go ahead, detox!

I recently had an email exchange with someone who is in a gradual process of detoxing from the church business model to more organic church gatherings, and it reminded me of the pitfalls, dangers, and scary times that this process can bring. I have a lot of compassion for those who go down this road with us, though I still highly encourage it.

One of the temptations, especially if you’re someone who has been engaged with church planting, is to put the internal growth parts at arms length, and think of it as merely learning a new methodology. A methodology is something you can take a class to learn, or read a book, or go see it in action somewhere to get the idea, then off you go implementing it.

But the experience that my wife and I over the last 10 years has taught us that the difference is much more than on the level of methodology. I find nothing sacred about being in houses as opposed to commercial buildings. I’ve seen people simply reproduce in houses what’s traditionally done in commercial buidlings, and in my mind, they are missing the wave of radical cleansing and revitalizing that the Holy Spirit is doing among the church. There’s a lot of egypt that God has had to get out of us (and thankfully, still is!) long after we got out of egypt, if that makes sense.

I believe that allowing ourselves whatever time He allots for detoxing from all of the “business” mentality (entreprenurial energy) that is so prevalent in contemporary church planting/church growth is critical. It all needs to be surrendered to Jesus, so that when he’s got something for us to do, let his voice be the one we hear and obey. Having a history in church planting, church movements, parachurch movements, etc., will present some additional challenge in identifying what is really driving us. Paul seemed to have had about 17 years of detox (Galatians), which makes sense when you consider how steeped he was in the contemporary religious methods of his day (“a Pharisee of Pharisees”).

For those who find themselves on “the journey,” my hope is you let God be ruthless and thorough with the “un-learning” and “re-learning” processes. And then, I hope you tell your story! Those of us who want to be closer to God need to hear it.

Paul the older brother, from Colossians

If we consider Paul of the new testament an older brother in the faith, and our coach or mentor, how would he guide us on our quest to carry out our calling as the church that follows Jesus today? I have a goal of looking over Paul’s writings with this question in mind and see what falls out as recurring themes. Below are my notes from reading his letter to the Colossians, with summary comments at the end.

Many of those who would read this letter of Paul’s were people he didn’t personally know that well – he hadn’t even met some – so he takes the time to give some orientation on what he’s all about, and what he feels is fundamentally important in the gospel message.

What Paul said are his purposes:

  • being a servant of Jesus’ gospel message, charged with presenting this message to others
  • proclaiming Christ – using all wisdom to admonish and teach everyone
  • The goal is that everyone would be “perfect in Christ”
  • he wants people’s hearts to be encouraged and united in love
  • he wants people to be have the full riches of complete understanding
  • he wants people to know God’s mystery – that is, Jesus Christ, who contains all treasures of wisdom and knowledge

What Paul desired for his readers:

  • be filled with the knowledge of God’s will through spiritual wisdom and understanding
  • live a life worthy of the Lord, pleasing him:
    • bearing fruit in good works
    • grow in knowledge of God
    • be strengthened in all power
    • have great endurance and patience
    • joyfully give thanks
  • be orderly and firm in faith in Christ
  • be rooted and built up in Jesus
  • be strengthened in the faith
  • be overflowing with thankfulness
  • Keep your heart and minds focused on Jesus, remembering that He is our very life now.
  • Be immersed in
    • compassion
    • kindness
    • humility
    • gentleness
    • patience
    • forgiving others
    • peace in your hearts
    • thankfulness
    • the word of Christ: teaching/admonishing one another with wisdom, singing, spiritual songs and gratitude in your hearts to God
    • and above all, love.
  • Wives, husbands, children, slaves, masters: be submissive, loving, obedient, fair, etc. – as if doing it unto the Lord himself
  • Work at things with all your heart, as if working for Jesus, and he’s got an inheritance waiting for you as a reward
  • Be ruthless about getting rid of behaviors that come from a sinful nature.
  • Be devoted to being watchful and thankful in prayer, praying for others – to the point of “wrestling in prayer” for others to stand firm in all the will of God, being mature and fully assured.
  • Let your actions and conversations with outsiders be wise and gracious, so you’ll always know how to respond to them in any situation.

What Paul wanted his readers to avoid:

  • don’t be deceived by “finesounding arguments”
  • don’t be captivated by deceptive, but hollow, philosophy that depends on human traditions and basic principles of this world rather than on Christ
  • don’t allow yourself to be trapped/condemned/judged by earthly principles and human teachings regarding rules about eating, drinking, religious events, special days, etc. They can be tricky and sound “wise”, but have no power for right living. People who get caught up in these have lost connection with Jesus, the Head.

What Paul indicates are the essentials of the Gospel message regarding Jesus Christ:

  • We are rescued from darkness into the kingdom of God’s Son, redeemed and forgiven from our sins
  • said another way, we were dead in sin, but God made us alive to Christ due to our faith in God’s power, that raised Jesus from the dead
  • Jesus disarmed the powers and authorities that were against us (making a public spectacle of them in plain view for all) by his death on the cross and then resurrection
  • Faith and love spring from the hope we have in heaven
  • It’s a message of God’s grace
  • Jesus is supreme over all other powers, rulers, authorities, and is the head over all the church
  • Through his death, Jesus made us holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation —
  • this requires us to continue in our faith, staying established & firm, not departing from the hope
  • that’s in the gospel
  • It’s a message cloaked in mystery, which is that Christ lives in us, and is our “hope of glory”
  • All the fullness of God is in Christ, and we have get all the fullness in Christ

Summary of primary themes for our purposes:

  1. Paul’s overall goal is to admonish and teach everyone in all of God’s wisdom so that they grow to be “perfect in Christ.”
  2. The meaning of this clearly hinges on people having the character qualities of:

    • be strengthened to stand firm in faith and in God’s will (in the face of opposition)
    • being mature, that is fully assured and confident
    • being rooted and built up in full wisdom, knowledge, and understanding of God

    and living worthy lives, demonstrating love, compassion, gentleness, patience, thankfulness (mentioned many times), wrestling in prayer for others, and several other qualities listed.

    which all comes from investing ourselves purposefully, intently in Jesus – that gospel mystery where Christ is in us. It’s all about being very, very vested in knowing Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, the Supreme being over all of earth and all of heaven, and what he’s all about by making us his people on earth. Paul didn’t point people to any man that they should learn from. In fact, he said be wary of how people can philosophize about junk and lead others astray.

  3. I’m struck by Paul emphasis on the gospel message being a mystery-yet-now-revealed-by-Jesus, and his intent on proclaiming it clearly as such: Jesus will come and live inside people, and open to them treasures of all wisdom and knowledge, and he becomes our hope for glory in our personal existence. What an awesome and appealing message!

Putting the above points together, he’s all about getting people connected with Jesus, the Supreme Head, so they embrace the gospel mystery (get saved), which joins people into this band of Jesus-followers called the church, and together we all continue living our whole lives from that connectedness to Jesus to fulfill his intentions (get perfected). There’s no escaping these high-level directives, which
must happen so that the Head, Jesus, fulfills his purposes in and through us.

So much of today’s church is patterned after modern business, which is all about having specific objectives, strategies for accomplishing them, which translate to specific objectives and actions at each level, which all roll up to the stated corporate objectives. At each level you have people acting as “heads” over their piece of the bigger picture, knowing what the need to accomplish, how it fits into the bigger picture, and planning/strategizing how to accomplish it. But my understanding from Paul here is that the Kingdom of Heaven is different in that there is only one Head, and the rest of us comprise the body. I see Paul trying to get everyone to fulfill their role in the body in “perfection in Christ”, and having the perspective that “we’re in this together as a single overall body”, but I don’t see him trying to help people be good “heads”, nor does he attempt this either. Jesus, the Head, has the master strategy for accomplishing his objectives, and we don’t need to go about trying to make up any new ones, or even require ourselves to know what his are, beyond what he’s clearly given us for fulfilling our parts. And our strategy for fulfilling our part in perfection is to live out of that connectedness to the Head. The way on is the same as the way in – come to Jesus and follow after him. This needs to be central to all we do.

money, power, and fear of man

Recently, I was awake late in the night thinking over the topic about how paying for spiritual services (ie, church business) corrupts the beauty of God’s church and reminds me why it’s so important that better models be thoroughly explored and widely adopted.

My wife and I have come to see leaving the church business way of spiritual life as a kind of “detox.” So one of my detox thoughts was that paying money to church leadership gives them a power that is not of God and leads to the “lording it over” evil and the resulting man-pleasing machinery that exists among those aspiring to be church leaders, which of course is directly opposing the call of believers to be God pleasers only.

Here’s a summary thought:

“Paying someone for ongoing spiritual leadership in your life must result in fear of that person and the desire to please them, which puts this activity in direct opposition of the gospel of Christ.”

Here’s a simple pragmatic view of business in support of this statement:

  1. when you pay someone for products or services, now you have “business” – especially if there’s a commitment of ongoing payments for ongoing products & services.
  2. for business to be sustaining it must survive and thrive – or customers will go somewhere else and the business will die. A complementing force is the natural drive God put in man to be successful in the work we do on earth (several scriptures – eg, Eccl 5, somewhere Paul says “if a slave can better his condition, he should do so…”).
  3. those who hold the key to a business thriving – by gifting & influence, or strategic position, or both – have the power to direct the actions of the business and staff. This is all as it should be and no one would question it for normal business.
  4. the power these leaders have naturally produces various flavors of “fear” and “man-pleasing” machinery among those dependent on the success of the busines. These “dependents” are those who rely on the business for their own livelihood (“staff”), but also those relying on the goods & services, depending on how much they value them. If the business is a monopoly, the dependence of the latter is absolute.

Again, this is all fine in the context of normal business, but the whole activity gets twisted and becomes a nightmare of sin in the context of the church.

  • the services we’re paying for is spiritual leadership in our lives (a wrong idea, but for the moment, picture the level of dependency we feel here), the spiritual/social environment we need as spiritual & human beings, and much of the relational context in which we fulfill God’s commands (loving & serving one another).
  • whether or not we’re “staff” at a church business, our dependence is high, especially if we’re serious about our spiritual life. If we do happen to be “staff” and dependent on the money for our livelihood, tack on financial/career dependence as well.
  • this means the key people for the church’s success now hold huge amounts of power in the lives of both staff and church “customers.” This is where it really gets twisted. The power and resulting fear and man-pleasing energy is much greater than what you’d typically find at a normal business because the dependencies are so vast – not just fincancially/career-identify wise, but spiritually and socially as well – nearly every aspect of life.

I have an entirely new understanding of why we have so many flavors or denominations of church businesses when I think of how important innovation is for business to thrive. When church is a business, then it avails itself to all the creative, innovative energy we find in business where new ones are constantly formed by human, entrepreneurial energy.

It’s tough to imagine how anyone really serious about following Christ would not see the serious problems in the church business concept of church life, especially once you’ve been presented with other, viable alternatives. While so many are in church business with good motives (it was mostly true for me), there is serious sin happening here, and something like scales are falling – and need to fall – from our collective eyes.

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.