Friday, September 30, 2016

A Bad Reason for Returning to the Institution: the Lure of the Mega Church

This is the final installment in my series Ten Bad Reasons for Returning to the Institution.

The mega church is a fairly modern phenomenon. Massive churches with thousands of attendees meeting in a massive building did not exist even 100 years ago. However, today (at least in the USA) every city has at least one. And that one has an inordinate impact on all the churches around it.

My home, Savannah, has one mega church. That church acts as a giant magnet, attracting believers from other local churches. All the others fear it because they don't want to lose their people. Mega churches like this one don't generally grow from conversion but rather just from believers switching churches.

But why do so many Christians these days end up at mega churches?

I can only speak from the American experience; I do not claim to be familiar with church situations in other countries. In this country, bigger and more expensive is often seen as better. Most mega churches have nice, large, comfortable buildings that cost millions (literally) of dollars. "They must be better than the other churches since so many people attend" so the thinking goes. If nothing else, mega churches make church entertaining for kids. Because of this, children pull to go there. I vividly remember one time visiting what I would call a semi-mega church soon after we moved to seminary. It had a very nice wooden Noah's ark outside that the kids could play all over. My son wanted to go back the next week to play on it some more. We didn't go.

Mega churches are, above all else, comfortable. When you arrive, somebody from the "parking ministry" directs you to a spot. After you drop off your kids at the fun house, you can get your caffeine at the coffee shop (the "coffee ministry"). Then it's off to sit through a Sunday School/small group and then a worship service. After that, go home. Easy-peasy.

I guarantee you that if you give in to the pull of the institutional mega church you will gag at yourself. Stay the course in following the biblical model for church life even if you have to walk alone for a while. The worst thing you can do is follow the lure of the mega church.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

A Bad Reason for Returning to the Institution: It's Where Your Extended Family Attends

It's completely normal for Christians to hope to meet with extended family members for church. After all, church gatherings should be much like family gatherings. A friend recently told me that when the church comes together it should be much like Thanksgiving afternoon, but with Christ as the central focus. I concur.

But what happens if your extended family attends an institutional church or churches? That is likely the case for most of us. I'm blessed that the vast majority of my extended family follows Jesus. This gives me great joy. However, all of them go to institutional churches of one flavor or another. None of them (zero) agree with me on what the model of church should be.

Should I, therefore, return to the institution to be with extended family? Should you?

In a word: NO!

If you do so you will be miserable. Worse, you may even end up resenting your family because of it.

You will be miserable because all of the reasons you departed the institution remain valid. It is a man-made framework that has no place in the bible. It is based far more in Rome than scripture. It is humans' ideas about "what works" as opposed to God's plan for His people. How do we know what God's plan is? Simple: look in the bible, especially the New Testament.

Please make time to see your extended family. Get together here, there, and everywhere. Don't try to recruit them to simple church life, but certainly discuss it if they are interested. Above all, do not surrender your convictions just so you can see them on Sunday mornings.

It's better to be a little lonely and be following God's path than it is to be with the crowd headed in the wrong direction.

Monday, September 26, 2016

A Bad Reason for Returning to the Institution: "Well, the New Testament is Simply Descriptive."

You may have departed from the institutional church framework because the bible shows something far different. However, would it bring doubts to your mind if another Christian said to you, "Well, the New Testament is simply descriptive."?

Again and again and again I've heard, read, and been told by believers that the New Testament narrative passages are only descriptive, not prescriptive. In other words, narratives simply tell us what happened, but do not call us to behave in that same manner.

When I departed from the salaried pastorate I ran into this argument repeatedly.

But is it a valid argument?

We learn much from the entire bible. In particular, the New Testament tells us many wonderful things about who God is, about what He has done, about what He is still doing, and about what our response should be. Because it is a book, the bible is literature (true literature). It is composed of all sorts of writing, from poetry and prophecy to narrative and epistle. It is all for our instruction.

If the narrative passages are only descriptive, as the above argument goes, then we lose a great deal of important information about how we are to live. Since much of the information in scripture about church life is, in fact, in narrative form we'd have little to go on if we toss the narrative sections aside. If that was the case, then churches could basically do whatever they want when they meet (which is what is happening in most churches today).

Interestingly, I've yet to meet even one Christian who consistently treats all narrative accounts as simply descriptive. Rather, the tendency is to say that the passages they agree with are prescriptive, but those they do not really like are only descriptive. We all have a tendency to fall into this trap and ought to be wary of it.

Much of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are narrative. Do the passages that tell us about how Jesus lived not apply to us because they are narrative in form? What about the majority of the book of Acts?

I believe that one of the main reasons the church in this country is generally in disarray is that the New Testament narrative passages have been largely ignored. This has led to churches doing whatever they think is a good idea whenever they think it. This has led to abject disaster.

The entire bible is breathed out by God and useful for our instruction. Because of this, the narrative passages do in fact carry prescriptive weight. They are models that we should follow. Of course, we must let scripture interpret scripture. Also, we would never follow the narratives that show us people behaving in a sinful manner. We should, however, do all we can to learn from the narratives that show us positives.

If someone tells you that narratives are simply descriptive, ask him why he thinks that. If he actually answers you, follow up by asking how this applies to the narratives about the life of Christ. That should bring an end to his argument very quickly.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Different Color Scheme

Despite their failings, I still love my Buffalo Bills. However, I'm just not happy with the red, white, and blue theme for my blog. Every time I look at it I'm reminded of the issue of patriotism. That certainly has its place, but it's not one of the things I want my blog to reflect. Therefore, I'm changing to the current colors. I prefer the clean, simple look. Additionally, green is my favorite color. So there it is.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

A Bad Reason for Returning to the Institution: You Like a Particular Pastor

This is part seven of my ten-part blog series entitled Ten Bad Reasons for Returning to the Institution.

I've met many very nice pastors in my lifetime. My guess is that you have, too. A particular pastor's niceness or likeability, however, ought not be a reason to return to the institution.

When I worked as an institutional church pastor lots of folks made it clear that they liked me. I liked them as well. This was not fake; rather, it was real affection. I believe the majority of pastors have this type of relationship with the people in their churches. Pastors have a tendency to love the Lord; this results in a love for the people in the pews. Of course I'm generalizing here; we could find negative examples that show pastors with ill intent. That's the vast minority.

Once you have departed from the institution you may struggle to find fellowship (at least right away). This can be discouraging. You may be tempted to go back to Rome to a church where you like the pastor. When this feeling arises please recall why you left institutional Christianity in the first place. You left because the Bible shows us a vibrant body of Christ that looks vastly different from what we generally see today. The modern church structure is foreign to scripture, full of man-made ideas rather than God's plan.

A pastor may be an extremely likeable guy. He may be kind, loving, and a great preacher. He may be all the things he is supposed to be (according to the pastoral search committee profile). He may even be this man, this man, or this man. In the end none of this matters. A pastor cannot alter the fact that the institutional church structure is blatantly unbiblical.

Don't return because you like a particular pastor. Eventually you will begin to resent both yourself and him for your decision.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Too Good to Not Share

The Christian satire site The Babylon Bee has posted numerous funny articles over the past several months. One reason many of the pieces are excellent is that they come so close to reality. One of the best I've seen so far appeared a couple of days ago. It's entitled Local Progressive Church Hosts Informative Q and Q Session. Enjoy!

Monday, September 19, 2016

A Bad Reason for Returning to the Institution: You've Been Told You Are Being Disobedient

How many times have you had Hebrews 10:24-25 used against you?

For review, these two verses say, "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."

When you leave institutional Christianity behind for greener pastures it can at times be very difficult to find like-minded others. Frankly, sometimes it takes a lonnnnnnnnnng time to meet up with believers who have the same convictions you do. Because of this, many of us have faced extended periods of wandering in the church wilderness. You may be there right now.

If you are there, please know that you are not being disobedient. Simply because you are not part of a local church or not going to weekly "worship services," this does not mean that you are somehow sinning. Please rid that thought from your mind.

The author of Hebrews (whoever he was) wrote his letter to a largely Jewish, Christian audience. His purpose was to encourage them in the midst of persecution. In particular, he warned them repeatedly about turning away from the faith back to Judaism. It is within that context that Hebrews 10:24-25 comes along. Some had fallen into the bad habit of not meeting with other believers at all; they had the opportunity, but they simply weren't doing it. This passage has absolutely nothing to do with Christians who want to gather simply with others but cannot locate them.

The last thing you want to do is return to institutional trappings because you've been told you are being disobedient. First, you would be miserable. And second, you are in no manner disobeying our Lord. In fact, I would argue that you are being extremely obedient by venturing away from the comfy, easy institution into the unknown. If you are pursuing the church as modeled for us in the New Testament, then God will be pleased. If you are done with going through the motions and are seeking to live out a vibrant, active church life, then I commend you. Keep it up.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

A Bad Reason for Returning to the Institution: It's Easy

This is part five of the blog series entitled Ten Bad Reasons for Returning to the Institution.

This particular post is short and simple. Quite frankly, it's easy to go back to an institutional church. It is especially easy if it is a place you feel comfortable and have friends. The easiness comes from being able to arrive at the building, sit in a Sunday School seat, sit in a pew, and then go home for lunch. Since the pastors do almost everything, you can just sit and relax. After a long week of work and (some) play, you simply want to sit still. The institution happily lets you.

Simple church life, while more rewarding, is also more difficult. It requires activity. It requires investment. It requires action.

Please, I exhort you not to allow the lure of easiness draw you back to institutional Christianity. I guarantee that you will despise it after a few weeks. Put forth the effort to be the church we read about in the New Testament (well, the good aspects). An active body is a vibrant one.

It's worth the hard work.

Monday, September 12, 2016

What's the Main Thing That Makes an Institutional Church Institutional?

I'm taking a quick blog series break here to ask one important question: what is the primary factor that makes a church institutional?

I've written previously on several occasions about a sort of unholy trinity that forms the backbone of institutional church life. These three are expensive/special church buildings, salaried clergy, and worship services/ceremonies. Almost all institutional churches have some form of these three in place. They may go by different names, of course, but at a substantive level they are the same.

Other components of the church institution are also extremely common: budgets, fund raising, youth groups, committees, tithes and offerings, Sunday School, bulletins, nurseries, church signs, websites, etc.

Keeping all this in mind, what do you believe is the one main thing that makes the institution in fact the institution?

I'll tell you my answer: salaried clergy.

Of all the various parts that make the church institution what it is, the most significant is full-time clergy who dominate the life of the fellowship. While scripture describes an active body where each part is important, the institution gives us a drowsy group put to sleep by pastors who do almost everything. If you attend almost any church gathering it is the salaried clergy who stand front and center. They expect to do this, and the folks in the pews expect it, too. It's much of the reason pastors/priests receive paychecks.

Since the clergy are paid, they need something to do. Go ahead and ask institutional believers what their pastor's most important task is. Most will respond by saying preaching. By this they mean giving a 30 minute lecture once or twice on Sundays. This lecture requires both a special building and a ceremony. It also demands that the people sit quietly and obediently.

If church families desire to avoid institutionalization what they must do is minimize the role of the clergy. One means of accomplishing this is simply to not pay anybody. If you remove the paycheck, then everyone is forced to become more active. This has the potential to bring about great vibrancy within the fellowship. I highly recommend it.

Friday, September 9, 2016

A Bad Reason for Returning to the Institution: Kids

Institutional churches tend to offer lots of activities for kids. These are generally heavy on entertainment and light on theology. The fun keeps the children happy, which in turn keeps mom and dad happy.

When Christians depart the institution they leave the fun and games behind. In simple church life the kids tend to be right there with mom and dad regardless of what is happening. This can be during bible study, eating, or whatever else. If the kids are used to church being full of fun and games, they might long for a return to institutionalization. Likewise, if mom and dad desire more peace and quiet, they too might want to go back.

The reality is that simple church life can be messy. Kids are messy. They are active and they are loud. They are also awesome to have around because of their energy and vibrancy. If a small group embraces children as a real part of the group then wonderful things can happen. The kids benefit from being part of everything that is happening. The older folks benefit from the kids' enthusiasm. As the apostle Paul tells us that the entire church is a body; the kids are part of that body. The church needs them.

Parents, I strongly encourage you to resist the temptation to go back to Rome for the sake of the kids. They don't need any more church entertainment. It's your responsibility, with the assistance of the church family, to raise your kids in the knowledge of the Lord. There's no better place to do this than in the small group setting. Children gain immeasurably from watching and listening to their parents as part of the group.

Even if your small group has no other children, your kids will be fine. They will learn better how to be around adults. They will not suffer from not being with other kids when the church gathers. They don't need to make more crafts, play more silly games, or watch another lame video. What they need is to be with mom and dad as the body gathers. Keep them with you and resist the pull of the institution.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

What's With the Red, White, and Blue Blog Theme?

I grew up in western New York State. It's a fairly gloomy place much of the year because of the semi-depressed economy and generally poor weather. One of the few things to cheer for is the Buffalo Bills. Despite much heartache and sorrow, I remain a Bills fan and will forever be a Bills fan.

This is the best time of year to follow the Bills. Since they haven't played any meaningful games yet, they haven't lost any yet either. They are undefeated! In light of that, I've changed my blog theme to red, white, and blue (this is not to be confused with the red, white, blue, and gray color scheme of the evil New England Patriots).

Go Bills!

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

A Bad Reason for Returning to the Institution: Failure to Find a Small Group

The feeling of leaving the church institution behind is an exhilarating one. The shackles are off and it's time to be the church God wants us to be! Woo-hoo!

This wonderful feeling is often accompanied by an expectation that it will be relatively simple to find like-minded believers. Not so fast. Sometimes it's very difficult to come in contact with Christians who hold to a simple view of the body of Christ. After leaving the institution, believers frequently wander in the wilderness attempting to locate a small group with which to meet. After a while some of these believers even return to the institution due to the lack of fellowship.

The struggle is real.

(This is part three of my ten part series entitled Ten Bad Reasons for Returning to the Institution.)

One of the primary reasons Christians leave institutional trappings behind is that they desire true fellowship and community. Worship services, Sunday School, potluck dinners, etc. fail to provide people with the opportunity to truly get to know one another. Because of this, they depart. Departure does not, however, necessarily lead to a quick finding of community. For many the search takes quite some time.

One reason for this is that simple church does not advertise itself. People who gather simply generally do so without much fanfare. These groups can be very difficult to locate. Therefore, when other Christians say good-bye to the institution, they sometimes cannot find anybody to meet with (even if they happen to live right down the street).

Failure to find a small group can be frustrating and depressing. After a while, some Christians even drag themselves back to the institution (often very unhappily). Let me be clear: this is not a good idea. It will only lead to misery.

But what if you leave and cannot find anybody to meet with? My suggestion is to continue to pray about it and continue to look. Also, pray that God would give you opportunity to share your faith. New believers are often extremely open to meeting simply; they do not have tradition-based hangups. Invite new believers over to your home. It's amazing what can happen when Christians eat together. Food and fellowship truly do go together.

Fact: it is not fun at all when you cannot locate other believers to gather with. It can be a very dark time. This does not mean, however, that you were incorrect to leave the institution. Rather, it may simply be a time that God uses to test your faith. Rely on the Lord and keep looking. Use your own home as a place to gather. Invite new believers. Meet days other than Sundays.

Don't go back to the institution. That decision will only lead to regret, pain, and sorrow. Rather, keep looking for others. And then look some more.

Monday, September 5, 2016

A Bad Reason for Returning to the Institution: Family-Induced Guilt

When you depart institutional Christianity many within your biological family will not understand. Those who are not Christians will not care, but those who are followers of Christ will not be able to comprehend the significant step you have taken.

Since you are reading this blog, my guess is that you are either outside the institutional bubble or are considering it. You may know from experience what I’m talking about when I use the term “family-induced guilt.” This particular form of guilt comes not from within self, but rather from those closest to us. It stems from family telling you that you are wrong for “not being in church.”

I’ve talked to many Christians over the past several years who have moved into some form of simple church life. This is a monumental step for most people in part because they are bucking/rejecting many of the traditions that their families hold dear. While they still agree with their families on the Gospel, they now have vastly different views on what the church is and how it ought to function.

One massive problem is that lots of Christians think that “to be a good Christian you have to go to church.” This specifically means that in order to show you are a believer you must regularly attend worship services. When simple church folks stop doing this their families begin to fret about their spiritual conditions. Some even think salvation is at stake.

With good intentions (but with a faulty view of ecclesiology), the family begins to confront those who departed about said departure. What this amounts to is a guilt trip for not being in church and Sunday School. The family just cannot see its own equating of salvation with its own very narrow view of church.

Please let me encourage you in three things. First, just because your extended family doesn’t understand what you have done, this doesn’t mean you are wrong. If you’ve taken the step to leave the institution, chances are that you have studied the church far more than your family has. I guarantee that you’ve looked for descriptions of the body of Christ in scripture more than they have.

Second, the problem actually lies with your family, not with you. Without knowing it, they have adopted a model of church life that is based more in Roman Catholic traditions than in scripture. You’ve taken a step toward what God desires for his church.

Third, know that many others are going through the same thing you are. I hope you find some of these folks near you. Family-induced guilt is something we all face. I encourage you to love on your family, pray for them, and talk with them if they will listen, but reject the guilt they are trying to foist upon you. In the end the best thing to do is to live and let live.

As it pertains to this particular blog series, family-induced guilt is a horrible reason for returning to institutional Christianity. If you follow that dark path you will be miserable. It’s far better to remain on the outside whether or not your family understands.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

A Bad Reason for Returning to the Institution: Personal Guilt

Quite a few Christians have departed from the church institution only to return again. Their reasons for doing so vary widely; some are much more valid than others. My purpose in this blog series is to point out some of the most common invalid reasons for returning to Rome.

The first reason I’m tackling is also one of the most common: personal guilt. By “personal guilt” I’m referring to feelings of guilt that a Christian brings upon himself or herself. These particular negative feelings are directly related to the perception of having done something wrong. The wrong thing in this case is “not going to church.”

It is an odd thing that so many Christians act as if God takes worship service attendance. The Gospel is not works-based after all. We don’t merit our way into heaven by being in church whenever the doors are open. Despite this, some who have departed institutional Christianity feel guilty for not doing the Sunday School and worship service thing. Where does this idea come from?

My guess is that this personally induced guilt flows directly from years of routine. Said routine is simply that you get up on Sundays and head to the building. This can be a difficult pattern to overcome. After leaving, Christians know that many other believers are still sitting in the pews.

Please let me be clear: God is not taking attendance. You do not need to go to a worship service to make our Lord happy. In fact, you don’t even have to gather with a small group of any sort each week. Salvation is the finished work of Christ. Our duty now is to simply enjoy knowing Him. No guilt needed.

It is, of course, beneficial to gather with other believers. When and where you get together is a matter of freedom. Do so when you want to. Ask the Holy Spirit to guide you. Be creative to keep it from getting stale. And by all means eat together.

Please, I exhort you to rid yourselves of any feelings of guilt you have related to attending weekly worship services. God doesn’t care and neither should you.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Ten Bad Reasons for Returning to the Institution

"Return to the church institution? That sounds horrible!"

It may indeed sound horrible to you, but it is a reality that many believers face. Some folks who have departed for simple church life have also made the difficult decision to go back to Rome. Although it makes them feel sick to their stomachs, they return nonetheless. I suppose some valid reasons may exist for going back (I can't think of any right now), but many bad reasons are also in play. In fact, I'd say that the vast majority of the motivations for why Christians return to the worship service/salaried pastor/expensive building thing are poor.

Tomorrow I'll be starting a brief blog series entitled Ten Bad Reasons for Returning to the Institution. My purpose is twofold. First, I want to point out lame reasoning. Second, I hope to encourage followers of Christ to stick it out on the outside. It is not an easy path. It's simpler to just go back to institutionalization. Let's not give in to that pull. Rather, let's stick to the course of trying to be the church God wants us to be.

In tomorrow's post I'll tackle a big motivator to go back: personal guilt.