I have thought about it many times. For over two decades, church was my life, and my employment. But I have had very little to do with the institution called “the church” for the last ten years.
For most of my life, most of my friends were church friends, most of my reading was about church and the Christian life, and a big chunk of my waking hours found me involved in church work. I believed I was a part of the most important thing in the world. Church was my work, my calling, and my identity.
Now, I can’t imagine going back.
Through the years, I have experienced a wide range of emotions about that, not unlike the various stages of grief that we go through with any great loss. Finally, we arrive at acceptance and renewed focus on the life before us.
But church is about community and mission, which combine in a very noble purpose. What keeps people away is not the core of its reason for being, but the perversion of that mission and the baggage the institution has acquired over two millennia.
Unfortunately, there is a huge misunderstanding about church. It’s simple. It’s basic theology. I just makes sense, but people stumble over it all the time.
Church changed from its humble origins when Christ followers huddled together to form an alternate community amid a hostile religious culture and an intolerant secular government. It was the only way they could survive.
Through the centuries, the humble faith became intertwined with the prevailing government and culture. It refined its doctrine to discern who is and who is out, who is correct and who is in error. It developed its own leaders, built its own majestic buildings, and amassed tremendous power and wealth. It also splintered into a mind-boggling array of sects, each believing they are the most correct.
In short, it became an institution.
That is not the church, but it is what people call the church, though they also confuse buildings and a certain time frame with the church, as well. This is the great misunderstanding I referred to. None of them are the church. That is all part some sort of religious institution or its customs that acquired so much baggage that it doesn’t even look much like its leader anymore.
Some good things have come out of this form of institutionalized religion (some really bad things, too). Many well-meaning people are very devoted to it. For others, who may be purists, or questioners, or people who just got tired of meeting the expectations of the institution and its leaders, or folks who began to notice contrasts between the church and Jesus; it became a total disconnect.
So, if the institution is not the church, what is?
THE CHURCH is people who love Jesus and want to follow in his ways who find community and mission wherever it shows up. It will show up in the course of natural life. It might also show up through some focused pursuit to bring some of Christ’s light to a dark corner of the world.
People who do this are THE CHURCH.
No building, no clergy, no program needed, just a heart of faith in Jesus and a love for people.
To be sure, no one’s life forms a constant upward trajectory when it comes to being like Jesus and living a life of love. It’s really hard at times. We all fail, a lot. We need to keep coming back to Jesus and coming back to love, and yes, we need each other, but we don’t need an institution.