Sunday, November 25, 2012

Freedom from the Institutional Bubble to Live the Incarnational Life

Here I sit at my dining room table on a cool Sunday morning and instead of feelings of bondage, I have feelings of freedom. Up until 4 yours ago, I was "bound" to attend a local institutional church- as either a member or its minister. It wasn't until I got out of the bubble that I realized how enslaved I was to a mindset that prevented me from experiencing deeper and more adventurous aspects of God.

Lest one thinks that I can write something like the last sentence glibly or naively, I must assure you that is not the case. Not even close to the case. In fact, I agree that from a conventional and institutional point of view- one that is deeply entrenched in me- it sounds like a typical rationalization for not going to church. For me to write it, let alone think it, is a bit scary and deeply humbling.

All I can say is that by not attending a local representation of Americanized Christianity, I am finding- and have found to a large extent- freedoms in my faith that I don't think I would have discovered if I were still bound in the bubble of church attendance.

Firstly, I am free to live as Jesus' disciple without conforming to long-standing institutional norms and christianized group expectations. If my faith is authentic, it will live and grow on its own. This does not mean that community and group life aren't helpful, if not essential to a robust and productive discipleship. It just suggests that too many personal expressions of faith have no foundation on their own and essentially live in and through others. For example, would you still give money, time and energy for others if you were not regularly preached or programmed to do so at church?

Closely related to this idea of living authentically because of internal rather than external forces (faith versus church) is the activity of what the church has marketed as "worship".  For the institutional church, this means a service (read: meeting) in which songs are sung, prayers are prayed and sermons are preached. A really good worship experience is typically identified by participants as an emotional rush that we allow to be termed as such and encourage to be equated with the presence of God. The institution sadly is forced to embrace this conceptual idol in order to sustain its existence.

If pressed, however, everyone would agree that the presence of God is not limited to a time or location and is indeed everywhere and always present. By not attending a service of "worship", I am free to explore the omnipresence of God without the burden to make God perform for my expectations in a programmed way (even though I would never have acknowledged it as programmed). I am free to experience God whether I "feel" his presence or not, whether the music leader is anointed enough to move me beyond myself or not, or whether or not the atmosphere is charged in a special way because we have paid our religious dues to make it happen-if it ever happened at all.

And people are bound to select the church they attend based on criteria like this: Was God's presence in the music and was the "word" preached in the way they wanted it to be?

Speaking of the "word", by no longer feeding the institutional beast with my presence, I am free to experience the "word" without being bound to an interpretation that is self-perpetuating. I now read Scripture because by doing so, I permit myself to discover stories and finding meaning that may be prompted and directed by the Spirit that hovers between the chaos of my life and Divine transcendence. I don't have to limit my personal encounter with the Bible to the manufacturing of my next sermon. I read it to encounter God and sometimes- perhaps more often than not- I am confronted and/or blessed by the "Word".

I cannot express how this brings life and encouragement to me. I honestly believe that church attendance would deny me this glorious freedom.

Lastly, I am free of church-think. I can think outside of the four church walls. I am not bound to think of the kingdom of God in terms of institutional perpetuation. I am not a part of an organization that by necessity has to make decisions that is driven to keep its organizational doors open. I am free to think about the Incarnational life of Jesus' followers whether or not my church has a robust membership, a strong missions program, or a solvent budget. I am free of whatever political or international policies a particular congregation chooses by intention or default to adopt and for which to pray.

I am free to live as a citizen of God's transcendent yet gloriously mundane kingdom. I am free to explore and hopefully experience the Mystery that is not particularly American. I am free to be human in my humanity discover the Imageo Deo not only in me, but in every other person who shares space with me in God's presence on earth.

Friday, November 16, 2012

I am a Better Ambassador Now that I'm not a Minister

Another reason why I can justify not going to programmed church anymore is that I have discovered a better and purer representation of Kingdom ministry.

I spent 25 years professionally promoting Christian servanthood and missional living. Not only did I encourage others in this obviously biblical lifestyle, but I tried to program it for them through the church. I found that church members longed for opportunities to tangibly do some form of ministry, outreach or mission. And inside of this institutional bubble I believed I was doing exactly what God expected of me as an ambassador of the Kingom of God.

Since making my exit from professional ministry and local church participation three years agoI have entered into a new and (to me, at least) different yet fulfilling wilderness in which I can safely conclude that my role as Christ's ambassador is more representative of biblical discipleship. I now serve others because of a loving impetus for others and God placed in me by faith and the Spirit of Jesus.

It appears to me that what Jesus introduced in his incarnation was an unprogrammed, spontaneous, and direct form of love that had impact in the world. Nowhere do I read that he meant for committees, boards, or professional ministers to design and implement short term mission trips and weekend outreaches to be the outlet of a real faith experience. And yet those who enlist their volunteer time in such efforts are led by the professionals (like me) to believe they are pushing the envelope of involvement in what God wants for them. To make matters worse, participants in these spiritual endeavors tend to look down on others who do not get as involved since as I mentioned, missions and ministry are the best and purest things a church member can do - especially in an Americanized church.

I now am more aware of the needs of the world in which I live- not because I have been preached and programmed to do so but because as a follower of Jesus I can't stop it. The view I have of people is being filtered through a lens that transcends what the institutional church is currently providing. I wonder if the same thing shouldn't be true for all who claim to be citizens of God's transcendent kingdom on earth.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

My "Tithe" is Not Watered Down By Some Church Board

I have always been a ten percent tithes. I was loyal, religious, and strictly "biblical". I directed ten percent of my gross earnings to my local church believing and preaching that this was not only where God wanted it to be given but how the money would be distributed in a way that would honor God the most.  I had pastor friends who questioned why I would tithe to the sane organization that paid me and as economically weird as it may have been, I believed it was the way God's financial design was to work.

Even when I hit financial crisis, I found a way to keep from "robbing from God", believing that God should not be penalized for my bad decisions. And while I had no problem with a "New Testament" interpretation of tithing which conveniently suggested that a believer didn't have to tithe 10 percent since everything belonged to God, I rarely if ever found a believer in this interpretation to give more than 10 percent if they gave that much!

Then, after a lifetime of church attendance and involvement at both personal and professional levels, I left. But I didn't quit giving money for God's purposes. I simply changed the direction in which I gave it. I never gave my money because I was part of the religious organization now called "church" but because I both loved God and felt it was my duty to tithe. That didn't not change when I left the institution since it is spawned at the level of faith, not works.

Since leaving the church as it exists today in America, I have had to come to the difficult conclusion that the money I gave for God is sadly disseminated in a variety of ways that are decided by relatively prayer less boards and committees and that the lion's share (Lion?) went to administrative expenses- including, of course, my salary. In fact, churches rarely make the most "worthy" line item- missions- even 10 percent of their own budget. And the membership lets this happen in most cases, or they go to a competitor who after looking at there books, decide this is where they want their hard earned pittance to go.

My current benevolence is now more directly and completely going to people and causes that I hope are honoring God in their work. I still give more than the biblical "tithe" but I isn't being filtered thorough administrators or trapped in institutional needs. The ten percent I gave back ended up being watered down to a far smaller percentage once the organization got its share.

I now believe that God is rarely honored by how churches create and spend their budgets- even though every pastor has to believe and declare that their church budget DOES bring God glory (as well as feeds their family). I know this because I was one of those pastors.

I am glad to honor God with unfiltered money. I don't have to compare spreadsheets between competing religious businesses to see whose salary I'd rather support or which missions organizations a committee has determined are the best ones for their congregation to get behind.

All of me and my money belong to God- not the current version of American Church.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Four Words I Use to Justify My Position Regarding Church Attendance

I have not been to a Sunday worship service in a local church for over three years. After being born into a Baptist preacher's home, going to church at least four times a week, following a call into full-time ordained Christian ministry, serving professionally (and personally) in six different churches in five states for 25 years, I left. And people (including me) wondered if I was not only alright, but if I was still a Christian.

And yet as I write this, I am more firmly convinced than ever of my spiritual status in Christ Jesus. Over these last few years I have prayerfully and thoughtfully tried to articulate why it is better for me to not go to church than to go. I feel like I've been able to identify some concrete reasons that for me, it is better to follow Jesus outside the institutional walls of a church than maintaining a membership within them.

I currently have identified four words that succinctly describe the areas that for me, affirm my position:

  • Money
  • Ministry
  • Freedom
  • Community
I will offer a brief explanation of each of these in separate installations so as not to make this blog a tome.