December 14, 2017

Response Part 2: Christian Community and Abandoning Commitment

With this post I am concluding my response to the series The Unresolved Tensions of Evangelicalism.

This post will look at “Disillusionment With Christian Community” and “Abandoning Christian Commitment Itself.”

The previous “Response” post (with links to the previous four) is here.

Disillusionment With Christian Community

Of the four issues I have examined, the disillusionment with Christian community has prompted the most response from evangelicals themselves. Throughout its history, evangelicalism has addressed this issue through study, discussion, experimentation, success and failure.

Today’s evangelicals are part of a movement that has an incredibly diverse history of community expressions. While the dominant forms of American Protestant “church” have prevailed for the last several centuries, there is a deep recognition that this form of Christian community has not created the kind of community that produces transformed disciples.

There are two minds about this dominant model of “churchianity.” On the one hand, it has been remarkably amenable to the various methodologies that produce church growth and success, so there is enormous loyalty by the mainstream of evangelicalism.

On the other hand, there is widespread recognition that this model is, by many measures, a massive failure in terms of the New Testament concept of “church.” This has prompted various renewal movements and redefinitions of church, running the gamut of every theological and denominational possibility.

In the current environment, many who are disillusioned with the traditional church have gravitated to new and different forms of community. From Jesus People USA to Simple Way, these options have challenged evangelicals to remember that the form of Christian community is not static, but its own entrepreneurial spirit allows newer forms and experiences.

But what about the disillusionment many feel with their own experience of Christian community?

The pages of the Bible are a history of the failure of God’s people as a community, a nation and a church. The message of scripture is the faithfulness of God, not the faithfulness of his people. But those same pages are full of admonitions and messages regarding the quality of the life of the Godly community. Justice, mercy, compassion, generosity, love, patience, sacrifice: these are the qualities that are preached by the prophets and taught by the law. There is no possible way to conceive of Christian community without them.

Of course, Jesus defines Christian community. It must be Jesus-shaped and Jesus-flavored. Christian community must be a continuation of the movement of which Jesus is the center. It must recognizably true to Jesus as Lord of the church. Jesus is not endorsing our churches, denominations and institutions. We are organically joined to Jesus and therefore to his mission and his people.

I have been part of local Christian congregations my entire 52 years of life. I have been an ordained minister, laboring to create Christian community, for more than three decades. For the last 16 years, I have lived in an intentional Christian community, where we live, work, worship, pray and share economic life together.

I have also been deeply hurt by the church’s failure to reflect Jesus and his Kingdom. I find it very difficult to identify with any of the options of Christian community around me.

But it is here that I am the most grateful to be a part of Christian community. Despite whatever failures the church has demonstrated, it has included me. It has communicated the Gospel to me, although in a faltering and flawed way. It has allowed me be part of the people of God, to come to his table, to find the waters of baptism and too participate in the mission of God. The failures of community have hurt me deeply, disillusioned me and sometimes driven me away from community, but at the same time Jesus has kept his promises to me through the church.

If the church has hurt you, you may need to walk away. No one can tell you what form the people of God will take in your life. It is not a matter of “church hopping” or “church shopping.” It is a matter of being open to laying down our expectations. It is about moving past the distortions of community that have installed themselves in the institutional churches. It is about the possibility of going to the church of the poor, the church that includes the unlikely and the church that is small in every way.

The journey is about forgiveness and continuing to follow Christ as he speaks to us in scripture. On my own experience, this is a gift of community, but not so much the gift of the evangelical conception of a successful church.

Our openness to the Spirit of God in our time is the hope of the renewal of Christian community. We need- desperately- new churches, small churches and unlikely churches. We need churches that are not trying to be successful, but are simply looking to be faithful to the faithfulness of Jesus.

I pray that the hurt and the disillusioned, like a mighty river, leave churches that perpetuate the errors of the past and risk everything on remaking the church as an intentional and humbly Jesus shaped community.

Failure is certain. Hurt is certain. Disillusionment is certain. The Bible, if it is read plainly, does not deceive us here. But our need for community does not change. What can change is our participation in a system that worships the idols of the age more than the Christ of the poor and suffering.

Abandoning Christian Commitment

It is unthinkable to me that I would ever abandon my commitment to the God I know in Jesus. While I can respond to this personal decision by others, I cannot easily put myself emotionally in the place of abandoning Christian commitment. But I can identify with the desire to abandon being considered as an evangelical Christian. While that is NOT my decision, it is easy to understand those who make it.

Several years ago, I began using the metaphor of team sports to describe the behavior of evangelicals in relationship to one another. Like fans of various NFL teams, these teams have intense feelings for their own team and against competing teams. At least for a few “seasons.”

The problem is that a larger and larger proportion of those in evangelicalism are not fans of the sport at all or find themselves burned out after several “seasons” of competition. They are embarrassed and uninterested in this “team sport” variety of evangelicalism. They are non-denominational, or simply generic, emerging or post-evangelically catholic. They have a humble and simple view of faith. They resist the connections that are made by many Christians to “totalize” their religion into something that dominates all modes of thinking. They are fearful of losing their authenticity and independence in their personal life. They are resistant to being told what they must think and feel by men shouting in pulpits and by churches obviously in it for the numbers.

Many of these have walked away from what they have experienced in evangelicalism. Many have walked away from the oppressive involvement with censorship, the entanglement with sexism and homophobia and the brutal treatment of dissenters. They have abandoned Christian commitment of the evangelical kind, and are finding diverse expressions of their faith. Sadly, many remain evangelical, but are estranged and lost in the evangelical wilderness.

What is my response? I want to encourage these evangelical refugees to continue their journey. Write it. Talk about it. Blog it. Artistically express it.Truthfully express it. Don’t leave quietly. Tell us that you are going and disturb our slumbering evasion of what your leaving means.

Evangelicalism’s hope does not lie in silencing those who are leaving. No, its hope lies at least partially in finding the courage to HEAR and RESPOND TO the stories and the experiences of those who are walking away from Christian commitment within evangelicalism for something else or even nothing else.

I am NOT saying we as evangelicals need to take the same route or agree with all that we will hear. No. But we deeply need to hear; we need to hear until we really understand who WE are and what WE are becoming. We need to include these painful voices in the “we” that conceives and creates our future.

I believe those who are abandoning evangelical-style Christian commitment are telling us some things we will never hear any other way than to listen to the painful experiences of those who can no longer worship with us. We have become the absolute masters of self-hypnosis and scapegoating. We can easily say “That’s the devil” or “They are just trapped in sin.” (Evangelicals like nothing better than to have the truth delivered to them by someone gay. Then they can write the whole matter off as “a strong delusion.” But the truth is that these thousands of leavers are the unpaid bills of what we’ve done and not done. They are a reflection of who we are.

I do not believe we can accommodate all these leavers and abandoners, nor should we attempt to. Many have moved far beyond the boundaries of Christian believe and morality. But how we treat those who have gone out from us cannot be simple a quote of “they were never really part of us.” We need to learn, be moved, weep, pray, study, reconsider and grieve profitably.

Our views of leadership particularly need to reflect a humbler approach to those who abandon our faith. Our course and our curse is being led by men largely without humility; men who constantly tell us what God says in such a way that their own visions and plans are confirmed. Where are those leaders who see the tragedy of evangelicalism and are willing to take steps to heal it? Where are those men willing to listen, to pray, to build bridges, to learn from others, to sacrifice “success” for Christ?

Where are the leaders who will stand firm on the Gospel? Build simple, faithful churches? Smash the idols of evangelicalism? Learn from the poor and the suffering rather than the wise of this age?

Where are the leaders who will give themselves to a Jesus-shaped evangelicalism, reconnecting with the broader, deeper, wider, more ancient paths of Christian life?

Such leaders are, in many ways, the key to not wasting this moment in evangelicalism.

They also will be critical in developing an evangelicalism that is catholic and Protestant, Biblical and reasonable, spiritual and practical, open and committed, humble and bold, sacrificial and generous. They will be the keys to allowing Ed and his thousands of brothers and sisters to relate to the church again while retaining their authenticity and individuality.

I would like to thank everyone who has read these posts. I hope they have been a reasonable and helpful start to an ongoing conversation of our evangelical future, and not just a witness to our demise.

Comments

  1. You wrote:

    …the metaphor of team sports to describe the behavior of evangelicals in relationship to one another. Like fans of various NFL teams, these teams have intense feelings for their own team and against competing teams.

    Wow!

    I likened it to sibling rivalry. I have heard similar stories of several siblings at the dinner table trying to shout over and compete for their parents’ attention. In the church it seems more like “my Jesus can beat up your Jesus”.

    And when the last parent dies, the kids gravitate to the will expecting a greater share and essentially, a final report card for their life of involvement. Woe to those who get a mere equal share.

    Two stories in the gospels of the protective apostles trying to hinder seekers of Jesus’ healing: they tell the blind man to be quiet and the mother of the demon-pocessed daughter to go away. And those baptisers aren’t part of us.

    Were the precious martyrs fed to the lions different from today’s American believer? I imagine when there’s persecution, petty arguments aren’t as prevalent.

    For the good news, congratulations on your family news and have a good holiday.

  2. bob pinto, somehow I doubt most of us in church are willing to be martyred for the Gospel, no matter how sure we are In Our Hearts that we’re on fire for Jesus. Thankfully, we live in a time we’re being all-talk isn’t considered exceptional in the least; we’ll probably never have to find out the terrible truth about ourselves.

  3. “For the last 16 years, I have lived in an intentional Christian community, where we live, work, worship, pray and share economic life together.”

    This is not only one of the true ways forward for Christian community in the midst of a culture that has generally lost community, but a real way in which we have something to offer to the wider culture.

    I too am a part of such a community. (Though I don’t, of course, know how much it resembles yours.) Right now we’re discussing things like the geographical aspect of such life together, how to transform what it means to grow old together, and how to integrate business into the equation (several stumbling attempts and at least three significant successes on that latter front). We’re calling it all “citybuilding.”

    Of course being intentional about community building doesn’t eliminate problems, but it does give you a framework of committment in which to resolve them and move forward.

    The section on Christian committment was deeply moving. Thank you.

    For me, whenever I have faced strong “leaving” thoughts, I have always come back to a devotion to Jesus and his mission (and therefore to his body) that I find best expressed in something like Thomas’s attitude on the road to Jerusalem, “Let us go also, that we might die with him.” Or even better in some adaptation of Henry V’s St. Crispin’s day speech.

    “We happy few, we band of brothers…”

    (Oh, and by the way, thanks for the clarification on ’emergent’ – because of their oft-association with the term ‘post-Evangelical’ I had assumed that you more stronlgy identified with the emergents. Not that that would be a problem. I like a lot of what has come out of their experiments, thinking, and life together, as well. I’ve just gone the opposite direction – Anglican.)

  4. If I read you correctly, the way is forward not back. I am reminded of the Exodus story. It didn’t take Moses long to learn that he’d have to deal with “the back to Egypt” bunch, whose cry was basically, “What have you done for me/us lately?” (Ever hear that in a local church of any kind today?)

    We can’t go back to some romanticized past, nor stay enmeshed in the mess of the present. We have to trust God and move ahead. That’s scary now as it always has been. God’s only promise as to Moses and Jesus to us (Matthew 28:18-20) is God and Jesus with us always.

  5. imonk,

    This was a very heartfelt, pastoral article. Hope you don’t mind me seeing it as such. 🙂 Thanks for sharing your heart throughout the series.

  6. Thank you. This is how it feels to have one’s long standing illness finally diagnosed. Thank you Dr. Mike. Really, I owe you, big time.

  7. Thank you again, for these posts. After being witness to my friends and others unceremoniously tossed out of their churches or even tossed out of the IVCF group on campus for no reason other than their inability to conform to their entertainment-driven culture of Christianity, I’ve never been more disillusioned with Christian communities, and Christians in general. So many times, it’s so hard to go on, seeing other Christians completely ignorant or even proud of the tremendous injuries they’ve inflicted on others to puff up their own self-importance. Thank you for making it easier for me.

  8. Regarding living in an intentional Christian community: For a long time that sounded ideal, even though I suspected that the reality of such a community would fall short of the fantasy of what it could be. Every time I prayed to find such a community, I found new people in my life, but not Christians. Actually, each time I prayed, it seemed that new people in my life were farther and farther from Jesus.

    Eventually I figured out that my prayers were being answered, by an all-wise and loving God. I prefer the people God has placed in my life to the “church folks” who do not like my friends. As Erwin McManus says, we try to fill our “first spaces” with people like us who like us. My friends are not like the church folks. But they are the people God has placed in my life and I am learning to live life with them, living as a follower of Jesus – incarnationally living among them and learning to love them.

  9. “But how we treat those who have gone out from us cannot be simple a quote of “they were never really part of us.” We need to learn, be moved, weep, pray, study, reconsider and grieve profitably.”

    ..and yet hardly a comment on this thread or imonk’s original Ed thread shows the least interest in Ed. He’s gone – out of sight, out of mind.

  10. I read several supportive comments directed to Ed and about Ed, and I appreciated each one.

  11. When it comes to community, for me at least, I think I’ve reached a place of contentment . . . without fulfillment. It was eighteen years ago that I first suffered from a serious disillusionment with the Church. I think my disillusionment was sustained for many years by an unrealistic hope of finding, if not the perfect church, at least the ideal one. My final disillusionment came after I was able to accomplish my church dream . . . starting a house church. But, like they say, “Be careful what you hope for.”

    My vision of the house church was not realized because the five families that joined us seemed to have exited the established church from the opposing side. While we exited from the post-Evangelical door, the other five families had exited from the hyper-Evangelical door. They were not happy with the Evangelical church because it didn’t have enough extraneous rules for behavior, or because it did not hate certain groups, like Democrats, enough. Seriously, one family wanted us to take up arms to fight Janet Reno (an Armageddon thing). So in frustration I abandoned it after a year. It took that long to figure out we were not on the same page.

    Then I went through a phase of trying to be an agent of change within the traditional church. This meant being a deacon, elder in a couple of churches, small group leader etc. But it always came down to the problem of wineskins. One voice can not change the tide of tradition and Christian socialization. Tradition has always trumped reality or truth.

    So now I exist in a state of suspended animation. I am a member and attend a traditional church and plan on staying. Yet, I’ve tasted true community and it is not here. If I had a serious problem in my life, like marriage trouble, our church would be the last place I (or anyone) would go due to the “pretend we are perfect” syndrome. But the Biblical hermeneutics and teaching are pretty good. So I approach it like an ecumenical smorgasbord. I just hope I can find the missing pieces of Christian community elsewhere.

    But this unfulfilled longing is not a bad thing. Like in Hebrews 11, there is this anticipation of perfection that keeps us hoping for things unseen. Christ’s complete restoration of this world will come someday, then all will be well.

  12. BlaineFabin says:

    I left evangelicalism 5 years ago and after treading in the post evangelical realm for a few months began to see that my journey was not going to end as a post evangelical but rather a pre evangelical. I found that all the things about PE that drew me into it were all rediscovery, whether it was ideas of the communion of saints, or art and sybmology, liturgy… yeah… I returned to the catholic church that I left at age 20 for evangelicalism. For my part this journey was right, though it started with eveyone I knew thinking I had gone mad… especially my wife. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not here to preach about the catholic church or tell you that it doesn’t have it’s own issues and all your problems will be solved, rather after reading this series over the last couple of weeks has been like reading a history book of my own journey and struggles. It’s good to be reminded how much better life is now in so many ways and that is really what I want to say. Many people seem to take 2 roads after evangelicalism and some really seek and some fall prey to pessimism which is really the trend that I see the most. Don’t lose hope. Whether you end up in the ancient church like me or find yourself elsewhere don’t give in to just being in a wilderness. I hope that makes sense because that’s what I understand imonk to be saying.

  13. Mike, on this day after Thanksgiving, may I tell you truthfully how thankful I am for your blog and all your writings? Your blog is a gift from God to me, and I’m sure to many others. Your recent posts and the comments are worth their weight in gold.

    (I realize things in cyberspace don’t really weigh anything, but you know what I mean.)

    I think the hard part for me is the loneliness of life after leaving a Christian community and not being able to find one since. I was in a very intense church, and got severely wounded and burnt out. I’ve met with other groups, and received some grace there, but can’t quite join myself to them due to the “entertainment culture,” the strong sense of committment (including an obligation to tithe), etc. I currently meet with a megachurch which has a lot of positive aspects, but I don’t think I can ever become a member. And even though I know I need “community,” one of the things I like there is preserving my anonymity. I’m just not ready for people to be acting like they own me, which I think is inevitable once you commit.

    There are others who left the group I was once in. They are kind of wanderers, half-heartedly looking for the good things they once had in community (constant fellowship and prayer, a strong sense of purpose, a culture standing against the outside world, etc.), but scared to death of the bad things (the domination by leaders, the imposition of the latest “new move,” the presumptions and meddlings about personal affairs, the violation of boundaries, etc.). We communicate by email from afar, but don’t have a heart to join ourselves to anything new, or to replicate what we were once in because we know where it ends – woundings and disillusionment. So we wander in the wilderness, like sheep without a shepherd.

    What’s helpful about your blog, Mike, is to hear that “you are not alone.” That is so important, and so comforting. May the Lord bless all of His wandering and wounded seekers with Himself, and may He eventually grant them some form of community that provides them the “oil and wine” for healing and restoration.

  14. Christopher Lake says:

    “If the church has hurt you, you may need to walk away. No one can tell you what form the people of God should take in your life.”

    Michael, as I’ve written previously, I do empathize with Ed’s plight. I have been in less Gospel-centered churches, and it was very trying at times. (I eventually left to find a more Gospel-centered church– I realize not everyone has that option.)

    However, what do we do with the Bible’s picture of local churches (at Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus) and with the non-existent concept, Biblically, of a believer *not* belonging to a local church? Where does God’s word ever tell us that if the church has hurt us, we may need to walk away from the Biblical portrait of church, with appointed elders, deacons, and a body that is living out the Christian life together, *as* a body?

  15. Christopher Lake says:

    I should also that I was deeply hurt, emotionally, by certain people in one of these less Gospel-centered churches, and I did leave that church (not for that reason though)… but if I had had no other churches to go to, I don’t see that the Bible would have allowed me to simply stay home and “worship” God on the Lord’s Day. From what God’s word shows about local churches, I would have simply been called to stay in that church and continue to pray and work for the church to have a more Gospel-centric culture.

  16. Christopher Lake says:

    I should also *add,* I meant, in the first sentence.

  17. I’m not sure how I came upon your blog, but thanks for this. I suppose I’m an Ed – I left evangelicalism about five years ago, and after 3 1/2 years of not attending any sort of church, about a year ago I started attending a liberal Quaker meeting – albeit in a very haphazard fashion. I also took up yoga, completed a spiritual director training program run by Catholics, and started reading feminist theology, and practicing centering prayer.

    There were a couple of years there where I had no idea where I was going to land, religiously speaking, but now, if I’m forced to label myself, I say that I am “Christian-ish.” I still like to wrestle with the Bible, I dig the Jesus I read about there, but I can neither confirm nor deny the historic creeds. I’m okay with that.

    And honestly, for me, being outside of evangelicalism is not a plight or a wilderness – it’s a relief. While it’s true that I can win the majority of “What’s the worst thing that Christians have ever done to you?” contests, and I was carrying around a LOT of pain, the truth is that I could never buy the theological party line. I spent the first three decades of my life feeling like I was the only one in the room who didn’t know the secret handshake, and it’s been liberating to realize that I was just in the wrong damn room.

    Anyway, thank you for wanting to really hear to those who have left evangelicalism. That’s not a common quality in the evangelical world as a whole.

    Peace.

  18. “While the dominant forms of American Protestant “church” have prevailed for the last several centuries, there is a deep recognition that this form of Christian community has not created the kind of community that produces transformed disciples.”

    This is an absolutely dead-on statement. I believe we need to worship God, learn about Christ, and practice Christianity in a community, realizing that community will never be perfect (or filled with perfect people), but that we can’t really understand God in isolation, either.

    The tension lies in being part of a small NT kind of church where members care for one another and challenge each other’s thinking and behavior, compared to small churches that band together because everyone is supposed to think and act alike.

  19. Serious question I want you all to think about, if anybodys reading this thread anymore:

    Lets start with a story.

    Once upon a time, I was a young, ugly, disenfranchised, loser punk loner outcast that no adult trusted and few of my peers wanted to be around. I can remember a handful of times where adults saw through that and treated me otherwise, and a handful of older kids who included me and enjoyed being around me.

    The reason I bring this up is because, as I was buying menthols for some ugly, young punk loser girls who approached me with a tremulant “excuse me, Mister..”, how not a lot changes but that, after you survive adolescence, you can see yourself in lots of different people.

    For me, I still drive a piece of crap car and more or less still look the part of a (fashionable) grown-up loser outcast – certainly enough that a couple of kids who’ve been unsuccessfully trying to get somebody to buy them cigarettes for half the afternoon might view me as potentially sympathetic to their cause – but I realized an inherent ethical dilemma that wouldn’t let me relax as I paid the young Food Lion cashier for their cigarettes and my chocolate syrup.

    As a ‘Christian’, I felt obligated not to help them – don’t encourage delinquency, right? As a former delinquent, I felt obligated to steal for them; with a disgust bordering on love I felt the desire to hang out with these kids, a temptation that I resisted because of some mix of morality and Christian sensibility. I handed them their cigarettes and drove off laughing to myself, and went home to wonder who I am nowadays – thinking about how punk gave me philosophy and how philosophy and me sailed away from punk and how I looked back to watch my youth fade into the horizon with not much to show for it but a lot of books read and a lot of thoughts thought.

    I’ve bought cigarettes for kids before, but this is the first time I’ve ever felt like an adult while doing it – ever felt alienated from them by a Something inside. A deep nervousness about being loving, I guess. I never thought that feeling would find me.

    So I ask you this: should Christian adults buy cigarettes for loser kids, like it ain’t nothing? Can that be a descriptor for Christian behavior?

    Can Christians be the people who Always buy cigarettes for the punks?

  20. treebeard says:

    So I ask you this: should Christian adults buy cigarettes for loser kids, like it ain’t nothing?

    In my opinion, no. But different members of the Body of Christ have different gifts, and different perspectives. The Lord very clearly told me to stop smoking, and I felt incredibly condemned in my conscience when I went back to it. (To my surprise, since I knew the Lord was telling me not to do it, it was an easy habit to break after I got hooked again.) But I’ve also known some wonderful Christians who smoke, including one who has always been a supply of grace to me.

    Can that be a descriptor for Christian behavior?

    Depends on what the “descriptor” is. But if I were in the same situation, and the kids could relate to me, I would have hung out with them, but without smoking. I might have even told them why I no longer smoked, but not in a condemning or self-righteous way, just matter-of-fact.

    Can Christians be the people who Always buy cigarettes for the punks?

    I just don’t think so. But if the Lord gives you life and peace in the process, who am I to argue? I have a hard time believing the Lord would honor our encouraging or enabling destructive behavior, and I would put smoking in that category (addiction, damage to the physical body, etc.). Paul the apostle said “All things are lawful, but I will not be brought under the power of anything.” I think smoking brings people under its power, and should be discouraged.

    My two cents.