A Thrival Guide for Those Who Find Themselves Outside of Conventional Congregations
According to the latest research people are leaving the local church congregation in droves. Many do so questioning whether God even exists, but many others continue to passionately follow Jesus convinced that the institution they belonged to was at odds with the spiritual passion growing in their heart. They may not have even understood why, but something inside continued to draw them toward a more authentic relationship with Jesus and a freer environment to share his life and love with others.
Many who have given up on the traditional congregation were once leaders, volunteers, and major contributors. They grew weary of the programs and expectations that neither encouraged their journey nor cultivated the kind of community they sought. Leaving is never easy and most do it only when other options are exhausted.
Finding yourself outside the congregational model can be incredibly disorienting for a season. Family and former friends question your faith or make you feel guilty with accusations of bitterness or selfishness. All the markers you used to gauge your spiritual health no longer make sense. Some question their own sanity and even more so as they are increasingly isolated from the only friends they’ve ever had.
If you’ve left your congregation for similar reasons, what do you do now? As I’ve watched people go through this transition the ones who navigate it most freely begin to embrace a different set of realities, which not only allow them to survive outside a local congregation, but actually thrive in learning to follow him, in sharing fellowship with others, and in being part of God’s purpose in the world.
First, take your time. You’ve been invited on an amazing journey that will take years to sort out. Many people rush to join another congregation or start their own house group to fill the void but only end up recreating what they had left. Resist the urge to find another group right away or create one. This is a season to draw closer to God and let him fill the void. There will be time for more connections later when it’s not a response to a driven need, but a freedom to embrace the gift of community that God wants to give you.
Second, don’t force your journey on others. You don’t have to tell people, “I’ve left the church” or judge as less spiritual those who still go. This isn’t about judging others or making outlandish conclusions about the future you can’t begin to sort out yet. Simply follow Jesus however he leads you and be gently honest with those who ask you why you’re not doing the things you used to. Remember, you’re the one whose changed here, they are just doing the things you’ve always done, believing they are obligated to do so. They will be threatened by the change you’re making, and you can help disarm that by letting them have their own journey. Don’t try to change them, or to fix them. You can’t until the Spirit awakens the same hunger in them that he has in you.
Third, lose your need to be validated by others. Religion works by establishing a set of expectations and rewarding those who conform and punishing those who do not. The greatest freedom in this journey is to let Jesus to break that cycle so that you can find your identity in his love for you. Trying to convince others how right you are will only harden them and destroy your friendship with them. Trying to justify yourself will not allow you to love others nor will it lead you to the freedom from the tyranny of other people’s opinions of you. Be gracious to all and let his affirmation of your life and experience be all the validation you need.
Fourth, learn the beauty and rhythms of love. Following ritual and rules that others demand of you is still following law, even if we call them “New Testament principles.” God doesn’t transform us through obligation or meeting the expectations of others. The reason why many of us grew frustrated in religious settings is because they made promises to us they couldn’t fulfill. The harder we tried the emptier we felt. God has been inviting you to live in a new creation where his love transforms us in the deepest part of our soul. Over this season you’ll learn to see through the manipulation of obligation, accountability, guilt, and fear and into a different rhythm that will allow you to live more at rest, aware of others, and free from the pressures of this age. Instead of doing what others think you should do, you’ll be freer to discern his work in you and find yourself embracing the realities of grace, forgiveness, freedom, and generosity. It all begins as you ask him to show you how deeply loved by God you are, then let him show you. This is the trailhead that will lead you to greater freedom and fullness.
Fifth, watch your trust in him grow. Many are surprised to discover how much of their religious life was driven by fear—of God punishing them, of going astray, of what others will think, or of failure. As you are more in touch with his love and delight in you, even when you’re struggling or doubting, you’ll find that your trust in his goodness will begin to grow. You’ll realize he’s for you, not against you and that your own efforts were never going to produce his life in you. Now you’ll discover the joy of cooperating with his work in you and find yourself more relaxed, more aware of his nudges and insight, and less inclined toward destructive and hurtful actions. When Paul talked about the righteousness that comes from trust, this is what he was talking about. Where we trust him we won’t try to save ourselves or force our way. Now we can know what it is to be content in him whatever life brings to us because he is walking with us through it.
Sixth, cultivate friendships with others. God’s love working in you will free you to love each person God puts in front of you. Take an interest in them, whether they already know God or not, and watch as they begin to pen up with their concerns, struggles, and joys. Look for ways to encourage them as God gives you insight to do so. Get to know people you already know from work, school, or your neighborhood. Contact people in your address book and take them out to lunch. Where the relationship becomes relaxed, authentic and mutual, make time for those friendships to grow so his community can take shape around you.
Seventh, let God expand your view of his church. Most people think of the church as a specific group or meeting at a set time and place and if you’re not there you are not part of his church. They are made to feel guilty and isolated as others withdraw from them. It’s easy to feel as if you’re the only one weary of the religious institution. But you’re not. The latest research shows you are one in about 31 million adults in America who do not belong a local congregation but are still actively looking to follow Christ, which is about the same number of people who do belong. That means one in every seven adults are on a similar journey to yours and there are 7 million who are “almost dones” who still attend but are there in body only. Does that mean the church is failing? Only if we look at our human attempts to manage it. What you’ll discover is that Jesus’ church was never meant to be an institution, but a growing family who are learning to walk with him and who are learning to share his life and love with others. Real community flows from friendships not meetings, which is why Jesus spent time with the people in his life in more informal settings. As we come to see his church as a reality outside of human control, then you can embrace her reality however she takes shape in the relationships and connections around you.
Learning to live in his freedom and joy is the fruit of a process that takes a significant period of time in our lives. Don’t rush the process. Learn to embrace him and relax in the process and you will discover that “something more” that your heart has been seeking. You’ll find yourself in meaningful conversations that will deepen your own faith and encourage others to find more reality in theirs.
It is my hope that those who are done with religious institutions, don’t go off and create their own, but learn to live differently in the world and then be able to see the church Jesus is building taking shape right around them.
- Part 1: The Secret Is Out
- Part 2: The Labels that Divide Us
- Part 3: Why People are leaving
- Part 4: Stupid Things Said In the Name of Jesus
- Part 4: Church Refugrees Could be a Game Changer
- Part 5: I’m looking for 35 Million People