The Real Question

By Wayne Jacobsen
BodyLife • March 2006

As I travel among the body of Christ one of the questions I am asked the most is, what do I see Jesus doing in his church today? Am I excited or discouraged by what I see?

Before I answer that here, let me admit at the outset that my vantage point is in some ways incredibly blessed and in other ways severely limited. While better traveled than most, perhaps, there is much I don’t see and certainly my teachings, writings and web postings put me in touch believers who have a specific kind of passion. But I do get to sit down fairly often with some of the most incredible followers of Christ on the planet – those who are experiencing a depth of relationship with him that is transforming how they live in the world. Many of those had been in ‘positions of ministry’ at some point, but found themselves unable to fit into the religious landscape that proved insufficient for their hungers even though few others could validate their passion or obedience.

From this vantage point I am incredibly thrilled with what I see God doing to draw people to himself in our day. This Church all over the world is rising to become a people in whom God dwells, a bride without spot or wrinkle. That doesn’t mean she’s perfect, but her passion for the groom is growing to outweigh her desire for convenience or comfort in the culture. In that regard, these are the most exciting days of my lifetime as God’s glory is becoming increasingly visible in the earth.

I can say that because I don’t see the church as the sum of all the Christian institutions that dot our world. If I did, my conclusions wouldn’t be nearly so positive. Many of those institutions are preoccupied with the wrong priorities (money, size and political power), divided by their own preferences (of doctrine, music styles or allegiance to a human leader) and fail to help people discover how to live deeply in Father’s love and grow in trusting him.

I see the church as the sum of all the people in the world who are coming to know God as Father, Jesus as Lord, and are learning to live in the power of his Spirit. At no other time in my life have I met so many people really living the life even at great cost. They follow him even when others accuse them of being selfish or rebellious. They are sorting through their deepest doubts and disappointments to find out just who this God really is and how they can fulfill the purpose he has in putting them on the planet. This is an exciting day to be a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ.

An Unhealthy Divide

George Barna, a noted religious statistician published his latest book, Revolution, in September 2005, which notes that 30% of committed believers today are no longer attached to a traditional congregation. If the same demographic trends continue, he says, in 20 years 70% of committed believers will no longer be attached to a traditional congregation. And while some would look at that as a great tragedy, Barna asserts that many of those people have not left established congregations to abandon their faith or even the body of Christ. They have left because the institutions didn’t fulfill their spiritual hunger and wasted too much of their time and energy in programs and activities that did little to promote a deeper dependence on Christ or healthy relationships among believers.

To no one’s surprise this book started a fire storm. The largest evangelical magazine, Christianity Today and the largest Charismatic magazine, Charisma, both resoundingly attacked the book. And to do so they both had to distort its message. The truth is people are leaving organized religion in droves because it has not satisfied the cry of their heart to know the Living God. These are not by and large angry, independent believers who live isolated lives, but those who live out their relationship with God and their relationships with the body in more informal, relational gatherings in homes, neighborhoods and businesses. According to Barna, these believers often have a more Biblical worldview, live out a passionate devotion to Christ, deep relationships with other believers and are generous in giving to extend the kingdom around the world.

Yes, I can understand why those who still value the congregational model would be threatened with such conclusions. And certainly Barna didn’t help anyone by labeling them ‘Revolutionaries’ and making others feel excluded from their spiritual passions and hungers. The resulting anguish (and sometimes anger) between those who participate in traditional congregations and those who do not, will not serve the kingdom well. At a time when we most need a conversation between all of those who are living under Father that will help identify his hand in our age, we are pulling apart once again – this time fractionalized by how we ‘do church.’ Can you imagine what grief this brings to our Father?

I know how passionate people can be when they leave an abusive congregation, or even one that sucked out their spiritual passion with religious activities that did little to help them live the life Father wanted for them. And I know how threatening it can be for those who still embrace the congregational form as the only God-given expression of the body of Christ, to see people walk away and talk as if it is unnecessary at best and harmful at worst.

But let’s be real about it. Spontaneously and simultaneously believers all over the world are rethinking what it means to live in the life of Jesus and how the body of Christ takes expression in our world. They have wearied of religious systems that permeates much of our congregational life and are looking for more effective alternatives. It’s not enough to simply say that Hebrews 10:25 requires all committed Christians to be in attendance on Sunday morning in one of the institutions called ‘church’. They know better. ‘Assembling together’ is not a matter of attendance at a meeting, but the joining of lives in a common journey.

Many of those are still in systems their heart no longer supports, and they too yearn for a deeper reality to their spiritual life and a revival in church life. In these days we have far more to gain by keeping the lines of communication open between us all rather than by dividing up sides and rejecting those who disagree with us.

In the last two months I have been with two different traditional congregations while I was in the midst of also visiting people who have spilled outside of such things. I find the same passion in both places. There are people in both places seeking to know him and are asking similar questions as to how they can live that out in their daily lives. It would do us well to remember that not all congregations are like the one you last attended.


Why We’re Not There

As Barna has documented and my email confirms, many people have grown weary of a religious system that on net balance has become more of a distraction to their walk with Christ than an aid to it. I know that is hard for people to hear who find the opposite to be true. Keep reading, your section is coming!

Why are so many Christians growing disillusioned with the congregational experience? There are many reasons. Here are some I’ve heard over and over:

  •    We’re bored. Sitting through the same tired ritual every week, or listening to the same voice has dulled our spiritual passions rather than excited them.
  •    We felt disconnected. Sitting in rooms full of strangers on Sunday morning watching the same stage does not build the relationships among believers we desire.
  •    We are tired of seeing people blasted with guilt and religious obligation. While it may press people to conform to the needs of the institution, it only distances them from a Father who loves them more than they know.
  •    We got sick of the political games played behind the scenes to serve someone’s ego or put institutional priorities above the purpose of Jesus.
  •    Some of us didn’t leave, we were pushed aside by those who disliked the questions we raised, the clothes we wore or the truths we struggled with.
  •    We found that they reinforced the wrong things, encouraging us to pretend instead of being real, encouraging us to exploit people rather than serve them.
  •    We found out that the Gospel was so mixed with performance-based religion that the life of the Jesus had been swallowed up by our busyness.
  •    And yes, some have left because of the emptiness of religion and have abandoned Jesus altogether and no longer believe that Scripture speaks the truth. That’s what many of us hate most about religion. It makes promises it can’t keep and then makes people question whether or not God is real at all.

Most likely none of these things adequately describes any one person’s story, but rather it would be found in a mixture of them. And we realize not all congregations fall to such blatant abuses. But most of us hoped it could change, labored tirelessly in hopes that it would, tried other congregations we thought were better, and have only found themselves outside of it when those inside couldn’t respect the journey we are on.


Why We Are There…

I am often asked to teach in traditional congregations and I often feel impressed to go. Why? Because I find God’s people there too, many of them hungering for the same thing I hunger for and asking the same questions I was asking a decade or two ago. People with a heart for God still permeate many congregations even if they do see some of the same weaknesses in it that many others do.

  •    We are there because on balance we feel our congregational experience enlivens our passion for Jesus more than the politics and abuses undermines it.
  •    We are there to connect with fellow Christians in our communities.
  •    We are there because we’ve found some people that are more focused on Jesus than the demands of the institution.
  •    We are there hoping against hope that others might come to see that the authority structures can be changed to reflect more closely the Lord’s glory.
  •    We are there to learn from the Scriptures from what others have learned.
  •    We are there because we feel God has asked us to be even though we struggle with the politics and petty gossip.
  •    We’re there because we don’t know what else we’d do if we weren’t.
  •    And, yes, some are there only because they are mistakenly convinced that Hebrews 10:25 obligates them to be so. They think today’s congregational institutions are the only legitimate expression of church life and would feel judged by others if they weren’t there.

Again, there are more possibilities here than I can list and certainly a mixture of these motivations rather than just one of them would better express what most people see. Many would even consider other expressions if they saw some in their area that lived out the New Testament more authentically.


It’s Not About Church

My point is this: there are many wonderful God-loving believers inside traditional congregations and there are many who have spilled out of them. Those looking for a more authentic life in him and with his church have more to gain by staying in fellowship with each other rather than cutting each other off if we’re being led in different directions.

While I love alternative forms of relational life that are often expressed in homes and in more informal groupings, if we only change the locale without shifting our focus we will end up with the same result. If we’re focused on how we do church, even if we find more Scriptural ways to do it, instead of on Jesus himself as the Cornerstone and Head of that church, we will still miss his life. In short, finding our place in the body of Christ has far less to do with how we do church than it does with how we find our life on him. It’s not about church; it’s about Jesus. Where he captures our hearts and draws us to himself, we will find ourselves growing in the dynamics that allow the life of his church to emerge around us. We will value people being real, rather than pretending. We’ll want to free people from guilt and condemnation rather than manipulate them to get them to do what we think is best for them. We’ll value relationships that illuminate Jesus in our lives more than meetings that often don’t. And those who bear his heart will help equip others to live the life not manage programs for others to be obligated to attend.

In this kingdom the critical question is not where you go to church or how you ‘do church’ it is whether or not you’re coming to know him and walking alongside those he is giving you at any moment to help them on their journey. And if you are, you’ll be far more concerned with recognizing Jesus’ work in others, rather than judging their place in him by their view of church.


Reconciliation Not Suspicion

Our God is a God of reconciliation. Jesus died on the cross so that he could reconcile all things to himself (2 Corinthians 5). Those who grasp that purpose will also share his passion to see the family brought together in him, not divided by institutions or differences in how we view church. We have had enough broken relationships, enough division, enough of those who worry more about defining their distinctions than sharing the life we hold in common.

How do we do that, by encouraging our institutions and denominations to work together for greater unity? As if that has ever worked! Those who lead such things may talk about it from time to time, but denominations are about dividing and few at the top of those institutions will ever give up the power, money or prestige necessary for them to appreciate the true unity of this incredible family.

No, reconciliation happens simply by you loving each and every believer God allows to cross your path and look for ways to encourage them to know him better. We have to live as if the divisions don’t exist, recognizing Father’s fingerprints in each other’s lives, even if we don’t see eye to eye on every issue. This is where the unity of the body of Christ is celebrated. It is the stuff of grass roots actions, not organizational decrees.

Wherever you find believers near you get to know them. Celebrate Jesus together and see where the relationship might lead. Don’t feel you have to convince them about your idea of church, rather fan the flames of their passion for Jesus. You’ll find some amazing things happen in relationships that institutions can never touch.

When Paul traveled back through the people he’d help establish in the faith during his journey in Macedonia, Luke says that he “gave constant encouragement, lifting their spirits and charging them with fresh hope.” (Acts 20:2, The Message). Can you imagine a better description of fellowship? Paul was able to love them so freely, not because he wanted something from them, but because he wanted to encourage them where they were and make their journey lighter.


The Great Gathering

It is the nature of the Shepherd to gather – first to himself and then alongside others who belong to him as well. That’s what I see happening in the world today. Jesus is gathering people to himself and letting them link up with each other. When you find his heart in this, you too will have a heart for the great gathering that is going on among all his followers. Whether or not people are in a traditional congregation is an irrelevant question. What matters is whether or not they are growing to know him and find life in him. That’s the real question on which the family is based.

A few years ago a friend of mine was on a flight home. He discovered he was sitting next to a believer from his own city whom he didn’t know. For an hour they shared about their life in Jesus, how they had come to know him, what he was doing in them and what they were learning about him. As they approached their destination the other man asked my friend, “Where do you go to church, anyway?”

My friend thought for a moment and then answered, “For the last hour we’ve been talking about the most unifying person in all of history and have had a marvelous time. Do we really want to trade that conversation to discuss the most divisive question the body of Christ has ever known?”

His seatmate thought a minute, smiled and agreed, “Let’s not!”

What a perspective! Trading congregational brand names or models only takes the focus off of Jesus and leads us to assumptions about people that are rarely valid. We join this great gathering by loving those God puts in front of us every day. We won’t then seek for the like-minded, but the like-hearted, and then we’ll be closer to his truth for doing so. And once we’ve a connection with others that shows our love for them and our respect for Jesus’ work in them, then we will be able to discuss those things we see differently in ways that will draw the family together, not tear it apart.

As a father of older children, nothing brings me greater joy than watching my children love and laugh together even in the face of their differences. I can’t imagine that the Father of all doesn’t enjoy that as well.

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