A little bit ago I began sharing my reflections on ways the Thingy didn’t work (click here). For those who are new to this blog, the Thingy is a neo-monastic-missional community Wendy and I helped found almost five years ago. We closed the community in January of this year. There were lots of amazing things about the Thingy. Lives were changed – especially mine. I’ve written about the good stuff a lot; but I thought it would be helpful to discuss what didn’t work as well.
In part two I talked about how we chased an unfelt need: click here.
In part three I talked about how we ignored cultural groupings: click here.
Today will be the final post of this series…and probably the one that will offend everyone at once.
So let’s go!
Five years ago Wendy and I began rethinking “church.” We were frustrated with our practice and felt our understanding of church needed reforming. As we studied, talked, dreamed, and debated several things became clear to us:
- We had replaced the mission of sharing Jesus’ love with the world with the mission of growing an institutional church (think the building on the corner you see everywhere in Baltimore). While a growing institutional church may be a byproduct of Jesus’ love being shared; Jesus’ love being shared is not necessarily the byproduct of a growing institutional church.
- Jesus intended for his followers to be defined by a shared lifestyle of reckless and messy love, but instead we were defining them through shared programming.
- We were participating in an unhealthy hierarchy which unintentionally elevated some believers over others removing the responsibility of mission from most of the congregation.
- Because the institution was program dependent (growth was measured through programming growth, staff was hired around programming, and people joined because they loved programming) the money which made programming possible had a powerful voice in the direction of the institution.
I could go on and on here, but I’m drifting from the real point. If you want more “wants wrong with contemporary forms of church” ranting ask for it in the comments. Back to the point…
We recognized the current definition of church, the definition we lived under, the “institutional church”, had some serious problems at its foundation which needed to be fixed.
But how does someone bring healing a patient who won’t admit she is sick?
Most church leaders will agree that tweaks need to be made. They will admit the living room walls need to be repainted. They will confess the kitchen counters are out of date. They will talk about how they would love to buy a new couch. Few church leaders will admit the house needs major structural repair, that the floors tilt to the right, or that there are cracks in the foundation.
I completely understand this denial by the way. I often long to return to it. My current perspective was not an easy pill to swallow for me either.
Seeing the huge problem and the uphill battle getting an existing church to join us would be, we decided to start from scratch. We banked on the belief that there were lots of people who felt like us out there and that they would get excited about finding non-institutional patterns of following Jesus.
We were half right.
There are a lot of people out there who recognize the problems with the institutional church…but very few of them share our passion for finding solutions. People who shared our understanding of the church are wounded. They aren’t looking to develop a new definition of church. They are just happy to be free and clear of the institution.
Around year two I was discussing this with a friend from London. He explained to me the difference between the European church and the American church in a way that helped me understand:
- When his great-grandparents were in their twenties, everyone belonged to an institutional church. So in his grandparents’ elementary school class everyone went to church.
- When his grandparents were in their twenties, people began to grow frustrated with the institutional church and many of them stopped participating. So in his parents’ elementary school class about 60% of the kids attended church.
- When his parents were in their twenties even less people attended an institutional church. There were those newly waking up to the problems of the institution and then those who had simply grown up without it. So in his elementary school class about 30% of the kids belonged to a church.
- Now he has kids. In his kids’ class, only about 10% of the kids belong to an institutional church.
I look at my kids’ classes and we are somewhere around 60%. If trends continue, the basic difference between the American church and the church of Europe is time.
But when Wendy and I founded the Thingy were pretending our kids’ classes were at 10%. They aren’t. Not yet.
Somewhere around year one a pattern formed I found informative:
- I would make friends with someone in the community.
- After a while, Jesus stuff would come up.
- We would then have a series of fantastic conversations about God.
- They would connect/reconnect with Jesus.
- Then they would go to an institutional church.
Note – not join the Thingy.
We would always talk about the Thingy. Sometimes they would visit the Thingy. When they did they often were intimidated. One friend told me the Thingy was like “the Green Berets” and he simply wanted to “re-enlist in the army.” They would go to an institutional church because somewhere they could remember it. They attended as a kids with grandparents, or their parents were members somewhere, or they had been in a youth group. Sadly, it was never long before the problems of the institution began to creep up again and they would settle for a weird middle ground of consuming but not joining.
We were too different. We were too much. We were too fast.
We weren’t just trying to reduce pollution in vehicle emissions We were seeking to eliminate driving altogether.
We weren’t just trying to drive people to healthy eating. We were working to replace every meal with a shake.
We weren’t just trying to teach people to slow their energy consumption. We were looking to them to unplug from the grid completely. Down with electricity!
I still believe the American church desperately needs reformation. Things have to change.
But I’ve come to understand that reformation needs to come from within existing structures.
If you don’t want to work within existing structures, then wait a few generations. If trends continue you will have your clean slate to work from in about sixty years.
That’s depressing. I can’t end that way. Dr. Gloer at Truett told me to always end stuff with joy.
Here is my encouraging, happy ending…
Working in the institutional setting is not as hard as I thought it would be four years ago. Helping Valley (the church I currently work at) for the last three and a half years through a season of transition has been surprisingly restorative with me. People don’t live in institutional church because they think it’s awesome. People live in institutional church because they love Jesus and they were told this is what loving Jesus looks like. If you, fellow reformers, walk slow and are willing to defend your thoughts over and over and over – you will see change. It will be slow, but it will come.
And I must say, there are few things more beautiful than watching a Christ follower come alive and join Jesus’ mission in the world. It’s fantastic.
Alright. Those are my thoughts. Feel free to push back, challenge, yell, question, or agree with anything I’ve said. Bring it!