Thirteen Years: My History as a Church Reformer

Church SignI am disappointed with Church.

There is something that is always off about church to me. I don’t mean to put down congregations and good people who make some of them up, but there is something at either my core or at the core of our church life that leaves me unsatisfied with the shape congregational life takes.  It’s not inherently bad, but it’s was never a place I could bring my old coffee shop friends, the ones that smoke and listened to punk music, the ones that think Jesus was an enlightened one like the Buddha,  the ones who throw really good parties.

My disappointment with church isn’t just that I can’t bring all my”unclean” friends to some Sunday event. I believe Jesus, and long for community, yet I am the one that feels continually out-of-place in a church, so I am disappointed.

Right after highschool, I jumped into the world of “volunteer church work”. I believed that I could find the community my soul longed for if I helped create it for others in the church. I wasn’t satisfied with the standard idea of church and congregation life. That normative thinking was what left me feeling out-of-place; the standard way of doing church was what made me feel I couldn’t bring the coffee shop crew into those doors.

When I taught the youth group, I tried to make experience for people to remember, hoping to jar some young impressionable should out of the expectations of church life. I wanted something real, something that would shake up our assumptions of who Jesus is and what it meant to follow him. When I took over the music for the youth group, I scoured the fringes of Christian music to find worship songs that weren’t variations of the over played three chords that seemed to make up every song sheet in the church. I wanted music that mattered to the heart as well as to our theology. It wasn’t enough to have kids get together for games and social time in a church building. Faith matters; I needed people to begin to feel that the way I felt it in my ribs. I figured if we changed the shape of what we did enough, then the kids in the margins, the kids that I felt drawn to, the kids that needed unconditional acceptance – I figured with enough Church change they could find a place.

I couldn’t shake it enough; I was still disappointed with Church, still out-of-place in its halls.

Eventually, (mostly due to my own personal failures –  a story for another time) I “graduated” from the youth group. I inherited a newly forming young adult/college age group, and began being more involved with the discipleship programs in the congregation. I took my dissatisfaction of the shape and form of church with me. I refused to spend Sunday mornings talking about kissing dating goodbye, how to prepare for a good husband/wife, or any of the other shit that I pandered in the local Christian bookstore. None of this really got to the core of believing Jesus. These topics were fluff. I wanted the church to talk about the meat and bones and blood and guts of what it meant to have faith. If changing the shape, sound, and sight of Church wasn’t the answer, maybe changing our curriculum was.

Reworking the outline

Just after the turn of the century, I spent many hours in the pastors rectangular office: white walls, flat, brownish red carpet, and one single window that faced east, toward the mountains of northern Utah. Books shelves lined three of the walls. The pastor sat on the other side of his rich, deep brown desk.  His name was Ross, and he remains the closest thing I’ve ever had to a mentor. He was the one that talked with me about my theology questions, about how to lead a small group better, about how to correctly interpret a passage of scripture. We spent many hours hashing out my ever-growing unrest with our church forms and functions. We both began dreaming what it meant to do thing differently, to connect with people who would never come to our current form of church. Ross was the one that pushed me to lean into my teaching and speaking gifts. He urged me to dream big, and to start figuring out the steps that would help us all get from where we were to the Jesus dreams I was discovering in my soul. Ultimately this man did more to empower me as a rebellious church theologian than I think either of us understood or envisioned at the time.

So, we talked about what it meant to follow Jesus, what it meant to actually live as a Jesus disciple, and how we could serve others. We talked about topics that should matter to all Christians, not just the young adult age bracket. I couldn’t shake the feeling that the Bible was telling us there was more to a Christian life than being a good person and trying to inviting people to Church on Sundays. The thought that Church could be different consumed me. I knew than this thing we all assumed it was when we gathered every Sunday and Wednesday night was not some holy shrine. I desperately wanted Church to be the place I could bring my friends from the fringes: the people who lived together, the gay coffee slingers, the chain-smoking humanists, the perma-fried musicians, and the foul-mouthed riot girls. I needed Church to change so these people I knew, cared about, and spent most of my weekdays with would have a place to dip their toes in a community that was on the Jesus way.

The change never happened. The Church never embraced the fringes; they always remained “out there”. I remained feeling out-of-place; I remained disappointed.

Ross asked me a question one Tuesday.

“If you could make a church how ever you wanted, what would it look like?”

This question started me on a haunting journey, one that I am still on. As I sat with this challenge, I quickly realized that the forms I was hell-bent on shaking and all the new teaching I was introducing was flawed at it’s very core. I began to understand that what was keeping my coffee shop friends out of the church doors wasn’t about the shape we the church took or the language and topics we spoke about; the fact that we demanded they come was the problem.

We had decided that our goal was to bring people to our congregational life, inviting them to come and see. We assumed the privilege of being an influential place simply because we were the church. Our assumptions of power, authority, privilege, and even hospitality were all skewed and made no sense outside of the sub-culture we have created to be comfortable in. Why would anyone come to a church if they didn’t buy into our claims of authority and privilege?

This reality is also the root of my dissatisfaction. Our decisions to perpetuate an idea that people should come to us baffles me when I look at Jesus. He was sent from heaven to live in the neighborhoods we call home. He didn’t open his doors and invite us in. He blew down the walls of assumption and then bought a house in the middle of our street. Jesus was, and is, and ever will be the god who was sent, the god who came close to us.

So why are we still trying to make our church places inviting and attractive to the people we want to introduce to Jesus; why aren’t we moving our congregational life, our church into their bars, their coffee shops, their smoke shacks? Why aren’t we going like Jesus did?

Ten plus years after Ross asked me that question, I have a much more articulate answer, but I still don’t have the final answer. I don’t even know that there is one. What I do know is that my disappointment with the church, this feeling of unrest that sits on top of my lungs, this hunger has been part of a strong tide that has driven me to the margins of the church. I am no longer ok with trying to make our Sundays better, more edgy, more authentic. I am no longer accepting of theology that either drives us into refuge from the evil world out to get us or lets go of all sense of defined hope so that we can “love” and do good actions.

hands

There is no quick answer, no set of principles that can be manipulated to fit every”missionary field”. All that we have is an ongoing human life, one that is messy and unpredictable and full of triumph and tragedy; a human life just like the one that is given to every person around us. We don’t get to claim privilege or authority. We do get to talk about the hope we have. However, if we keep the hope, the gospel, the good news about Jesus mostly locked up in our Sunday service and weekly home bible studies, we are nothing more than an institution, a social club, an out of touch, back water, spiritually and mentally inbred conclave. Institutions like that do more harm than good. Institutions like that will either bully outsiders or slowly lose their identity because they can’t remember why they are bound together.

We need to question why we keep beating the dead horse of change without ever finding different results. We need to ask where our good, earthy, human bread theologians have gone. We need to challenge the privilege and resulting injustice that has become almost normative in a christian church. We need to ask what it means to go, to be sent just like Jesus. After all, isn’t he our head, our namesake, our god?

I am still disappointed with church; I’m ready to ask some better questions.

*** *** ***

This post is the beginning of my interactions with the book Prodigal Christianity by David E. Fitch  and Geoff Holsclaw. They opened up their book by talking about some of their history in coming to a place of needing a way through and beyond the neo-reformed Emergent/liberal tensions. I do hope you will pick up the book and throw your thoughts into the ring as we keep talking about being a believing community that is sent, just like Jesus.

  • Asking better questions… hm. I like this.

    And telling better stories- I think we need to do more of that too.

    • I agree. I think that sometimes we miss the best of our stories because they don’t fit into the assumptions we have from our current questions. It’s really hard to tell a story about bars, strangers, and the dark (like you did so well) if the assumption is that we need to share communion in the building with a steeple on the corner rather than over a basket of fries.

      Our stories do matter; we need the bravery and the space to tell all our stories.

  • Keep on the journey! I’ll have to pop over and read about it. Thanks!

  • Aaron,

    Thanks for sharing your story. I’m glad to hear it and learn from it. I think we are all in a process of telling our stories and then asking better questions.

    • You say that now, but when I start pushing back on your book, let’s see how grateful you are. 😉

      • Ministry has helped me develop a thick skin, so I’m sure I can take it. 🙂 And really, we are hoping to start off a conversation rather than give the definitive account, so let’s work it out together. That is way we offer “signposts” and nothing more.

  • Deb McKinney

    Exactly what you are describing is why my husband and I have purchased a coffee business in Chicago whose mission is “to create safe space for people to experience amazing coffee and authentic community. This has been the culmination of a vision God gave me over 20 years ago that I called “a church without members”-community, without the ultimate goal of starting a church that ends up looking like the evangelical church we have all been struggling with.

    Deb Mckinney

    • I’ve been captivated with the idea of “planting discipleship” rather than planting a church. It sounds like you have the similar idea.

      It’s refreshing to hear that other people have been thinking of these things for a long time as well. I think we tend to want the new, sexy forms. But that’s jsut a flash in the pan.

      I’m going to be sure to stop by for coffee in I’m in Chicago.

      • Deb mcKinney

        I, too, have been longing to connect with others struggling with “church” and what it has become. It would be great to meet over coffee in Chi-town!

        • Yeah, Aaron, when are you coming to Chicago? And Deb, I’m in the NW suburbs. What is your coffeeshop called and where is it?

  • Your piece here makes me want to buy and read the book along with you. I have struggled for years with trying to figure out how to reform the church from the inside. I have literally told my wife that we would create the community we wanted, regardless of what the church was doing. But it never stuck. It never mattered. It never lasted or satisfied.

    I am anxious to see where this goes. So often books that start with diagnosing the problems of the church end up repackaging the same solutions with new vocabulary. Sounds like this could be different.

    • Glad to have you along. Even if this book get’s to a disappointing place, I’m sure the conversations we will have about it will end up pushing us both in good ways.

      • This is a good point Aaron. I am continually learning that there are no real experts anyway. Only people to push me along to finding my own way, either positively or negatively

  • Jesse Hoover

    I have often struggled myself with ‘the church’ what it means to be a church and why I myself cringe when I want to invite someone who might be on the fringe. To the point where I don’t invite them at all. I have often thought what is the church? By literal definition, isn’t the church a place for ‘believers’ to congregate? Was it ever intended as both a place for believers to meet/worship as well as to reach out to people? Jesus himself never went out to the people and brought them to the synagogue to teach to them or lead them to himself. So I wonder (not because I have an answer) if this is how it should be; we use the church to encourage, disciple and worship God, but do not lean on the Church, as a place for worship, for reaching out to people. But instead go out as believers meeting people where they are, spreading the good news that way. This is only my thoughts that I have wrestled with and have not come to any conclusions. But you have brought up some good points that are stirring this up again. What do you think?

    • Good thoughts and questions Jesse. Couple of thoughts: We can’t model our incarnation as the body of Christ completely on the example of the historical Jesus and the first apostles. Simply put, the world was different then. Yes, Jesus didn’t call people into the synagogue or the temple, however, it was assumed that an Israelite would be participating in those things anyways. The Jewish cultural life was defined in terms of their religious life; it was all tied together as one.

      We do not live in that kind of cultural landscape.

      The main reason I see this as important is, apart from institutional structures, the idea of church (aka Ekklesia) is the assembly/assembling of chosen people (aka: whose who have responded to the invitation of God to com to the table). If our identity (as believers/the church) is tied to both our relationship with Yahweh (the covenant God) and our relationship with the other people of God, then it would only make sense for our “mission” to invite others to respond to God’s invitation to occur in their presence — not by demanding (even unintentionally) they do something to be acceptable enough to hear the invitation of grace (ie- come to church).

      In this, we do begin to see that Jesus is our example. Every time he issued the invitation to believe, it was to people in their context. Whether or not they had the assumed relationship with the temple or synagogue was of little importance. It was the invitation of grace given with grace. This is how the kingdom advances: we invite other people to respond to the invitation of God, and in doing so our relationship with them becomes the Ekklesia/church. Then, their relationships become places of grace where others can hear the invitation of a gracious God to come to the table… and so it goes.

      This is my general ideas about this. In practice, it is messy and we need context for how we are to do it where we are. But that’s why we are having this conversation in the first place.

      • Jesse Hoover

        Aaron, thanks for responding. I see you where you’re coming from. It seems what you are basically saying is: churches are not full of grace at least not the same grace with which we were given ourselves from God himself and because of that, churches have become an obstacle for those seeking Jesus. If this is true, I whole heartedly agree. And if this is the case then how do we change this? (semi-rhetorical question — and yes I’de like to hear your thoughts possibly in a blog post?) I’m not sure if you ever read the book ‘The Cure’ found here http://store.truefaced.com , but this book has had the most profound impact on me when dealing and understanding grace. I believe half of the problem are churches aren’t ‘show’ of enough grace is because most people don’t fully understand it, in the context of their relationship with Jesus. Hence why the book has had such an impact on me.

  • Tim Froehlke

    Why would anyone come to a church if they didn’t buy into our claims of authority and privilege?

    Up until about 200 years ago “we” meant your family. When “we” started to be society, it marked a major turning point in the transition to a collectivized world. Satan has been guiding the world to this collectivization to advance his own purposes. He cannot be everywhere at once and needs to leverage his influence to increase his control.

    I would suggest that unsaved people can only be collectivized so far. Feudal Japan probably represents the highest level of collectivization possible naturally. To really collectivize the world, Satan needed Christians who were able to sublimate their selfishness to such a degree as to construct social institutions that would not be so easily torn apart.

    Key to this was the church as a system and institution. Once people could be sufficiently bound to these systems, they could be transfered to political and corporate collectives and technology could provide the tools to maintain the collective without the need for Christians any more.

    As a measure of how far this process of collectivization has come, one has to only consider why people do not start a family business like a grocery store, hardware store, or gas station any more. There is little room for individuals to work outside the collective.

    For those of us drawn by the Father to Jesus, we can consider that the means that is used is truth. It is a perception of, desire for, and recognition of truth that draws us to Jesus who is truth. However, those who are drawn to truth often are puzzled over the institution and function of church. If we try to view the church as a mechanism of truth, we find it hard to see where programs, events, activities, classes, and lectures accomplish this.

    The only people we can “sell” on the idea of church are those who already are resonant with these collectivized systems.

    I have found it better to seek those who are seeking truth and tell them about Jesus. Bringing these people to a church may not help them to grow into the image of Christ. It is sad but it looks like any real Christian progress needs to be conducted outside of mechanical church systems.

  • Grannynanny

    Church: The body of Christ. The Bride having intimacy with the Groom. Re: Unbelievers in church: others in the bed with the bride? Our instructions: Go Out..making Disciples and Baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Then the Bride comes into the Intimacy with the groom in Worship at Church ( the marriage bed.) I notice that when Jesus was out calling his disciples..they came right away…immediately…leaving all….other occupations ( their current Life.or life-style). No begging , coercing, NO SELLING THEM ON THE IDEA. God chooses us..before the foundation of the World. We go out…telling the Gospel / Good news…after the bad news …We are all sinners, dead in our trespasses and sin. Do you want to “get married” ? and have intimate fellowship with The Savior and Creator. Do you want to be a new creation? You must and can be born Again. ( We can’t make this happen by being clever or having the best entertainments. ) It is the Work of God. Our work is to tell and call..everywhere all the time..looking for lost lambs. Then… Feed my sheep. How? By church sermons , Bible studies…home visitations…hospitality!! Love ( Grace, charity…serving love ) in relationship over time….. Be there. Listen, Care! Pray. Emmanuel. God with us! Get together, Be together! One Accord.

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