Monday, 21 January 2008

If the Horse Dies ...

“A time is coming 
when you will worship 
the Father 
neither on this mountain 
nor in Jerusalem.” 
(John 4:21)

Hello friend. What you are about to read are some of my musings and wrestlings since leaving the traditional institutional church system a few years ago. You could say that this is my "Inauguration" as a blogger here on "Rethinking Faith and Church."

You'll forgive me if this post is a little long. I guess I still have that preacher tendency of being a little long-winded at times. Going forward I will strive for shorter and more bite-sized posts. I trust that you will also forgive me if at points this seems a little harsh; I mean no offence. Though I am no longer a part of traditional institutional Christianity, I do continue to love God's people who are a part of it. May God bless us as we seek to bless and love one another, regardless if we're in or out of the institutional church system. Welcome to "Rethinking Faith and Church."

Our Religious Experience

What is the church? I think most people in the church would probably agree that the church is not the building, but rather the people. Unfortunately, when we think of “the church,” we often think of the institutional church building and not specifically of the people in it. When we speak of “going to church,” what we mean is that we are going to a building or a place. While there we sing some songs, listen to some announcements, put money into an offering plate, and listen to somebody speak on a subject that may or may not have something to do with his interpretation of the Bible, and which may or may not have the leading or the anointing of the Holy Spirit upon it. Finally, there is an element of socialization with others that is often very superficial and that, in most cases, can hardly be classified as genuine fellowship in that it is often little more than talking about the weather or the previous evening's football game. Then, finally, we all go back to our respective homes and, in most cases, have nothing more to do with “the church” until the following Sunday. This has become our religious experience.

It’s interesting how “religious” this whole experience has really become. I used to cringe when I heard non-Christians speak about Christianity as being “religious.” I would argue, as do many others still, that Christianity is a “relationship” as opposed to a religion. While many may mean that, I am now convinced that, the Sunday morning events, regardless of denomination and regardless whether we like it or not, are very much “religious.” Our rules, accepted norms, traditions, by-laws, constitutions and whatever other policies there may be, are actually quite removed from the teachings of the Gospel and the practice of the first century church. If that is true, and I think it is, then why do we continue in it? I believe that the answer lies, at least in part, with “tradition.”

Is our religious experience really any different than that of the Pharisees of old? Jesus asked them, “Why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? (Matthew 15:3) Quoting Isaiah, Jesus then said, “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men” (Matthew 15:8-9). Are we really any different? I don’t think so. Jesus could just as easily be saying those words to you and to me in our modern institutional church systems, and I believe that He is doing just that. I know that is a hard word and maybe even offensive to some, but we would do well to think about it. How much of what really goes on inside the institutional church are merely traditions and rules taught by men? If Jesus got after the Pharisees for doing this, what makes us think that He won’t likewise get after us for the same thing?

Consider our typical Sunday morning “Order of Service” that dictates those things that we do in our “services.” We’re often so tied to that animal that any divergence from it is almost sacrilegious! We’ve so sealed God into a box that I sometimes wonder if His Spirit can even breathe enough to move amongst us. One Christian Brother, who remains very much tied to the institution, once told me that his particular denomination required such-and-such a procedure. He then even admitted to me that this particular thing was not found in the Gospel, but rather in the denominational “rule book” (as he called it) or constitution. Yes, I believe that, contrary to our insistence that our Christianity is a “relationship,” the modern institutional church has become very “religious” indeed!

On another note, we would do well to consider some of the words we use to describe what it is that we do at our church times. For example, we often call the whole experience on Sunday morning a “worship service.” What does that mean? Let’s take the term “worship service” apart in order to try and better understand what that is.

The “Worship” in Worship Service

When we speak of “worship” we are referring primarily to the praise and adoration of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. It’s a vertical relationship in that it’s all pointed heavenward. That’s fine except for one little thing: worship of God must be done in relation to people. In other words, genuine worship must have a horizontal element as well, and this is precisely where I believe that we most often fail. Oh, to be fair, we say that we love one another, but unfortunately that love is (with a few exceptions here and there), often hypocritical, often conditional, or often simply not there at all. Ouch, that hurts!

It is interesting that the non-Christian world often sees our hypocrisies more than we do. We tend to be quick to dismiss or turn a blind eye to such accusations. Nevertheless they’re there in that we say one thing and often do another. For example, we talk about love, yet we tend to slander and gossip. In the same way our love is often conditional upon whether or not we accept the denominational and institutional doctrinal views. If I don’t join in membership, or at least attend services regularly, the unofficial position seems to be that I cannot be fellowshipped with. This seems to be due to some belief that all fellowship can happen only through institutionally sanctioned events. In other words, while the believer outside of the institution may wish to fellowship with those inside the institution (albeit separate from the institution), those inside the institution tend not to want to fellowship with those outside of the institution. It’s almost seems like those believers outside of the institutional church have been shunned by those from inside of it. In that sense the church’s love is often conditional.

Ironically, there’s a lot of talk in Christendom about loving one another. Many use catchy little phrases to describe the love they think they have towards God or towards others. Unfortunately, most of it is followed by very little action to support those phrases or slogans. 1 John 3:18 says “let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.” In other words, talk is cheap. We say that we love others, but what do our actions say? It’s interesting that even many secular books say that approximately 70% of our communication is non-verbal. In other words, we communicate more by body language than by what we actually speak with words. 1 John 4:20-21 says, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother.”

In the same way, consider John 15:13 where Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” While Jesus was referring to himself in this verse, it seems clear from the greater context of New Testament teaching that we are called to go and do likewise (see Acts 2:42-47; 4:32-37 for a couple of great examples). With perhaps the odd exception, that kind of love really doesn’t exist in most churches today. Why are the examples of the early church in Acts so foreign to what we see around us today? Why is it that most relationships within the church miss the point when it comes to sacrificial love? Could the bottom line be “carnality” or “worldliness” within the church institution?

Think about what’s involved in planting or starting a new church. While we used to believe in a separation of church and state, today it seems as if nothing could be further from the truth. The state says that we have to organize ourselves and have a charter. This involves having a CEO (a pastor/leader), a board of directors (deacons and/or elders boards), voting members (local church membership), and who knows whatever else. When we comply, we are given a tax number. Suddenly we look more and more like “man’s church” and less and less like “Christ’s church.” Now the emphasis is more on the institution than it is on Christ. Taking this one step further, now that we’ve built the institution, we’ll do whatever we can to protect it. Many institutional churches today require participants to sign legal waivers of responsibility in order to protect the institution from lawsuits in case something happens to someone in or around their premises. Given such circumstances, and if push really came to shove, would I actually “lay down my life” for my friends? Are our relationships in the church strong enough that we would put anyone else ahead of ourselves? I’m sure that we all would like to say “yes,” but would we really? I wonder.

It’s interesting that Paul dealt with essentially the same issue with the Corinthians. There, Christians needed to learn to get along with each other too. Things got so out of hand that Paul makes mention of some brothers who were actually taking other brothers to secular courts (1 Corinthians 6:1-11). That doesn’t sound very loving to me! Lest we become too conceited, we’re really no better than they were. We bicker and gossip and slander each other all the time as well. Often it’s so subtle that we may not even recognize it as the acts of the sinful, or carnal, nature that they really are (see Galatians 5:20 – “factions” in the NIV; “party spirit {factions, sects with peculiar opinions, heresies}” in the Amplified). I remember calling one pastor of a large church near where I live for some advice on something and, after I explained who I was and what I wanted, he told me to “speak to someone from my own tradition!” Just what we all needed: more factions and disunity.

I remember another time going to candidate at a small church in another town. Before the trip we had our telephone interviews and ultimately were asked to come and candidate for the position of Senior Pastor. We drove the 1000 kilometers, were involved in several speaking engagements over the weekend, and then drove another 1000 kilometers home again. The sad part was that we couldn’t even get reimbursed for our gas money. On top of that, when I later phoned back asking about that, they even denied that we candidated at all and treated the whole experience as nothing more that a generic pulpit supply. Where was their Christian love in that? It’s no wonder James said, “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be” (James 3: 9-10).

In the parable of the Sheep and the Goats, Jesus said, “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25: 40). Who is it that we are worshipping? We presumably worship the Lord Jesus Christ. However, time and again the Bible tells us that genuine worship is not only vertical, but also horizontal. Worship must be relational. How can I say that I am worshipping God when I honestly don’t genuinely care for my brothers and sisters?

The “Service” in Worship Service

Secondly, we speak of a “service.” What do we mean by that? Do we mean by “service” that we are “serving” someone or something? I think that by using the word “service” we often imply that we are somehow “serving” God or “serving” the Lord Jesus. This is interesting in light of what Jesus said in Mark 10:45, “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve." Isn’t it interesting that we call it a “church service” and Jesus says that he didn’t come to be served? In the same way, John 13 describes Jesus as washing his disciples feet in an act of service. There He says in verse 15, “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” Perhaps what we really need in our “worship services” is more acts of service of “people” instead of service of the institution. Maybe what we really need is more of an element of meeting the needs of others, and of caring for others, in practical and tangible ways.

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me’ (Matthew 25: 34-36).

The bottom line is that “the church” is the people who prove their love for God by the way they love and build relationships with other people. Any “worship” of God that does not include genuine love and relationships with God’s people (regardless of denominational affiliation or no denominational affiliation) through acts of “serving their individual needs” is, I would argue, idolatrous and is not real worship at all. One brother of mine even goes so far as to label such “church services” as being “anti-Christ.” While that sounds harsh, and in some people’s view maybe even heretical, it may not be that far off the mark after all. Let’s think about it: if what we do in our church “services” somehow goes contrary to what Jesus taught about washing each other’s feet as an act of service to them – then is that not “anti-Christ”? Maybe it is.

Genuine worship must be both vertical in that it’s directed to God, and also horizontal in that it is expressed through love and relationships with others. The two go hand in hand. One cannot be there at the expense of the other. Unfortunately, for many of us, our church experience seems to focus mostly (if not only) upon the vertical and not the horizontal. Any acts of service that we do is usually first geared towards our ulterior motive our ensuring our own institutional survival. If the institution survives, then we believe that we have somehow served God in it. But is that what God is interested in? Does He care about the survival of an institution or about the needs of people? These are not simply two different sides of the same coin. No, these are two very different things and cannot rightly be spoken about even in the same breath.

The Wind Blows Wherever it Pleases

I’m beginning to see that “going to church” in the truest sense of the meaning as the same as “going to visit Susan, or George, or Mary, or Bruce.” The church is the people and “going to church” is, rightly, loving and building relationships with people. That’s what it means to “go to church. That’s what fellowship is really all about. That’s what it means to be the body of Christ. Going to a church building is not “going to church” any more than going to the supermarket is “going to church.” How sad that we’ve lost focus of that and have equated the institutional church building with being the actual church.

I remember some time ago leaving the house early on a Saturday morning before anyone else was awake. We have a message board in the kitchen, so I thought I’d leave a message as to where I went. As I was going to go fellowship with some brothers in the Lord over breakfast, I thought I’d joke around a little on the message board. The message said simply, “I’ve gone to church.” But seriously, isn’t that exactly what I did do? In the truest sense, since I was fellowshipping with brothers in the Lord, didn’t I go to church that Saturday morning? I believe that I did.

We need to recapture what “church” really means. It’s not about going anywhere. It’s about being. Jesus said to Nicodemus in John 3:8, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” It seems to me that if we’ve truly been born again of the Spirit of God, we won’t be tied down to any one place of worship, but rather freely move about from here to there as the Spirit leads.

It may be that the Spirit leads us one Sunday into an institutional church building. It may be that the Spirit leads us to a restaurant instead because He has someone there that He wants us to bless through caring or sharing a meal. It may be that the Spirit leads us instead to the local jail or hospital or nursing home to simply visit someone that society seems to have forgotten. We just quoted this Scripture a moment ago, but it bears repeating again. Jesus said, “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me’ (Matthew 25: 35-36).

It’s also interesting what the Samaritan woman said to Jesus in John 4:20, “Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.” Like many people today, the Samaritan woman was concerned about the “place” of worship. When the last institutional church that I was pastor at was about to close, I heard others ask the very same question, “Where shall we go?” But “the church” is not about a place to go, but about being the church. As I look through the New Testament, it becomes apparent that after the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and in keeping with Jesus’ words to the Samaritan woman, the church didn’t meet anywhere but in people’s homes. They went wherever the Spirit led them at the time. They weren’t busy putting up church buildings; they were busy being the church.

In answer to the Samaritan woman, Jesus said in John 4:21-24, “Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is Spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.”

What does that mean? My prayer is that we might all humbly come before God and ask Him to reveal the truth of that to us. Worship is “neither on this mountain or in Jerusalem.” It’s not at First Baptist Church or Victory Christian Fellowship or Emmanuel Lutheran or some other institutional church. God is Spirit and our worship must also be “in spirit and in truth.” It seems to me that sometimes we’re kind of like the disciples who tried to stop a man from performing miracles because he wasn’t a part of “their church.” Jesus wasn’t at all pleased with them and said, “Do not stop him … whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:38-40). It has nothing to do with one “place” of worship as opposed to another “place” of worship, but rather about being “in the Spirit” with our worship and with all Christians, no matter what their background may be.

What’s the Real Issue?

The issue is not whether or not I “go to church.” No, the issue is whether or not I “am the church.” The issue is not “simply believing” what the Bible says. The issue is rather “doing” what it says. James 1:22 puts it this way. “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.” Where did we ever come up with the notion that Christians “go” to church as opposed to “being” the church? Where did we ever come up with that carnal and worldly idea that it’s possible to worship God without first genuinely caring for people? (see again 1 John 4: 20-21). Is that not really much like putting the proverbial cart before the horse?

God is not to be kept in a box. I’m sure we’d all agree. But having said that, why then does it seem as if we Christians can only meet Him in that building, that thing that we've sometimes called “the house of God?” Isn’t God bigger than that? In Isaiah 66:1-2 God says, “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. Where is the house you will build for me? Where will my resting place be? Has not my hand made all these things, and so they came into being?” Let’s not try and keep Him there in some building somewhere. Since Pentecost, my physical and spiritual body is his temple (1Cor. 3:16; 6:19; 2Cor. 6:16).

The real issue is unfortunately centered in “church history.” We have done things the same way for so long that most of us have forgotten what God really meant the church to be in the first place. I long to recapture that. I’m no longer interested in “church history.” I don’t care if we’ve done things that way for a thousand years. If the example is not clearly found in the Bible, I’m no longer interested in it. If the example is not clearly found in the Bible, then maybe it’s time to take that “weed-wacker” and cut that thing out of our Christian experience.

Once upon a time as the pastor of the last institutional church we were at, I thought we could rebuild our little dying church. The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that due in large part to traditions, rebuilding can never work. If you try, any new life will automatically become tainted by old traditions or church history. Jesus said of the barren fig tree, “Cut it down!” (Luke 13:7). Is it time we did that to our fig trees, to our institutional churches? I wonder.

If the Horse Dies, It May be Time to Dismount

Are we in the habit of “going” to church as opposed to “being” the church? Are we content with just sitting on some pew Sunday after Sunday, being told when to sit and when to stand? Are we content to simply be lined up and blended into the masses like ducks in a shooting gallery? Being all lined up in neat rows as we are, can we really fellowship with the back of the head in front of us? For that matter, do we even know who these people are all around us, and would we (or they) even notice or care if the other wasn’t there? Are we content with just being passive spectators instead of active participants? Why is it that the church has become irrelevant to most non-Christians today and at best, only serves to leave a bad taste in their mouths?

Are we simply busy trying to rebuild what is ultimately a dying institution, though we may not recognize just yet as actually dying? Are we still going through the motions of trying to pick fruit from its dead branches year after year after year? What did Jesus say about that? (Luke 13:6-9). Is that really what God is calling us to do as an expression of our Christianity? Someone once said, “if the horse is dies, maybe it’s time to get off the horse.” Are we clinging to a dead horse? I wonder.

May God help us to come to grips with these most important questions and to learn how we can once again start “being” the church instead of simply “going” to church. Is it time for a new Reformation of sorts? I believe that it is and that it’s already begun, as more and more people each year leave the institutional system for smaller and meaningful fellowship groups in various homes, restaurants, or wherever the Spirit leads at the time.

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons


  1. I cannot believe you do not have any comments on this post. I loved it. Thank you for your time in writing it!

    1. Thanks, Rebekah. While there have been other comments on other posts, I guess that makes yours the first comment on my first blog post :)