I have been deeply involved in the life of church since I was a child. The church taught me about Jesus and formed me as a Christian and as a person. I love her and I can’t imagine my life without her. Early in my life I felt a call to serve in the ministry or, as I would have articulated then, “to become a preacher.” And after some hesitancy in my teen years I decided to take that step. I studied Bible and theology in college and graduate school, receiving my Master of Theology degree. I spent approximately ten years in campus ministry, youth ministry and preaching ministry. After receiving my Ph.D. in religious studies I began teaching at the university level. That was nearly 28 years ago. For much of that time I served as an elder in a local church. Last summer, after 22 years as an elder, I ended my career in this role. I informed my beloved congregation that I could no longer do what contemporary elders are required to do and make the decisions they must make. For the first time in a long time I am a regular church member.
I want to share with you today a perspective that has gradually been crystalizing in my mind over many years. I have come to believe that many of the challenges that consume the energy of contemporary churches arise because they have redefined the nature and work of the church to include many things almost wholly unrelated to the essence and original purpose of the church. The New Testament church was a family, but we’ve transformed it into a bureaucracy. The early church’s ministers were traveling missionaries or respected local leaders, but we’ve turned them into religious experts and middle class professionals. The first churches met in homes around a table, but we met in a hall in facing a theater stage.
Think of how much energy and money churches spend and how many legal and political entanglements they bring on themselves by involving themselves in following unnecessary things: owning and managing property, hiring and managing professional clergy and staff, acquiring and servicing nonprofit tax status, organizing and funding worship bands, singers and worship ministers, and buying, maintaining and operating expensive sound and video systems. And consider how many unnecessary and inefficient programs must be staffed with overworked volunteers and paid staff. Think of how much envy, resentment and showiness having a stage with spotlights and microphones as the focal point of the service evokes.
Ask yourself why people attend church and on what basis do they choose a church. Do they attend church to be reminded of who they are in Christ, to participate in the Lord’s Supper with their brothers and sisters in Christ, to hear the Scriptures read, to encourage and be encouraged to live lives worthy of the gospel? These are the essential and original reasons. Or, do people attend a church event because of the music, the speaker or the wide array of services provided for children, teens, singles and other affinity groups?
I am not a reformer. I am not an iconoclast. I simply want to spend my energy on things that really matter. And I wish that more churches would do the same.
Ron, it’s uncanny that you and I have arrived at very similar conclusions regarding the work of the church. I resigned as an elder a few years ago because I believe that elders should be out among the sheep. You explained your position very clearly. Thanks. Now I know that I’m not the only nut. God’s speed.
Jim: Thank you for telling me this! And God’s speed to you also!
Thanks for sharing this excellent piece of wisdom! I too have wondered this for many years, especially as Christian institutions (even the term makes me shudder!) in America clamor over maintaining their rights to religious freedom and expression. Now, it may well be that these are important issues to preserve in this country from a Political Science perspective—but clutching a space of privilege in the public sphere never seems to have been the agenda of the early church.
To take one example: some voices in the progressive/secular sphere recommend enforcing the recent Obergefell Supreme Court decision by removing tax-exempt status from religious institutions that refuse to perform marriages between same-sex couples. The churches cry foul and insist on their right to religious freedom and expression. But why? What is it about the church of God that requires tax-exempt status and freedom to religious expression in order to carry out our mission? The fact that some churches would talk about compromising on their stance or of having secular justices perform same-sex ceremonies in their church simply in order to maintain tax-exempt status is telling. This is the church coffers talking—not the body of Christ.
Ron, I’m a big fan of your work and appreciate your heart for God and the truth. Thank you for articulating this so thoughtfully, clearly, and humbly.
I don’t think most people see how the modern “liturgy” has been so influenced by culture. I yearn for a simpler day. Perhaps increasing cultural pressure may force us back into a more Acts-like structure. That will be uncomfortable, but ultimately, freeing.
Thank you Doug. I really appreciate that word of encouragement. We about hear of “first-world problems” and we mean things like our need to lose weight or getting our first ding in our new car. In analogy, I think we Northern Hemisphere, western Christians spend lots of energy on “first-world Christian problems.” On things that wouldn’t really matter if we were persecuted and things that don’t really “produce the fruit of righteousness.” Blessings! Ron
I echo the sentiments of those above. You have articulated something I have thought about for many years (though I enabled the process at times). Your conciseness has helped me clarified my own thoughts. Thank you!
I believe my disillusionment with religion began long before I was baptized into the church. I had a dad who thought everyone who became a Christian was a hypocrite, and a mother who let her children attend any church because she did not want to hold us back from knowing Jesus. I became a Seventh Day Adventist, almost became a Jehovah’s Witness, and attended many other congregations before eventually attending the Church of Christ. There I was baptized into Christ along with my mother and later some of my sisters. The years went by and a controversy about divorce and shunning took place. This was the first fracture in my faith, and then I run into a minister who believed that Christians should drink from one cup during communion and break from a single wafer as Christ broke from a single loaf and passed it to his disciples. I liked the simplicity I saw in this method and so I began attending the church there. I did wonder if this controversy was similar to the nuisance that the churches went through in trying to forbid Gentiles from becoming Christians unless they were circumcised? I no longer attend church and have felt an emptiness inside of me for years. I also feel an ambivalence toward seeking out the church again, and know that now I must make a real decision not based on confusion and pleasing others. I must find out who I am and what the Lord wants of me. It seems scary and like it may be hard to pick up the pieces. But I have been thinking about the church for many years and putting it off. I know now that putting it off is not really an option (never was) in this confusing, painful world we are living in now.
By the way “Hello, Ron”. Not sure you ever thought you would hear from me again? It’s been a long time and the young minister (Ron) who did youth ministry in WV has moved on to teaching theology and writing at a professorial level. Strange that at age 60 I am coming back to the man who first instructed me in Christ. I am at full circle and find myself feeling not unlike that young girl back then. Nice to read your blog, and see that seasoned men of God also have there moments of dissatisfaction and disillusionment. ~~~Cathy~~~
Thanks for commenting on this essay. It’s a tricky issue to deal with. On the one hand some people say that how you believe and practice matters not at all. On the other, some people think there is a precise way to do everything and those who don’t conform are in grave sin. There are many aspects to the Christian life and one has do carry them out in some way. I believe we should follow our consciences but give other people room to follow theirs as well. If we want God’s grace we should want that grace for others as well. It’s okay to explain to others why we practice our faith the way we do, but we ought also to listen carefully and lovingly to them. We ought, I think, to be happy for what we share before trying to “correct” others in the places where we differ. I hope to write a follow-up essay soon. God bless!