Is there a viable way of 'doing church' outside the institutional church experience?
"... and when the Americans got [the gospel], they turned it into a business." Richard Halverson
(This is the Author's Preface to Reimagining Church written in October 2007.)
After thirteen years of attending scores of churches and parachurch organizations, I took the daring step of leaving the institutional church. That was in 1988. Since that time, I've never returned to institutional Christianity. Instead, I've been meeting in what I call "organic churches."
Why did I leave the institutional church? To begin with, I became painfully bored with Sunday-morning church services. That was true across the board — no matter what denomination (or nondenomination) I attended. I also saw very little spiritual transformation in the people who attended these churches. And the spiritual growth that I myself experienced seemed to occur outside of traditional church settings.
In addition, something deep within me longed for an experience of church that mapped to what I read about in my New Testament. And I couldn't seem to find it in any traditional church I attended. In fact, the more I read the Bible, the more I became convinced that the contemporary church had departed far from its biblical roots. The result was that I pulled the rip cord on institutional Christianity, and I began meeting with a group of Christians in an organic way.
After I took that step, friends and acquaintances would often ask me, "So where do you go to church?" Giving an answer was always a study in awkwardness. "I belong to a church that doesn't have a pastor or a church building; we meet very much like the early Christians did, and we are consumed with Jesus Christ" was my standard reply. But as soon as those words left my mouth, the person asking would typically look at me as though I had come from Planet 10!
Today, I'm still asked the question, "So where do you go to church?" But I have a better way of articulating an answer than I did twenty years ago (though I admit that my answer is still clumsy and imperfect).
Herein lies the purpose of this book: to articulate a biblical, spiritual, theological, and practical answer to the question, Is there a viable way of doing church outside the institutional church experience, and if so, what does it look like?
If the past twenty years have taught me anything, they have taught me this: There will be two major responses to this book. One will sound something like this: "Thank goodness, I'm not crazy! I thought I lost my mind. I'm grateful that there are others who feel the same way I do about church. This book has given language to feelings and beliefs I've had for years. And it's given me hope that there really is a church life experience beyond what's commonly known and accepted."
The other will sound something like this: "How dare you challenge our church practices! God loves the church. What right do you have to criticize it!? And who gives you the right to say that your way of doing church is the only valid way!?"
I'll be the first to admit that I am not beyond correction in my views. I'm still growing and learning. However, the problem with this particular objection is that it exposes the very problem that this book sets out to address. Namely, we Christians are very confused about what the church is. By no means am I criticizing the church. In fact, I'm writing this volume because I love the church very much. And it's because of that love that I wish to see the body of Christ express itself in ways that I believe God originally intended. The church, therefore, should not be confused with an organization, a denomination, a movement, or a leadership structure. The church is the people of God, the very bride of Jesus Christ. And as I will argue in this book, God has not been silent on how the church naturally expresses herself on the earth. Therefore, it's the present practices of the church that I'm seeking to reimagine, not the church itself.
In addition, I would never claim that there is one "right" way of doing church. And I certainly do not claim that I've found it. This book reimagines church in some fresh ways — ways that I believe are in harmony with the teachings of Jesus and the apostles. And for me and scores of other believers, we have found these ways to match our deepest longings as Christians.
Two books precede this one. The first is titled The Untold Story of the New Testament Church. In The Untold Story, I rehearse the entire saga of the first-century church in chronological order. The book of Acts and the Epistles are blended together to create an unbroken narrative of the early church. Reimagining Church is based on that free-flowing story. The difference is that Reimagining takes certain frames from that beautiful narrative and divides them up into specific categories. Together, both books paint a compelling portrait of New Testament church life.
The second book, titled Pagan Christianity, historically demonstrates that the contemporary church has strayed far from its original roots. The church as we know it today evolved (or more accurately, devolved) from a living, breathing, vibrant, organic expression of Jesus Christ into a top-heavy, hierarchical organization whose basic structure is patterned after the ancient Roman Empire. Tellingly, most churches today still hold that structure.
This book is divided into two parts. The first part is titled "Community and Gatherings." In it, I explore how the early church lived its life and how it gathered together. I then compare and contrast these elements with the practices of the contemporary church.
The second part of the book is titled "Leadership and Accountability." In it, I introduce a fresh model for understanding leadership, authority, and accountability. This model is countercultural as well as rooted in biblical principle. But it's also practical. I've watched it work over the past twenty years. I've also designed an appendix to give answers to common objections.
Please note that my aim in writing is constructive rather than controversial. Nevertheless, because many of the ideas I present are so radically different from traditional understanding, they will probably raise eyebrows and, in some cases, hostility.
My hope is that you will bear with me and consider each of my arguments in the light of Scripture and under the scrutiny of your own conscience. My attitude in writing is best described by C. S. Lewis: "Think of me as a fellow-patient in the same hospital who, having been admitted a little earlier, could give some advice." My heart's desire is to see God's people set free from the tyranny of the status quo as well as oppressive leadership structures. All for one reason — so that Jesus Christ can be made central and supreme in His church again.
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