What I Learned from ‘Leaving Church’ (pt 3)

What if the church was ‘more like a way station than a destination’?

When I first became a Christian, I read an article by J. I. Packer that introduced me to the idea of the church as a hospital. The gist of Packer’s thought, as I recall, was that church is a community where we get well so that we can get back out into the world.

Oftentimes, what happens in churches is that it becomes an end in itself. We suck people in and then bleed them dry with activities that sustain the ongoing life of the church. We invent programs to get people ‘involved’, and then invent even more when it seems like people might be getting bored. While getting people involved may seem like a noble goal, I think we may want to consider what we are getting them involved in from time to time.

When she left ministry, Barbara Brown Taylor did just that. She thought about what she had done in her frenzy of growing her church. Near the end of Leaving Church, she writes these words:

What if [people] were blessed for what they are doing in the world instead of chastened for not doing more at church? What if church felt more like a way station than a destination? What if the church’s job was to move people out the door instead of trying to keep them in, by convincing them that God needed them more in the world than in the church? (222)

Probing questions like these should not go unanswered or untried. I came across an article about eight years ago in which an active church leader related the fact that he had quit everything at church so that he could finally get to know his neighbors and have a meaningful impact in his community. He was lamenting the busyness of his church experience.

Barbara Brown Taylor expresses much the same notion in her memoir. She says later the only way she knew to escape the internal rat race of ministry and church life was to leave it. She recognizes that some of the problems were her own, but she also does not deny that some are the church’s problems. I hope that those of us in the church still – whether in vocational ministry or not – can recover some sense of God’s mission for the church in this world before it is too late for us.

Leaving Church helped me to recover an image of the church, not as the destination, but as the way station in and out of the world or the community around us. It is a place to come to for blessing and healing. But it is also a place to go from with blessing and healing.

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14 thoughts on “What I Learned from ‘Leaving Church’ (pt 3)

  1. I will. It is on the list, but a little ways down. I have been too busy with sick people and work and Christmas stuff to get much reading done, but hopefully soon.

  2. I completely understand. I have a stack of books in my “to read” pile that I am having a tough time figuring out which should come first. Have you read any of these with any recommendations?:
    – Eugene Peterson’s “Tell It Slant”
    – Neil Cole’s “Organic Leadership”
    – James Houston’s “Joyful Exiles”
    – Tim Keller’s “Counterfeit Gods”
    – Andy Crouch’s “Culture Making”
    – Jim Wilhoit’s “Spiritual Formation as if the Church Mattered”
    – Scot McKnight’s “Praying with the Church”

  3. I have read eat this book and Christ Plays on ten Thousand Hilllls that are in same series as Tell It Slant. I like Peterson but I think the books are a bit uneven in quality. All have really good parts. I have the Crouch, McKinght and Cole books on my list but haven’t read them yet

  4. Isn’t church all about community and living Christ among your neighbors, school, work, etc.? Isn’t it all about relationship with God and one another? If what is called “church” distracts from the purpose, then it must not actually be church at all. Jesus obviously did not intend for church to be a building that you “go to” or an event you “attend” or a song service and lecture with three points and a poem. If the epistles are to be taken seriously, church was a community of Christ followers who served one another and the communities where they lived in such a way that “men…may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” Certainly they came together in fully participatory gatherings, but very little is said about that in comparison to the exhortations to “one another” (not pastor to congregation) as a life style.

    • Thank you for the great comments, David. I completely agree that ‘church’ as seen in the New Testament is more about a community of people called into relationship with God for the sake of the world, and less about a specific gathering or event.

      From looking at your web-site, I’m wondering what you think this means in terms of actual living. How is it different from what a typical ‘church’ is all about, in your opinion?

  5. A typical institutional “church” is attractional, program based, event oriented and “run” by unscriptural leadership. This combo becomes the “spiritual” center of its congregants. Thus spiritual life is largely about serving the institution and is mediated through the pastor.

    I believe that actual living as a follower of Christ involves functioning in the “one another’s” all week long, making friends of those that don’t know him and doing whatever Father tells you to do.

    Getting together with other believers may be spontaneous or planned. I think worship is a lifestyle and teaching is example plus dialogue.

    These, of course, are broad generalities. I think that every expression of genuine church life will be as different in every community as people are different. But bottom line it will be relationship based, incarnational and Spirit led.

    • When I was a pastor at a different church before where I am at now, we often got into discussions about being attractional versus mission, or programmatic versus organic. In the end, many of these arguments felt like they were missing the point to me.

      When I read the gospels, I find that Jesus is both relational and purposeful, both intensely on mission and attracting people to Himself.

      It sounds like you are mainly dissatisfied with the institutionalization of church into a hierarchical structure that is non-spontaneous, over-planned, and programmatic.

      Am I reading your comments correctly?

  6. You’ve got the main idea of where I’m coming from. The other issue has to do with the IC serving as a spiritual center of people’s lives. This happens because of the huge amount of concentration, money and energy needed to keep the beast running and growing combined with the strong emphasis on “being there.” Consequently, church is mis-defined on an emotional level. When I was a “sr. pastor” for many years my teaching stressed the true nature of the church as I’ve already described briefly here. But I found that what I had supposed to be merely semantics, such as “I attend…, “our church is located at…,” We do ……at our church,” etc., etc. was in reality the way we all defined church. Intellectually, anyone could have come up with the correct theological definition of “church.”
    But experientially church was a building, meetings and “our wonderful pastor.” It was also a place to “get their tank filled” so they could make it in the “real world” the rest of the week. The IC tended to separate sacred from secular thus compartmentalizing lives and minimizing effective life flow on a 24/7 basis.

    In most ICs there is a very small core of people that are fairly successful at being the church in spite of contrary influences. But it has been my experience in working with people in transition from religion to relationship all over the world in these last seven years that the great majority have had the same experience we did in the 25 years + that I “pastored.”

    • Thanks for further clarifying where you are coming from, David.

      I’m hearing you say that the theological understanding of people is basically the same, but that the emotional and experiential realities are quite different. I can understand that .

      We will often say that the church is not a building, yet it is very difficult for people not to think that way when everything the church does becomes centered in a building. We tout every member ministry, but when it comes down to brass tacks, it is hard for things not to become pastor-centered.

      When I read the epistles, I hear Paul placing the ministry of pastors as one among many in a body of gifted people all doing their work as a church in the world.

      Where is the place of clear leadership, in your mind, whether pastors or elders?

      • I believe, as you stated, Matt, that leaders function naturally among the body. They lead mostly by example and vocal teaching comes mainly on a one to one or small group basis where dialogue is the norm. Elders are simply those of various giftings who are further along in their walk and among them are those with pastoring and teaching gifts as well as those who function in apostolic, prophetic and evangelistic giftings.

        I think that the need for strong leadership varies according to the maturity of the body along with other factors. It won’t always look like leadership as described in the N.T. as the body obviously did not have all the N.T. scriptures yet and exponential growth produced many converts who were still steeped in docetism, gnoticism, Judaism, ect. and needed far more teaching than is the case in most situations today. Even so, in 25,000 manuscripts found several years ago dated from the time of the N.T. church and focused on church life, leadership is hardly ever mentioned. Obviously, it was most needed during the early years when the foundation was being established.

  7. Another concern I find pounding this topic is the marginalization of outreaches that don’t feed back into the church.

    If someone has a ton of deep and meaningful relationships outside the church, it’s almost as though the church doesn’t consider it an outreach until those friends come “inside.”

    Although I very much believe in the church, I’d like to think that an outreach is valid with or without church membership as an accompanying destination.

    • I think that makes sense, Brian, but it is hard for many church leaders to feel good about it unless we can count it in some way.

      The bottom line for most churches and pastors – if we are honest with ourselves – is that we want to grow our churches. We are most concerned with growth in members, baptisms, small groups, budgets, etc.

      If we cannot measure that growth – such as with an outreach that does not feed people back into the church – then we are at a loss for our secret goals.

      As leaders in the church, though, we need to set our sites on a different set of goals and, thus, set our people free to be kingdom-minded not church-minded.

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