It’s funny. We still live in a celebrity culture. Even Christians have chewed hard on it.
Whenever a celebrity Christian author or blogger talks about “leaving church,” all of a sudden masses of Christians think a new conversation has suddenly began, and people left and right start firing off opinions.
A few words about “leaving church.”
Virtually every time I catch wind of the phrase—leaving church—almost always the person using the phrase never explains what he/she means by church.
No, I’m not talking about me doing any leaving, but in considering my recent writing on the role of non-Jews in Messianic Jewish worship space and how some Hebrew Roots proponents believe that the Torah of Moses is somehow owed to them, I pondered other applications of Viola’s article which I quoted above.
I first found the article several days ago in Facebook and read it, but Viola’s issues don’t really resonate with me. In re-reading his missive though, I started clicking links to find out more about him getting to his personal blog and figuring out that he writes these articles, in part, to market his books and ideas. That’s not a bad thing. If you produce something you want someone to buy, you have to market it. I’m an author in my spare time and I work for the marketing department of my “day job,” so I know how it goes.
But when Viola talks about “leaving church,” he isn’t saying what you might imagine. He separates out what he calls the “institutional church” from something more “organic” and what he calls “the Deeper Christian Life” (which he’s written a number of books about, and all of them seem to do well on Amazon).
In reading his ten reasons for leaving the institutional church and his ten (eleven, really) reasons for becoming part “of the organic expression of the church (the ekklesia)…”, I started thinking of my own current church experience and of the aforementioned Hebrew Roots movement, (I used to belong to a Hebrew Roots congregation) and the common statement one often finds in Hebrew Roots about leaving “church” AKA “Babylon.”
On a fundamental level, unless you leave the faith altogether and become an atheist or a member of a religion other than Christianity (and I include Hebrew Roots and even, to a degree, Messianic faith as part of “Christianity” … faith in and worship of Christ/Messiah), you never really leave “the Church,” the community of believers in Jesus. As Viola points out, you really have to define what you mean by “church,” especially if you think you’re leaving it. Even if wherever you worship isn’t called a “church,” you probably still worship with other people in a somewhat organized fashion and have a theology and doctrine that is more or less recognized as “Christian.”
So what are people leaving and what are they looking for? Having done no research at all and having no data to back up my personal opinion, people are leaving congregations and organizations where they do not feel connected and are joining or at least searching for congregations where they feel they belong.
Seems pretty obvious, huh?
That probably is one of the reasons why there are so many denominations and so many different types of worship venues, styles, and whatnot. Identify a disenfranchised Christian population and cater to them. Churches split periodically for a wide variety of reasons and create new churches that satisfy the desires of those who were previously not satisfied.
But to split, you have to possess a sufficient population of dissatisfied people to gather around and create a new church. They all have to also be dissatisfied in the same or very similar way so that you don’t gather together a group of individuals with each of them wanting something completely different out of the new church.
I have no statistics about how many people leave traditional, institutional churches each year specifically to enter into an entity called “Hebrew Roots”. It gets more complicated in that within the umbrella term Hebrew Roots is a plethora of different sorts of congregations, with overlapping but differing beliefs, practices, theologies, and so on. Often, these different subgroups don’t get along with each other for a number of reasons. Some believe in praying only in Hebrew, others prefer English, some pronounce the Sacred Name of God one way, some do so a different way, some believe it should never be pronounced at all, and on it goes.
Another confusing factor is that many Hebrew Roots groups call themselves “Messianic Judaism” when in fact, their definition of the term flies in the face of what I consider Messianic Judaism to actually be.
Be that as it may, a non-trivial number of Gentile Christians are leaving various institutional churches each year (again, I have no specific numbers) and joining some variation of a Hebrew Roots or sometimes authentic Messianic Jewish congregation, small group, home group, or study group.
What are they looking for?
Like I said above, they’re looking for other people who think, act, and believe just like they do, or enough like they do that any differences don’t really matter.
So what’s the attraction?
Both Hebrew Roots in all of its variations and Messianic Judaism in all of its variations have one thing in common. They believe institutional Christianity in all of its variations has the Bible all wrong. They believe that “the Church” (big C) made a big mistake in “establishing” that the Law was nailed to the cross with Jesus, that grace replaced the Law, that Jewish people need to convert to Christianity and functionally (though not genetically or in name) stop being Jewish, and that Judaism as a faith and worship form is a dead-end made up of “dead works” and no spiritual life.
I believe “the Church” made its big mistake early on and through nearly two-thousand years of reformations, revivals, and any other course change you could possibly imagine, the Church never, ever corrected that mistake. In fact, the mistake has become so ingrained in the Church, that it never even occurs to any of the institutional and local expressions of Christianity to even question the initial interpretive error that is now driving some individuals and groups away from “church” and into something that is attempting to behave as a corrective effort.
How many Christian denominations exist today? Somewhere in the thousands? Tens of thousands? Heck, how many translations are there of the Bible just in English? Almost as many it seems. So many expressions of “the Christian faith” and “the Word of God,” apparently created to satisfy the perspectives, opinions, wants, and needs of various human beings who don’t want to leave God but who want God and Christ on their/our own terms. There’s even a brand new Bible translation called The Gay Bible.
Do I sound cynical?
No wonder Jesus asked poignantly, “…when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:8)
Human beings are a pain in the…
I wonder how God puts up with us?
Frank Viola’s answer to all this is in a book he wrote called Reimagining Church. No, I’m not going to rush out and buy it or any of his other books. My current wish list of books is already long and getting longer all the time. It’s also crafted to suit my current perspective on God, Messiah, and everything and I suspect based on what I’ve read of Viola’s writing so far, that we probably don’t share a lot of opinions.
Viola (Pagan Christianity), a leader in the house church movement, believes the church as we know it today is nothing like what God intended it to be. According to Viola, the first-century church, which should be our pattern, met in homes without any official pastor. All members of the church were involved in worship, spontaneously breaking out with teaching or song as they were moved. Decisions were not made until everyone reached consensus. There were no official leaders or elders, but there were men who served and taught and helped others, thus leading by example. Viola believes that to bring the church back on track, both clergy and denominations must be completely abolished. Churches should not have buildings nor should they worry about doctrinal statements. Such radical ideas will best be received by Emergent and postmodern readers. Skeptics will cringe at Viola’s strident tone and all-or-nothing approach. More concrete examples of what Viola has seen work well in his 20 years of house church work would have greatly strengthened the book.
-from Publishers Weekly
as found at Amazon.com.
If I had to pick a “reimagining of church,” it would probably look more like Beth Immanuel and less like the so-called first-century home churches that Viola seems to hold up as an ideal. But then Viola is doing what I said we all do, finding a congregation (or making one) that reflects his own desires and ideals. We all want to have it our way, as the old Burger King commercial goes.
So what’s the real answer? Underneath our vain attempts to assuage our own discomfort in the world of religion and to make ourselves feel better in a body of faith, I’m going to trust that at least some people are actually searching for something authentic, something real, something that will allow them to actually encounter God on God’s terms.
Is there more than one way to do that? Can you encounter God in a Baptist church, a Lutheran church, and dare I say it, in a Jewish synagogue? My personal opinion is yes, since I’ve encountered God in all three communities (and I don’t mean just a Messianic Jewish synagogue, I mean a synagogue where they don’t believe in Jesus).
One of the things Viola writes that I can agree with is that we all need to worship in community rather than as “lone wolves” (my words, not his) or just as an individual family or a few families who come together.
I wanted to know Christ deeply, and I discovered that we can only comprehend “the breadth, depth, height, and know the love of Christ which passes knowledge” when we are “together with all saints.” It’s not an individualistic pursuit, but an intensely corporate (collective) one.
All that said, I’ll be the first to admit that it can be incredibly difficult sometimes to find a group that meets your needs. For some, they have to build it, if at all possible and within the will of God (and make no mistake, like Babel, it’s possible to build something outside the will of God, it just won’t last past the return of Messiah).
I don’t have an answer for you. I know that may be disappointing, but I’m caught in the same trap as everyone else. If you’re human, you can only see everything from ground level, so to speak. No one has the perspective of God. We’re all down here wallowing in the mud, struggling to climb to even slightly higher ground so we can get a better look at what we think is better.
Problem is, we all think we’ve got the inside track on “better,” that by “coincidence,” just happens to map perfectly to our personal wants, needs, and desires. Imagine that.
I can only imagine that God looks down at all of us, covered in mud, dead leaves, and our own grandiose arrogance and just shakes His head, the way we would at some teenage kid who thought he or she had the whole world figured out. “Yeah,” He says. “Just you wait. You’ll find out what’s really going on one day and aren’t you going to be shocked out of your socks.”
So people leave “church,” however they define it, because it’s “Babylon,” because it’s “pagan,” because it’s “apostasized” from the true faith of Messiah and has thrown away the Torah like a used diaper and the Jewish people along with it.
But are any of those folks doing any better? I guess it depends. At the center of all this isn’t the institution, and it isn’t the rituals, and to some degree, it isn’t even some of the interpretations and doctrines, it’s the authentic, true, real, and valid desire to serve the living God of the Bible. We may get a lot of things wrong, all of us (yes, you too and yes, me too). But somewhere in there, we probably manage to do a few things right as well.
I’ve heard it said that God doesn’t grade on a curve, but I prefer (here I go with what I prefer) to think of God as a forgiving Father. No, not forgiving of an endless list of willful sins, but forgiving as the Father is of a toddler who throws tantrums, falls down all the time, says incredibly silly stuff, but who is continually struggling and working hard in a two or three-year old’s best effort, to growing older, growing better, and growing up.
But we all grow up in different families, and in different neighborhoods, and in different towns or cities, counties, states, provinces, and countries. The people aren’t the same, the cultures aren’t the same, the languages aren’t the same, but God is the same. I guess that’s how we can look at our churches, our “ekklesias,” our communities in Christ/Messiah, however large or small they may be.
There’s a difference between thumbing your nose at God and just making goofy mistakes because as human beings, we don’t know any better. The waters are cloudy and we don’t see what’s in the pond too clearly. We complain at each other for being in the “wrong church” or even being in “church” at all instead of where we think all the “cool kids” in Christ are supposed to hang out. We keep forgetting God has an “opinion” too and that it’s not an opinion at all but the final truth.
We just don’t have unfiltered access to that truth, we only think we do. Hence thousands or tens of thousands of different Christian religious organizations which we say, depending on which one we belong to, that ours is the one, and it’s the best, and God loves us because we aren’t part of that other one down the street.
Oh brother (rolls eyes).
Leave the church? You can leave anything you want to, but as long as you are a believer, you don’t leave the body of Messiah, which is a good thing. Even if you leave religion, you don’t leave the universe and so you don’t escape God by becoming an atheist (you only think you do).
The only thing we can do is our best and believe me, it’ll never be as good as we think it is, but that’s OK. Fortunately, God is forgiving and He does understand that we all are as dumb as a box of rocks (as compared to God) and He doesn’t really expect that we will ever get to a point where we get most things right.
Our biggest “silliness” is thinking that we can and that we do get most things right and that we somehow are better than other churches, synagogues, congregations, whatever.
Think about all of the arguments we all have about our religions. Now think about how all that sounds to God. No, really. If that’s difficult to picture, recall any argument you’ve seen between two pre-schoolers fighting over a toy and how they each had a really, really good reason why they should have the thing instead of the other kid.
Now do you get it?