the oil & vinegar of church & business

Here I’d like to explain my use of the term “church business.” But first, a little background is in order so you don’t get the wrong idea:

I’ve spent over twenty of my strongest years helping to start, strengthen and expand churches, parachurch organizations, small groups, small group networks, high-school church groups, college church groups, guys-only groups, mixed groups of both genders and all ages, prayer groups, worship groups, discipleship groups, groups that met at church facilities, on school campuses, and in homes. And I haven’t stopped, but I did take a few years to re-evaluate a lot of things, and then slowly, over the last 5 years or so, my wife and I have been getting back in the pool, only this time with a much clearer understanding of what we’re about, and more importantly, what we believe God is about. I’m convinced this will be a work-in-progress till the day we die, as it should be.

When I first came into this new relationship with the living God as a high-school kid, I took a lot of things for granted, one of them being that the current idea of “church” you might find on any street corner was the way it always had been since Jesus and his first followers were walking the earth, and therefore it was endorsed by God. I was confused, however, with these things called “denominations,” and I found solace in churches labeled “non-denominational” and parachurch organizations that managed to avoid many of the pitfalls of contemporary church systems. As the years and decades clicked by I got more and more committed to various church and church related activities. While I started out clueless about church history, and still only consider myself a novice, there was always this little voice inside me saying something like, “it’s not supposed to be this way; it’s not supposed to be so complex.” Several times I’ve been invited to “come on staff” at a church, and did so, thinking this was the “ultimate” in being a follower of Jesus. But it doesn’t take long being on the inside of these places before you get a close look at abuse among relationships in the church. Sometimes it’s very strong abuse, which usually takes the form of threatened leaders using their position to cause duress of some kind to others so as to remove them as a threat. Invariably it is done as though by instruction from God, perhaps with scripture verses validating the deeds. This is terrible stuff, and it’s rampant. I myself have been on the receiving end of great relational trust violation and abuse from church leadership, as a church leader, at least twice. They happened in two different states & different church systems, and over a decade apart. The first was as a single man, and during the second (I guess I’m a slow learner!) my wife was taking shrapnel right along with me. It was this second time, seeing the hurtful impact on my wife, that I finally stopped, got off the merry-go-round, and asked myself and God “what’s going on here? why does this happen?” I knew that I had brought this on us by chosing to commit so strongly to this system we called “church,” and now I needed to know if this system was really by God’s design. I finally acknowledged how much I had taken for granted 20+ years earlier, and started listening to that little voice inside me saying “it wasn’t meant to be this way.” No matter how long it took to sort out answers, I had to ask all the deep and scary questions I had been avoiding for years. Thankfully, my wife was as committed as I was, and together we embarked on an incredible journey of finding out how God meant for us to be the church, rather than continue going to church. We’re still on it.

Back to my beginning point – most “churches” today are really what I call “church businesses.” There’s a lot going on there that is related to being the church, but there’s quite a bit that isn’t: hierarchies of leadership and the associated “fear-of-man” in participants, payrolls, church buildings with mortgages, equipment and utility bills, money that has to come in to pay for it all, rules & policies, 501(c)(3) by-laws and non-profit requirements, formalities & traditions, fund raisers, over-busy evenings and weekends, etc. etc. All of this has everything to do with growing a business, but nothing to do with being the church. Taking an objective look at the popular church business approach, you’ll find it quite difficult to support much of any of it from the new testament writings. And worse, many design elements are working directly against the commands of Jesus, and council of the new testament writers, and thus the essence of what God’s church is all about. If you’re curious, you’ll easily find plenty of books doing a good job documenting these things, and they keep coming and getting better. It’s as if “something like scales” are falling from the collective church’s eyes and we’re finding the ears to hear what the Lord is saying.

If you embark on this journey, and I hope you do, don’t say I didn’t warn you. If you’ve spent a lot of years involved in the common church businesses of today, and have many friends there, be prepared for a bit of a wild ride. It can be downright frightening to seriously re-evaluate something you’ve held dear for so long, especially when it comes to the things of God. Our fellow believers will not always be kind, so you may have opportunities to practice forgiveness. But I hope you’ll press through till you get back to the core basics of what it means to be a follower of Jesus and part of his family. And then I hope you’ll give your insights back to the church, because we need it! I see more each passing year how much we really are like a body, where each part has it’s role to play, and we aren’t complete without all of it.

God is putting this on the hearts of many. I won’t say it’s for everyone. In fact, if you have no inclination for this, and you feel God has put you in the midst of the life and times of a particular church business, then may you continue to prosper there in all that God has for you. But for the others, join us in going back to our bibles and taking a fresh look at the life experienced by the new testament church. It’s like coming home.

a testament with a view

I’ll start things out with a simple thought process I like to use when I’m wondering what God’s take is on a topic. It’s nothing original, but I find it a bit curious that it isn’t used more often. It goes like this: when I’m thinking over a topic, wondering what to do, a simple first step is to ask, “What would the believers of the new testament think about this? Was this something they spent time thinking about? Was this a question they were asking?”

Now I’m not talking about using the new testament like an updated old testament (lawbook 2.0). So I don’t mean we should look at what they did, and try to essentially do the same. I have this theory that things really haven’t changed much when it comes to the challenges we face – whether hundreds or even thousands of years ago or what we face today. I just haven’t found that many really important parts of life that aren’t addressed in some manner in the life and times of Jesus and his first followers. But I also don’t think that Jesus intended us to read the letters & documents of the new testament and somehow woodenly “just do” what they did, the way they did it, today, without hearing from him on the matter. It was a testament of how they worked out this life with him in their day, and we need to do the same. This whole thing of the Holy Counselor living inside us, disclosing to us the things to come, guiding us into all truth, is my salvation for this life. I’d have nothing going for me without it.

I find great value in trying to get into the heads and hearts of Jesus and those men and women with him, and ask myself “What were they thinking? What was really motivating them to do and say those things? What was important to them, and what wasn’t important? Why? Why Not?” At the end of the day, we live by the Spirit – by hearing from the Lord on a matter, and moving out in faith to obey his prompting. By looking through the new testament letters this way, it’s like the early followers become our older brothers and sisters in the faith, putting their arms around us and telling us “Here’s how he led us; how we lived and why, so now you can make this your inheritance and go to him for his leading in your life.”

It becomes a critical point of reference for me, and I’ll use it often. Have you ever had one of those times when you just couldn’t seem to find the answer from God on something? When I get there I find it’s a good idea to consider that I may be asking the wrong question. It’s meaningful when the new testament is “silent” on a topic. If life’s challenges were really much the same for them as it is for us, and it’s hard to imagine them wrestling with something we’re wrestling with, it’s instructional to ask “why is that?”. Conversly, if I don’t find myself working over the same kinds of things that they did, it can be a good thing to ask “why not? God, what am I/are we missing here?” Much of what we spend time on in church businesses (what we call “churches” today) was not a concern in new testament times, and this “silence” speaks volumes. This will be a popular area of discussion for me here because “something like scales” are falling from the Church’s collective eyes, and it’s important that we see what God is revealing to us.

Thanks for reading. If you’re truly interested in these things, I welcome your thoughts in response.