5 Reasons Why I Won’t Give Up On “The Church”

5 Reasons Why I Won’t Give Up On “The Church” October 27, 2014

Screenshot 2014-10-27 07.57.03

 A few weeks ago I was in LA for a panel discussion with Christian Piatt, Peter Rollins, Bart Campolo and Trip Fuller (as part of Christian’s Post-Christian book tour), where we discussed all things having to do with the future of Christianity now that the era (error) of Christendom is over. It was a great discussion with far more diverse opinions between us than what I had anticipated, and is a discussion I think we (as in all of us) need to keep alive as Christianity transitions out of Christendom and into whatever era is unfolding before us.

When I survey the current and historical Christian landscape, it strikes me that the era of Christendom has seriously damaged the church, perverted the faith, and locked Jesus in a supply closet in the church basement. As a result, many have simply given up on “The Church” (or are standing at the door). I’ve been there too, but simply cannot walk out completely.

Now, there’s plenty of the old era worthy of giving up, I’ll agree– and enthusiastically enjoin my voice to a host of others in that regard.

Certainly, “Church” as an institution that colludes with the world power-holders and empires to get their piece of the power pie, is worthy of giving up.

“Church” as an institution that travels in parallel to culture instead of a transforming agent running against culture, is worthy of giving up.

“Church” when expressed as a hollow, consumerist, and separatist gathering, is worthy of giving up.

“Church” as a force of oppression and violence instead of the hands and feet of the Jesus it claims to be named after, is worthy of giving up.

There are plenty examples of mistakes of “The Church” that are worthy of setting aside, disassembling, and repenting from.

But here’s where I think we’d be good to use caution: quite often, responses to broken ways of doing things can sway too far in the other direction.  Reactionary movements without their own internal prophetic voices, tend to create all the same problems of the movement they’re reacting against, but simply from an opposite vantage point.

So, yes– there are plenty of areas where it’s time to give up on old models, expressions, and behavior of “The Church”… I too, have given up on much of the old ways of Christendom thought and practice.

However, it’s one thing to give up on an individual, local church that won’t conform themselves to Christ-likeness, but then there’s “The Church”, with a capital C. The truth is, “The Church” isn’t a building with a little white steeple and an American flag waiving out front. It’s not supposed to be relegated to an impersonal weekly gathering, where we sit next to a stranger for an hour and go home. It’s not that force that colludes with empire to solidify power over culture and governments. It’s not any of those things.

“Church” is simply the word that refers to all of the Jesus followers in the world– people who sometimes get it right, and often get it wrong. And, from that perspective, I won’t give up on “The Church”– and here are 5 reasons why:

5. “The Church” is a term that refers to people, and I won’t give up on people.

It’s easy to let go of church when one thinks about church as institution, church as power, or church as oppression, but true Church is just… people. People who, while broken and screw things up, bear the divine image of God and have infinite worth and value to God. Since God himself will never give up on people, and scripture calls us to be imitators of God, I can’t and won’t give up on people either. 

4. I am part of “The Church”, and part of why it is often broken, and I don’t want people giving up on me.

Like it or not, if you’ve accepted the invitation to follow Jesus, you are part of his “Church”… the Church. It’s part of the deal. For me, this causes me to realize that I have also been complicit and contributed to many of the Church’s problems, because I’m as screwed up as everyone else in the club. And you know what? I really don’t want anyone to give up on me. I think, by God’s grace, I might have some potential. It would be hypocritical to give up on them when I secretly hope they won’t give up on me.

3. I am unwilling to give up on “The Church’s” mission of spreading the Good News.

The mission of Jesus’ Church is beautiful: spread his Good News that the curse (death) has been overturned, that you and I can be reconciled to God, and that he’s returning to make all things new. As we spread that Good News, we’re invited to be agents of reconciliation– reconciling people to God, reconciling people to each other, and reconciling the earth (environment) to God. That’s the mission– and I still believe in it. It’s beautiful, and I’m not giving up on it– or “The Church” tasked with carrying it out.

2. Jesus promised that even the gates of hell would not defeat “The Church”, and I’m not willing to give up on Jesus.

When Jesus recommissioned Peter, Jesus promised that he was going to build “The Church,” and that it would be on a rock so sturdy that nothing would ever be able to stand in the way of “The Church” ultimately accomplishing the mission. To give up on “The Church” as if it is broken beyond repair or a failure, would be to completely discount the promise Jesus made. Instead, I’ll walk forward having faith that Jesus will help to reform his people into an image that looks more like himself– and that there’s still hope for all of us.

1. Giving up on “The Church” presents an alternative reality that I don’t like: a church of one.

My friend Frank Schaeffer once told me that “there’s only one alternative to being part of a church where you have profound disagreements: join a church of one.” And, Frank was right– to give up on the global Church, to even give up on the local church, is to embrace life as a church of one person– and that’s not a comforting reality in my book. In fact, my hunch is that I’d really have some issues with the one member in that “church” too. Instead, we’re called to be participants in a diverse body… one that includes both tender grandmothers and crazy uncles, but has room for us at the grownup’s table. I’d rather be a part of that family, quirks and all, than to be a family of just me.

As the days, months, and years pass, we’ll probably still be talking about what Christianity should, and should not look like in the Post-Christendom era. There’s a solid mix of traditions to uphold, errant theology to dump, and new mountains to climb. The one thing that cannot be on the table however– at least for me– is giving up on “The Church.”

For better or for worse, I am a part of it– and so are you. Let us then join hands as a diverse and usually dysfunctional family, and journey through the Post-Christendom era together, without giving up on each other… because “The Church” is… well, us.

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  • Raleigh Clough

    I grapple with this every day. Thank you for reminding me that as a part of the Church I can’t give up in myself, nor do I want to be a part of a church of “one”. Excellent thoughts!

  • Matthew

    I too grapple with this often. Thanks so much for the reminder of what the “Church” truly is. I´m also glad that I don´t have to feel guilty about letting go of what the “Church” isn´t.

  • Awesome Post, Bro. I so enjoyed reading it and will link to it on my (german) blog on sunday. But I was wondering: How would you define the connection between the church (universal) and a church (local) and would you say by not giving up on the church you are also not giving up on a church whereever you live? Plus: Do you think the defining mark of a church is people together in the name of Jesus, or does it have to have some kind of organizing principle like elders/leadership, and a core standart of shared morals, as it seems to be intended by Pauls letters? Thanks anyways for your always inspiring posts. Don’t really see why you are on the progressive side of patheos however. Seems to be as ‘evangelical’ as most on this other channel. Which is nothing bad for me ;-)

  • Don Every

    Corey I’m happy to remain part of the ecclesia that Jesus is building based on my one-to-one union with Him, not on any agreement to work out some kind of compromise on what ‘church’ should be.
    I haven’t been any significant part of the problem that the church has been for centuries, though I have been a believer from birth. I have given the institution over sixty years, waiting to see the life that Jesus is inside me but that is excluded by design in the church as man’s idea.
    A ‘church of one’ is a contradiction in terms, as you know but everybody has been called and gathered to God in Jesus, as individuals firstly because we are together in Him, whether we meet regularly or not. He is our all, each of us, and many of us have had to draw back from abuse in man’s church and experience the true relationship men have systematically denied us for so long.
    What comes next is up to Jesus, in His time, and I’m looking forward to it but I’m done with trying to make it happen for Him.

  • Isaac Edward Leibowitz

    Even Better News: Death is not really a curse. Eternity makes life meaningless, even a never-ending curse.

    “Death gives meaning to our lives. It gives importance and value to time. Time would become meaningless if there were too much of it.” ~Ray Kurzweil

  • louismoreaugottschalk

    no it is not. no it does not.

  • Bobby Mathews

    As you’ve said, it’s not necessarily about giving up on “The Church,” which is the Body and Bride of Christ. I walked away from the dead institutional church a long time ago, and haven’t looked back. In the intervening years, I’ve experienced more of Christ than ever before.

  • Al Owski

    I have not given up on the church universal, The Body of Christ. I believe in the power of His Spirit living in each Believer. I also believe that His Spirit desires us to be connected to one another. I believe we have to be open to connection with each other and we have to look for it in unexpected places. The places Jesus would hang out. Places and people society (and the IC) have forgotten. The places where love has drawn us. As Mother Teresa has said, “Where there is love, there is God”.

  • Lorrie

    I am content to be a church of one. The abuse was pretty bad. I’m happy being me, myself, and I.

  • Brandon Roberts

    I’m not giving up on the church either. And it’s easy to focus on all the bad things about the church but the church also does do a lot of good in the community (at least in my experience)

  • Tim1959

    Wow, this article really reasonates with me and I appreciate your posting it! It is just what I needed to hear. I have unfortunately become “a church of one” and I really miss the fellowship of community.

  • Heather McCuen Dearmon

    The post-modern church my husband and I attended for about 5 years, came to a close a few years ago, but that body of believers are still my closest friends. Some joined other churches, some, like my husband and I, don’t attend anywhere, as here in the south almost every church is fundamental –and we are still recovering from fundamentalist inflicted wounds from 15 years ago. Nevertheless, we see God ever changing us, growing us, and our old church friends still function as a family, sharing birthdays, bible studies, always there to pray for one another… yet I feel a undercurrent beginning to pull us all in separate directions. I can’t quite describe it. I felt it about a year before the church doors closed (for a vast many reasons, and I was angry at first, but finally accepted it as God’s doing) and I feel it beginning again. I don’t know why He does this, but I know God is always deeply involved with us personally, and also as a whole. He brings us through so many winding paths, sometimes alone, sometimes with companions, but always with Him, so I am trying to trust His leading, even as He seemingly thins the herd –or redirects his sheep down different paths. It hurts to be separated, and it’s not out of disagreement or division, just His leading. But His ways require some suffering, sometimes even a great deal of suffering. I still don’t like that. At all. But I have to trust or become bitter, and I waver between both. I know in a few years, in retrospect, it will make more sense, but here at the beginning, my heart is aching.

  • “there’s only one alternative to being part of a church where you have profound disagreements: join a church of one.”

    Something I have to keep telling myself at almost every service I attend! And that’s four a week!! Thanks for the confirmation that I’m in the right place. It’s hard to keep it at the forefront of your mind when you find yourself saying ‘no’ when “you’re supposed to be saying ‘amen!’, brother”

  • jtenebrae

    I felt the Church didn’t only leave me, but pushed anyone capable of thinking for themselves and feeling like speaking their minds out of the fellowship. Then I found a house church. So much of what we think of The Church today is only a building which a few leaders control with the assistance of denominational hierarchy or deacons/elders and all the energy is spent on maintaining that building.
    Finding a house church is not easy, but it beats being a church of one. The leader of our church and I disagree on many issues, but we come together in love and agree to disagree because on the issues that matter, salvation, God’s love, forgiveness, caring for all in the group, praying for each other and the need for fellowship; there is unity. On one hot button issue a couple of the members were shocked by our opposing views and we both used it to reinforce the idea that believers can disagree and still love each other.

  • Simple answer to that is that Jesus didn’t give up on you. Yeah, sounds trite and doesn’t excuse any bad treatment you experienced, but for me, if you maintain that faith in HIM, then whatever other choices you make are secondary. I pray, though, that you’d find a way back to a good local body of believers. But not a perfect body… you’d be searching until eternity.

  • I appreciate this post very much. I too don’t want to give up on church but I want to be a part of its transformation. Your points are very powerful and they remind us that we will continue to need ‘church’.

    Someone who expresses my thinking about the transformation of church is Rev. James Gertmenian. I just finished reading his sermon from Oct. 23rd and wrote a blog post about it. He says that we need to be willing to hold things loosely. He uses the story of Jochabed who was desperate to save her son, Moses. He writes, “Love gave her the courage to do the one thing no parent wants to do… give up her child. She loved her child enough not to love him too much. She loved him enough to know that they way to save him was to not protect him.” He tells us that we should love the church enough to hold it loosely. I know in my own personal life that it is when I fully surrender when miracles happen. I hope we can do this for the church.

    Here is my post for those who might be interested. http://www.dianerheos.com/the-power-of-holding-things-loosely/

  • Keep looking. There are great groups on Meetup, as home churches and just communities doing volunteer work. I also think we are seeing so many more ‘churches’ that look really different. I know many of us are yearning for authentic fellowship and you just have a find the others.

  • Adam M

    Maybe we should give up on the word “church” though? It carries so much pain and baggage that it has lost its originally translated meaning. I think many of the current Christian terms could be replaced with new words that don’t trigger past associations and stereotypes. I have found it difficult expressing my differences in faith while still using the same terms that the religious right uses. Like it or not the word Church now means a building used for Christian religious services to most people. Not sure if it is possible to reclaim that word to its original meaning in American culture.

  • I walked away from the Church for several years, but once I had a family of my own I felt compelled to return. We found a home church that is inclusive and it is a breath of fresh air compared to my former, very black-and-white church. I don’t think I could ever return to that environment, no matter how flashy the lights and catchy the music.

  • I think you make the mistake of thinking that we are leaving the church because it’s not fulfilling some mission or we have been mistreated. Many of us have left because we can no longer defend a gospel that calls itself “Good News,” but is based on violence and fear. Presenting the death of Jesus as payment for our sins and everyone who doesn’t accept this will be sent to hell is a very immature view of reality. First of all it’s immoral for me to allow someone else to accept my punishment. 2nd, nothing I have ever done wrong should deserve an eternity in a lake of fire. In fact nothing that anyone could do should receive that kind of sentence and it be considered just. Yes there are universalists and kinder versions of Christianity, but I think we can create meaning from far better sources than an iron age book. I think there are some insightful things in the Bible, but it should not be held any higher than other wisdom sayings and we need to abandon the idea that a god had anything to do with that book. And it is quite evident to me, when I look at the universe and this earth that no intelligent being is behind the scenes.

  • Richard Worden Wilson

    I think you are right that there are some seriously immature views of
    reality out there; but I don’t think those are the reality depicted in the Bible. People leave the church and Jesus for all kinds of reasons. People see the universe and the earth in all kinds of ways. People have distorted what the Bible says about God in all kinds of ways. People create “meaning” from all kinds of places and other people’s thinking. Where do you find meaning? All sources of ‘wisdom’ are surely not equivalent.

    I don’t find the idea of eternal conscious torment as punishment for sin in the Bible. In the New Testament I find God taking away every rationalization for humans violently punishing others for their own sins as they did with Jesus; most everyone seemed to be blaming Jesus or his followers for their own problems. People use lots of distorted interpretations of the Bible as excuses to reject believing in Jesus–if you get my drift.

  • There are 40,000 different versions of Christianity in the world and most of them believe they have the best interpretation of the bible given to them by the Holy Spirit. If god’s message was so clear you would think there would be more agreement on what the Bible actually says. I understand that some Christians don’t believe in an eternal hell, but the final solution is still a violent one where even Jesus takes the time to burn people up. Matthew 24:41 ““Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.'” The problem is you have Christians who are absolutely sure this talks of an eternal hell because the Bible says “eternal fire.” You have to do some pretty complicated textual analysis to come up with another alternative. It seems to me if god wanted us to be sure on these so called truths this god would have published a clearer book. The most likely explanation is the Bible is an iron age explanation and we need to have more confidence in writings that are based in reality, reason, and human empathy. These we can demonstrate in real life. To me, making the bible say what we can simply reason out, creates an extra step and frankly a burden that has the potential to communicate some rather immoral messages as evidenced by the long history of violence in the name of Jesus. It’s not that hard to justify violence from the bible since god orders violence on a fair number of occasions and seems to be clear about the violence he is going to inflict on those who don’t accept the so called “official” bible interpretation of the plan of salvation that saves you from him burning you up.

  • Otto Tellick

    Thank you, Richard. I’d like to expand on your comments:

    … there are some seriously immature views of reality out there; but I don’t think those are the reality depicted in the Bible. … I don’t find the idea of eternal conscious torment as punishment for sin in the Bible.

    Good! This tells me that you do not feel compelled to find these things in the Bible. But if you did feel compelled to look for them there (as many people do), then you would find them there (as many people have done).

    To the extent that (some parts of) the gospels are true in presenting what Jesus really meant to say (as your currently understand it), we can know that what he meant to say really is right, on the basis of directly observed, real-world evidence about the power of mercy and charity and forgiveness and love. This is more a matter of awareness than faith. It’s good that the gospels capture this truth, but the scripture, being man-made, is not perfect, and we must allow evidence to show us which parts of scripture are right and which parts are not.

  • Richard Worden Wilson

    I don’t think you are actually responding to what I said. I didn’t say anything about being “compelled” to find things in the Bible. So, following your suggestion here you are apparently compelled to see evidence in your observations of the “real world” that confirms what you see in the New Testament. Why? Is your awareness superior to that of others? Or rather who is the “we”? What evidence will you allow in your meta-evidence data? There seems to be circular reasoning here as much as in any “faith” argument I’ve seen.

  • Richard Worden Wilson

    The diversity of interpretations may be part of God’s design, but it is definitely reasonable to expect it. The assumption that it is “Jesus [that] takes the time to burn people up” may not be inherent in the text; it is a parable after all–though God is probably the agent, the command to depart from him doesn’t actually say he forces them into the fire–perhaps they see it as their preferred option? I tend to think the problem may be just as much a willingness to insist that those with whom one disagrees are actually right in the way they understand a text rather than a willingness to see alternatives. I don’t think it takes a lot of complicated textual analysis to get beyond interpretations that have developed over millennia, just a willingness to set all that aside and do our best to see the texts in their original conceptual context. No doubt there is depicted a judgement of eternal fire but that doesn’t necessarily imply that it an eternal conscious one–just to set aside an interpretation that I think is based in developed tradition rather than in the text itself. Again, there are many developed traditions that aren’t based directly on Jesus’ teaching or that of the New Testament; God doesn’t order any follower of Jesus to do violence against anyone, ever. People may “justify” whatever they want to do on the basis of some “complicated textual analysis” but that doesn’t make it biblical. It is up to us to discern the difference. Not discerning the difference may lead one into fires not desired or intended by God to be the place one ends up. Almost by definition there is no one more real, reasonable, or more empathetic than God.

  • “The diversity of interpretations may be part of God’s design” Why would a multitude of interpretations, some directly contradicting each other, be a part of a “design?” That seems like the opposite of design.

  • Otto Tellick

    My first point was that there are people who, unlike you, seem compelled to find parts in the Bible that “confirm” the idea of eternal conscious torment as part of “God’s plan” (or something to that effect), and unlike you, they do find that. (Likewise for “immature views of reality.”)

    My other point was that real-world evidence, as viewable and confirmable by anyone who takes the trouble to look at it, supports the idea that collaborative behaviors are more conducive (in the aggregate) to improving well-being and diminishing suffering, than antagonistic behaviors. The fact this this is consistent with (portions of) the teachings of Jesus as expressed in (portions of) the gospels is something that counts in favor of the gospels as a foundation for ethical behavior. But the gospels aren’t the only texts to have this quality, and Christianity isn’t the only religion with this quality contained in its foundational texts. In any case, the Bible is neither perfect nor inerrant.

    If you want to regard the process of confirming ideas by means of real-world evidence (and discarding scripture-based claims that are incompatible with evidence) as “circular reasoning” – on a par with an unquestioning acceptance of scripture-based claims – well, that’s your opinion, and I don’t share it, but I expect that we can at least agree on some important things, nonetheless.

  • “I think you are right that there are some seriously immature views of reality out there; but I don’t think those are the reality depicted in the Bible.” The problem is trying to include the Bible. One only has to read a few God endorsed tales of violence in the Bible to demonstrate these immature views. As long as we give the Bible special consideration we are going to be subject to these immature views. The fact that you are able to detect immature views doesn’t come from the bible, but it comes from observing what creates harm. This comes from reason and empathy. I think its time we take the bible down from its privileged position and look to reality itself through the lens of reason and empathy. To me, trying to keep the Bible sacred is a waste of time and generates too many silly tangents.

  • Silly Name

    You can’t just change a word and avoid it’s baggage. If you want to reclaim the words of the church you have to change people perception with actual praise worthy actions. To simply try to hide from past mistakes seems cowardly to me.

  • Adam M

    You make a good point but I guess I don’t feel the need to reclaim the words of the church. I would rather just not use historical religious language if possible. I really don’t feel much of a connection to American styled Christianity so why use their verbiage if it does not really communicate clearly what I am trying to say?