Last week I got into a bit of an email exchange with someone reading the first book I published so very long ago:
Tim: I’m reading the Naked church it’s probably an old unedited version because I printed it free off of one of your sites, and it’s in a three-ring binder large print. But it’s really hitting home where I’m at today and the people that I am encountering. I just wanted to say I’m glad you wrote it
Me: I still love much that is in that book. It’s just that so many illustrations in it are incredibly dated. But the lessons and passions in it were vital in my journey and still are! Thank you for taking the time to let me know how it is touching you.
Tim: I feel you did a fine job of stripping down the egos of title hungry men. I remember gaining a lot of insight into this years ago. It’s actually caused me to question all authority. I no longer respect the authority I once did as I see it all as a plot for power and control over others.
Me: Sadly, it often is, especially if they are building an institution or a “following” off of it. Look for those who are simply serving another person, helping them find the life in Jesus that’s real and abiding.
Tim: Easier said than done. The love of many has grown ice-cold.
Me: True, but the Spirit knows, and he can show you when you might need someone. But for the most part, you won’t. The Spirit in you will guide you.
Tim: I know that’s true I’ve been going solo for several years. But even if I die, I may never find the true expression of the church.
Me: Don’t think of a “thing;” think of the people around you that you could share the life of Jesus with. It isn’t an organization, and it’s not because people believe exactly the same things, but it is people in various stages of this journey learning to love each other and let Jesus take expression in them.
This exchange caused me to go back and retake a look at this book, reliving that part of my journey. The version of The Naked Churchon the left was the original cover published in 1987. I loved the stark black and white against the purple and red. The paragraph below reads, “Are you confused? Burned out? Devastated by the state of the church? The simple truth of God’s Word can restore your faith in Christ.” Yes, I would say that differently today, as you’ll note on the third book cover.
So, why are there three book covers here? Well, my first book sold rather poorly, but the publisher felt like perhaps the title had been too negative to connect with its audience. It was republished two years later as A Passion for God’s Presence. It was the same book inside, with a more positive approach on the outside. It didn’t sell much better, though both of those books found their way into the hands of some pretty amazing people all over the world, who have continued to share this journey with me.
After my journey took a significant turn in the mid-1990s, I kept getting requests for the book since it was then out of print. So, I went through it again, revised it, and republished it under the original title with a purple cover. In the original book, a lot of my answers were systemic in nature. But having lived through the implosion of that system, I knew its frailties all the better. To republish it, I needed to tell more of the story, update some of its references, and offer a different set of answers that I was only beginning to live.
Over the last few days, I read through it yet again, and my heart was touched by the same motives that caused me to write it the first time. I’m still that guy—still hungry for God’s reality, still willing to take the road less traveled, and I can say unequivocally that it has been worth every pain I’ve suffered in this journey. I have found God to be as real as I always hoped he might be, and relationships with others around the world that express what I always hoped church life could be. It all turned out so very different than I had imagined, but far more exciting and transformative than I could have conceived back then. That’s why I don’t recommend this book anymore unless people want to understand my journey better. No, I’m not going to rewrite it yet again. It will remain as a snapshot in time. Finding Church does a much better job unpacking how I see the church clothed in his glory and how others can find her too.
But I still love the primary illustration of that book. It is drawn from Jesus’ words to the Laodicean church: “You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked,” I combined that with the Hans Christian Anderson’s tale of The Emperor’s New Clothes, where the Emperor is duped into buying imaginary clothes. He’s told that only people who are unfit for the jobs can’t see them. So, of course, the Emperor thinks he must be incompetent and pretends to admire them. So does everyone else, afraid they’d be exposed as unfit for their service. Eventually, he parades naked through the capital, convinced he’s wearing the most exquisite clothes.
Let’s pick up from what I wrote over 33 years ago:
In the middle of the Emperor’s parade, a little child whispered what had been evident to everyone else: “But he hasn’t got anything on.”
The awkward moment that followed was brief. The townspeople knew he was right. The Emperor knew he was right. In a split second, they had to choose between the illusion they had embraced and the reality that would set them free.
Rather than ask for a real coat, however, in which he could cover his nakedness, the Emperor only pulled his imaginary robes about him and continued the pretense. For the Emperor to accept his nakedness, he had to admit to having been swindled. He couldn’t do that.
I can imagine the townspeople quickly scanning the crowd to see if anyone else would own up to what they all saw so clearly. If anyone had been brave enough, they might all have jumped in. But the risk of being thought stupid by their neighbors was too overwhelming. The moment of revelation passed quickly, and soon they were again applauding the illusion.
And I love the passions in this original book. As misguided as my answers might have been, I find those same hungers are alive in my heart today. These are the motivations that invited me away from everything I had ever known and into a kingdom that has fascinated me ever since.
Here’s one last excerpt from that book:
Anyone who does not gush with admiration for church institutions and activities today is accused of being arrogant, rebellious, or judgmental. That’s our modern equivalent of being stupid or unfit. So, even though our Christian experience feels empty, we think we’re the only ones to feel that way. To admit this is unthinkable, so we rationalize those nagging thoughts that tell us this can’t be what God had in mind. After all, there is always more to be gained by exploiting a system than there is by exposing it.
Today we are so impressed by our own efforts that through endless hours of talk shows and endless pages of fund-raising letters, we congratulate ourselves: “Look how much we’re doing for Jesus!” When we believe this thought, the trap is fully sprung. Our visions of a powerful and relevant church, with love enough for all and selfless sacrifice for God’s kingdom, are filed away under the heading “Too Idealistic.” We settle for the status quo as if it were all God intended—like a baby crocodile born in the zoo pond.
I’m outside the pond now and enjoying the wild where Jesus is ever-more real, and life makes so much more sense, both in the fallen world where I live and in the Kingdom, which has overrun it all. Don’t be afraid to take the road less traveled. Don’t be frightened when others reject the conclusions you come to and seek to exclude you from their company. Jesus is the Head of his Church and gathers his sheep how he sees fit when they are willing to follow him, however he might lead them. She’s growing in the world with immense beauty, infiltrating every nook and cranny of the world without drawing attention to herself.
Stop making excuses. Follow the hungers God has put in your heart, even if it appears you’re going it alone for awhile.
In time, you’ll find yourself living in the increasing fulfillment of his glory.
You’ll never regret it.