Church, Ativan, and Gospel Misfits

I know they mean well and I certainly don’t question their hearts or motives, but I think the help they’re offering misses the point. We’ve not had a church (in the institutional sense of the word) to call home since the one we were members of merged with a mega-church, or folded, or ceased to exist, or morphed, or whatever that was that happened.

Since that time, we’ve darkened the doors of many a church building only to hear moralistic, duty-laden law preaching that majors big-time on the Christian’s failure to do the Christian life in the Christian way. We’ve been scolded from several pulpits and in one instance, even told God is mad at us and wants us to “shut up.” We’ve been chastened for not being brave like David was brave and to prove his point, that particular pastor dimmed the lights to show a clip on bravery from the movie Titanic. My wife got up and left before the clip ever started or the lights dimmed, but I had the decency to wait until the lights dimmed before I ducked down and made a beeline for the door. I attribute my wait to my fear of man.

I’ve lost count of the number of churches we’ve visited since the one we were a part of ceased to be. My wife and I sometimes joke that we’ve walked out of so many churches that we’ve stopped walking in. We’ve surfed the web for countless hours looking at church web sites and listening to sermons. We’ve come across some that boast the gospel on their web site but when you get inside the building, it becomes clear they don’t really know what gospel-centered means. When I mentioned to one pastor that what drew us there that Sunday was the gospel references on their web site, he immediately glazed-over and didn’t know what I was referring to. His message that morning was all about accountability groups, submitting to the pastor, and the importance of keeping each other in line because we’re such screw-ups and God is angry with our sloppy selves. There was no mention of Jesus. No hope. No good news. None. The phrase “gospel centered” has become a marketing tag line. When visiting a church results in running to the medicine cabinet afterward to pop an Ativan or two, something’s terribly wrong. I could go on and on, but I’ll spare you the agony. You get the idea.

I take comfort in knowing we’re not alone in our struggle. We’re finding that there are pockets of people, both across the country and locally, who are in the same crazy predicament. They haven’t left Jesus but they feel the church (again, church in the institutional, traditional sense) has, so they don’t go there very often. Some of them don’t go at all. One blogger called those pockets of people “The Dones” because they’re just done with it all. They haven’t left Jesus; they feel the church has.

It’s amazing how these pockets of like-minded gospel-centered “Dones” find each other. We’ve found some of them and some of them have found us. Our Thursday nights are spent with one such ragtag group of gospel misfits, all of whom have experiences similar to ours with institutional churches and all of whom just want to be reminded that “it is finished” and that Jesus’ grace is sufficient. That there is sweet hope outside of ourselves in our perfect Substitute, Jesus, whose perfect righteousness is ours by faith, even when our faith is wobbly, which is most of the time. Lord, we believe. Help our unbelief! We remember Jesus’ sacrifice for us around the Lord’s supper and we speak his grace into each other’s lives in the midst of our troubles and failures. No one gets scolded and we don’t try to fix each other. It’s a safe place to be. We may even throw on an occasional video to be reminded of the now-power of the gospel. This is the church without all the fluff. This is fellowship and this is community. This is the church. Sadly, institutional Christianity tends to believe institutional church is the only valid expression of Christ in the world. But it’s not.

I’ve been in the faith for 43 years now and in all those years, I’ve seen a lot of changes in the church. I’m an ordained pastor and I’ve pastored several different churches and planted two. I’ve spent time on the inside and I’ve seen how things work in there. On the one hand, I get it when people express concern over our not finding a traditional church. But on the other hand, I think your concern is misplaced. I get what you’re saying. I really do. I’ve been looking for years, but to no avail. I’m tired now and I feel like one of the “Dones.” Someone has suggested that we just join a church (that phrase even sounds weird) – any church – and then work from the inside to change it to a gospel-centered focus. But having spent years in leadership and pastoring, I know the futility of such an undertaking. That’s the Holy Spirit’s job, not mine. It’s above my pay grade. Others have yelled at me on social media, saying, “Just find a church!” That’s like telling someone to find gold. It’s one thing to look but quite another to find.

The writer of the letter to the Hebrews said,

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. – Hebrews 10:24-25

Of all of the “Dones” in my life (myself included, if I truly am becoming one), none of them fits this description. I love the church – the people of God – and I want to be with God’s people, at least most of them. And I am with them, but not in droves or in a megachurch sense, or in what is considered a traditional or institutional sense to many today in the west. Small and intimate is where God has me today and I am loving it because the ones I have the privilege of being with are real.

To reiterate what I said above, I get what you’re telling me. I really do. And I appreciate your care and concern. But I’m far from isolated even though I don’t frequent a building every Sunday morning and participate in structured traditional worship there. Since my crash and burn six years ago, resulting in my deliverance from performance-based Christianity, grace has changed my thinking in many areas. This seems to be one more as I’ve been forced out of my comfort zone regarding institutional church. The church isn’t a place or an event. It’s a people in any place. It’s a body. It’s the body of Christ, not a location, or a building, or a campus. None of us “goes to church.” We are the church. If going to a church service every Sunday is what you need and enjoy, go. Cherish it. But keep in mind you’re not going to church. You’re the church and the church is going to a building. Maybe one day I’ll be able to do that again too. Maybe not. But either way, give me Jesus!

-Mike


Photo by nikko macaspac on Unsplash

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