Monday, June 04, 2007

I want to "do church" my way

Recently I've read in several different places online impassioned and compelling diatribes against "institutional churches". Some have gone so far as to claim that they can obey the Scriptural admonition not to forsake the assembling of believers by inviting a Christian friend or two over for dinner or by meeting a Christian buddy down at the local Starbucks. In fact, this has been presented by some to be more in keeping with Scripture --- a more godly approach than that practiced by those of us who are still hanging out on Sunday mornings at some institutional church.

I fully concur that the American church, in general, has a lot of problems. But I think there are far more problems with the idea of "having church my way". While it would be tempting --- and fun --- for me to think that I can redefine church as hanging out at my favorite local coffee shop with friends, or that church is whenever I invite a family over to dinner, the truth of the matter is that I don't get to decide what church is or isn't. God has already decided that, and He has let me know that I am not in charge of His Church. I can neither define it nor make the rules.

Yes, we as Believers and Christ-followers are the Church. It isn't a building. It isn't some sort of club. It is the Body of Christ. But if we truly believe that, then we need to function with Christ, as He would have us function. I don't get to decide, willy-nilly, who is in my local expression of the Body. I am not in charge of creating my own little local expression, doing away with elders, abandoning all the Scriptures that speak of the church, and replacing God's will with my own.

It is tempting to go the easy route and claim that I am my own elder, so that I can run the "church that meets in my home" or the "church that meets whenever and wherever I am in the mood to have a Christian conversation". But that is not what God meant when He inspired Paul to write to and about the church.

I believe that Christ instituted the church. To try to abandon all sense of organization and real ministry in favor of just hanging out with friends is not what Christ intended for His Body.

For those who want to call it "church" whenever they engage in conversation with a fellow Christian and perhaps mention a Bible verse in passing, I would encourage them to re-read 1 Corinthians as a start. Does your "church" function as God has outlined in His Word?

Am I a great fan of the modern church in America? Hardly. Am I a great fan of "institutional churches"? Hardly. I too am very tempted to toss in the towel, never set foot in a church again, and assuage my conscience by claiming my youngest son's recent birthday party was good enough obedience to Hebrews 10:25.

But when I realize that the real problem I have with the Church is that I don't love its Head enough...when I realize that my dissatisfaction with most churches is that they don't bow to my preferences...when I try to let go of my selfishness, arrogance, pride, and self-will...then I am suddenly humbled and willing to admit that a flawed person such as me has no business thinking that the institutional church is not good enough for me.


  1. Rebecca, Please read your Bible. 10 times in the NT we read where the early Church met in Homes. This modern day practice of performer (Pastor) and spectators is absolutely forbidden in the Bible. Christ is the ONLY Head of his Church. We meet in a wonderful house Church where Everyone is invited to participate. Please get some good books and truly investigate the House Churches you will be glad you did! Don't think that you will be without a Head His Name will be Jesus Christ.

  2. Anon, I'm sorry that I wasn't more clear. I'm well aware that the Bible refers to churches that meet in homes. I should have been more clear that I was not referring to house churches. Instead, I was referring to those I've "met" online who, quite literally, think that two friends getting together for coffee at Starbucks equals church, or who believe that a dinner with friends equals church.

    It was in the context of house churches that Paul addressed issues such as church discipline, elders, deacons, teachers, pastors, etc.

    My investigation of house churches has been, admittedly, fairly inadequate. But I've discovered a great variety in terms of structure, church government, level of participation of the laity, etc. For example, an acquaintance of mine attended a house church for years that seemed more rigid in structure than the "institutional" church that I was attending at the time. Our "laity" was actually more involved both in the church gathering itself and in the ministry of the body than the "laity" in her house church was allowed to be, especially when it came to the role of women (allowed only to prepare and serve meals in her church).

    I've also learned that a number of house churches are careful to distinguish themselves from the "home church movement", as they do not agree with families removing themselves from church fellowship and calling themselves a church.

    The Bible has given us some guidelines regarding how the church is to conduct itself. There are no requirements as to actual building or meeting place. I've visited churches that met in parks, hotels, schools, homes, businesses, etc.

    But when I had pizza with my friends? I wouldn't call that gathering a church. Were we part of the Body of Christ? Of course! Were we the church that met in the home of my friends? No. We were just friends, hanging out. And that's the issue I was trying to address.

  3. I don't disagree with your points on this, Rebecca. I've wondered about these same issues as well. What are your thoughts on people who are in unique situations? Such as those who go to some wild place to be missionaries where there is no established church with elders. Or the pioneers who went out West? (Picturing Laura Ingalls in my mind right now! :))

  4. Rebecca, I don't know if we've been following the same conversations or not, but that is not the impression I was left with. I think that the command to forsake not the gathering together of the saints can include getting together for times of fellowship. I don't know about you, but right now I have lots of friends who claim Christ, but who don't go to church. There were ten of us who recently spent a week together (five families represented) and none of us were church-goers. It was like church all week. We constantly talked about the Lord. We sang hymns together. We listened to sermons together. Every meal was a theological discussion (and we were all of different perspectives). And the purpose of our getting together was work-related, so even in our work we were fellowshipping.

    There are times when we simply cannot go to church, for various reasons. And I know that you think we should lower our standards, but how low do we really have to go? Should it really be necessary that we have to lower our biblical standards just to go to church? That seems absurd!

    While I agree that going to church should be a normative practice, I also see that there are times when that simply isn't feasible. And during those times, I am grateful that God provides alternatives. We have watched sermons on DVDs and listened to CDs in the car. I have done online Bible studies which have impacted my life far more than any church ever has (I think you can relate there!). I will drive just about any where to meet someone for fellowship and I do drive all over this country for that very purpose.

    I really don't think that people are trying to say that having a birthday party is having church. I think the point is that we can continue to fellowship with one another even when we are not in a position to go to a formal church setting.

    You give me some things to think about regarding church, Rebecca, but I still think we shouldn't be forced to lower God's standards on church.

    I hope you continue your story soon on your "Fall to Grace." I'm really enjoying hearing it.

  5. Anne and Jen,

    Certainly there are times when it is simply impossible to be part of a local church. Missionaries to unreached people groups, for example, don't have access to a church until they are actually able to begin one. Some people are too ill to attend services. Others live in remote areas. Some of us are between churches and, for various reasons, can't simply willy-nilly jump into committing to being part of a church body.

    Jen, you raised a good point about Christian fellowship. It doesn't always have to involve a local church body. I remember once being part of a demonstration (I was one of that huge throng that "marched on Hollywood" in protest of the film, The Last Temptation of Christ) and having a pastor remark to me as we marched along singing praises to God, "This is one of the best church services I've attended in a long time! And I'm a pastor!" I knew what he meant.

    My comments weren't in regards to just the one conversation we've both been part of. There have been several others that I've read lately, where people are purposefully choosing to withdraw from church, claiming that they can "do church" anywhere, that a family can be their own church, that having a Christian conversation is "church", etc.

    You know what? I would love to believe that. I would love to convince my husband that we should just stay home every Sunday and do church by ourselves. He is an able teacher and, once he ran out of stuff, there are a host of really good sermons easily available over the internet that we could listen to and discuss. When we got bored of each other, we could invite friends over for Sunday dinner.

    I wouldn't have to worry about my standards being violated. I wouldn't have to worry about a church split. My home --- unlike any church I've ever been a part of --- is a safe place to land. My husband and I may disagree about the elements of the Lord's Supper but, hey, I could always visit the Lutheran church when I simply couldn't abide the thought of another Baptistic communion observance.

    One of the painful lessons I learned during our recent church mess is that the worship service is not all about me. It doesn't matter what I think or feel about my worship experience; what matters is whether or not our worship pleases God. And I can't speak for Him. I can look in the Word and get some guidelines, but I can't redefine "decently and in order" to make it mean what I would prefer worship to be. Am I lowering my standards? No, actually I'm trying to raise them.

    Another thing that my "fall to grace" taught me is to hold my doctrines, convictions, and preferences loosely. Part of that, admittedly, is my own pride. It was hard enough, post-fall, to have to go around issuing apologies and retractions for all the stuff I'd previously blathered all over the internet. (I love Goethe's line, very loosely translated, "What do I care about my strange babblings from yesterday?") I don't want to have to go around retracting statements about what kind of church is acceptable, worth attending, of sound doctrine, etc.

    In a way, what I've been going through lately in regards to the church has been similar to my fall to grace. What I have held so tightly is being stripped away. I'm left feeling as if I'm about to be forced to jump off a cliff. It's scary. I don't want to take the risk. I don't want to let go of what is secure, what is familiar, what has defined my Christianity. I don't know what will be left of me, of my way of relating to God, once I let go. I'm assailed by I about to make some sort of huge mistake? Am I becoming something I shouldn't? Am I stumbling headlong into error? Or am I about to experience more of Jesus than I ever have before?

    Stay tuned. I'll try to let you know how it all turns out.

    One thing I the end, the very end, Jesus wins. He's the Victor. And His grip on me is way, way stronger and more sure than my grip on Him.

  6. Jen, one more thing. Without getting ahead of my "fall to grace" story, I wanted to say something that might be helpful to you. After I had everything knocked out from under me, so to speak, I felt this frantic desire to resolve EVERYTHING, just so that I would feel settled once again. And literally everything I once felt so sure about suddenly felt very unsettled.

    Immediately I wanted to resolve the whole Calvinism issue once and for all; I wanted to re-examine the whole Lordship Salvation issue; I wanted the definitive answer to all my questions regarding the charismatic gifts; I wanted to nail down my theology of the church; etc. Since we became churchless during this time, I felt all these issues needed to be decided before I felt ready to find a new church. And you know what? It was simply way too much to try to deal with.

    One thing at a time. Let the dust settle a bit. Bask in His grace. Spend time getting to know Jesus better. The church will still be there waiting for you when Jesus begins drawing you back into a commitment to His Body. Everything doesn't have to be fixed, decided, resolved and settled today. Rest in Him.

  7. I really appreciate your thoughts, Rebecca. They have been very helpful to me.

    We are currently between churches for a variety of reasons, partly having to do with my whole world getting knocked upside down (came from an abusive church, discovered info. about abusive churches and realized I was living in legalism, found out some things about my current church that I totally disagree with... add in child with health/behavioral problems, four kids ages 7 and under, me with health/PPD problems...) and life has not been nice and neat for a while.

    When I talked to current pastor about this he quoted back to me about "not forsaking the assembling" and that we should have let people at church help!

    I tried so hard to go to church for two years with my older two children (DH had to work Sundays) until my problem pregnancy got too bad and I couldn't handle it on my own!

    Some of our friends here on base from that church were helping us in various ways, but were busy on Sundays with kids of their own, and who could come over and drive us to church and then come back with us to help for the rest of the day?

    I just don't think he realized the level of help we needed.

    Eventually we did have to *hire* someone from church for $500/mo., which we couldn't really afford to come when DH was on alerts overnight since I had been hospitalized with pre-term labor.

    Now that DH is off on Sundays, it seems overwhelming to go with these four little children I have. (2 of them are under age 2) and the oldest has some health/behavior issues.

    And I don't believe in the church we were going to anymore ever since I went to a Discovery class and learned some things I just DO NOT agree with at all.

    And the thought of trying to start over at a new church with our challenges seems almost impossible. (We only have a year left in this assignment until we move.)

    I feel very defeated and discouraged about the whole church thing right now.

    Yet I do believe that we will go back to church (though not our last one). And perhaps soon... we've talked about visiting a different church here in town.

    So I'm just trying to sort through all of this and appreciate your writing about your own journey.

    Sorry for rambling on and on. I hope you don't mind. I don't really have anyone to talk to about all of this and it has been bugging me.

    I was actually coming back on to see if you had read this article from InternetMonk:

  8. "Another thing that my "fall to grace" taught me is to hold my doctrines, convictions, and preferences loosely. Part of that, admittedly, is my own pride. . . . I don't want to have to go around retracting statements about what kind of church is acceptable, worth attending, of sound doctrine, etc.

    In a way, what I've been going through lately in regards to the church has been similar to my fall to grace. What I have held so tightly is being stripped away."

    But, but. . . I really want church to feel right, and line up with my general doctrines, convictions, and preferences, because it's been so, so hard to even get to church--any church. I don't want to be easily offended, but I want it to be a place of comfort and solace, not a place where I just have to let go and worship God in spite of being in church. I just want to rest for awhile, and I haven't had that rest in so long.

    When I read what you are writing, I find myself agreeing and feeling. . . fearful(?) That's not the right word. But.

    What you write is a good mix of specifics and generalities, so I know I'm interpreting it through my own situation, more than commenting upon yours.


  9. Rebecca, I can definitely relate to your angst about church. Am I jumping out of the frying pan into the fire? After our latest church disaster, I decided I didn't want to even try again. And I was content to stay home. I found ways to practice fellowship and teaching and all the necessary elements of church. And then I started getting pressure from every side to go to church. I thought I had exhausted all possibilities when God brought to mind one particular church that we had visited once two years ago. We rejected it at that time because there were no homeschoolers. And now that I see what a Pharisee I had become, that requirement is out the window for a church.

    So I looked them up on the internet and sent Mike the pertinent parts of the statement of faith, having long ago given up on finding a church with my new beliefs. But this particular church actually teaches everything Mike taught us. It has the form of worship I think is biblical. And when we went to visit on Sunday, there were even some homeschool families there! I don't know if we'll be welcome once they Google us, but I will say that I would never have fit in two years ago!

    I do perfectly understand your struggle. We went to two different churches recently for several months each, trying to only focus on the essentials. It didn't work. We needed more than that. We needed unity. I so feel for you. And if we are invited to leave again, we'll be right back where you are now!

    Thanks for your advice on wanting to discover everything all at once now. I have an insatiable appetite to learn, learn, learn, and not enough time to do it! I probably drive Mike nuts, but that's too bad! I do have a plan, however -- kind of. I need to figure out grace first. Mike said I could stay there for at least two years. Another friend told me we could never finish that study. I don't see what all the fuss is about yet, but I am determined to find out.

  10. TulipGirl, ah, how I understand wanting church to be a place of solace. When we met with the pastor and his wife of the church we're considering, I was open about having a lot of "church baggage" (part of it comes with being a Preacher's Kid; part of it I've gathered on my own in adult life). One of the neat things he said is that many people have found this particular church a safe place to let go of their baggage. That sounds so...refreshing.

    Anne, my heart goes out to you. I remember my own struggle with two and three little ones in a church that was not baby-friendly. There were many Sundays where I came home and cried, from both exhaustion and from the stinging remarks of other mothers. I was seen as part of the lunatic fringe for having more than 1.8 children, for nursing my babies past a couple of token weeks, and for not tossing my babes in the nursery from birth onward. Even my husband used to sometimes bemoan my wacko ideas, "Why can't you be like the other wives?!" (He has since so changed his mind that he sometimes thinks I've gone soft and am not hardcore enough on these issues!)

    Jen, Mike told me the same thing --- just to learn about grace, and to take my time letting it all soak in. And I too wanted to learn it all NOW, but lacked time and energy. I had a high-needs, intense toddler during that time, which is why a lot of my emails to Mike were late at night!

  11. Rebecca wrote: One thing at a time. Let the dust settle a bit. Bask in His grace. Spend time getting to know Jesus better.... Rest in Him.

    Hey! Great advice. Mind if I borrow that? You see, I've got this new pupil, and.......


  12. Sure, Mike, you can borrow that advice. It is, of course, entirely original with me. Too bad you didn't think of something similar to tell me way back when.

  13. Rebecca: "One thing at a time. Let the dust settle a bit. Bask in His grace. Spend time getting to know Jesus better.... Rest in Him."

    Mike: "Hey! Great advice. Mind if I borrow that? You see, I've got this new pupil, and......."

    I'm learning to rest in Jesus, Mike, (no works - let Jesus handle it), but I'm not going to let you rest! You've got a lot of work to do yet! Ha ha ha!