I’ve been thinking recently about church leavers. A few years ago, I came to understand why some have left the church. As Reggie McNeal says, some leave not to abandon their faith, but in order to preserve it. I get that now.
So I have a sympathy for those who have chosen to leave the church not out over petty issues, but because the church looks so little like the church of Jesus Christ. I think I understand these church leavers because Jesus threatened to leave some churches too (Revelation 2-3).
So I do have some sympathy for those who left the church – but I have concerns too. I’m concerned about individualism, which assumes we can go at it alone. I’m concerned that we define church so poorly – a building or church service isn’t a church; some congregations may think they’re churches but they’re really nothing more than slick shows and an audience. On the other hand, completely liquid churches (occasional, irregular meetings with no commitment; randomly bumping into each other at Starbucks) isn’t church either. (More on what a church is later.)
My main concern is from reading books like Resident Aliens, and listening to people like Jim Grier, and, of course, the Bible. What we really need are not isolated Christians, but an alternate communities that exemplify the Kingdom and the Kingdom’s values – communities of radical love and forgiveness. I know it sounds naive, but if someone asks what the Kingdom of God is like, we should be able to point to a group of people and say, “There. They’re not perfect, but that is a little of what the Kingdom is like.”
So I agree with what Mike Frost says in Exiles:
Exiles will not sit in churches passively and put up with the phoniness, but neither will they simplistically take their bat and ball and go home. Too many people, alienated and angered by the contemporary church, have just left, contributing to the decline of the Western church. Exiles might leave (or be thrust out), but if they do so, it will be to forge the way, to fashion communities of honesty, openness, hospitality, and genuine love…
Exiles, sick of mainstream churches but tired of going it alone, have to embrace the challenge to fashion collectives of exiles and lead them into mission….Whatever you do, be prepared to lead others into a deeper communion with each other and with God. Before you know it, you might have fifteen people, and not long after that you might end up with more than a bunch of people. You might have a collective of exiles bound together by a common cause. Dare I say it? You might even have incidentally planted a church.
So I have sympathy for church leavers – but if you can’t find a true church around you, that is a community of radical love and forgiveness and a reflection of Kingdom values, maybe your calling is to start one.
P.S. Just noticed that this is my 2,000th post. Just went back and read some of the early comments from five years ago – there are 4,861 comments now. Some of the early commenters are now friends. It’s been a blast.