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Building – Body – Bride

Like a lot of people my age, I can say that I was raised in church. The Catholic Church to be exact.  And in those days my understanding of “the church” was a building where good, God-fearing folk gathered on Sundays, and other specified, “Holy Days of Obligation”.  As a child, I was told that it was “God’s House”, and so I just assumed it was where He lived, which is why we always needed to dress up to go there, and why my mom always insisted that we whisper, even when the service was over.  I did find that last part a little confusing, because I was pretty sure He could still hear us.  Even at a young age, I also recognized that our “church” was part of a larger institution known as the “Catholic Church”, thus my concept of church was largely steeped in the idea of buildings and institutions.

 

In that era, the “Body of Christ” was both the image on our crucifix, and the communion wafer that was such a prominent part of our Sunday tradition. One represented the suffering Jesus endured for us, while the other represented our way of staying connected to Him.  Indeed, participation in the sacraments was the key to remaining in good standing with God.  We had infant baptism to cover original sin, confession to cover our ongoing penchant for sin, and we had the Eucharist to cover our communion with God.  As near as I could tell, if I stuck with the program, God would remain relatively pleased with me, and my spot in heaven would be fairly secure.  For a long time, that seemed like enough.

 

But by the time I reached the doorstep of adulthood, both the internal and external forces at work on me had managed to reshape my reality. Though I can’t say that I ever stopped believing that there was a God, I had developed no real sense of connection to Him, and my ongoing participation in the sacraments didn’t seem to be making much of a difference.  Indeed, my struggles seemed very real, and my religious practice felt largely ceremonial.  So at 19 years old, as I left home to join the Navy, I unwittingly walked away from the tradition that had been such a big part of my upbringing.  Not because I was hurt, or angry, or even frustrated; if anything, I was empty.  I just left it behind like some old shirt hanging in my bedroom closet because it didn’t really fit anymore.

 

I offer this little testimony as an example of how devout religious upbringing/practice doesn’t necessarily translate into a genuine relationship with God. Of course, part of the problem was that I never really understood that was the goal.  Whether it is conscious or unconscious, institutions have the tendency to both preserve and perpetuate themselves, which keeps them at the forefront of your experience.  Even if I had known the importance of relationship, it would have simply driven me back toward the institution.  After all, I was taught that I needed them to tell me what the scripture said/meant, and to administer the sacraments, which could restore and maintain my relationship to God.  Some might read this as an indictment of the Catholic Church, but I would maintain that this esthetic exists throughout all organized religion.  Even ministers who’ll say things like, “it isn’t what happens inside the four walls of the church”, and/or “the church isn’t a building, it’s the people”, have a vested interest in the long term health of their organization.  That doesn’t necessarily make them evil or greedy, it’s just the practical reality of overseeing such an entity.

 

I did go on to build a life without much more than a passive reverence toward the idea of God, and a quiet admiration for people of faith. For a while, that seemed to be working out, as I attained some level of success in worldly terms.  But when the inevitable storms came, my good looking life collapsed into a pile of rubble.  That’s when I finally cried out to God in a way that I never had, and sought to know Him in a way I never did before.  I needed Him to be as real as my pain, and my fear, and my weakness.  It was a journey, and it didn’t change overnight, but I steadily felt drawn into something that was far more profound and genuine than anything I’d experienced before.  Indeed, I would testify that He made Himself real to me, and that radically changed everything.

 

In my desire to know Him more, I decided to take on the daunting task of reading the scripture for myself, and again, I felt as though God met me there. Though many of the individual passages were familiar, I emerged with a very different sense of who God was and what He wanted for me.  Instead of the thundering judge, demanding payment for sin, I saw the loving Father who yearned to be a part of His children’s lives.  Repeatedly, I saw Him create situations whereby He might connect with His creation, and repeatedly, I saw mankind thwart those arrangements.  With the perfect sacrifice of His Son, He finally accomplished what He’d been after all along, as His Spirit could now come and dwell within the hearts of His people.  No more bloody sacrifices, no more annual visits from the High Priest, no more middle men.  Without a doubt, this would be the “better covenant” of which the scriptures spoke.

 

Yet, the same fallen nature which led to the forfeiture of Eden, and to the request that God not speak directly to the His people (from the mountain), and to the refusal to enter the Promised Land, and to the clamor for an earthly king (like everyone else had), continues to plague us to this very day.  Despite the fact that the veil was torn, affording every believer direct access to their Father, we cling to our time honored traditions, expecting someone else to go in our stead.  Despite the promise of His most Holy Spirit coming to dwell within us, we continue to search through the ruins of a torn down temple (as if that is the only way we might know Him) as we cry out for Him to send us something more (as if what He’s already given us is insufficient for the task at hand).

 

The word so often interpreted as church within the scripture actually refers to a people who have been called out by God. It was never meant to rest upon a building or an institution.  It points us to a living, breathing organism, not an inanimate, man-made object or system.  With the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, this body would now have the very real potential (and calling) to become the manifestation of Christ upon the earth.  But to become partakers of that divine nature, one must first be willing to allow the old nature to be crucified, and for most, that is too high a price to pay.  The Apostle Paul repeatedly spoke of the need to participate in Christ’s death, so that we might also participate in His resurrection, while Jesus himself told us to take up our cross and follow Him.  Without that, there is little chance of substantive transformation, and we are left with little more than rote religious practices.

 

While the scripture tells us that there is a form of religion that God ultimately views as pure, we must also remember that Jesus’ strongest rebukes were reserved for the religious elite of His day. He manifested amazing grace for sinners, but great ire towards those who purportedly knew the Torah best, and controlled the temple system His Father had commissioned.  While the Pharisees seemed impressed with their own sense of holiness, Jesus characterized them as a “brood of vipers”.  Indeed, practices that flow out of a vital relationship with God are vastly different from those rooted in trying to appease a God we don’t really know, much less trust.

 

Religion has a tendency to stir spiritual activity, and there is a demonic component that I will simply refer to as the “spirit of religion”. At its heart it is an Anti-Christ spirit that seeks to substitute just about anything for a genuine connection to the Savior.  Jesus taught us that those who abide in the vine (i.e. remain directly connected to Him) will produce fruit.  Without that connection, “the church” becomes indistinguishable from the world, and “Christianity” becomes just another murky philosophy.  It cannot hope to point people to a Jesus that it doesn’t even know itself.  The spirit of religion is fine with folks doing their daily devotions, or going to service three times a week, or partaking of the sacraments, or memorizing scripture verses, or listening to Christian music, or flowing in their giftedness, or any other religious practice, as long as it never really results in a meaningful relationship with the person of Christ.  When this spirit attaches itself to our aforementioned nature, men tend to build lifeless monuments to their own sense of righteousness, and feel good about their eternity.

 

In 2017, the Barna Research group published an article about a growing population of believers who, “Love Jesus, but Not the Church”. It characterized this group as being largely comprised of people who take their faith quite seriously, and who have a surprisingly orthodox belief system.  It cites their distinctive as being their negative views towards organized/institutional religion, and it refers to them as “dechurched”.  In my experience, this term is operative, as these are generally folks who’ve spent years within the institutional structures of Christianity, with the vast majority of them coming from positions of leadership.  They are not only disillusioned by the abuse and corruption they’ve witnessed within the system, they are convinced that the current blueprint (i.e. format/structure) followed by most denominations will never allow the people to reach spiritual maturity.  Because of this, they’ve parted ways with the traditional model for doing “church”.

 

For those who have experienced (and/or witnessed) serious damage done within the church system, the temptation to firebomb institutional religion is somewhat understandable, but the Lord is quick to point out that there are people He loves within those buildings and organizations. He doesn’t demand that they get their doctrine and theology straight before He comes, He meets them right where they’re at.  Those of us who were the beneficiaries of such grace, must also extend it to those who are still finding their way.  In His sovereignty, God uses deeply flawed vessels and vehicles to accomplish His will – ultimately those are the only kind He has to work with.

 

The struggle for the “Dechurched” is finding an expression that more accurately reflects the New Covenant model, and allows people to step into the fullness of who and what God’s called them to be. Another challenge is not falling into the trap of misidentifying the system/institution as the enemy.  To be sure, there are inherent issues with any man-made structure or system, but if we battle not against flesh and blood, then it cannot become the focal point of the fight.  As many who’ve left the pews behind have already discovered, simply changing the venue and format doesn’t fix the problem.  Human nature, and the spirit of religion are just as comfortable in our living rooms as they are in our sanctuaries.

 

Sitting around and sharing stories about our bad church experiences will only perpetuate bitterness. It is not enough to simply leave behind a flawed system, it now becomes essential to step into something deeper and more authentic.  If all we do is free up our Sunday mornings, we are in real danger of becoming even less useful to God.  Any hope for a new and fruitful season must begin with an honest examination of our connection to the vine, but we also need to understand what kind of fruit to look for.  The fruit of genuine repentance is transformation.  Until people know us by the way we love each other, there is little chance that we will reach beyond our own small circle.  If the “Dechurched” simply fixate on the shortcomings of the institutional church, they will likely become nothing more than the new anti-institution denomination.  The Lord deserves better.  He deserves a glorious Bride, worth returning for.

In light of the Lord’s repulsion toward pridefulness, how precious the quality of genuine humility. He will not turn away a humble and contrite heart.

I will admit that I often battle cynicism, and that this cynical outlook has been a part of my personality for as long as I can remember. It is therefore tempting to think of myself as a “born cynic”, but the Lord is quick to remind me that, “you were not born that way”.  Indeed, this dim view is a byproduct of my experience with people and with the world system in general.  As such, it is a learned behavior.  A few years ago, the Lord plainly spoke to me, “I am not cynical”, which I understood to mean that if I wanted to accurately reflect His heart to a lost and dying world, I would need to let go of the cynicism that had become such an integral part of my thinking.  As I’ve engaged in this process of healing and deliverance, I’ve come to understand that cynicism opposes hope and ultimately faith.  It is exercising more confidence in man’s fallen nature and the spiritual powers of darkness than in the healing and resurrecting power of Jesus.  It is the belief that people will never change even when God says that transformation is our destiny and that He is faithful to complete that good work.  I’ve found that God is not calling me to trust people or worldly systems, He’s calling me to trust Him.  Not only in His ability to guide and protect me, but also in His ability to make all things new.  God help me to have Your heart.

Eventually you begin to realize that the journey isn’t as much about the destination as it is about the destiny, and it’s not as much about the place you’re going as it is about who you’re going with.

Before you were in your mother’s womb, you were conceived in the mind of your Creator; and I believe that the nagging sense of emptiness that hounds so many is largely a byproduct of straying from that original design.  Ultimately, we need Him if we ever hope to become that person.

 

Growing up can often be a disappointing process.  When you’re 10, you imagine that becoming a “teenager” will change everything.  But a few days after your 13th birthday, you realize that things are pretty much the same.  Then you start dreaming about turning 16, and getting your license, which is cool; but again, you quickly recognize that it doesn’t make as much difference as you thought.  Even 18 is that way.  Yeah, you’re legally an adult now, yet you still have to turn in your homework and get up for school the next day.  But finishing High School is different.  Though you may not sense it immediately, the rules change dramatically.  Up to this point, there was a system specifically designed to carry you along.  There was a whole panel of adults (e.g. parents, grandparents, pastors, youth group leaders, teachers, coaches, counselors…) assigned to provide guidance, boundaries, bedtimes, wake-ups, rides, resources, and incentives to stay on the right track.  There were organized activities intended specifically for you, like sports teams, school plays, dances, and 4H club.  And there was an education system built to pretty much ensure your success.  As long as you cooperated (i.e. showed up with a decent attitude) with these processes, you were almost guaranteed to make it through.  But now, that all changes.  Adulthood is very much a give and take proposition.  Generally, you get out of it what you put into it.  Even staying in school changes.  Colleges and Universities are businesses.  You pay to take their classes.  If you don’t show up, the teacher isn’t going to come looking for you.  If you don’t turn in your work, they will not scold you, or even ask about it.  If you fail the class, they will happily allow you to pay them to take the course over again next semester.  The workplace, and relationships, and almost every other facet of life works similarly.  If you want to have a great marriage, a successful career, or even to live in an exceptional community, you need to invest yourself (i.e. time, energy, passion…) in it.  Simply showing up, empty handed, will no longer get it done.  Ultimately, life was never meant to be a spectator sport – if you hope to get somewhere, you’d better dive in.     

 

A child who is never required to bend their will to the parent they can see is unlikely to submit their will to a God they cannot see.