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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.

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Though Martin Luther is commonly credited with leading the “Protestant Reformation”, men like John Wycliffe (1331-1384), and Jan Hus (1369-1415), were mounting serious and meaningful challenges to the authority and practices of the Catholic church over 100 years before Luther’s Ninety-Five Thesis was nailed to the church door.  These men, and other reformers like them, could not find a biblical justification for what they saw “the church” doing, and they literally risked their lives and livelihoods to question it.  At the heart of their protests was the way “the church” had inserted itself as the middle-man (or broker) between God and His people; and the rampant corruption that resulted from it.  In that era, “Christians” had to rely on “the church” to teach them what the scripture said, to forgive their sins, and to administer the sacraments, which were ostensibly their connection to God, and ultimately to salvation.  A failure to live up to the standards of “the church” could get you cut off from the sacraments, which in that context amounted to being cut off from God.

 

As a person who was raised in a devoutly Catholic family, this is similar to the understanding of God I grew up with.  He was too high, and too holy, to be approached by people like me; and so we prayed to the saints, and we prayed to Mary, and we relied on the priests, and the bishops, and the Pope to tell us what God really wanted from us.  He was so holy that we had to whisper in the sanctuary, even when there wasn’t a service going on.  In those days, I believed that the church building was God’s house, and that this was where I needed to go to be with Him.  Of course, the idea of being with Him was scary, because, as I was frequently reminded, He would one day judge me and decide whether I was worthy of heaven.  No doubt, fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, but I don’t think that this is what God had in mind.  I emerged from this upbringing with an awe of God, and gratitude for the sacrifice that Jesus made for me, but with no real connection to either of them, and no understanding of the “Holy Ghost”.  From my perspective, God was a world away (i.e. in heaven), Jesus had died 2000 years ago, and here I was, on my own.

 

When I left home, I left “the church” behind; not out of hurt, or anger, or some great theological issue, but rather because it seemed irrelevant to my life.  Though I always tried to be a “good” and moral person, I simply adapted to my surroundings, and the culture; and for a lot of years that seemed to be OK.  But, eventually, I became aware of a nagging emptiness within me, and as I sought to find its origin, I discovered that God was what was missing from my life.  This wasn’t happy news for me, because I assumed that it meant going back to church, and I hadn’t really missed that part.  But since church was all that I knew, that’s what I did.  Though my first attempt was a Catholic church, a “protestant” friend eventually invited me to their church, and I soon found myself moving in a different direction.  Bible studies began to challenge what I thought I knew, and when I finally read the Bible for myself, I emerged with a totally different picture of God, what He wanted, and what it meant to be His son.  I realized that He wanted to have a personal relationship with me, and though I wasn’t really sure how to go about that, I was committed to the pursuit of it.  Though it took some time, I gradually began to experience a tangible awareness of His presence, and to discern His voice.  At times, I encountered His Holy Spirit in powerful ways, and I was forever transformed in those moments.  The revelation that His Spirit lived inside of me brought God out of heaven, and Jesus out of history, and placed them in the center of my every day.  It changed my life in every way, and has become my sole source of hope.

 

I guess that this testimony would seem to support the idea that the “Protestant” flavor of Christianity is somehow superior to the “Catholic’ brand, but after twenty years of travelling within these circles, the two have begun to look incredibly similar.  Though I am grateful to my Evangelical friends, and their urging to come kneel at the altar; and to my Baptist friends, and their encouragement to read the Bible; and for my Charismatic brothers and sisters, and their love of all things spiritual.  And while I did feel the need to get baptized again; and while I have been known to speak in tongues; and while I do continue to find my way to a church pew on most Sundays, none of it has, or ever will, save my soul.  All of it has only been worthwhile to the degree that it helped me to find Jesus Christ, and to become genuinely connected to Him, and to fulfill His purposes for my life.  Though God used (and uses) these things (i.e. both my Catholic upbringing & my experiences within “Protestant” circles), it was Him who drew me to Himself, it was Him who spoke to my heart, it was Him who gave me (and gives me) new life.  Ultimately, this entire journey has been (and is) a transaction between Him and me.  He is the Vine and I am a branch; I am sustained by Him.

 

It seems to me that throughout human history God has tried to orchestrate a direct connection with His children, and that men have consistently resisted that effort.  It began in the garden, where all He wanted was to walk with them in the cool of the day; but Adam and Eve chose a different path.  In Moses’ day, He spoke to the people from the mountain; but it frightened them, and they asked Him to stop.  Later, when the people cried out for a king, He lamented, “I wanted to be their King”.  And when He sent them prophets to speak for Him, they ignored and/or killed them.  But finally, through the perfect sacrifice of Jesus, He was able to send His Spirit to dwell within the hearts of those who are truly His.  This was (and is) the consummation of God’s desire to have a genuine and intimate relationship with His people.  No more need for animal sacrifices, no more need to go to the temple to experience His presence, no more need to find the prophet to hear what God is saying.  The veil was torn, and even a “wretch like me” was (and is) now free to come directly to the throne of grace.  So where does that leave “the church”?

 

The church that Jesus spoke of wasn’t an institution, nor was it meant to be contained in a building.  He spoke of a body of believers, living in response to Him, through His Spirit.  He envisioned a connection that was so intimate that it would be like that of a groom and his bride.  A people so devoted to Him, and to each other, that the world couldn’t help but see a compelling picture of His love for them.  But what we have arrived at (in this present age) is much more rooted in religious tradition, and pragmatism, than in anything scriptural.  The “church” has become little more than the place where we go to practice our particular brand of religion.  And while the exercising of one’s religious convictions is not necessarily a bad or evil thing, there is a spirit that tends to lurk about such activity, continuously trying to twist it’s meaning and context.  I would call this a religious spirit, or the spirit of religion, and it is the same spirit that utterly convinced Caiaphas that he was protecting Israel by demanding Jesus’ crucifixion, and Paul that he was doing God’s work by killing Jesus’ followers.  If we are not discerning, we too can convince ourselves that all our religious activity is accomplishing something that it is not.  Jesus warned His followers of this in the gospels (Matt 7:23 – Not everyone who says to me Lord, Lord, will enter the kingdom of heaven…)

 

In fact, nothing seemed to stir Jesus’ ire like a religious spirit, with many of His strongest rebukes pointed at the religious leaders of His day.  These men perceived themselves to be God’s agents, and yet Jesus said, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!  You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces.  You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to (Matt 23:13).”  Obviously, Jesus’ anger was rooted in the fact that these men were standing in the way of people coming directly to Him, and there can be no doubt that He feels the same way today.  At its core, the spirit of religion is an anti-Christ spirit, which seeks to re-erect the veil by placing itself between Christ and His people.  It exalts its symbols, and its doctrine, and its rituals, and its officials, thereby stealing the focus away from the One who is the source of life.  The great reformers of the past came against this spirit in what we would now consider the Catholic church, and I would suggest, that the reformers of today need to do the same for those churches which would be considered “Protestant” in heritage.

 

Since Luther’s time, the reformed church has gradually restored much of the hierarchy, ritual, and idolatry it purportedly intended to leave behind.  The “Christian” culture in America is now littered with superstar personalities, who can fill arenas, and demand grand compensation for their ministry.  We now have ministers who carry special titles (e.g. Bishop, Archbishop, Apostle, Prophet..), and are led to believe that they make up some privileged class within the Body of Christ.  In many instances, people exalt these leaders, laying money at their feet, and standing in line so that they can be touched by them.  An internet search can locate videos of such ministers literally being crowned, or essentially knighted with a sword.  Many such ministries offer special blessings (i.e. indulgences) for those who give a requisite amount.  Even in places without that kind of hysteria, people are taught that the church, or their Pastor, is their spiritual covering, and that they will be unprotected if they come out from under their authority.  Over and over again, in a thousand different ways, the message becomes that we need what they have to offer in order to reach our God ordained destiny, and that is directly counter to the good news of the gospel.

 

I am not saying that there are no sincere ministers anymore, or that there aren’t congregations that are doing good work within their communities.  Undoubtedly, both still exist.  I’m not saying that anyone who holds a special title is corrupt or greedy.  I personally know many gifted ministers who can legitimately claim such a title.  But I am saying that this model that we have adopted for “church” is not producing the kind of fruit Jesus died to provide.  Collectively, we are not being the salt and light; we are not known by the way we love each other, we are not being transformed into the image of Christ, and we don’t seem to be having much of an effect on the gates of hell.  Our children are largely emerging from their church upbringings without a genuine connection to God, and are leaving the faith in droves.  As I read the scripture, I find that God is being exactly who He said He would be, and that the enemy of our souls is acting exactly like God said he would, and that the world (i.e. mankind) is being exactly like He said it would be, and that creation is responding just like He said it would.  The one character that I read about in the Bible, that I don’t see, is the Bride of Christ, who Jesus comes back for.  At this point in my journey, I would guess that our current religious practice isn’t going to get us there.  Ultimately, it is Christ in us that is the hope of glory.  Until the life of Christ within us becomes our guide, we are bound to wander aimlessly.  Unless the Lord builds the house, we will continue to labor in vain.

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