Summary: What we call “church” is a product of western civilization that comes with a lot of cultural baggage. It is one way to follow Christ but not the only way. You can be a part of God’s ekklesia without participating in a traditional church.
Why I Stopped Attending Church
To begin with, I want to emphasize that I am not trying to discourage you from going to church. Churches do wonderful things. They feed the hungry. They promote healthy living. They are filled with wonderful people. I have great friends who are excellent pastors of first rate churches. If you are thriving in a church, keep thriving!
I am not out to bash church. I have experienced the Kingdom of God in it. I love its music, its cathedrals, its liturgy, its history. The point I make in this chapter is that the traditional wineskin we call “church” is not the only way to follow Christ. I fear that if we cling to our western church model as the only legitimate form, soon an empty wineskin may be all we are left with. We will stand like a European cathedral, proud but empty.
My purpose is not to tell you why you should not attend church. My purpose is to explain why I no longer do. Concerned friends ask me where I attend church. I mumble something about our nomadic lifestyle making it hard. It’s a copout Ever since I stopped being a pastor I have avoided church. Here’s the truth: The reason I don’t attend is that I don’t want to.
Dropping out of church created a five alarm crisis in my life. For starters, there is a fiscal crisis. To leave church means to cut off my only source of income and set fire to my resume. Worse than this, I have always seen church as the only way to follow Christ. To opt out of church is to opt out of God. Doesn’t the Bible require church? Am I even a Christian? To leave church was to be an unemployed pagan.
I take some comfort in the fact that I am not alone. Many people sincerely love Christ but, for whatever reason, find it hard to swallow church. Like me, many feel guilty. It feels like treason. It feels like apostasy.
In this chapter I will tell you how I came to the end of my road with church. More importantly, I will present a church-free way to follow Christ that is fully consistent with the teaching of the Jesus.1 This discovery has set me free and reignited my love for God. It has been like being born again again.
How I Lost the Baby in the Bathwater
As a teenager, God was very real to me. I grew up in a log cabin nestled in the rolling Palouse hills of Eastern Washington. I got off the dusty yellow school bus, grabbed my shotgun, and traipsed across the wheat fields with my dog, Brute, feeling like part of the landscape. If I was lonely or depressed, I went outside, lay on my back, and stared at the stars. I reached up. They reached back. I heard the sweet sound of God’s voice in music and got a college degree playing french horn. It wasn’t the music I loved as much as the Voice. I thrilled to the Scriptures and shared my life and prayed with my friends.
If loving God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength is what it is all about, I was on the right track. I could not imagine anything more wonderful than a life dedicated to this. That is why I become a Pastor. I assumed it would lead me deeper and deeper into the arms of God. Instead, the sweet sound of my Savior’s voice grew fainter. Slowly, over the decades, my living connection with God was replaced by a human institution.
When I tell people that I have given up on church, they advise me not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. My problem was that there was so much bathwater I could no longer find the baby.
Here is my top 10 list of church bathwater. The list depresses me. I know how dangerous it is to be negative. To fight this, Julie and I inscribed a slogan by the door of our trailer that we try to live by.
Backward with gratitude
Forward with hope
Why the list? I need to explain the crisis that led me to a radical reassessment of my faith. My wineskin went dry. I was trapped in a form with no substance. You may not feel this way. If you connect with Christ in your church, by all means, keep connecting! I am sharing my experience, not prescribing yours.
My Bathwater List
10. Church Politics
One of the worst people I have ever known was a leader in my first church. Publicly, he was all smiles and goodness, a model Christian. Behind the scenes he manipulated people and eventually got me fired.
Okay. There are a few bad apples in every barrel. I dusted myself off and went again. But very quickly I discovered that “doing church right” was sacred business. It justified gossip and betrayal. The part I hated most was that it was disguised in a cloak of love. People didn’t come right out and tell me I made them mad. They told their friends that they were “concerned about me.” They asked them to “pray for the pastor.” I would have much preferred a punch in the gut. The guerrilla attacks wearing a mask of love were sickening.
9. Trivial Pursuit
What bothered me about church conflict was that the issues were so colossally trivial. I wasted hours grappling with people over issues like the order of the service, the color of the paint and the music we sang. I didn’t care about any of this. We were miles from the Kingdom of God.
As a pastor, I can tell you there is nothing quite as sad as a pastor’s retreat. Most of the pastors I know are wonderful people. Why did they look so beat up at these retreats? Why were their wives so depressed? If I went to a tire dealer’s convention and the dealers were as discouraged as the pastors at a pastor’s retreat, I would conclude that there was something wrong with the tire business. Something is wrong with our model of church.
Jesus said his followers were to be know by their love for one another. Instead we are known for our squabbles. We are not an army of love. We are a mishmash of warring factions, lobbing grenades at one another over peripheral issues. The good news of Christ is barely heard above the internal battle.
We are saved. They are lost. We are believers. They are unbelievers. We vote like this. They vote like that. We are God’s family. They are God’s project. Rather than seeing the world as one giant messed up family loved by one great Father on the way to one glorious redemption, we separate people into good and bad, not based on whether they are good or bad, but on whether they embrace our dogma.
Something about church magnifies the temptation to wear a false front. One winter in college I decided to join some “unbelievers” from the music department for a ski weekend in Montana. This went against my grain. There would be drinking and who knew what else? I braced for a weekend of debauchery and went in with my shield held high. I quickly set it aside. That weekend is one of my best college memories. I was with people who felt felt free to be themselves. It wasn’t that they didn’t have hangups. They just didn’t feel the need to hide them. This was not at all like my experience in church.
Rather than celebrating God’s abundant provision and following Jesus’ example of generosity, a few Old Testament texts were strung together to tell people they owed God 10% of their income and that the church was the only legitimate place to give it. The bulk of this went for the building. Most pastors are barely paid enough to survive. They supplement their income with welfare and have no hope of saving for retirement. As if this weren’t enough, they live under a microscope. “That’s an awfully nice car pastor.”
It is no coincidence that the word “church” gets confused with a building. More than anything else, the building is the visible symbol of a church’s presence in a community. The spirit that built the cathedral in the middle ages builds the megachurch on the hill above the Mall. We shovel money into these temples made with human hands, ignoring the fact that God doesn’t live in them. If “church” means regular Sunday services in a sanctuary, led by a clergyman, a building is required. In the first 200 years of its life, the early church exploded without any buildings. This is not because they were against buildings. It is because they had a fundamentally different idea of what the church was.
There was never any danger of me being polluted by “unbelievers.” I didn’t have the time. Between Sundays, small groups, and other meetings, there was no chance that I would invite my neighbors over for dinner and get to know them. My schedule had been hijacked by the church.
Yesterday I saw this Facebook post:
“You can be a Christian without ever going to church just like you can be married without ever going home.”
In other words, to skip church is like neglecting my spouse. Ouch!
But hang on a minute. The assumption of this post is revealing. Paul calls the church the bride and Christ the groom. Look again at the post: Who is the bride? Who is the groom?
In the Facebook post, I am the bride and the local church is my spouse. But the church is not my spouse. Christ is. In that post, a human institution has replaced the living God. This is why we don’t tell people about God; we invite them to church. It’s also why every detail of church life is a sacred detail: sacred furniture, sacred services, sacred buildings, etc. The forms are sacred because they are our God.
You probably have your own gripes about church. Take it from me: there is no life in them. Griping is like scratching a mosquito bite. It satisfies for a moment but makes things worse and leaves a bloody mess. I share this list not because I enjoy focusing on what is wrong but to give you a taste of why I felt determined to find a better way.
I have come to a new understanding of the church that has given me freedom and rekindled my love of God. Perhaps it will do the same for you.
Why “Church” Is As Bad As “Hell”
In chapter 5, I showed that the word “Hell” is a misleading translation used for a wide array of images in the New Testament that describe judgment in the coming age. “Church” is a similarly misleading translation.
The word ekklesia (ek-lay-SEE-uh), just means “assembly” or “gathering.” But rather than using this straightforward translation, nearly every English translation uses the word “church.” Here is how this came about:
- About 300 A.D. The word kuriakos (κυριακός)2 which means “the Lord’s” began to be used for church buildings.
- The word kuriakos was transliterated and used in other languages (Old English Cirice, Dutch Kerk, German Kirche).
- The word entered modern English as “church.”
So “church” is a translation kuriakos which is used to translate ekkelsia. Confused? Me too.
Over the years, the word “church” picked up baggage like a snowball rolling down a mountain. It was used to describe the political entity that shared (and fought for) power with the state. It was used to refer to buildings. It was used to describe the people who gathered in the buildings. Today, when people hear the word “church” it’s hard to know what they are referring to: steeples, clergy, programs, offering plates, pews, worship bands, ushers, the religious right, Sunday services, a nonprofit organization…
The New Testament word isn’t that complicated. Ekklesia is one of several words used to describe followers of Christ. Here is a list of the most common terms along with how often they are used:
Each writer has his own preference.
- Jesus used the word ekklesia on only two occasions (Matthew 16:18; 18:17).
- “Disciple” is one of Luke’s favorite words to describe followers of Jesus.
- Paul never uses the word “disciple.”
- “Church” Paul’s favorite term for followers of Jesus
- Peter never uses the word “church.”
- Outside of Paul (65x), Acts (19x), and the letters to the churches in Revelation 2-3 (20x), the word ekklesia occurs only 8 times.
In the evangelical community, our perception that ekklesia is the sole description for followers of Jesus is a result of our focus on the letters of Paul. If we focused on the gospels, we would use the word “disciples.” It really doesn’t matter. They all describe the same thing. To illustrate, watch how naturally the word “disciples” can be substituted for the word “church:”
Christ died for the disciples
The disciples are the body of Christ.
Paul, to the disciples in Corinth…
The problem with the word “church” is that it is no longer a description of the followers of Jesus. It is a human institution with 2000 years of baggage.
I have decided to strike the word “church” from my vocabulary. I consider it a poor translation of ekklesia with so much semantic freight that it is practically useless. When I use the word “church,” the odds of a person hearing what Paul meant by ekklesia are nearly zero.
The Meaning of Ekklesia
What does ekklesia (gathering) mean in the New Testament? Here are six important emphases, all of which are muted by the word “church.”
1. Ekklesia: The Coming of the Kingdom
The first Christians saw themselves as part of a heavenly revolution to turn the world upside down. The risen Lord was the leader of this revolution and his cross was its power. They proclaimed the good news of the Kingdom. They prayed and lived, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” These people were God’s “gathering,” his ekklesia.
2. Ekklesia: There Is Only One
There is only one ekklesia in the New Testament. It has taken root throughout the world, transforming it on a grassroots level. It is referred to like this:
- The ekklesia in Corinth, or
- The ekklesia in Rome, or
- The ekklesia in someone’s home.
Can you imagine the followers of Jesus in Corinth calling their gathering “New Day“ while those in Thessalonica called theirs “Ignite“ and those in Ephesus called theirs “Victory Christian Center?” They would never have done this because they saw the ekklesia as an expression of God’s kingdom. This was much bigger than any local gathering.
An analogy is useful. There was only one American revolution. The revolutionaries would gather in Boston, Philadelphia, and someone’s home but would never think of their meetings as separate from each other. You might address a letter to the revolution in Concord or the revolution in Philadelphia but would never think of these as independent entities.
I once heard a famous pastor say that the local church is the hope of the world. The way I see it, our obsession with the local church is the downfall of God’s revolution. It takes the focus off of God’s Kingdom and puts it on our little group.
3. Ekklesia: No Org Chart
There is no organizational blueprint for the gatherings of God’s people in the New Testament. Followers of Jesus met on different days of the week in all kinds of places and encouraged each other in all kinds of ways. Paul’s letters are often taken as a blueprint. The results speaks for themselves. There are all kinds of groups structured in all kinds of ways, each claiming to follow “the New Testament model.” Clearly it’s not clear.
4. Ekklesia: A Magnetic Center
For the first four centuries there was not a “New Testament” defined as our 27 books. There was great diversity of beliefs and practices. There were no buildings. No set days to meet. No clergy. What held the church together? Christ. Did people get off course? Of course! Freedom to make mistakes is part of growth. There was confidence that God’s Spirit would guide each person to a knowledge of truth. As flexibility and freedom were replaced by dogma, people grew more orthodox and stopped growing.
5. Ekklesia: One Global Family
When you start with the middle ages and read its doctrine of heaven and hell back into the New Testament, you can’t help but see the church as “us” and the rest of the world as “them.” God is separating people into two piles: good people (us) and bad people (them). But if you believe that God’s grace works in this world, not to sort good people from bad people, but to purge the bad from all people, you begin to regard everyone as a brother or a sister. The line is not between those who are eternally damned and those who are not. The line is between those who have woken to the love and mercy of God and those who have not yet done so.
Certainly there is a distinction between those who run to God and those who run from God. To resist God’s Kingdom is to be at odds with our Maker and live in misery. We all know what that feels like. Judgment is real. Those who have woken up, received forgiveness, and joined God’s Kingdom, become a part of God’s gathering, his ekklesia. The role of the ekklesia is not to proclaim everyone else an “outsider” but to welcome them to be “insiders.”
For Jesus, this meant the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem with its dividing wall that excluded the Gentiles. For Paul it meant calling non-Jews “brothers” and “sisters.” For us it means we must stop lumping the world into the “saved” and “damned” based on whether or not they attend our institution.
6. Ekklesia: God’s Triumph Over Hades
Many people know Jesus’ famous words to Peter:
You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my ekklesia [church]; and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. (Matthew 16:18)
In this context, ekklesia has the overtone of an army. Attach this army to a human institution and you get the Crusades. Attach it to the crucified Messiah and you get the Kingdom of God.
Christ’s ekklesia will storm Hades and triumph over it. Hades was the Greek idea of a murky underworld where all people went when they died. There was lots of suffering there. Tantalus was immersed in delicious, cool water that he could never drink. Sisyphus could never roll his rock up the mountain. In Jesus’ parable, the rich man who ignored Lazarus beneath his table suffered in agony.
God’s ekklesia will trample the gates of Hades and free them all. God’s gathering will ultimately empty Hades.
What I Do Instead of Church
My new understanding results in a new way of life.
I begin with myself. I seek to live by the teachings of Jesus. I summarize these with the seven anchor points and focus on one each day. My prayer is for God’s Kingdom to come, for his will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.
But the Kingdom of God is not just about my private spirituality, as rewarding as that is. The Kingdom of God is God’s promise to transform the world. That’s why I invite others to join me. Right now, I produce nearly all of the daily devotionals. As Anchorpoint develops, I want others to share their own experience of living by Jesus’ teachings. I’m not trying to be a guru. I’m just a follower of Christ who invites others to join me. I certainly don’t think my way is the only way. It won’t fit everyone, just as the western church doesn’t fit everyone.
In my weekly podcast I dig deep and share my discoveries each week. I look forward to inviting others to be involved in this as well. I’m laying the groundwork this summer but I look forward to meeting guests with different perspectives and exploring practical issues of following Christ.
I’m also seeking to build online community. Over time, bonds of love and friendship will develop so that Anchorpoint will become a supportive community. I have just four ground rules for participants.
Since we are all at different places in our journey, we are not threatened by the fact that others see things differently than we do. We seek truth, but recognize that both God the universe are infinite.
We recognize each person as unique and accept that their life with God will be very unlike our own. We have no template for what a person should be. Instead, we encourage each person to become fully who God intends for them to be.
We treat all people with respect, trusting the Spirit of God to guide each person on their way. We do not try to fix each other and offer no unsolicited advice. We give others the freedom to go astray, trusting the great Shepherd to use even our misadventures for good.
We seek opportunities to support each other, offering prayers, encouraging words, and the gift of silent, engaged listening. We rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. We help others move forward in their journey.
One last time: I am not against the traditional church. There is much that is good in it. If you love your church, keep loving it. I am 100% for this. I share my departure from the traditional path because I believe there are thousands—maybe millions—who would love to follow Christ but can’t make themselves walk through the doors of a church. There is nothing wrong with walking through the doors of a church. But you don’t have to walk through the doors of a church to be a part of Christ’s ekklesia and I pray you won’t let the fact that you struggle with church keep you from following Christ.