An Open Letter to Tim Stafford
In the current issue of Christianity Today, author Tim Stafford in an article entitled The Church—Why Bother, states, “There is no healthy relationship with Jesus without a relationship to the church.” Here is my response to that article.
Could I invite you to take a walk with me? There are some people I’d like you to meet that might help you rethink your recent article. And you can pick the destination, because just about anywhere you want to go I could find some brothers and sisters your article adresses. I could introduce you to Kevin and Val in Australia, John and Mary in New Zealand, Paul and Kim in Portland, David and Nina in Ireland, Stan and Mavis in England, Jack and Nancy in Maine, David and Rachel in California and hundreds more I know around the globe.
If you’d take a moment to sit down with them you’ll discover they’re part of this 23 million people who claim to know Jesus but do not attend a Sunday morning service. I have no doubt you would have the time of your life fellowshipping with them. Their faith is powerful and real. They are experiencing a transformation in God’s grace that they never found in an institution and they demonstrate a passionate commitment to the church of Jesus Christ that any Sunday service couldn’t begin to let them express.
At one time these were all full-time pastors or leaders, developing successful congregations in any outward sense you’d care to measure. But in time they grew unsettled with lack of spiritual growth and healthy relationships that congregational life produced. Attempts at renewal either fell on deaf ears or never fulfilled the passion on their heart. They began to wonder if the institutional dynamics and cumbersome ritual wasn’t undermining that passion. They all left it years ago after decades of trying to make it better, and they have never looked back.
All of them lost confidence in the congregational system to bring people into the fullness of what it means to love God and live in supportive relationships with other believers. None of them left it easily and they hold no ill will toward those who still find help and comfort in those institutions you recognize as church. They affirm the body of Christ in whatever expression he chooses to make himself known, whether it is a service in a building or an informal group gathered in a home. And if you want to add to them former elders, Sunday school teachers, deacons and committed parishioners the number would swell well into the thousands. And that’s just the people I know.
Not all who have forsaken their connections with the institutional church have done it out of laziness, selfishness or independence. These didn’t leave in abandonment of their faith, but as the only thing they could see to do to continue living the reality of their faith. In all my years in institutional congregations I’ve never seen people more active in spiritual growth, more willing to lay down their lives to serve others and more free to live as the body of Christ all week long rather than confining it to a meeting or two each week.
What many of us have found on the outside offers more connection, more transformation, more opportunities for ministry than we ever found inside. Does it ever bother you that if Jesus wanted us to be part of these institutions with morning services, he did nothing in the Gospels to prepare his disciples for it? On the contrary his example and words were far more de-centralized than that. Love each other as you’ve been loved. Where two or three of you get together I’ll be there with you. He didn’t envision church as a building, an institution or a service. He viewed it as a company of people following him, sharing his life with each other and serving the world with compassion and humility. For the first 300 years in the life of the church believers met in homes and would never have conceived of the Lord’s Supper being served any where other than the family table?
I know our Christian institutions are fading and the last thing they want anyone to believe is that we can flourish in the life of Jesus and in real connections with other believers outside its influence. But I’m afraid the tide has turned. People are beginning to awaken to a reality of God’s life together that cannot be contained by any institution. Those who claim otherwise sound like bankers in the 1920s trying to assure people their money was safe inside so they won’t all try to withdraw it and find out otherwise.
In the end we would all agree with you that growth in Christ and mission to the world are greatly stilted without vital connections to the church of Jesus Christ. We would just define the term ‘church’ differently. We’ve found that connection to be far more real and effective in ever-deepening relationships with fellow believers than in sitting in a pew, contributing time and money to a program that less and less reflects the kingdom realities that Jesus taught.
And we would take exception to your conclusion that, “A living, breathing congregation is the only place to live in a healthy relationship to God. That is because it is the only place on earth where Jesus has chosen to dwell.” We have found that he does not dwell in buildings made with hands, but lives first and foremost in the human heart at every moment and in every corner of our lives. Our relationships with other believers isn’t a substitute or that presence, only a fuller expression of it.
Your brother and fellow-pilgrim,