel is the job description of the pastor?

4) Politics & War

What are your views on politics, war, modern day Israel, and enemy love?

5) The state of the American church

Why do you think so many people are leaving Christendom and seeking fellowship outside of the 4 walls of church buildings?  Tell me what you think about churches being incorporated/charitable (the pros/cons).

What topics would you ask about if you could?

I am sure that my application for membership would be sent back if it came with the above list of questions!!  ūüėāūüėā

Presumption, Entitlement, and Privilege 

The clergy-laity divide has cut a deep, bleeding swath in God’s field. ¬†It is rare to find “fellow workers” anymore – some who water, some who plant. ¬†It is far more common to find farming overlords. ¬†This is the true division which we should seek to mend. ¬†Forget doctrinal differences!

A curtain of privilege has been erected, a platform of presumption has been raised, and a dark distinction drawn between mere parishioner and spiritual nobleman.  Behind this curtain, SECRECY is the norm.  After all, how can the common folk hold the noblemen in awe if there is no element of secrecy, no privileged information, no air of mystery, no inner workings for them to wonder about?  One should immediately pause and ask what there could possibly be to hide.

Because of this divide between layperson and professional minister, politics has entered the fellowship of the saints, and it is nasty – it is ugly – it hurts and ruins people’s lives, and it does not apologize but continues to steamroll over and try to subdue precious souls into keeping in lock step with the agenda of the leaders. ¬†This powerful, preeminent and privileged subset of Christians are truly a ruling class who do not tolerate suggestions of reform (either because it threatens their paycheque or their power, or both), and love to see commoners beg for crumbs from their table or solicit input from them. ¬†This is codependency and narcissism at its finest and most subtle, NOT the equity, mutual submission, and deference for one another that Jesus, our true and singular Head, desires for his Body!! ¬†

By way of example – In my last church, the leadership would jetset here and there attending various church leaders-y, world-changing, nation-shaking events and summits. ¬†Off to Israel, Japan, Germany, etc etc. ¬†They would report back at length to the congregation on these adventures, and all the awesome things that transpired (including sight seeing and travel). ¬†The congregation, sure that these events were the cogs that turned the church vision into reality, would give sacrificially, listen intently, and intercede intensely whenever these international events came around on the calendar. ¬†But do you imagine that any “commoner” was invited to experience all of these wonderful spiritual things, instead of or alongside the leaders? ¬†Not a snowball’s chance in hell, my friend ūüôā ¬†Only vicarious and financial involvement is permitted, as such actual ministry is the privilege of the leaders alone.

Such is the mentality of the¬†lords over God’s flock. ¬†It’s is their job to hear from God (and yours to obey), it is their job to preach (and yours to listen), it is their job to steward the money (and yours to pay faithfully). ¬† It is their presumed right to travel for ministry, it is their presumed right to earn a living from your tithes and otherwise spend your donations as they see fit, it is their presumed right to make unilateral decisions affecting everyone, it is their right to talk about people behind closed doors, and often they feel it is their right to give you input into your life or veto/approve your personal decisions or a calling you feel from God. ¬†They truly preside over the institutional church.

And many wonder why people are leaving the 4 walls of the church in droves, in search of something far more authentic.

Have you ever encountered privilege, entitlement or presumption at church?  How did you deal with it?

Worshipping on the religious system’s terms

This post is partly inspired by a blog post recently written by Brian Zahnd entitled Do we still need the church?

It’s a great question. ¬†But, as I commented to him in response to his post, it begs the question (like so many other articles of this nature): ¬†“What exactly do you mean by church?” ¬†I know, I know, we’ve been round this mulberry bush a thousand times in the blogosphere over the past few years. ¬†Everyone offering their opinion on why church is necessary, why we should give church another chance, reasons people are leaving the church, etc, ad nauseum. ¬†Yet I have found that most, if not all, authors of these pieces constantly conflate the two definitions of church, even though they might well affirm that the word “church” has evolved into a homonym. ¬†People outside of the system are yelling that they never left church because you can’t leave the body of Christ. ¬†People in churches yelling that they did. ¬†And on and on it goes.

Anyways, the point of all of this is just to say that I inquired of Brian Zahnd what he felt the “irreducible features” of church are (just so that I understood what he means when he advocates strongly for still needing the church). ¬†His reply was that church includes “public gathering (not just a group of friends), sacraments (baptism/communion), and corporate worship”.

I think that’s a great and desirable place to start looking at the components of what church gatherings should include. ¬†I might not agree 100% but I am not here to pick apart the essentials that he settled on. ¬†(I will say, though, that it was very refreshing to see that “authority” was omitted from his list as this is most people’s go-to criterion for validating a church) ¬†Rather, I want to explore whether the religious system is the best place to participate in the essential elements of church experience.

Some would have us believe that going to/joining a church is obviously important for one’s spiritual well-being. ¬†Sure, no church is perfect, they tell you. ¬†But where else are you going to have regular fellowship, participate in the sacraments, and worship corporately?

My argument is that yes, you can get some form of church experience within the religious system. ¬†And it’s not all bad. ¬†But at what cost? ¬†By participating in the religious system, you may be gaining some benefit from it, but you are also supporting a highly dysfunctional expression of Christianity.¬† If the only valid way for me to gather publicly, partake of communion and worship corporately is to do so in a building, under a hierarchical church leadership, as a non-participatory, tithe-paying lay member of a tax exempt corporation, then with all due respect – thanks but no thanks. ¬†In addition this, there are varying degrees of additional dysfunction: ¬†some churches require members to sign covenants, others keep track of tithes paid, virtually all of them center their meetings around a monologue delivered by a clergyman, most churches have outrageous overheads and are (IMO) poor stewards of the people’s money in the name of pragmatism.

All of this institutionalism is an old and inflexible wineskin, and cannot possibly contain the fresh wine of the Spirit of God.

As a footnote and an encouragement…. some people within churches argue that going to church is absolutely the most important thing. ¬†And that having organized fellowship of some sort is a must, at the very least, if you are not attending church. ¬†I am not so sure about that. ¬†It’s not that I don’t believe fellowship and mutual edification, and weekly (or more often) gatherings are awesome and needful. ¬†I just realize that God has everyone on a journey, and often when you come out of a church situation that has been traumatizing (or even if you just leave without trauma), God might just want you to rest and realign in HIM. ¬†As a family. ¬†Find your locus (HIM). ¬†Set your feet upon the Rock (HIM). ¬†Let HIM wash your mind and heart and do a work in you. ¬†Sometimes this means being in the wilderness for a while! ¬†Instead of freaking out about being out of fellowship, as if that is – bar none – the thing you should never neglect. ¬†I have found, in my experience, that God links people up and knits hearts together over time, and that fellowship arises from the ashes, the brokenness and from authenticity.

Blessings and Peace!!!

What are the features of a “local church”?

I read something yesterday that really got me thinking.  Here it is:

“Reaching your potential in Jesus without being fully part of a local church is like trying to grow a cedar of Lebanon in a patio pot” (Jonathan Stanfield, a pastor on the Isle of Man said this)

Now it struck me that, ironically, the opposite is true. ¬†Being part of an institutional local church is more like a patio pot. ¬†I say this from both experience and observation. ¬†I can understand, though, that those who have a vested interest (especially a financial interest) in sustaining and growing their local churches and perpetuating the organization’s existence would want to encourage church attendance and people being “plugged in”, “knitted in”, “connected”, “committed”, etc etc. ¬†And to say that if you aren’t fully part of a local church, you won’t realize your full potential in Jesus is kind of like a veiled and ominous warning… a subtle way of outgrouping¬†people who have chosen the free road beyond¬†the restrictive confines of man made traditions, rules and regs, programs, et al. ¬†And a subtle way of keeping people committed, nose-to-the-grindstone, volunteering, serving, shoveling coals in the furnace room of the great Machine – the institutional church. ¬†To put it more succintly, this quote is really saying: ¬†If you are not under the ‘covering’ of church leadership, you will never realize your full potential as a Christian. ¬†YOU, the laypeople, need US, the leaders.

Now I am not suggesting that church leaders, Stanfield included, are even aware of the dynamics I described above or that these things are at the forefront of their mind. ¬†I think many church leaders have simply inherited this paradigm from the leaders before them or become assimilated into church cultures that operate this way. ¬†So I don’t want to malign anyone or call into question people’s motives.

But I digress. ¬†Here’s the question:

What are the irreducible features of the local church?  When we tell people to find a good church, join a local church, etc, what do we MEAN?  What makes the First Baptist Church on the corner a bona fide church, but the couple friends you meet with to pray together or discuss theology or just eat burgers with are NOT church?  Does a legit church need a logo, website, building, pulpit, statement of faith, tax exemption, weekly service times, staff, etc?

what features do YOU think make a church?