October 22, 2018

iMonk Classic: Leaving Behind the Church-Shaped Life

leaving church

Since it has been a rather post-evangelical week here on Internet Monk, I think it only fitting that the last words I contribute to the subject, before turning things over to Mike Bell tomorrow, come from Michael Spencer.

The following is an excerpt from Michael’s book, Mere Churchianity: Finding Your Way Back to Jesus-Shaped Spirituality and its chapter, “Leaving the Church-Shaped Life.”

Much of what passes for proclaiming Jesus is, in actuality, churches concerned with attracting large numbers of Sunday mornings, directing financial resources toward church budgets, and showing Christians how to get in synch with church activities. What’s needed is a wave of churches that are committed to helping you become a missionary in your world.

Millions of Christians have moved out of the traditional church and into the culture. They have moved into alternative forms of the church and into new and little-understood expressions of the church. What are these Christians looking for, and what are they finding? I believe they want to affirm a balance of Jesus, Kingdom of God, church, and individual life.

There have been times in my church-dominated, church-shaped experience when I caught the sound and sight of something entirely different from what I was experiencing. I’m not talking about the plastic happiness of pretend spirituality, nor am I talking about impressive rooms full of rocking-out worshipers.

When I caught sight of something that was so different and real that it captured my attntion and drew my spirit, it was always as a person. It was the appeal of a person who chose the way of Jesus and not the way of money, success, popularity, or fame. They were not looking for a bigger crowd. They were not looking to sell books or make their name famous. They did not show up to attract an audience or attention. They showed up to give to others.

They gave away their money and chose suffering. They were little known or unknown but lived openly and honestly before God.

They saw the possibility of God’s Kingdom in places such as senior-adult apartment complexes, AIDS hospices, Alzheimer’s wards, mountain schools, and remote villages far from their home.

They never pointed to anything as much as Christ, the gospel, and the love of Jesus.

Their beliefs and actions flowed together seamlessly. Love, faith, hope, and good works were inseparable.

They were humble, silent when necessary, and speaking up as the Holy Spirit led. The great expression of their faith was to serve in Jesus’ name and to count all things valuable only in relationship to Christ.

The humble service of Jesus, the believers who serve Christ and his Kingdom asking for nothing, remind me that the beauty of the life of discipleship is “He must increase, but I must decrease.” This life grows in the soil of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. It is the church’s calling to produce disciples who hunger for Jesus, and it is the believer’s calling to know the difference between Jesus and the church that points to Jesus.

– Michael Spencer
Mere Churchianity, pp. 159-161


  1. Here’s my problem…If I walk away from organized church then I sink into a simply day to day life bereft of anything looking like Jesus. Now, it’s not that I sink into a life of unregenerate sinful living, I just resort to existing, working, living sleeping and interacting with others. If there is a way that I radiate, or even model, Christ then it is a mystery to me.

    Church, on the other and, keeps me “honest”, so to speak. It gives me a chance to exhibit Christ-like living because it reminds me of my calling in Christ. On the OTHER hand (how many do I have?) simply being “churchy” is not a satisfying life. What I mean is that allowing myself to be molded into what the church expects me to be runs contrary to fulfillment. The “Evangelical Circus” is plainly too glib, too slick, to suit me.

    I realize that being “in fellowship” is my only hope for a meaningful Christian life, but by walking away from church I also walk away from that fellowship that I need. Finding a group that just worships God and desires a true Christian life is akin to searching for the Holy Grail. It is a mirage that evaporates upon close encounter.

    • I hear you, Oscar. Lots and lots of mirages out there.

    • will f. says:

      Oscar is cool. Yeah, as soon as I walk into church I start making a list of everything wrong with it, all the changes I would make if I was in charge, and thank God I’m not, but bottom line, do I truly have something BETTER to do on sunday morning? no sir I do not. when I skip church I spend that time following random youtube links, end up feeling a bit more blah than I did before, then I think, hmm, I thought I know the score but I guess I’m not that smart, I don’t even know enough to do what’s best for me…. church? at its very very very worst, I give thanks for the, um rhythm and shape it gives to my week. Plus, the people Ive met there, who I wouldn’t have met any other way, have challenged me and encouraged me, and…. thank God for the church, for the people in the pews at philpott memorial church in Hamilton, across the street from the library…. guess I’m rambling…

    • “If I walk away from organized church then I sink into a simply day to day life bereft of anything looking like Jesus.”

      But going to church has the same effect. It’s only those parts ancillary to church, community, friends, service, that make me look anything like Jesus. Every church service just depresses and makes me want to run as far away and never look back.

  2. Aidan Clevinger says:

    I have to confess that this kind of thing genuinely confuses me. Not in a snarky or sarcastic way, but truly: I don’t really understand what’s being said. How does one find a balance between Jesus, church, and Kingdom of God? Isn’t the Church the Kingdom of God on earth? Where does one find Jesus outside of the Church’s ministry of Word and Sacrament? What does it mean to find “alternative forms of the church”? Alternative as in, “not so concerned with budgets, activities, and numbers,” or alternative as in “something other than the preaching of God’s Word, baptizing people into Christ, feeding them with the Eucharist, presenting praise and petitions to God, and engaging in acts of service”? What possible other expressions of church are there than the latter?

    I don’t know, maybe I’m not understanding, and if that’s so I appreciate correction. It just seems to me that Michael is talking about church as though it were some organizational thing that men created, rather than the reality of the Body of Christ created and made manifest through the ministry. To talk about a Christian leaving the Church (big “C”) is, frankly, impossible; to talk about a Christian leaving the church (little “c”) seems to me a little like asking them to amputate both their legs and expect them to walk. And leaving the church in order to better find Christ doesn’t make sense to me at all.

    Again: no snark here, just genuinely confused. Perhaps I really do just have an extremely different conception of the church than Michael did.

    • The *C*hurch, the Body of Christ, “stretched out across all of space and time, terrible as an army with banners” (Screwtape Letters)… THAT is the Kingdom of God on earth.

      The question our dear departed Michael Spenser asked – and is being repeated by Chaplain Mike today – is “what do we do when the local congregations/denominations no longer reflect that reality, but are instead simply working to self-perpetuate their little christianized culture?”

    • “It just seems to me that Michael is talking about church as though it were some organizational thing that men created…”
      It’s not the Church universal but, rather the western church paradigm, the way the church process has developed in western society, that has left some cold. It IS the organization that man has developed to define what, when and how corporate worship should look like that is in question.

      You should read a history of the developing church to understand that the way we do church today has little in common to its earliest origins and methodology. So much today is wrapped up into the western “success” model that, at times, it is difficult to discern what id God and what is Man.

      If you haven’t seen this paradigm then I guess you are blessed.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says:

        > the way we do church today has little in common to its
        > earliest origins and methodology

        As a counterpoint – the world today differs immensely from the world in which the earliest origins of the church existed. Significant differences/changes are to be expected.

        • Patrick Kyle says:

          Adam, I disagree. While things have changed, basic humans have not. Our tools are far more complex, our weapons deadlier, and our life is lived at an ever faster pace. However, our loves and hatreds, cruelties and kindnesses, our sins and personal triumphs, are the same as they ever were. Our need for God and His forgiveness in Christ, God’s word and His sacraments likewise has not changed. I once had a young man tell me that the Bible was an old book for old times. It was worthless for our times he said. Meanwhile, he was the poster child for the foolish young man in Proverbs.

          • I think Adam was talking mostly about methodology, not theology; not that the two aren’t intertwined, but methodology must be informed by concerns of circumstance and culture as well as theology.

  3. I watched a Frontline doc on the prison system and the overriding thought I came away with was how rite and ritual could serve a great majority of non-violent offenders to step over the blockage and into transformation, breaking the cycle that brings them back to prison again and again. That rite and ritual is, largely, such a lost element of normal life. The ceremonial moving from one phase or stage or realm, or whatever you want to call it, into the next, better and higher and healthier, is generally lost in our society, along with the benefit that says you are done here and we as a body of neighbors publicly recognize that and send you on your way. A slew of people could use that recognition, acceptance and encouragement to proceed with this thing, this conundrum, this mystery.
    What I’m saying is, there are a lot of stuck people that could benefit from some very mundane, mainline, rite and ritual, Catholic or American indian kind of stuff, along with meeting the attendant requirements. There is healing there. That approach is antithetical to the evangelical circus that has been the topic of discussion this week. Where are the markers, the rites of passage? It’s always a mixed bag as we never fully complete any stage but accepting that reality, where is the general recognition in the society, ritualistically speaking, that we have incorporated the necessary elements and now must move on? The fundamentalist evangelical mindset considers ritual to be a deathly emptiness, void of pneuma, and yet that rite and ritual could serve to breath life into so many lifes at crucial transitional moments, escorting them into bigger thinking and wider arenas .

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Rite and ritual give structure.

      The fundagelical mindset of “Me and Jeesus and Nothing Else” is straight out of that poem “Invictus” with a Gospelly coat of paint:
      “*I* Am the Master of My Fate,
      *I* Am the Captain of my Soul.”
      (The writer of that famous two-liner ended up committing suicide — Master of His Fate to The End.)

  4. Robert F says:

    Spencer is not talking about leaving the Church, or any specific expression of the Church, not even in the attempt to find a more authentic contemporary expression of the Church. He’s talking about moving out of a church-shaped life, in which the merely institutional needs and exigencies of the church as organization have become the driving force behind all or most of what the individual and the community do, and into a Jesus-shaped life and spirituality, where the driving force of both the individual and community is the increase of Christ and the decrease of both individual and church as institution.

    The people he points to as exemplars of this did not necessarily leave the Church, or any specific church; they quietly (he stresses that) bore faithful witness to the life of Christ in their own lives, without fanfare or big programs or any evident pay-off. Spencer is suggesting that maybe it’s possible for the Church as institution to be as faithful as a few of its members sometimes are, and to not just live for its own survival and success.

    Is it possible?

    • Good question Robert.

    • Rick Ro. says:

      Yes, it’s possible. A church can be “unhealthy” in some senses (focused on programs and “doing”) and have people within it who are “healthy” (focused on Jesus). I’ve seen it at my current church.

  5. T.S.Gay says:

    Aiden Clevinger’s analogy rests on the idea that our gatherings are what give legs to our life. Sort of an enter to learn, leave to serve analogy. I googled the term and read the speech given by L Tom Perry at BYU in 1995. He ended the speech by saying, ” I bear witness that this is the Lord’s church. He is the head, and we are engaged in his work, This is my witness to you in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, Amen.”
    I am not in any way trying to say anything about any person, especially the veracity of Aiden or L Tom Perry, which are clearly evident. But the truth is that this is a type of message that is pointing to Jesus. This week the words of Jesus have been given, that My Father is always at His work until now, and I am working. But to me this is also pointing to Jesus. This topic is not about finding where Jesus is working and joining. And this topic is not about finding some gathering that worships or leads life really well. And it isn’t a message that is denigrating the way any Christian gathering orders a meeting.
    It is about one’s balance. Chesterton in Orthodoxy describes the wild ride that is the Christian life. You have to read it yourself, I can’t give it justice. This topic is not so much about Sunday, as it is about everyday. It’s a Jesus shaped life, and not a church shaped life. And as one is on that very wild ride for some time, the ride doesn’t change, but your perspective seems to clear( it is like quarterbacks in football describe- the game is still fast, but one’s perspective of it slows). When you in discipleship honestly have been serving Jesus for some time, all the helps pointing to him(church included) aren’t what one seeks.
    It must be acknowledged that one of the biggest downfalls of recent evangelicalism was discipleship. And may I say this isn’t confined to that genre.

  6. Although there were aspects of it that irked him, Michael never gave up on the local church. He conducted an experiment, of sorts, in his home to create a small fellowship of believers that snag hymns, took communion and read God’s Word together at each meeting. It was not a church and he was not trying to start a church. There was Bible study but not a sermon, what he was looking for was multiple leadership that involved as many individuals each week as possible. Even still, he continued to attend the small SBC church in his neighborhood believing that was the New Testament model and command. He sang in the choir and attended pot luck.

    Michael Spencer was really looking for something he never found. He wanted to find or create a “Jesus-shaped spirituality” and lamented what he described as “chruchianity” in his quest. He created a new vernacular to describe things others couldn’t quite put into words, and sought to unify other scattered individuals who were on the same journey.

    • Clark, you say, “It was not a church and he was not trying to start a church.” Not in the sense of the dedicated building with a steeple and a sign out front and a professional paid pastor. And maybe this discussion is bent by the association of that image in our collective Western mind with the word “church”. The earliest descriptions of Christian meetings or gatherings sound much like Michael’s except they were outdoors. They soon moved indoors in various houses and were even more like Michael’s. I fail to see how what Michael, and many others, did and are doing doesn’t qualify as church. Jesus said where two or three are gathered in my name and you know the rest. Seems to me this meeting as we speak qualifies for that.

      • Robert F says:

        The problem with the “house church” model is its institutional lack of catholicity, and also the complete lack of accountability and controls. Of necessity, house churches were the first embodiment of Christian communal life in the Church, because of specific historical constraints and conditions. But earliest is not equivalent to permanent, best, ideal, adequate, faithful, etc.

        Remember that the first dedicated church buildings sprang up on the periphery of ancient cities, near the cemeteries where deceased Christians were buried. This was no accident. The willingness of Christians to worship in places where their dead were buried was incomprehensible to ancient pagans, who avoided all contact and association with dead bodies, and were filled with religious dread at the idea of being near the dead. But Church buildings were a physical embodiment of the catholicity of the church, reflecting the community of saints that exists between the living and the dead, and were constructed in memory of those saints passed to the Church triumphant.

        I think it would be wrong to say this later model of Christian communal life was a retreat from an earlier, more authentic model epitomized by house churches; in fact, I think this later model was a more comprehensive embodiment of the Church as community of the living and the dead, and therefore more catholic. In our contemporary situation, it would reflect a lack of growth in just such catholicity if the widespread house church phenomenon that exists in China and other places, and in some ways reflects the house church model of the early Church, did not change into something more institutionally united and universal, and did not embrace the ecumenical spirit that reflects a later stage of Church development.

        • One of the best things I’ve read about the theological problems house churches present. Thx, Robert.

          • Robert F says:

            Of course, a good argument could be made that evangelicalism, and much, if not all, of Protestantism, lack just such catholicity. It could even be argued that traditional Protestant churches are way stations on the journey back to the house church model. As a Protestant, my argument may in fact paint me into a corner with the house church Christians (although I do believe that the Anglican Communion, of which I’m a member, has at least some of the essential marks of catholicity, I sometimes wonder if it has enough of them).

          • Robert F says:

            I’ve though about this today, and it is just possible that in our contemporary situation, no particular church completely embodies the catholicity of the Church in its unity. The churches that have the most obvious marks of catholicity, the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox, have not had complete catholicity at least since the Great Schism. In the wake of the Great Schism, the Church has split innumerable times, and I don’t believe that any one communion can rightfully claim comprehensive catholicity, although some seem to have more marks of catholicity than others.

            This means that in ecumenical dialogues, many voices of many communions, and even sectarian Christians, should be acknowledged as speaking for certain aspects of catholicity, and should be included at the round table of discussion. The churches bearing greater marks of catholicity should be humble enough to recognize that they are not wholly catholic. Their catholicity has been compromised at least since the Great Schism. The way back is not merely one of reconciliation between the two communions embodying the clearest marks of catholicity, the RCC and EOC, but must include many of those other communions, which have inherited marks of catholicity, sometimes barely discernible, that have been distorted and compromised in the older churches.

        • Adam Tauno Williams says:

          >The problem with the “house church” model is its institutional lack of
          >catholicity, and also the complete lack of accountability and controls

          +1,000. They have a large risk of operating as a cult-of-personality. And how does a house church perpetuate itself forward, owning little-to-nothing, and having no [or a very thin] system of ordination and theological education.

          As a visitor to a new place you also have the problem of how you’d find it.

          And discussions of house churches always set aside completely what the local Fire Marshall thinks of a regular meeting occurring in a building not designed as a public accommodation – which is just that evil faceless bureaucracy…. until everyone at the house church meeting dies in a fire.

          >But earliest is not equivalent to permanent, best, ideal, adequate, faithful, etc.


          > I think it would be wrong to say this later model of Christian communal
          > life was a retreat from an earlier, more authentic model epitomized by
          > house churches; in fact, I think this later model was a more
          > comprehensive embodiment of the Church as community

          And a necessary part of having a community of more than a dozen or so people. I remember how much the House Church movement appealed to me when I was younger – and all my friends were younger – and nobody had children, and there were no elderly in our circle… and I have no idea how a House Church could effectively deal with those realities [while providing its practitioners with dignity]. I’ll choose my formal built-infrastructure – and ADA compliant – church.

          • Having new people find you and perpetuate the church forward, those are things you worry about when trying to start a church. Michael was not trying; what he wanted to do was surround himself with people that had the same ideas of worship as he did. I understand what you’re saying about ordination and theological education in the house church system, but those were not issues in Michael Spencer’s home. We were part of a unique community of pastors, teachers, musicians etc. that had come together on the mission field. Every person involved had been a Sunday school teacher, VBS director, worship leader, deacon, pastor or in some case where still doing those things in a local church while meeting together on Tuesday evenings. I was there to support what my friend was doing and experience what was going on, not because I felt the church I served in was failing in some way. No one there was saying “let’s leave our respective churches and do this instead.”

            Nor am I saying that should or shouldn’t be done – that’s not what we were doing.

  7. I am reminded of the 1970 hit “Love the One You’re With,” by Stephen Stills. I find the line, “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with” to be apropos here.

    Those are my sentiments towards church; so much I love, so much I dislike. But what’s the alternative? Solo discipleship, worship, fellowship? Or endless search for the “perfect” church as so many “church-hoppers” do these days? The “perfect” church is in the afterlife, not here.

    I am also reminded of Peter’s response to Jesus’s question with regards whether he, too, would leave Him, “Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.’” (John 6.68-69) The same is true of the church, local and universal; in it Christ is found even midst the noise, confusion, bad blood, bad music, poor preaching, broken relationships, and other such “sin stuff.”

    I’ll think I’ll stay put and just “love the one I’m with.”

    • Rick Ro. says:

      -> “Those are my sentiments towards church; so much I love, so much I dislike. But what’s the alternative? Solo discipleship, worship, fellowship? Or endless search for the “perfect” church as so many “church-hoppers” do these days? The “perfect” church is in the afterlife, not here.”

      Nicely said, CC.

    • –> “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with”

      That’s not always possible. It’s amazing how many people don’t care for somebody to love them.

      –> “But what’s the alternative? Solo discipleship, worship, fellowship? Or endless search for the “perfect” church as so many “church-hoppers” do these days? The “perfect” church is in the afterlife, not here.”

      CC: In my experience these things *are* solo, even when you are as immersed in a church as you can be. And as for “church-hoppers”, I think many of them may not be in search of the perfect church, but just one that has the most basic understanding of a few fundamental things. Their already artificially low expectations aren’t even being met, so they move on.

  8. Christiane says:

    maybe the answer is to realize that what forms a group of Christian worshipers into a ‘faith community’ is the Presence of the Lord in their midst

    any in the Body of Christ may come together to pray in that way . . . it may not be the ‘our kind’ of community, but it most certainly will be ‘His kind’

    ‘social clubs’ ? no
    . . . but there exists a ‘fellowship’ among those in the Body of Christ that transcends place and time and ‘labels’, and belongs most utterly to the One Whose Presence among the worshipers unites them in His embrace

    it is in such gatherings that the peace of Christ can be most powerfully discerned and when the worshipers depart from the gathering, the peace of Our Lord goes with them

    I think Michael Spencer knew this at some very deep level. I see it in how he provided Christian hospitality that welcomed and still welcomes many to Imonk where we can share with each other in a unique way that you don’t see happening on too many blogs . . . Michael understood a lot. And he didn’t stand for shallowness or pretense or formality . . . he wanted something better for those who follow Our Lord. He was blessed in that way, and he shared the blessing with us.