Friday, August 24, 2012

P4E.249 Coming Out as a Non-Church Going Believer

Back in 2007, I left a comment on a blog post by Mark Galli, where I mentioned that we were no longer attending traditional church services on Sundays. As you see below, he asked for some more information and below that is my response. It has become a sort of primer on why we are not attending traditional church on Sunday. It's not just young Christians leaving church and rethinking faith. This is my "coming out" as a Believer who is no longer a church-goer.

I very much appreciate your comments here. Frankly, as a person committed to the traditional church, I've not had much sympathy for people who have chosen your path, so I'd like to understand you better.

In particular, would you be open to telling me what you mean when you say you found yourself closer to God, each other, and to those we minister to. I'd like to get a better picture of what this "church" looks like for you, week by week. The more details the better.

This would be a big service to me, and ultimately the magazine.

Grace and peace,


Mark Galli
Senior Managing Editor
Christianity Today
Dear Mark,

I'm really amazed that an editor of Christianity Today would make this inquiry to me (of all people). Thanks! I'm grateful for the chance to respond.

In forming a response, I realize that there are so many caveats to be made. I want to be careful not to "church bash."   I want to be careful not to sound "superior" in my choice not to attend an established church. I don't want to imply that all churches suffer from the same problems. I don't want to come off as dogmatic, because what works for my family and me might not work for others. We don't "judge" others for attending traditional church. What you get here is one family's response, at this time, to its own personal interaction and history with "church" in Southern California. At the same time, any stated reasons for not attending a traditional church must reveal shortcomings that I believe have caused my family and me to stop attending.

As I mentioned, we resonate, in large part, with what George Barna's book "Revolution" describes. We resonate with the idea that "millions of believers have moved beyond the established church and chosen to be the church instead" (emphasis his). I'd really encourage you to read "Revolution."

I think there are some generalities that apply:

- Most established churches require you to buy into a whole set of "beliefs" that, many times, do not unify but separate you from other bodies of Believers.

My wife and I both grew up as Catholics. We left the Catholic Church in our twenties and began attending "Protestant, non-denominational, evangelical, Christian churches" (what a mouthful!). Each denomination (and even "non-denomination") seeks to distinguish itself from the others by some nuance of theology or tradition. These denominational differences partition the overall church and plays into (what I believe to be) the Enemy's strategy to divide and conquer.

- Put bluntly, traditional churches act as a crutch for many marginal Believers (see, that makes me sound superior, doesn't it?).

A pastor may actually joke that just because you park yourself in a pew doesn't make you a Christian any more than parking yourself in a garage makes you a car. But, the fact is that many marginal Believers do just that. This crutch causes many to think that because they "belong" to a church their relationship to Christ is established and ongoing.

- What one experiences at many churches is a façade.

Traditional church can fool one into believing that being busy with church activities equates with furthering one's relationship with Christ. Bible studies, men's groups, ushering, worship team, children's ministry, homeless outreach, etc. Who would say a bad thing about them? No one would. But, I know from my own experience that I participated in many of them while my heart was dark, empty, shut-down and downright rebellious towards God. On the inside I was dead. On the outside (at church) I looked like an engaged spiritual leader who took his walk with God seriously. Of course, this can happen whether one is attending traditional church or not. I think church can facilitate fooling others and oneself.

The façade starts from the top down. Many pastors are not willing to be transparent enough to let their congregation know that they aren't perfect. They get up on Sunday morning and deliver their sermon on the way things should be, never acknowledging where they are. This trickles down through the board, the worship team, the different ministries and the congregation at large. So we all end up looking like whitewashed tombs.

- There is little accountability in church communities.

In an effort to attract any and all potential churchgoers, many churches forgo any judgment/ discernment regarding the actions of its congregants. My wife and I minister to couples (mostly "Christian") who are in crisis in their marriages. So, for example, we come a cross a couple in which the husband is a worship leader at his church and is also verbally, spiritually and maybe even physically abusive to his wife. He may be actively involved in extra-marital affairs, which are well known in the community. When we advise the church, we are, in essence, ignored. The church will make every excuse to stand behind their "worship leader" and may even blame the wife. Pastors seem to be the most invulnerable to these (many times substantiated) allegations. Pastors also seem to be the most un-teachable people when it comes to marriage.

- Some churches serve to further traditions that have no basis in Scripture.

I don't agree with everything that the "emerging church" has to say. But, I do resonate with the idea that "liturgy" does not have its basis in Scripture and that there are infinite varieties of liturgy that can bring one closer to God. Opening prayer, announcements, worship music, sermon, alter call combined with more worship music, closing prayer, exit by more worship music, refreshments and sign-ups for ministries. It doesn't have to be that way…..

On a personal note, we came to the place where we don't attend traditional church by coming closer to divorce than I want to think about. I had been so offensive, so un-godly, so angry to my wife and family that I almost lost them. At that time, 6 years ago, I had been married 24 years. God used a "para-church" ministry called Life Partners, founded by Ken Nair, author of "Discovering the Mind of a Woman."

Through the intervention of my wife, friends, God and Life Partners I believe that I became "born again" again. (Sounds heretical, doesn't it?) I had become a Christian when I was 16 and after a brief enthusiasm had been on a slow slide ever since. Now, at 51, I do feel closer to God, to my wife, and to those we minister to because:

- I am much more consistent in my public and private lives. I no longer feel like I'm a whitewashed tomb.
- I believe my relationship with my wife is mirror of my relationship with God. Both are now much better, each because the other is better.
- With my wife's help, I have become more transparent, confessing my sins to her and those close to us in Life Partners.
- We really are transparent with each other, confessing our sins to one another, praying for each other, and spiritually ministering to each other.

We can do this because the masks have come off. We realize that we are all in the same sinful boat and are encouraging each other towards Christlikeness. We do this without the games, the religious phoniness, the liturgy, the "worship" music, the sermons, the cliques, the programs, etc.

You asked what this looks like on a weekly basis. Life Partners begins with a weekend "Discovery Seminar." Afterwards, Life Partners initially asks for a 3-year commitment. We are in our 5th year and the leaders of our groups average, say, 10 years. Our Life Partners group meets in rented rooms at a church on Tuesday nights for 2-1/2 hours. Every other week there is either a live or taped speaker for about an hour to 1-1/2 hours. These speakers ostensibly focus on marriage issues, but in reality Life Partners is a discipleship ministry that encourages men to become the spiritual leaders that God intended them to be.

Marriages and relationships improve as the men become more aware of how their flesh is running their lives and decide to engage in the spiritual fight. The balance of the time is spent in what could be described as "group-therapy." Every other week is "all-group." We are led in discussions about what is going on in our lives, confessing our sins, and how we can respond in Christlike ways.

We pray for each other. We become entwined in each other's lives. We have friends. They are our church community. As I said, we pay for the privilege of attending. I consider it a tithe. I know that Life Partners does not encourage its participants to eschew traditional church attendance.

During the rest of the week, we find that other couples are referred to us for help in their marriages. We believe that this is an especially important niche of ministry and become close to those who are serious about improving their marriages and relationship to Christ.

To us, this is "church." We believe that ours is a robust relationship with Christ. (Have you noticed that "robust " is a new buzzword, as well as "resonate?") That's probably more than you ever wanted to know. I would be glad to go into this further or answer more questions, if you have any.


Wednesday, August 15, 2012

P4E.248 What Lasts?

My wife, Gwen, has a way of getting to the heart of matters. She has always advocated people over things. She has always valued relationships over stuff. It has not always been so clear for me. But, with her help, my mind and values have become more and more clear.

From time to time, you hear people say things like, "When men die, they don't wish that they had spent more time at work." Meaning, that dying men usually wish they'd spent more time with their family. But, it doesn't seem to bother us living men too much. We still act as though we value work more than family.

So, what should we value? What has lasting value? What should we be devoting our time, energy, and resources to? I'm not going to dismiss work out of hand. If you have a job that you are truly passionate about, that produces something of lasting value that impacts many lives, then your work does count. But, this is a very relative and subjective discussion. For instance, a person could be very passionate about counterfeiting money. That could affect a lot of people's lives!

Relationships have lasting value, because they are spiritual.  Every physical thing that we can sense around us will pass away. Everything. But, our spirits are eternal. Memories have lasting value. Impressions about character, or lack thereof, have lasting value. Traditions, and stories and anecdotes and quotes and music and art and poetry have lasting value. The things that affect our senses and our spirits stick with us. I can remember that Gwen used to wear a strawberry lip gloss when we were young. The fragrance of that strawberry lip gloss has left an indelible mark in my memory. Every time I smell something like it, I'm transported back to those days.

Since this blog is directed towards men who are interested in bettering their marriages, I'll be plain. The way that we handle ourselves around our wives and children leaves a lasting impression on them. When we have explosive, emotional, interactions with them damage occurs. Brains cells are rearranged. Memories are made. Character is established. Spirits are crushed. Stories will be told. I have an acquaintance who's abusive step-father lived in a trailer and kept an electric coffeemaker on continuously. To this day, the smell of burned coffee makes her physically ill. She wishes she could forget.

But, kindnesses are also remembered. Acts of love, acts of help, acts of compassion all create lasting memories. A patient, joyful, kind, gentle, helpful, faithful man will be long remembered. His memory will be passed on in a verbal tradition by his wife and children, co-workers and friends. His spirit will live.

The choice really is ours. Our words will last. Jesus said, "Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will not pass away." How will we be remembered? What verbal traditions will be passed on about us? What will be the lasting impression that we leave? What stories will be told? Will those close to us be haunted by or cherish the memories that we create with them? We choose.