Finding Church

What If There Really Is Something More?

I’m finishing up in Oklahoma City today and then headed up to Tulsa tomorrow. Arnita Taylor, one of my coauthors came up from Dallas, and we presented some of our material from A Language of Healing for a Polarized Nation (now available in audio) with a very engaged group last night.

One of the exercises we did last night was to call to mind the most polarizing person in our lives and then shared how they make us feel when we’re with them. It was eye-opening. Not one positive thing comes from the polarizing people in our lives and many disgusting things do. So, why wouldn’t we want to find a better way to relate to people than to join the polarization parade in our world?

We are continuing that training this morning and I’m really looking forward to it. But the bulk of this trip has been in conversations with people who have either been abused, maligned, or excluded by religious leaders or church systems or have spent a lifetime trying to maintain, sustain, locate, create, or facilitate a living expression of the church to varying degrees of emptiness. It has given us a lot of opportunities to talk through some of the themes from my book Finding Church. We seem to have this human need to make human versions of church and then be frustrated when they come apart at the seams. I get it. We’re only trying to do our part so that we can discover the reality of authenticity, community, and shared wisdom that the Scriptures describe when they talk about the church.

But, Scripture is not talking about the church humanity builds, but the one Jesus is building in the world.  He doesn’t build as we do. Whenever we try to help him we come up with human facsimiles of something like “church,” but it isn’t the same thing. It’s like kids making mudpies. It may look like a pie, but it doesn’t taste like one.  (Insert one of my favorite podcasts here: It’s Not Chocolate.)

I know people love the story of So You Don’t Want to Go to Church Anymore. I do, too. Imagine a first-century apostle walking through the corridors of our “churches” today and what they would think of how we have twisted the reality of a church into a human institution, and why we are so surprised when it rips us apart.  And yet, we keep feeling there is another tweak we can make that will guarantee the depth of life through human effort when only Jesus can produce it by his Spirit.

So I wrote Finding Church for those who want to go on a different journey. I poured everything I’ve learned into this book so that people who are hungry for something more, might be able to go on a bit of a different journey. Instead of trying to locate or to manufacture a ‘church’ with disappointing results, they could pursue Jesus instead and discover that community is a gift God gives. When we relax into that process, we will find that “something more” that our heart seeks. Far from disappointing us, we’ll be free to engage others as part of his body that wraps around us and extends across the whole world.

It works. I was touched by this email I received a few weeks ago from someone who is finding some freedom on this journey:

I am now working my way through Finding Church and can’t tell you how grateful I am that you put these thoughts and insights on paper!  It has been as if you are reading my mind!  When one is embroiled in the process of hungering for something more and experiencing that restlessness that says “something is wrong”, the blowback from other Christians can be staggering…as you have shared from your own experience.  I find it is a lonely and alienating experience.  At times I have felt myself to be a little crazy in refusing what many other quarters are suggesting is sufficient!

It was not until I read your words that have so mirrored my own thoughts that I began to really get traction in what the Lord was doing in my heart…thank you for blazing the trail in this arena and giving such as myself hope and direction and renewed confidence in following the heart of Jesus.  I now know what it is I feel so alienated about and have hope that as I begin to look in other quarters, the Lord will bring the right people into my path…it seems it is all in what you look for… sadly too many of us have not been looking for what Jesus has always been looking for!  I can’t wait to finish the book!  Again, thank you for your courage and for all you have endured to carve out this trail… it makes it infinitely more accessible for those of us who follow!!!

I love it when people begin to see a different reality and find their traction on a better journey. The transition is rarely easy, we have to risk the false comfort of our own efforts to begin to see his fingerprints on the church Jesus is building.

And no, people around you won’t make it easy. I got this email from Europe a week ago from someone just starting out on this part of her journey.  A young woman felt the need to leave her ‘church’ because it had become so guilt-ridden and abusive. Her friends, however, couldn’t understand her decision and kept trying to convince her that she should stay:

It struck me that the system is never questioned, only the human being. There must be something wrong with me when I leave the church—not the church. That concerns me. But it also shows how wrong and sick the whole system is. I am glad that I have now dared to take the step and hope that I can also let go of the inner structures soon. I regularly meet with friends to have fellowship, to talk, to pray, to read the Bible. It feels so much freer and better. But I’m longing for more from God. To understand his word more and to find instruction in it. To experience him more and more in my everyday life and to find my personal path with him.

Something more!  That’s what the hungry heart seeks.  Inside, they know what it would mean to have people in their lives who are authentic, humble, and growing to know Jesus. They long for the connections that let people explore who God is without having others try to force them to do it their way.  That’s why I wrote Finding Church, to encourage people to stop looking for an ‘it’ to join, instead of Jesus to follow. Do the first, and you’ll be frustrated endlessly; do the latter and you’ll find fulfillment and joy on this journey.

I’ll let the last words in Finding Church make the point here:

Wherever you find an act of self-sacrificing love, a group of people who care for one another with generosity and compassion, you’ll find his church.

Whenever you engage a conversation that illuminates the work of Jesus in your life, you’ll find his church.

However you can relax into the reality of his working, rather than trying to accomplish his work on your own, you’ll find his church.

How do you find his church? By drawing to him and seeing where love leads you. Every morning I ask him, “Whom are you asking me to love today?” Then I live with heart and eyes wide open to the people I cross paths with and those he places on my heart to contact.

Follow him there and in the end you won’t have to find his church.  He’ll make sure she finds you.

 

Three Years of FINDING CHURCH

Three years ago this month, we released Finding Church: What If There Really Is Something More? I love the way it has spread out into the world and touched so many lives, encouraging them to discover the church Jesus is building in the world. To celebrate we will be making the print version of this book available for $8.99 for the month of November at the Lifestream Store. You can also find it in e-book at Amazon and Barnes and Noble, or my reading it in audio at Audibles.com and iTunes.

If you haven’t had the chance to read it, or have but would like a refresher, here are some of the quotes that capture the themes of most chapters:

Jesus’ church is not a human creation. Rather, it is the fruit of the relationships of those who are part of a new creation—the redeemed race of humanity that relates to him as the head… It’s just that our conformity-based structures cannot produce the internal transformation necessary for the church to take shape among us.

Our way of organizing congregations in the twenty-first century has little in Scripture to commend it. We spend more time making the Scriptures fit our preconceived view of church, rather than deriving our understanding of church from the Scriptures themselves.

Our view of “church life” today has far more to do with institutional identity, meetings, rituals, ethics, and doctrines than demonstrating what a community of Godly love looks like. From that foundation, it is difficult to find our way into the reality of Christ’s church. Maybe he didn’t talk so much about the church because it was not the means to his end. What if he knew it was simply the fruit of his working and that it takes shape quite easily wherever people learn to follow him?

When that longing surfaces either as a hunger for something more real, or as a restlessness that something is wrong, it presents us with a critical moment of choice. Do I stick to the comfort of what I’ve always known or take the risk to follow my heart into a more undefined place? Unfortunately most people will encourage you to suppress your hunger. I’ve talked to hundreds of church leaders who have had similar moments of being pulled between what Scripture invited them to and what they have to do to keep their institutional position. Many have told me they would love to embrace a different reality but can’t figure out how to make it work. With sad and heavy eyes, they’ve turned to me, “I’ve decided just to make the best of what I already have.”

I did that, too, for way too many years, settling into a comfortable, though often lifeless, regimen and ignoring the deeper call of my heart. There were always enough breadcrumbs in the routine to give me enough hope that if we could just find the right alignment all would be well. For a long time I thought it was my fault, knowing how lazy I could be as well as the temptations and motivations that rumbled just beneath the surface. I kept trying harder to be a better person. As genuine as that may seem it always proved a side road back into the swamp of failed self-effort and frustration.

Can you imagine the kind of community that would be unleashed on the world if the people in it were more preoccupied with the realities of Jesus’ kingdom—faith, hope, and love—than they were with their own provision, significance, and power? It would be amazing but it is not something human effort can produce. Our response to the appetites of the flesh and our passion for his kingdom are more visceral. Healing does not come by knowing better and trying harder.

Those growing in a relationship with Jesus, however, don’t share the same angst. They realize the structures of this world cannot accomplish the work of the kingdom and that Jesus’ reality supersedes the things that are valued in this age. Trusting God for their resource, they don’t have to manipulate people for money. Resting in God’s acceptance of their lives, they don’t look for their validation by what others think or say. And, knowing that Jesus gets the last word on everything, they see no need to claim power over others.

This is his to win, not ours to find. I have been winning my granddaughter into my love for nine years now. I didn’t expect her to figure it out on her own or to trust me because I told her so. I convince her by how I treat her. It may be God’s greatest joy to win people into his affection, no less for you than a woman at a well, a greedy tax collector in a tree, or a terrified fisherman who had betrayed him. Love reaches out to the beloved and seeks to win them into a relationship. That’s what courtship is about and hopefully marriage, too. Every day presents more opportunity to win a heart, even if it takes a lifetime.

It may be what John referred to when he said, “We know and rely on the love God has for us.” (I John 4:16) Some translations draw out a deeper meaning: “We have come to know . . . ,” indicating a process. So often our confidence in his love is thwarted by our fears and doubts and circumstances we don’t understand. I love the picture of an older John rejoicing that at last he had “come to know” and “come to rely” on the love God had for him.

I am continually amazed at the places my growing confidence in Father’s love leads me. How great can it grow? I don’t know, but I look forward to each day to discover what new freedom overtakes me and how that leads to treating others differently. Three words help me recognize God’s gravity that replaces the pressures of the world: compassion, trust, and rest. As these emerge from our growing relationship with God, we’ll find it easier to cooperate with God’s working. They are the headwaters that allow us to join the flow of his church.

In the old creation, people tend to be more self-focused: trying to be loved, rather than loving. They are more preoccupied with meetings and activities than they are with sharing friendship. The relationships they do have are mostly task-based, and only last as long as they are working or meeting together. The family way, however, encourages friendships to flourish because people enjoy being together and genuinely care about one another. They share laughter even through difficult circumstances. They serve one another in times of need, and that even extends to strangers in need who cross their paths.

God never intended for us to live in such conflict and isolation. His desire has always been for a world where genuine affection and concern for others replace our selfish ambition. From the beginning it has been his purpose to bring everything that sin separated, including heaven and earth, into one glorious, new whole. He wasn’t the author of conflict or violence, but the one seeking to rescue the creation from its brokenness. His plan was to bring “everything together under Jesus himself.” (Ephesians 1:9-10) Where does that begin? Inside each and every human heart that allows him to begin to untwist the powers of self and shame so that we no longer fall victim to our insecurities. Where we trust his unfolding purpose we will no longer fight for our own, and when his desires become ours we’ll find a growing unity with others who are also living in that new creation. This is the community our hearts long for, a society that lives outside the human need to manage power.

But his temple keeps rising. Each added person only reflects his multifaceted glory with more accuracy and will confound the wisdom of the world by the power of its love and the simplicity of its life. Wherever people are learning to live in his love and love others, the temple rises. Whenever people learn to listen to him instead of the manipulative voices of religious leaders, the temple rises. However people find ways to work together by laying their lives down in kindness and generosity, the temple rises.

In fact, making attendance an obligation may already demonstrate that we’ve lost the vitality of real community and have become mired in mundane rituals, demands for conformity, or internal conflicts that alienate people. Jesus talked about his kingdom being a pearl of great price. If people saw its reality, they would give up anything to be part of it. Living in him and sharing that life with others isn’t drudgery. It fulfills the deepest longings of the human heart.

Everything good does not require a commitment to do what we dislike, but to the simple joy of embracing what we truly love. Obligation presumes that our desires are despicable and lauds those who give up their desires to choose painful tasks for God. But what if your deepest desires are Godly?   If he wants your joy to be full then he knows best how to fulfill you. What God identifies as sin are the desires that don’t really belong to us. They have been twisted to offer us immediate gratification or false security, while they lead us down a road to certain destruction— spiritually, relationally, and even physically.

The signal of church life is not easily found in large meetings of like-minded people, but in the engagements of growing friendships. Success is measured not by the size of the group but by the quality of relationships. Instead of complicating people’s time with meetings and commitments, real church life is more readily experienced with authentic friendships in informal settings that don’t require large resources to drive centralized programs.

You can’t share life with hundreds of people sitting in a managed group. You can share a cause, a task even, but relationships won’t grow for the lack of time and energy to explore them. Isn’t that why people feel so disconnected in large congregations and complain that the relationships they do have remain superficial?

A cursory view of history makes it clear that a hierarchy of human leadership does more to disfigure the church than it does to protect it. Perhaps the severest price we’ve paid for doing so is that we no longer see authority resting in Jesus but in the institutions we have created by our own hand—perhaps not so dissimilar from the idols crafted in ancient Israel to replace the God they could not see.

When people who are on a spiritual journey get near each other, the church takes expression. He had no idea what simple joy and life could come out of being together and how fruitful it would be, not only for that week but also for years to come because of the new friendships that were formed. I’ve had the joy of watching a web of relationships grow around the world and see how those connections enrich Christ’s work and allow us to see him more fully.

For that to continue, however, we all have to resist the temptation to throw a structure around it and start monthly, quarterly, or yearly meetings. By doing so we sow the seeds for a new faction in the family and seriously damage the spontaneity of his work by putting a human agenda to it. As excited as I was to be part of this Wicklow gathering a few years ago, I was thrilled that at its end no one pressed to make it a yearly event or formalize a network. There have been other gatherings in other places as people felt inspired to plan and host them, but there has been no attempt to get the same people together at the same place. In fact many on this journey have a hesitation to repeat anything only because it was wonderful the first time, given our propensity to value routine over reality. Tradition is the attempt to get God to repeat something he did once, again and again to the same results. But the breath of the Spirit is too unique for such attempts and we only end up capturing ourselves in routines long after he has moved on.

The power of the church lies in the unity they find together—men and women loving and working together wholeheartedly because they have found their life and joy in him instead of their own preferences and ideas. How could any conformity-based system produce this unity when people are following the expectations of others rather than living out of an ever-expanding heart?   Without that, real unity cannot exist. (p. 154)

Jesus didn’t pray for conformity, but a unity that can only arise out of lives transformed by his glory. The answer to this prayer fulfills God’s passion in the earth and by it the world will know that the Father loves us as much as he loves his Jesus. When people out of diverse backgrounds come to complete unity of heart, purpose, and focus, God is unveiled in a way nothing else can accomplish. (p. 155)

That’s why the term leadership is difficult to use inside the new creation. People see it as a management role instead of a gift to help others. So when Paul wrote about elders, overseers, or ministry gifts, he’s talking about those who help others mature, not those who manage institutions. And when we take the words of Hebrews to “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority,” (13:17) and apply them to old creation constructs, we get distorted views of leadership and end up seeking out the wrong people to lead. How often has this Scripture been used by so-called leaders to great harm as a divine sanction for whatever power they wanted to hold over others? Rather than demanding unquestioned submission, the writer was simply appealing to the younger ones to not make it difficult for their older brothers and sisters to help them grow.

So while a local congregation in and of itself cannot fulfill all that Paul promised us about the church Jesus is building, it can be a place where people discover his reality and engage in the kinds of relationships in which his church takes expression. It’s often where people go when they first open to God, and if the teaching is sound, it can provide them with the foundation for a spiritual journey. Corporate expressions of praise and adoration can provide a place for people to engage the transcendent God and opportunities for fellowship can open a door to friendships that can last a lifetime.

However, we’d be less than honest not to wrestle with the fact that their institutional frameworks are remnants of an old creation and thus their priorities are often at odds with the priorities of the new. So while they can facilitate the writing of the creeds to define critical points of theology, an overdependence on them can easily rob people of partaking of God’s mystery as he makes himself known in the course of their daily lives.

You will find the church easiest when you stop looking for an “it,” and simply love the people God has put around you. Start with growing friendships instead of trying to find a group to join. It was no accident that the church began at Pentecost without any strategy or preconceived notion of what it would look like. They weren’t told to start Sunday services or have midweek home groups. They simply did what their new experience with the Gospel and their engagement with his Spirit led them to do. Learn to follow him and then engage others around you with the reality of his kingdom and watch how that bears fruit.

Yes, there is a vast pasture of God’s life and provision to be explored beyond the conformity of our institutions. It is a risk, to be sure, but one with incredible rewards. Perhaps the biggest change is that it forces people to move from being a passive part in someone else’s machine, to someone who actively participates in his unfolding kingdom.  You don’t get to follow someone else’s instructions anymore, but instead you have to be more intentional in all aspects of connecting with him and his church.

But those are the sheep I want to romp with in the Father’s care. What can happen out of that simple reality could set a world on fire, just like it did the first time.

Do We Really Believe He Can Do It?

The Incarnation demonstrated that our fear of God was a perception on our part, rather than what God wanted or deserved. Jesus was among humanity and no one ran away in terror. What God had lost in Eden, he was finding again—a home among his Creation.

The temples, cathedrals, and even our “church” buildings represent the opposite of that reality. They were designed to create a sacred space that would elevate God beyond human engagement, to leave us feeling insignificant in his eyes instead of empowering us to draw near to him in confidence. The Incarnation proved that God wanted to inhabit all of life with us and make our homes, workplaces, and recreation sacred because he would be with us in them.

That was Stephen’s point when he declared to the mob ready to kill him, “The Most High does not live in houses made by men.” (Acts 7:48) Perhaps nothing is more scandalous about the Incarnation than that the holy God could live joyfully among broken humanity, and nothing more amazing about the New Covenant than that God wanted to take up residence in the human heart. Jesus never wanted an opulent building to be the enduring image of his church. He wanted a living temple made up of men and women from all over the world who have abandoned their agendas to embrace his.

“In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.” (Ephesians 2:19-22)  This is no physical building that Paul describes; it’s just the metaphor. For the first three hundred years of the church’s existence, no one thought of the church as a building and no one thought to build one. His temple is alive, beginning in an individual’s heart and then knit into a worldwide network of interconnected lives whose very relationships put on display the glory of the Lord. There’s no way human effort can build that, and all our attempts have fallen woefully short.

This is a long-running theme in Scripture. God wants to invite us into his reality and we keep trying to create our own for him. It started in a garden with Adam and Eve’s desire for knowledge apart from their relationship with him. It continued when Israel wanted a king rather than to trust God to lead them. Whenever they were under threat they counted horses and chariots to measure their chances in battle, unable to believe that God with them was greater than all the resources they could muster. Now the focus is on the church, and whether or not we truly believe it is something only Jesus can build.

 


The above is taken from Chapter 12 of Finding Church:  “Not Made With Hands.”  This past weekend I spent time in Maryland with a larger group of people who had read and studied Finding Church and wanted to explore its themes with me. Over our two day together we meandered through some lovely discussions about God and his life among us. It was the final leg on an east-coast swing that began in Boston and ended in Baltimore. Over those 11 days I saw people from all over the spectrum of people learning to follow Jesus as a real person in the universe. Some were just starting, still questioning the religious obligation they had been raised to serve, others were much further down the road finding great freedom and joy in their life with him.

I find other people’s journey into this reality so inspirational. So many are navigating some painful and challenging circumstances with Jesus as a practical presence dwelling in them giving them hope and direction day by day. Some are attending more traditional congregations and others have long ago left them to find fellowship and mission in the world beyond them.  Every time I travel I am deeply touched by the people God allows me to know in the world and the joy of helping people see a bit more clearly where Jesus might be leading them, rather than where religious rules and approval might drive them.

For all of us the joy of this journey is found in a growing trust in Jesus’ ability to work in us and to build his church in the world. Those who battle misery the most think they have to figure it all out and do by human effort what only he can do. Of course that will only lead to frustration and futility. The more we know we’re loved, the freer we will be to trust. These are not activities we have to find our way into. These are the realities he wants to win us into. As long as we’re stuck on trying to get God to do what we think best, trust will not grow in us. But where we begin to see that God is good and will do what is right, we can begin to recognize his whispers and fingerprints that draw us into so magnificent a love.  And in that love, we know that God is for us and and is working in us even though we be walking through dark and uncertain circumstances.

It is my most passionate prayer for others. That they will stop looking at this life of Jesus as a religion they have to figure out, and learn to recognize him in the way he is working in and around them.  Find that he you will be steadily won into his love, and into the trust that his ways are best even when we don’t understand them.

With him, there is nothing we can’t face, no challenge we can’t endure, and no circumstance that can destroy us.

Finding Church is available from Lifestream in printed form or by audio (with me reading) from iTunes and Audibles.  It is also available in FrenchGermanDutch, and in Spanish as Encontrando a la Iglesia in free PDF Download.

FINDING CHURCH Book Discussion Beginning

For those who would like to join me for a book discussion about my latest book, Finding Church, we are beginning that discussion today. If you haven’t purchased the book yet, you can do so from us or from Amazon, or download the e-book or audio versions. It is also available in German and in Spanish.  Just click on the link above for all the options to secure the book.

I’m excited to work through this book with those who want to and see if we can’t help you recognize how Jesus is building his church around you and how he wants you to participate in her life.  We begin with chapter 1 and take about two weeks to explore each chapter as we work through the entire book.  There will be questions to explore as well as the opportunity to ask me anything you’d like to ask from various chapters.

You can find the forum here.  You may read entries without registering, but to participate in the forum you will need to sing-in.  Grab a cup of coffee, or a cold drink and come join us every week or two and let’s explore the book together.

Please sign in and introduce yourself in the Introductions category and then start on Chapter 1 and share what caused you to begin to hunger for something more? If you have other topic ideas or threads, you can suggest them in the “Question for Wayne” topic.  I’m looking forward to working through this book again and sharing that process with some of you.