Can you be part of THE church if you’re not part of A church?


As seems to have become my habit lately, I’ve been off the blogwagon for longer than I intended. The inspiration to write has been sidetracked by a number of distractions, other priorities, and frequently just plain laziness.

Most often, though, it has been a season for me where my writing needed to take a backseat to some serious reading. And so at every spare moment, I have thrown myself into books…sometimes keeping up with two or three at a time, with one laying on my bedstand, another on the end table in the family room, and one loaded up on the Kindle for reading during lunch hours, in waiting rooms, or for quick moments between phone calls and e-mails.

Most of my reading this summer has been theological. That’s actually been the bulk of my reading habit for the past 2 or 3 years as I’ve sought to better articulate the gospel, teach scripture and lead teens and other adults in discipleship.

But it took a week in Montana to clear my head, a memoir by a part-time actress/writer out of LA, and a short book by a well-respected Presbyterian minister (I’ll talk more about those in a future post) to bring me to the point of focus for this blog, and, I believe, in some way, my future career in ministry.

On the second leg of my return flight home from Big Sky country, I was seated next to a couple of teenagers, apparently sisters, whose (I guessed) younger brothers were in two of the seats behind us. Now, I have spent the past 5 years of my life immersed in youth ministry. It has been my passion to help teenagers know Jesus and understand the reality of who he was and is.

But for the life of me, I could not bring myself to start a conversation with these kids. I felt absolutely no sense of the Holy Spirit inspiring me to even speak to them, let alone engage them in a conversation or, as the church folk say, “share the Gospel” with them. None. This was not just denial. It simply wasn’t there.

In fact, it was so not there that I couldn’t help but notice the not-thereness of it. Which caused me to ponder about it. “Why,” I thought, “am I, a fairly well seasoned veteran of youth ministry, not even the least bit moved to talk to these kids?”

Then another thought occurred to me. And it was the one that had been growing unspoken in the back of my mind for many months, and had begun to emerge from the fog during quiet times on Montana trout streams. It was the recognition that, lately, I’ve been more comfortable sharing my faith with strangers at parties and pubs than the with kids that I’d been so clearly called to serve for the past several years.

My heart, it turns out–my new calling, if you will–seems to be pointing somewhere else. Not that I don’t still have a desire to serve and work with teenagers, but that God has broken my heart for another group of people.

And it turns out, it’s a group I already belonged to.

Call us the de-churched. The abandoned. The escapees. The ones who slipped through the cracks. The people who have, for whatever reason, grown distant from the churches they either grew up with, or were for at least some period of time exposed to, but with whom they never connected, or somehow lost their connection.

If you’ve kept up (or put up) with my sporadic posts here over the past year or so, you know that I’ve been in a season of frustration with the organizational church. I have tried with all my might not to be one of THOSE people, who bitch and whine about the hypocrisies of the church without taking at least some notice of the considerable plank in my own eye (Matt. 7:3-4). (You can be the judge at how successful I have or haven’t been with that!)

But more and more I’ve noticed folks in that situation, who know there’s something better, something eternal, some joy that’s available, who have just never been able to find it in a church. Maybe they just didn’t look hard enough. Maybe they were damaged in some way by a church that has become overly judgmental, critical, and moralistic. Maybe it was their own fault. Maybe it wasn’t. Maybe there’s plenty of blame to be shared.

I know these people because for the better part of 20 years I was one of them. In fact, in many ways, despite half a decade in church leadership, I’m still one of them.

And it leads me to the inescapable question: Can you be part of THE church without being part of A church? Can you belong to, participate with, the Body of Christ, without belonging to an organization claiming to do the work of Christ? Does one necessitate the other? And how can we live in that tension?

And it turns out, it’s in the heart of that question where I find my passion for ministry coming alive and growing and rapidly gaining momentum.

I’m still trying to figure out what all of this means and where exactly it’s leading. But I do know a couple of things for sure:

  1. Someone needs to speak truth into the lives of those who have separated themselves from THE church because of the way CHURCHES sometimes behave.
  2. Someone needs to be a voice for those people in CHURCHES who have far too often forgotten or missed the point of what it really means to be THE church.

So that’s where I find myself. The path is opening into a clearing. The view is widening but it’s still obscured in places.

I invite you to join me in this conversation. Tell me why you hate churches. Or why you love YOUR church. Tell me what questions you want to ask about Jesus and redemption and healing and restoration that somehow the organizational church has never been able to answer for you. Tell me what you think about the question itself. Let’s be honest with each other, even when it’s hard. And let’s respond with love and respect, even when THAT’s hard.

I’m not promising you any profound insights, but maybe together we can find new ways to ask the questions. And maybe those of us in the church can find better ways to answer.

In the coming days and weeks I want to explore this issue more thoroughly. We’ll take up the conversation here on the blog, on Facebook and on Twitter. This is important. For many it is literally a life or death issue.

I have no agenda to get folks connected to churches simply for the sake of filling pews. I want  to help people find answers. Find the real Jesus, experience him, get a taste of the kingdom life that he promises. Sometimes a church will be the appropriate place for that to happen. Often, it won’t.

Either way, my prayer is that together, we help each other find hope.

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