The following is from an email I received last week from Tom Lamb ([email protected] ). It is some reflections on ‘church’ by a US Baptist minister, written in an email to Tom.
Thanks for the article and your willingness to share it with me. I also went to your website and read some of your other articles. I agree with your observations about the state of the modern institutionalized church. If you would be so kind as to indulge me for a moment, I’d like to make a few observations of my own about the “system” as you call it.
First, let me confess that I am a pastor (I pastor a Baptist church in the Midwestern region of the USA). Let me also say that I am not apposed to the idea of church. It is the body of Christ and the bride of Christ. He loved her and shed His blood for her. I especially love the people God has entrusted to my care; they are wonderful; I have no gripes with them personally. What I am frustrated with is what the church has become. It has gone from being a vibrant, home-based, interpersonal, life-giving body (New Testament church), to an exhausting, often lifeless, institution-based, impersonal organization (today).
I am not saying that nothing worthwhile ever happens in local churches; that would be an inaccurate statement. I have been blessed in many ways over the years through local church involvement. I just have many questions and frustrations about the way church is done, especially here in America today. I detect from your articles that organized churches in your country suffer from similar maladies. Anyway, here are the gut-level honest frustrations of an institutional insider: (note: from here on I will refer to the church as the “institution’)
- As a pastor I often feel like the guardian of an institution rather than a participant in a revolution. The advancement of the kingdom of God, the spreading of the gospel, and the making of true disciples is often lost behind the seemingly endless busy work that must be done in order for the institution to continue to function. Everything gets bogged down in red tape and institutional bureaucracy. Rather than being on mission with Christ, the institution spends most of its time, energy, and resources promoting and preserving itself; i.e., keeping the “machine” oiled and running. I often wonder how many poor, oppressed, and spiritually lost people we could help in Jesus’ name; how much human suffering we could alleviate; how many missionary endeavors we could undertake; and ultimately how many disciples of Jesus we could make around the world if we moved our gatherings back into homes, fired all the professional staff, sold all our institutional buildings, and pooled the proceeds together. (Shhhh..don’t tell anyone that the pastor was actually thinking something like that)!
- As a pastor I am expected to be a fund raiser, vision caster, motivator, organizer, and administrator. It recently occurred to me: “I am not a shepherd, I am the CEO of a corporation called ‘church.” And my success as a CEO is often measured by how large my congregation is, how fast it is growing, how much money we have, and how fast we are building new buildings. Unfortunately none of these things are within my control, so you can imagine the frustration. And of course within the congregation there are the whiners, complainers, critics, and pathological antagonizers who love to torment institutional leaders. Oh, and don’t forget the church politics, unresolved interpersonal conflicts, and denominational garbage that goes on. By the way, I read last week that 20,000 pastors leave the ministry forever every month in the USA! I wonder why? Hmmm…..
- As a pastor I am weary of continually trying to motivate spiritually lethargic, apathetic (and probably lost) people, to no avail. I’m convinced that our churches are literally filled with deceived people who equate being a Christian with institutional involvement, i.e, “I am a good Christian because I am active in the institution.” There is no real life transformation going on; no submission to God; no being conformed to the image of Christ; no daily spiritual disciplines; no exercising on one’s spiritual gifts; just attendance at the institution (and sometimes nominal attendance at that). And because of the way the institution is structured there is no accountability mechanism in place to address the issue with them. This is nothing but deception from the enemy. Jesus said that many faithful churchgoers are going to wind up in hell, much to their shock and dismay (Matthew 7:21-23). It saddens me more than you know. People say they love Jesus yet deny Him with their lifestyles. The hypocrisy is unnerving. They want to call themselves followers of Christ, they just don’t want to do what He said (Luke 6:46). I’m really not trying to be self-righteous (I’m not perfect either). It’s just that, as a pastor, it breaks my heart when people live under a deception that brings reproach on the name of Christ, destroys their lives, and jeopardizes their eternal destiny. How did we get here? One problem I see it that this modern-day monolithic institution called “church” has all but lost the ability to get people together regularly in small fellowships in intimate settings, where they gather around the Scriptures, encourage one another, pray for one another, and hold one another accountable. It seems to me it would be very difficult to live a double life and be a hypocrit in such an intimate setting.
- In many American “institutions” Sunday worship services have degenerated into little more than slick, high-tech entertainment designed to manipulate the emotions. The “auditorium” is constructed so that the audience (congregation) can sit and be entertained by the professional performers (singers, dancers, actors, and speaker) up on the “stage” or platform. Preaching in many of these places has reduced the Almighty to a Genie in a bottle and a cosmic therapist. The focus is man-centered (give sinners whatever they want so they will like us and hopefully accept Jesus). If I read my Bible correctly trying to make sinners like us is both unrealistic and futile (See Matthew 10:22; John 15:18-19; 2 Timothy 3:12). When God instructed the Hebrews concerning how His tabernacle was to be constructed He did not say to them, “Go survey the Philistines and Jebusites and find out what they would like in a tabernacle and then build it that way.” No. Because He is holy, He gave them strict instructions as to how HE wanted the tabernacle to be built and to function. When the early church was forming they did not survey the Greeks, Romans, pagans, or Gnostics to find out what they might like in a church. No. They were consumed with radically loving God, radically loving one another, and walking in the power of the Holy Spirit. They were too busy being the church to worry about how to do church. It was about substance, not style. They had no institutions, no buildings and no bureaucracy. They had no professional church growth consultants or mega church growth conferences or marketing strategies or seeker-sensitive services, yet somehow God added to their number daily those who were being saved (Acts 2:47). What a shock by today’s standards! What can we learn from this?
- It seems to me that after 2,000 years of church history we have shaped, organized, and structured the church and its practices according to the traditions of men rather than the Word of God. So much of who we are and what we do is not prescribed in Scripture. I understand that as cultures change the church has to adapt in some ways. But we’ve become something I can’t imagine God intended. How did we get here? As Greco-Roman culture overtook the early church, and as Constantine later united church and state (leading to what would eventually become the Roman Catholic church), we lost much of what early believers understood about what it meant to bethe church. Regular gatherings of believers were moved from the homes to the cathedral; ministry was taken away from the common man as a sharp distinction was made between laity and clergy; an complex ecclesiastical hierarchy was instituted; the Bible was taken out of the hands of the common man and entrusted to the priest. All this had devastating ramifications. And the Protestant Reformation did not restore what was lost. We’ve never recovered. Unfortunately, we are what we are. And there doesn’t seem to be much freedom to fix this. If you start trying to color outside the lines of tradition you are labeled a nut, a heretic, a troublemaker, or a cultist. As you well know, the Radical Pilgrim pays dearly for departing from the status quo.
I could go on, but I will spare you. All I’m saying is, I wholeheartedly agree that the modern institutionalized, westernized, monolithic, materialistic, consumeristic church has evolved into something that is incapable of being what Jesus called His body to be. And frankly, I don’t see the situation changing. I have recently had a rather sinister thought, however. Intolerance for Christians is increasing at a rapid pace in the USA as American culture has succumbto postmodernism (this represents persecution from within). Radical Islam is trying with all its might to take over the world. These nut cases want to kill everyone on the planet who does not embrace Islam, especially Jews and Christians. They have now declared Jihad against the “West” on every continent on earth (this represents persecution from without). If the persecution against Christians in America got severe enough at some time in the future, might this force the church back into a 1st century kind of situation? Would we have to abandon our buildings and structures and go underground, meeting once again in homes? I pray fervently that it doesn’t come to this…
Please don’t interpret my words as those of an angry, embittered pastor. As I said, I love the church (Jesus loved the church and it seems to me that if I love Him I will love what He loves). I don’t mean to insult His bride. I just think we could do church a better way. >From reading your articles it sounds like you guys have discovered one way to do it better. Thank you for your time.
A Radical Pilgrim wannabe