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Is It Time to Leave the (Institutional) Church?

Copyright 2000 by Dave Kahle

A few years ago, at a time in which I was heavily involved in my local church, the congregation went through a nasty split. At the time, it was a shock to me. I've since learned, however, that congregational divisions are something that happens regularly. See if any of this sounds familiar.

Here's what happened. There arose some differences of opinion between the elders and the senior minister in regards to authority in the church. The minister had been in the congregation for eleven years and had grown more and more comfortable with his self-defined role as the "hub of the wheel," the center of all activity, connected to every ministry or effort in the church. Although never appointed as such, and not qualified, he began to refer to himself as the chief elder.

His position grew steadily more hardened, and eventually he announced, unexpectedly, that "We're going to have a family event. It can be either the birth of a new church or a nasty divorce." The choice was ours (the elders). A few days later he was gone, along with about one third of the congregation.

At the time I was shocked, (Where did this come from?) perplexed (How did this happen?) and overwhelmed (Why me?). I recall thinking that this phenomenon of church splits lead by disgruntled "senior ministers" was generally a disease that primarily afflicted the particular religious body with which I was then affiliated.

Since then I've learned that not to be true. Within a few weeks of the event, I discovered an acquaintance who had lived through an almost identical situation in his Presbyterian church. Next I learned of a large independent congregation not far from us that had gone through an amazingly similar situation a few years earlier.

As I became more aware of church splits, I found more and more examples of them throughout the Christian world. Just recently, one of the largest churches in our area, a 2,000 + congregation, lived through almost exactly the same experience. Last Sunday I saw the "minister's" large add in the paper, accompanied, of course by his picture, advertising his new congregation and attempting to lure people to follow after him.

As I investigated this phenomena, I discovered that this is hardly new. In fact, most of the 300+ Christian denominations in this country have their beginnings in a "minister" splitting from his former congregation or affiliation.

Yesterday's newspaper contained a story about a denomination headquartered in my home town which is, at this writing, going through the pain of a split. Prominent in the newspaper was the name and comments of the minister who seems to be the galvanizing focus for the disaffected.

This can hardly be pleasing to a Lord who prays for unity. But yet it continues.

WHY is that?

Before we consider that question, I'd like to reflect on another situation.

A friend of mine has recently made me aware of another epidemic problem in the church: minister burn-out.

It seems that the ranks of pastors and ministers are regularly under attack, and there is a constant battle to keep people in the ministry. For example, according to Curt Lloyd, regional director for the National Church Growth Research Center, writing in his Gleanings newsletter, in one religious body over 7,000 ministers "have dropped-out, stopped-out, or have been forced-out of their calling." Compare that to the 7,226 active at the time, and you have a drop out rate of almost 50%.

And we're constantly reading or hearing about how overworked our ministers are, and how badly in need of rest and encouragement.

In partial response to this attrition, the organized church expends enormous resources in order to train new "leaders." According to Curt, the bible colleges among the Christian churches alone spend over $45 million dollars each year, in operating funds alone, to educate and equip ministers and church leaders. Add in the money spent for new buildings, equipment and facilities. Then, multiply that by all the different denominational groups, and it appears as though the training of future ministers and pastors may be a multi-billion dollar industry in this country.

Yet, in spite of this tremendous investment in training leaders, we continue to witness a Christian movement in this country that is growing slowly, if at all. And this at a time when many people who study trends say that more people today are yearning for spiritual values than at anytime in the last few generations.

So, we have these two trends interwoven in our culture: The tremendous investment in training new ministers and pastors, and the trend among the baby boomers and Generation X'ers for more meaning in their lives. Yet we don't seem to be knitting the two together.

WHY is that?

One more observation. Our churches are too often filled with apathetic people. Members who don't get involved. Who come to worship assemblies on Sundays with an "entertain me" attitude. Members who come to classes with an "OK, teach me" attitude. I doubt that, at any one time, there are more than 10% of a typical congregation who are actively involved in the work of that group.

Why is that? Is the Lord's church so lacking in vibrancy and energy that only a few of its members seek to be involved?

Is there any connection among these three seemingly unconnected trends?

I believe the answer is "Yes."

All these difficulties in the church arise from our reliance on an institutional church -- a church that Christ never intended for us to have.

I know that's a strong statement, and you may not agree. But set aside your pre-conceived ideas for a moment, and think with me.

Let's begin with acknowledging the general feeling of how active, intense and involved the biblical church was. Read through the New Testament, and you can't help but notice the vast difference between the church then --- it changed people's lives and converted the known world - and our assemblages of Sunday morning spectators. The difference is striking.

Now, before we begin making excuses for our generation, let's just consider a few questions. Didn't the early Christians serve the same God that we worship? And isn't God the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow?

Doesn't that same God want the same thing from and for His church today that he did then? So who changed? Him or us?

Doesn't it seem likely that we, the 21st century Christian church, are doing some things that have caused the church of our generation to be a sad shadow of its glorious predecessor?

Let's look at some of the pieces of church life in the 21st Century that were no where in view in the 1st Century.

1. Clergy. No such thing in the early church. Certainly there were the apostles who dedicated themselves to spreading the world. But there is no evidence that any of them were totally supported. Paul even made a point of making his living by "making tents." And, while we saw some of the roving apostles travel around the country, most of the churches were established before they were there, and left to fend for themselves after they were gone. There just is no such thing as a paid, professional pastor "in charge of" a local congregation.

2. Church buildings. The first century church met in small groups in people's homes. Church buildings didn't appear until 300 years later.

3. Seminaries. We've chosen to ignore the Biblical directive that a person is qualified to lead by his character and experience. Instead we have created additional man-made institutions and deemed someone qualified to be a "pastor" by his education.

The list could go on for several pages. But these few components are enough to make the point.

Now, for a moment, imagine you attended a church that was a small group, meeting in some one's home, with no pastor or ordained "minister."

How would that church be different than your current institutional church? More importantly, how would you be different as a result?

Here's my answers to those questions. See if you can relate to any of these changes.

Since the church is really a small group, you couldn't sit quietly and anonymously every week. You'd have to acknowledge the others in the group. The small size would make it extremely likely that you'd get to know them - and vice versa.

You may even become involved in other people's lives, and they in yours. The downside is, of course, that you couldn't hide in anonymity, even in those times that you wanted to. And, the singing and music would not be nearly as professional and entertaining. Since you wouldn't have a seminary-educated expounder of the truth to lecture you, you couldn't sit and passively listen to someone one else's scholarship. You'd have to join in the work of understanding the Holy Spirit's guidance in your life. You may even give up a "Bible study" in exchange for a time of sharing what God is doing in your life. You may even find yourself bringing something into the gathering to help build up the others, like the example discussed in I Cor. 14.

Since the group was small and non-professional, they'd expect you to be involved in using your spiritual gifts. You couldn't leave "ministry" to the "ministers." You may even find yourself functioning as part of a larger body, in much the way I Cor. 12 says it ought to be.

Since you didn't have the church basket passed in front of you every Sunday, and didn't need to support professional clergy or pay for church buildings, you may even find yourself being more involved with personally using your financial gifts in a more intimate way. You may even discover yourself setting aside a certain amount each week, and then deciding how to best use it. Your giving would be much more personal and much less "institutional."

And if you did all of these things, and found yourself personally involved in a small group of Christians, actively sharing your life and ministering to others, you might just find that Church become a powerful, dynamic, intense force in your life.

You might just find yourself forever changed as a result.

Maybe it is time to leave the institutional church, and find or start a house church modeled after the New Testament pattern.

 

 

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