Reflections on leaving the ‘Institutionalised Church’
Being called out of the mainstream institutionalised Church has been a challenging experience, requiring deeper levels of personal faith. The experience has necessitated coping with hurt, criticism and antagonism.
While it has been a grieving process, it has been a healthy and enlightening one, opening opportunities in ministry, and giving greater understanding of the bigger picture of the Lord’s work with His people on earth. Christians can have a condescending attitude toward those who have “left” the Church, or to the institutionalised Church if they have left. We need to have greater understanding and acceptance of the “others”.
In thirty years of Christian faith, I have experienced a wide range of Churches, and various expressions of faith. Initially converted in Mt Eden Lutheran Church, my first experiences of Church life and worship were fully liturgical services, the average age of the congregation probably in the late fifties. Hymns and liturgy were the order of the day, although the “happy-clappy” songs (condescendingly referred to as spiritual nursery-rhymes by an Elder there) were permitted for the youth on Sunday evening services once or twice a month. The gospel of Grace was strong however, with solid bible teaching and a good community spirit.
I moved to Valley Road Baptist when David and Dale Garratt were introducing dance into worship. Undergoing formal training in dance was a new experience for a guy with two left feet, and raising hands and running around with ribbons was a personal challenge to a very shy, insecure young man. At that time David’s worship leadership was particularly well received – sensitive, confident, creative, but also real.
Since those early days, I have attended and committed to churches from various other denominations – Presbyterian, Baptist, Destiny, Christian City, City Impact, and for over ten years, Takapuna AOG, now renamed Harbourside Church.
Being Called Out
The call to move away from an Institutionalised Church was against my will. I was an active and committed member of TAOG, for many years, and had spent a year or two away from the church for various reasons. Having newly married, my wife and I were in the process of returning and recommitting to Takapuna, when a sequence of strange events drew me to the point of recognition that the Lord was “closing the door” on our intentions.
Listening to His leading (one that was against my wife’s wishes, and my natural assumption), I stopped one day; counted ten specific individual events and circumstances from the preceding few months; and accepted the leading of the Holy Spirit in the matter. I prayed, “Lord, this doesn’t make sense to me, and I don’t want this, but I believe that for some reason you don’t want me to push on here with commitment to this church, so I will be obedient to what I believe you want from me”.
Then the challenge began. If recommitting to church membership and submission to the church I knew and loved was not His calling, what was?
For years I had subscribed to the teaching that a Christian should be actively part of a Church for their own well-being. I had heard preached many times, and believed, that backsliding starts with a drop-off in church attendance. The picture often used was that just as a coal removed from the fire will quickly die, so too will a Christian lose their faith if they didn’t attend church. Regular Sunday morning attendance was used as a key indicator in the commitment levels and therefore spiritual health of a parishioner, even to the point that in some churches I attended, the Pastor maintained attendance rolls.
The Scripture most used by leadership and well meaning advisors to ensure regular church attendance is in Hebrews 10:25a:
Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another
In believing that the Lord was calling me to “leave” the Institutionalised Church, I had to wrestle with this Scripture to the point that I could reconcile my belief in the Lord’s calling with the traditional interpretation and expectations.
While I was confident that I had heard from the Lord in the matter, I did not know WHY I was called to move away.
Over a period of time, I assumed that there must be an alternative – I thought that perhaps I was called to become involved in the House Church movement.
In researching the matter, talking to House Church leaders, activists and Small Church proponents, it became clear to me that the meetings referred to by the writer of Hebrews could only have been small, home based groups, with a totally different practice, format, structure, purpose and “heart” to that of the traditional Institutionalised Church.
While I had been exposed to years of teaching that we, as the body of believers, ARE the church, the traditions and social expectations built up and reinforced around the Church (as an organization based upon a particular leader, denomination or building) were I found, definitely extra-biblical.
I have always been one to seek the truth, and have therefore always had an aversion to what I call Churchianity. I define this as that subtle peer pressure – the Christian cultural pressure that requires conformity, and to be accepted.
I see Jesus constantly reaching outside the social and cultural norms to perform socially unacceptable tasks given Him by the Father. Likewise, while I worshipped and committed to Churches and denominations with varying degrees of Churchianity, I did so in the belief that Hebrews 10:25 required it of me.
My independence of thought and behaviour (a form of self-belief) was integral to my conversion. My understanding that Christ came to me, and “saved” me, rather than this event occurring as an act of my own will or intellect, enabled me to see that attendance at a particular Church, on a particular day was a matter of choice, rather than a requirement for salvation.
This theological perspective, that our faith is in God’s hands, rather than our own actions, enabled me to miss Church some days and be free to take my family snowboarding or camping as they grew up. It also meant that Church attendance was to me a privilege and a joy, as it was a result of the choice of the will, rather than me fulfilling a requirement.
Ceasing active Church activities, and Church attendance engendered a range of responses. The new Pastor at TAOG specifically asked me not to pollute the well – by seeking to preach to his flock to leave. I agreed and have worked hard not to share in depth with his people.
My wife was particularly challenged. She certainly did not share the calling to move away, and saw it as a strong negative. While eventually accepting that this was my new direction, it is still an area where we have a difference of opinion.
Others have trotted out clichéd responses along the various lines that it’s not good for every man to do what he thinks is good in his own eyes, or the need for unity, or the subject of the spirit of rebellion.
People within the traditional Church system almost to a man, view non-Church attendance as an area of sin, a failing, something that needs to be repented of, and that things are right when the backslider is brought back into the fold. This subtle thought is always there as a pressure whenever the subject is raised, with friends or strangers.
The mainstream thinking is that if you are not attending and committed to a Church, then you have backslidden, or have sin or rebellion in your life. It is a similar social expectation to the ones that if someone is in a wheelchair, that the person is less intelligent than we are, or that they are inherently unhappy with their lot, or that they need to be shouted at. When we have worked with the handicapped we come to understand that these people can be perfectly happy, intelligent and can hear the same as a non-handicapped person.
Likewise its only when we have come to understand that it is perfectly possible to be a true believer, and a wholesome active committed Christian without attending and committing to a traditional Church, that responses to such a Christian are healthy and natural.
In researching the “church outside the Church” and in meeting with various types of believers, I note two distinct channels of believers:
a) Those who have moved away from the Church because of theological persuasions
b) Those who have moved away through adversity, tension or friction
The first group have the attitude that the New Testament church has morphed into something outside God’s original purpose. They see the form and shape and function of the Church as it has grown – first with the Catholic Church and secondly with the various Protestant iterations – as performing an institutionalised role, when in fact the Lord is seeking a smaller more intimate relationship role from His people.
While it can be dangerous to generalise, and there are always exceptions to any rule, these people generally view the Church as a wrong model, inefficient, misguided and sometimes evil. Their belief is that the small church, the alternative church, the emerging church, the house church and similar models are the biblical ideal. They often refer back to the shape of the New Testament as detailed in the book of Acts as their ideal model.
The second group of people are ones who have been hurt in various ways by the Church, or by the leaders or people within the Church. Whether they feel ripped off, have witnessed hypocrisy or something untoward, had a theological disagreement, been treated badly personally or have just become saddened or embittered, the general space they are in is that “the Church has failed them” in some way.
People in the second category, usually need time to work through their issues. They are often the sensitive ones, the opinionated ones, the challenging ones, with leadership potential, sometimes with character flaws that need “working on”. Their responses to situations can be seen to be rebellious or self-centred. It is easy for those within the Church to write off or explain away their move away with blame.
My heart is for understanding and reconciliation between those within the institutionalised Church and those outside. From outside the institutionalized Church, it hurts me to see people within judge and view those outside as oddballs or strangers or backsliders. From outside, it hurts me to see others “bag”, criticise or unduly knock the institutionalised Church.
While I accept that it will be very unlikely that any full “reconciliation” will occur, I do see a need for learning and understanding to occur and attitudes to soften toward each other.
The consequences of responding to what I believed was the Lord’s leading have been huge. First, as with any challenge, I have had to press in to the Lord. If He wanted me out, there had to be a reason. I was effectively alone for a period, and that required me to enter into a good dose of relationship building with Him. What did He want from me? How would I spend the Sunday time? What about financial giving, and accountability? What and where would I build relationships? What was His role for me in ministry or leadership?
My ministry has effectively turned from a healthy “black and white” two dimensional image into a full-colour three-dimensional one. Over three years, I have developed relationships, friendships, ministries and opportunities that I would never have been able to think of, let alone undertake from within the institutionalised Church.
I am now in a position to help others far more meaningfully in my daily walk than previously. Even though I have always integrated my faith in business, my ministry is now integrated far more tightly into my daily walk than previously.
My faith is much deeper on a day-by-day basis than before. Instead of simply existing each day, I have undertaken an increased level of responsibility for my own spiritual well-being, and that of my family. In some ways this is like coming out from under a cloud, into the sunshine.
I have become more responsible for establishing biblical truth. Theology in its deeper forms has always been a struggle for me, but I now mix with a range of people who are strong in this area. I have a bigger view of the Lord’s work on earth, as I mix with people from many different denominations and streams. I don’t agree with everything everyone says, but I am more able to accept people for who they are and their God-given role in life.
I have also found myself tapping into a never-ending well of wisdom – through the work of the Holy Spirit. Increasingly I am learning that we are all ministers – our work on earth can be unlimited if we simply make ourselves available to Him.
Listening to the Lord and His guidance every minute of the day, then sharing it in faith enables me to tell my wife, children, friends, colleagues and others what the Pastor will be talking about on the coming Sunday!
While previously opportunities were effectively filtered through the Church I attended, now opportunities in ministry are natural and frequent. I am finding that increased responsibility goes hand in hand with increased opportunity. Each one creates and works in with the other, and I view this as healthy.
The institutionalised Church is definitely less than perfect, with its inefficiency, division, and failings in many areas. But I cannot say that anyone should or should not attend an institutionalized Church. I can only speak for myself, having been specifically called out. I have developed my own opinions on the future of the church and my own role.
While I continue to process things daily, and to plan ahead in the natural, the whole purpose of my calling out is in the Lord’s hands. I still slip into church services now and then. I still participate in mainstream Church activities. I have friends both inside and outside.
To those who are challenged in some way, especially when considering “leaving” the Church (or why others have “left” the Church), my advice is to listen to the leading of the Holy Spirit and be obedient to that still small voice. At the end of the day, the Lord will be talking to each of us about our own responses to His ‘Rhema’ word. He will not be discussing the details of someone else who or why they are inside or outside of the Church, nor about the Church itself.
I believe that we should all turn our eyes upon Jesus, and accept our brothers and sisters in Christ as brothers and sisters, regardless of their current Church attendance status. The world will be a better place and the Lord will be glorified more as a result.