We’re leaving “real church”

Sun setting on an old church

Where We Started

My wife grew up in church. She even found ways to get to church when her parents stopped going for a while. She loved it. Always has.

I did not. I only went when Mom felt strong enough to get three other people to wake up and get ready when they would rather be sleeping. That happened often enough that I was familiar with church, though, and familiar enough to know that I had zero interest in it. It didn’t make a positive difference in the lives of the people I saw. It just added rules I didn’t like and made me have to get up early on the weekend. No thanks.

That changed in the summer of 1988 when we visited a new church in the town we had just moved to. The pastor there actually believed what he preached. His life was different, and he didn’t apologize for what the Bible said or try to package it in a way that made it more palatable. He just told you what it said. That was the first time I had ever experienced that, and I realized it was actually true.

From then on, I loved church in the same way that my (still future) wife did. I was there every time the doors were open. I loved it.

Where We’ve Been

The pastor that changed my life also ended up being the one who married us, and in 1998 we found ourselves in his church together.

In 2007, God led us out of that church and into a series of churches that covered virtually the entire gamut of what a church might look like. First it was a young church plant co-led by a nationally known church planter. When he left the area for a new work role, we merged with another young church plant.

A few months later, God led us to the other end of the spectrum and into a 95-year-old Appalachian-style Baptist church.

Less than a year later, he led us out of that church — and out of institutional church altogether — into the organic/house church movement. Despite my almost daily protests and petitions to be able to go back to “real church”, he kept us there for 5.5 years before finally returning us to the now-100-year-old Baptist church.

In March of 2021, he introduced the idea of us starting a new church from within that old church — a way to renew the church and start a new path that would carry the church for another 100 years. We pursued that idea until January 2022 when we discovered that the path actually led away from that church.

We left there feeling like we had a pretty good idea of what the next few months would look like, but things did not play out anything like we expected.

Where We’re Going

Over a decade ago, it was already really bothering me that the way we do church didn’t seem to be working. I wrestled with that for a while until we went back to what I called “real church” (always with air quotes), and then it fell into the background for a while.

It stayed there until early 2019 when I read The Divine Conspiracy and saw for the first time the catastrophic incompleteness of the gospel I had been taught all my life. It began to change everything.

And then it all came to a head in March of last year. I could have phrased it better than I did then (I was frustrated), so let me try again.

I love church — love it — but it’s in really bad shape right now.

As followers of Jesus, we are supposed to be growing into people who are just like him:

We all, with unveiled faces, are looking as in a mirror at the glory of the Lord and are being transformed into the same image…
– 2 Corinthians 3:18

For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.
– Romans 8:29

…until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God, growing into maturity with a stature measured by Christ’s fullness.
– Ephesians 4:13

And who, as a result, do the same things he did:

Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I have been doing…
– John 14:12

Other followers of Jesus are supposed to be helping us do that:

Jesus came near and said to them, “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
– Matthew 28:18-20

And Jesus appointed roles in the church to be specifically responsible for it:

So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for ministry, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God, growing into maturity with a stature measured by Christ’s fullness.
– Ephesians 4:11-13

After 2,000 years, though, and despite almost 400,000 churches in America today, how many of us (myself very much included) would be described as “just like Jesus”? More broadly, how many of us know even one person who would be described as “just like Jesus”?

We’re essentially failing at our primary function. Something is wrong. If we keep doing what we’re doing, we’re going to keep getting what we’re getting.

I’ve struggled with this for years and have started wondering over the past few months if the biggest problem might be the way we do church. Virtually all churches use some form of the sermon-centric, Sunday event model — a model from a different time that today tends to result in clubs, not teams. I started 2022 believing that we could be a church that succeeded in our mission where many others were not. Now I’m wondering if that’s actually possible without doing church in a fundamentally different way.

So we’re stepping away from traditional church for now to see if there’s a better way. Plenty of people are already doing something different, in lots of different ways. Maybe there’s a better way for us, or maybe there’s not. There’s only one way to find out.

And for you, there may not need to be a better way. I get that. I’m not bashing the Church or the men and women who literally give up their lives in vocational ministry. There is so much good that can be said of our churches. So much. Your church may be doing for you what Jesus wants it to do for you. I know plenty of churches are.

If it’s not, though, we’d love to have you take this side road with us and see what we find!

Read Part 2 » How is it church without sermons?

Photo by Tim Umphreys.

Filed under Spirituality