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.