I just returned from a quick trip through the Central Valley of California where I met with six different groups of folks in four days from the Fresno area to Sacramento and back. What a trip!
While I was away someone sent me a cartoon by Steve Benson that appeared over the weekend in the Arizona Republic newspaper. The cartoon depicted Lenny Bruce, a comedian and social critic who had been imprisoned for breaking obscenity laws and died of a drug overdose in 1966. He is standing next to a newspaper vending machine where the headline reads, “Study Finds Personal Faith Up, Religious Affiliation Down.” The the artist quotes something Bruce said more than 40 years ago, “Every day people are straying away from the church and going back to God.” The tag line next to him reads, “Lenny Bruce, Prophet”. I am amazed that such a conflicted individual would have the insight to make that conclusion years before it became a reality.
Of course I wouldn’t say people are straying from ‘church’, but they are straying from the structures we call ‘church’ because many of them no longer answer the deep cry to know the Living God and to share authentic community with others. This last trip really testifies to that. On this whirlwind trip I met with people that represented some 7 or 8 different groups of people who are in such different places in this journey.
I was with the Family Room bunch in Sacramento who have over the last number of years let go of the institutional element of their life together to learn what it means to be a relational community of God’s people. There’s is an amazing story that we’ve told on our podcasts. I met others who had recently left congregations they had been instrumental in starting, only to be ostracized from close friendships because they struggled with serious questions about relationship and body life. I met a former pastor who was walking through an incredible journey sorting out what body life could look like at the risk of his salary and job security because he hungers for something deeper than an institution can produce. And I met numerous individuals who are risking relationships with family and friends to follow the hunger God put in their hearts.
That’s why I get a bit riled when people accuse those who no longer participate in traditional congregations as selfish. Believe me, this is not a selfish way to walk. It can cost you so much more than you ever dreamed. But when you are faithful to what God puts on your heart, it will in time bear some incredible fruit. By stripping away the institutions’ dependence on program, conformity, and approval it opens people up to see God as he really is, and the church as she really exists in the earth. That is rarely easy, but it is always real! So follow him, however he leads you, whether that’s inside a traditional congregation or outside of it. But find a way to live in his fullness and not settle for having a form of godliness, but denying its reality.
I’m only in town about 52 hours, before I head back out to visit the reaches of upstate New York and some new places I’ve not been to before. I suspect I’ll find some more folks freshly considering what it means to live deeply and freely in the life of Jesus.