So You’re Done with Church…

What is church? Who knows anymore?

We all know it’s not a building, it’s people (even if we refer to some buildings as “churches” in our colloquial shorthand).

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Sketch by Milan Rubio

But whatever else church is, one thing’s clear: plenty of people are done with it.

This isn’t news, though folks keep sharing posts like this, this, and this.

Most recently, I read a discussion between some guys on social media, at least one of whom has pastored and has a seminary degree, and is now done. He gave his reasons, which seem to be fairly typical of the dones, but I’ve found myself wanting to ask some questions.

So this is for him and all the rest of the dones out there.

You say you’ve left the church but not Jesus, and you’ve intrigued me.

I don’t want to argue; these are legitimate questions.

Full Disclosure…

Of course, before I ask them, I want to be totally honest. I might be reacting because your journey threatens mine.

I’m a vocational pastor; for the last 11 years I have fed, clothed, and sheltered my family with a paycheck given to me by an organized, institutional church. I presume they gave it to me so that I could devote my working hours to various forms of ministry, and I’ve always believed this was in the spirit of 1 Timothy 5:17.

But your form of Christianity basically says that I am unnecessary, and, let’s face it, if every Christian followed your path to health and freedom, there wouldn’t be anyone to pay me anyway.

(I should add that in my situation this would likely mean an increase in pay, as well as an easier schedule, not to mention freeing up my weekends.)

And you should also be aware that I am actually preparing to start a church. Naturally, I might find people on your trajectory to be frustrating even though I share some of your concerns and aim to avoid many of the same things as you.

So, I can’t be totally objective.

And I’ve still got my questions…

I’d love to hear your answers. Here they are (in no particular order):

How do you practice Ephesians 4:11-16 in your Christian life? (This is the passage about Jesus giving special people to the church to help equip each person in it to contribute to the health of the whole, by teaching truth and discerning error.)

How do you practice other passages like Hebrews 3-4 or 10 or 1 Corinthians 14, which refer to corporate assembly and mutual member ministry?

Who shepherds you? (I realize that may sound horribly patronizing, and I don’t mean it that way. But the apostles seemed to think it necessary in their absence – Acts 20:28-29 / 1 Peter 5:1-4. Sorry, not arguing. Maybe a better question would be, Who watches out for your soul? Besides Jesus, of course. Think, Hebrews 13:7 or 17)

When you evangelize those around you without any embarrassing church ties, and God supernaturally converts a soul through your witness, how do you help them experience the family of God?

How do you handle baptism? Or communion for that matter? (Of course, communion isn’t technically commanded like baptism is, but how do you “discern” the body of Christ while avoiding it?)

If spiritual gifts are given for the benefit of building up the body of Christ, what should people with the gifts of leading or teaching or prophesying do?

If you interpret all of the New Testament references to the organized church in terms of “that was then, this is now,” how do you still maintain that things like homosexuality or adultery are sin? (I’m assuming a lot here. Do you still have a category for calling certain things “sin?” I confess my ignorance here; that’s why I’m asking.)

In your life, what are weddings and funerals going to look like?

Without church you can’t really practice Matthew 18 or 1 Corinthians 5, so how can you tell if you’re really enjoying “Christian” fellowship or just hanging out with the neighbors?

Speaking of fellowship (of the Philippians 1:5 sort), is there any place for missions to unreached people groups in your faith? How does that work?

I’m Serious…

I really want to know. Ordinarily, I would have started with whybut I think you’ve already told me.

And look, I get a lot of what you’re saying. I’ve been in a lot of churches that would have driven me to desertion too. I think I’m with you in a lot of ways…

I hate church marketing.

I hate millions of dollars spent on religious “eye candy.”

I hate psychological, self-help, power-of-positive-thinking junk served up with a Christianesque veneer.

I hate it that people can “attend church” for decades and know as little of the Bible as a new convert.

I hate the professionalization of the ministry.

I hate the church-equals-concert / conference confusion.

I hate the dichotomy between “going to” and “being the” church, as well as the one between “creeds” and “deeds.”

I hate the pride, greed, hypocrisy, manipulation, nepotism, selfishness, and gluttony.

Maybe it’s because I don’t view these things as part of the church, but I’m just not done yet.

In fact, I’ve got just one more legitimate question to which I’d love to hear your answer:

Given your private Exodus, you’ve obviously trying to help yourself, but given the church’s public flaws, what are you prepared to do to help the rest of us?

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11 Responses to So You’re Done with Church…

  1. Brooke says:

    I will help the rest of you by answering some of your questions. Some, I’m still trying to figure out the answers to myself. First let me say, there is a difference between being done with church and thinking it should cease to exist. Church played a major role in my Christian development, and also in my cynicism. I think there is way too much emphasis on categorizing activities as “Christian fellowship”. If I am hanging out with friends that are Christians, I consider that Christian fellowship. If I am hanging out with non-Christians and showing them love and kindness, is that not a witness? Let me say, I know there is a place for preaching and teaching , but that is not my calling…at least not in an “in your face” kind of way. I do teach my children. I teach my employees. I serve when there is a need, regardless of whether the church has sanctioned it as “ministry”. It takes great courage for me to walk through the doors of a church – much like it would for a child to revisit their abusive home. So, for now I don’t. But it does give me a certain reassurance (maybe more for tradition’s sake than anything) to think that church will be there when I am ready.

    • Brooke, thank you for your response. From what I’m reading, it seems that there are many different kinds of “dones.” Thank you for helping me to see that. It looks like you’ve had some very negative experiences in the past and may find it difficult to hope or trust that another church will be different. I’ve met a good number of people in your position (though, obviously with many varied experiences), and in most cases I think I would probably feel the same way as you do. I agree with your descriptions of fellowship and witness, though I think we could probably both admit that different activities may be done with different degrees of intentionality.

      One question for you. When you say that preaching and teaching aren’t your “calling,” are you referring to being on the receiving end? Or being the one delivering it?

  2. Richard says:

    I see we both hate some of the same things.
    I hate church marketing.
    I hate millions of dollars spent on religious “eye candy.”
    I hate psychological, self-help, power-of-positive-thinking junk served up with a Christianesque veneer.
    I hate it that people can “attend church” for decades and know as little of the Bible as a new convert.
    I hate the church-equals-concert / conference confusion.
    I hate the pride, greed, hypocrisy, manipulation, nepotism, selfishness, and gluttony.

    I wouldn’t say I’m done with church I just can’t find one. We have searched every so called Bible believing church within a 45 Min. drive from our home. Most have a entertainment type service. One got a liquor licence so they can talk about the Bible over drinks. One even advertised an “open worship service” “shout, clap, jump, or dance in the isles”. A few promised health and wealth if we gave lots of money to their church. The proof was how rich the pastor was. The few that were not of these modes where the Jack Hyles type church. Attendance required every time the doors are open, the church is passed down from father to son, the pastor is never wrong and answers to no one, the Scripture is regularly taken out of context, the pastor is the hero of all his stories and there are a lot of stories, and “soul winning” is everything and the only thing. Funny thing about these churches, very few are actually converted. We have our family devotions every Sunday morning but miss the fellowship terribly. I’m afraid Seattle is too far form PA.

    • Thanks for weighing in, Richard! I think if I were left with only the options you’ve listed, I would strongly consider your approach. I commend you for visiting around to discover what is available. Have you thought about reaching out to see if there’s anyone else in your position? Maybe some de-churched or “dones” or even some unchurched (a.k.a. “lost”) who might be interested in joining your family on Sundays? They’d be hard to find, but I’d guess you’re not alone.

  3. Ed says:

    Excellent post. This is a far better place to discuss than facebook. I very much miss you and the rest of the guys under the “umbrella of truth” discussing topics just like this (Aaron and I went to school and seminary together). I will attempt to answer your questions as I have seen them practiced. Let it be known this is a discussion among friends with similar backgrounds and experiences. I will be short in my answers, but please do not take this to mean that I am being terse or rude in any way. We can expand specific topics further in future Blog posts as you see fit. Also, I find this discussion very helpful and necessary, as opposed to many endless debates today. I sincerely hope this helps you in your church plant.

    Feel free to ask for clarification for any of the following language or perspectives. Nuance is important here.

    First, a little background:
    I am a previous pastor of a “commercial/retail church” who has made the decision to apply the scriptures in a more intentional, focused, direct, and effective style in order to be more productive for the Kingdom of God. I have chosen to get a job working for a large construction company as an assistant estimator in order to provide for my family. I also have an investment rental property to help defray housing costs. I do not “go to church” anywhere on sunday mornings or any other night of the week. I have a wife and 3 daughters, aged 3, 6, and 8.

    I have observed 2 classes of Dones: negative and positive. Some are negativley frustrated and tend to just see the bad (your I hate list) and want to just walk away. Others, like myself, see the same list but simply choose to try to solve the problems in as positive, direct and creative manner they can imagine. Please, look carefully at your “I hate” list compared to your questions list. Which list is in deeper error? The problems listed on the hate list are in most cases insurmountable, and Churches who fall to that list eventually cause massive collateral damage in the world. This is unacceptable, and my conscience will not let me support in any way a system that perpetuates the theological and missiological heresies found under the I hate list. Here are my answers to the other list:

    How do you practice Ephesians 4:11-16 in your Christian life? I find that the church is much more effective at utilizing people of different skill sets in a decentralized setting. The people in the pews/chairs have much more to add than we give them credit. We simply allow those with various skills and gifts to use them however they desire. Retail churches often place value only on certain types of people with certain skills, while the free model allows people to grow in ways otherwise improbable. I speak especially of more introverted, quiet individuals.

    How do you practice other passages like Hebrews 3-4 or 10 or 1 Corinthians 14, which refer to corporate assembly and mutual member ministry? We still assemble, but just not as formally structured. Actually, we assemble far more often for far longer periods, with more intense conversations and relationships. The frequency, quality, quantity, and duration of our meetings are vastly different because they happen so naturally at lots of different locations.

    Who shepherds you? Fantastic question. We find there is more real accountability in a decentralized church. The Holy Spirit is very real and necessary, using others who may not have my theological background to help me be a good husband and father through their life and example of sacrifice. For the retail pastor, i would ask in return: Who Shepherds YOU? Too many retail pastors really have very little daily functional accountibility. I know because I was one and knew a lot of them. I speak from experience here. I am far better shepherded now than before.

    When you evangelize those around you without any embarrassing church ties, and God supernaturally converts a soul through your witness, how do you help them experience the family of God? Basically, they are invited into our life and experience our family. We open our homes and lives, and they literally become part of our family. They come over for dinner, we watch our kids play soccer on the same team. When we meet people, it is usually in the same life context, so it is easy to integrate lives together.

    How do you handle baptism? Or communion for that matter? The emphasis on these two is certainly lowered from retail churches. It is more rare in our groups, but more significant and usually more meaningful to those who participate.

    If spiritual gifts are given for the benefit of building up the body of Christ, what should people with the gifts of leading or teaching or prophesying do? They still lead, teach, and preach, but only on a smaller scale. I think we have mistaken extroverts for qualified leaders far too often. When something needs to be said, they say it. When something needs to be taught, they teach it. Everything is just smaller, more personal, more direct, and much more imtimate. I am teaching and preaching to you right now by answering your questions with grace and kindness.

    If you interpret all of the New Testament references to the organized church in terms of “that was then, this is now,” how do you still maintain that things like homosexuality or adultery are sin? We deal with sin on a more individual basis. When we see a husband treating his wife/kids harshly, or a wife being selfish, we tend to address the issue gently and quietly. Jesus said to deal gently with the sick, and yelling at blind people is rude.

    In your life, what are weddings and funerals going to look like? Like regular weddings, only with more fun, more meaning, and less religion.

    Without church you can’t really practice Matthew 18 or 1 Corinthians 5, so how can you tell if you’re really enjoying “Christian” fellowship or just hanging out with the neighbors? Is there a difference if your neighbors are Christians? Inviting non-Christians to see the love among Christians is the best method of showing the Gospel I can think of (unless the “christians” are not really living by the Gospel).

    Speaking of fellowship (of the Philippians 1:5 sort), is there any place for missions to unreached people groups in your faith? How does that work? There are enough “unreached people groups” in our life that keep us busy. If I wanted to reach Australians, I would move to Australia, plug into the culture, get a job, and live among the people. Mercenary Missions are generally bad for everyone involved.

    The I hate list is a huge problem. In my humble opinion, retail churches with those issues have done great harm and very little good. History has proven its fallacy, and many bear the scars of their “ministry”

    Heresy is Cruel

    Ed

    • Ed! I really miss that umbrella. 🙂

      Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions. My purpose in asking them wasn’t necessarily to imply that they couldn’t be fulfilled in a, as you say, “decentralized setting,” though I doubt a lot of “dones” actually do. That’s where your helpful distinction between positive and negative “dones” comes in. I’m glad to hear that you’re proactively trying to live out the biblical faith. I’ve spoken with some “dones” for whom the Bible is largely irrelevant.

      The biggest question you’ve asked is, “Which list is in deeper error?” Good question. Sort of. It sounds like we have to choose the lesser of two evils, which shouldn’t be the case when we’re describing something originated by God. I think it’s a false dichotomy, and I think you’ve helped to prove it.

      See, I think the organized, institutional church can avoid the errors of the second list, while you offer yourself as proof that the decentralized church can avoid the problems implied by the first. (We could write the first list in “I hate” language and make it sound really ugly.)

      It may be that the problems of the first list ARE insurmountable, and while they seem to be ubiquitous, I still think you can be part of a healthy, organized church without supporting a “system.” Being a pastor helps. (In some cases.) As pastor, I have the opportunity to lead and influence an organized church in a healthy direction. And as you’ve pointed out, spiritual gifting means that a person doesn’t necessarily have to have the official position as “pastor” to do that. As a church planter (bad term, I think), I hope we have the opportunity to lay the foundations for an organized church that avoids the problems of the second list.

      Ultimately, I believe we have two approaches open to us (another false dichotomy?): the path of the Puritan or the Separatist. I am taking the former, you have taken the latter. (I suppose it wouldn’t be kind to suggest that – of the two of us – you’re the real Fundamentalist, would it? 😉 )

      So my questions to you are these: Do you at least accept the possibility of a healthy organized church that is “productive for the Kingdom of God?” And what are some possible weaknesses or dangers of the approach that you advocate?

  4. Kyle Ford says:

    Many legitimate concerns here. I’d like to throw in my few cents and I’ll try to avoid being verbose.

    First, I think there’s a big distinction between being done with institutional church vs. being done with church altogether. Keeping in mind that the church is the people, not the building, saying “I’m done with church” is the same as saying “I’m done with fellowship”. That is something I absolutely disagree with. Personally, my journey away from institutional church is not to get away from church, but to get closer to what the church should be. The NT model for the local church is a network of house churches. Every individual ministers to others according to their gifts and are overseen by elders. No seminaries, no paid clergy, etc. Giving to help other members is done privately. So is giving to missions (sometimes individual missionary contacts, sometimes organizations). I think this answers most of your question w.r.t. assembly and mutual encouragement.

    Regarding leadership, it’s worth pointing out that there’s a big difference between what is commonly called pastor and the Biblical description of an elder. I do believe there should be leaders, just not how it is commonly done. First off, there should be elders, not a single ‘senior pastor’. Second, elders are not to be lords of the church, but are to lead by example (1 Peter 5:2-3). In most churches the attitude of the pastor(s) is, “Here’s our different ministries, pick one and hop on board”. Even if these other ministries are run by others, they often ultimately report back to the pastor. This creates an unbiblical hierarchy contrary to the priesthood of all believers. Elders are not a special priest class, nor are they to run the whole show, but are merely more mature, experienced, wiser believers who can use their wisdom to guide others.

    This doesn’t mean that the Elders do all the teaching either. There are some teachers that aren’t Elders and some elders that aren’t especially good teachers. Even those that are great teachers can’t be a master of every discipline. I can guarantee that in any given church, the pastor is not the person who knows the most about every topic. For example, I attended a church a few years ago where there were several active members, including myself, who held advanced degrees in chemistry, physics, and computer science. We were all well read on apologetics, but almost all of the teaching on the subject came from either the pastor or guest speakers (most of whom had Bible degrees and had merely read a few articles on the internet). That seems silly to me. What about people who are really well studied on prophesy? or are experienced in evangelism?

    I think it’s only fair to ask some of the same questions in return.

    In an institutional church, how do you ensure the believers are encouraging each other, when most of the time is spent looking forward watching a show? (even if it’s fantastic Biblical preaching, it’s still a show with passive listeners) I have no problem with preaching/teaching, my point is that the focus is always on one man. Related to my example above, how do the believers teach each other? (again, emphasis on each other, not flowing down from a single man)

    There’s much more that could be said, but I think this hits the high points. In the end, I think the best thing to do is go back to the NT and ask “what did the chruch look like”. That gives us the framework. From there, there’s a good bit of freedom on things like: when to meet, how much prayer time, how much BIble study, etc. But for everything that a church does, we should ask the question, “Does this help or hinder our goals of preaching the gospel to the lost and discipling Christians?”

    • Hey, Kyle, I appreciate your contribution here. Let me interact with your answers first, and then your questions.

      Your answers:
      Thanks for making the distinction between being done with the institutional church vs. church altogether. I think that’s important for those of us remaining in the organized churches to recognize.
      As to your interpretation of the NT model, I have a couple of quibbles, but we’re not arguing here. My only question would be, How do you justify giving to individual missionary contacts while rejecting the notion of paid clergy?
      As to the rest of your thoughts on church leadership, I’m in broad agreement with you, though with two exceptions. First, I think we probably don’t agree on the subject of vocational elders. Second, I would have a problem with an elder who is not “apt to teach.” (Good KJV English there.)
      That said, you made an excellent observation about the distribution of teaching responsibilities among those with actual education. (Could this have something to do with why Presbyterians tend to draw a more educated congregation?)

      Now, your questions:
      You ask how I “ensure the believers are encouraging each other.” First, let me say that the idea of anyone “ensuring” anything has no possibility of success except in the organized church, unless we’re talking about our own immediate families.

      Second, I’ve had some difficulty helping people see the problem you’ve implied – that of “show watching,” which inhibits any sort of mutual-member ministry. However, we’ve tried to combat the problem through sermon-based small groups. The idea is that the pastor / teacher teaches the Scriptures in order to help the congregation understand it and apply it. THEN, they take it into their own groups where life is lived together and look for ways of sharing their own observations and encouragements with one another to help each other live out the truth they’ve all received.

      The pattern of a gifted individual teaching, equipping, and fostering maturity amongst members of the body so that they can then speak the truth in love to each other for the mutual benefit of all seems to be entirely in line with Ephesians 4:11-16. To me anyway.

      (On the other hand, some folks won’t come to a prayer meeting if there’s not going to be preaching. They do little else but sit on their butts and watch the show. I have often wondered if they’re born again.)

      The problem of going back to the NT is that we’re all going to see what supports our conclusions and miss (or re-interpret) those things that don’t. The answer is NOT “don’t go back to the NT” but to dare to listen to people who see things differently than we do and evaluate their presuppositions, methods, and conclusions. This is the same principle you’re advocating – mutual member ministry. My question would be not only what do the Scriptures teach me, but what can 1900 years of the (real) church studying the Scriptures teach me?

      That said, you’re absolutely right. The question we should be asking is, “Does this help or hinder us in making disciples of all nations as Christ commanded?”

      • Kyle Ford says:

        I think it’s easy to distinguish between paid clergy and missionary support. There’s Biblical precedent for one, but not the other. Another way to look at it is to ask, “Why do we need full time clergy?” It’s not necessary if teaching and other responsibilities are distributed as they should be. That way, our giving can be focused on supporting missionaries, buying tracts, and helping the needy instead of salaries, building loan/projects/repairs, and insurance policies.

        I disagree that you need a fixed organization to ensure growth. When I was first saved, I was discipled by a couple of guys. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, we had essentially formed a mini church within our church. There was rarely a fixed plan, we’d just meet for lunch and talk about what was on our mind, what we were reading in the Bible, who we had witnessed to lately, etc. In terms of my growth at the time, at least 90% of it was due to those times, and less than 10% from church services. If one of us was struggling, the others picked up on it almost immediately. That’s kind of the point with ‘house church’ or rather, church focused on the ‘one another’. Everyone tends to become as close as family.

        I think small groups are a good idea, and probably the best shot at making an institutional church ‘work’. Still, in my experience, they rarely turn out well. I think we’d agree that there’s clearly some big problems that churches face. The question is, do we take the current system and try to fix it, or do we try to go back and rebuild from the ground up? I’ve never been a pastor, but for 7-ish years I spent a lot of time in churches trying to encourage close fellowship and evangelism in other members. Not only did I find it extremely difficult, but many times along the way I felt that I was actually fighting the church system, as if it was set up to prevent what I was trying to do. If there’s a way to overhaul the system and make it Biblical, I don’t see a clear path.

        It’s interesting that you mention history, because I see the current church structure as being very catholic in origin, which then passed on to the reformers. In contrast, many of the successful anabaptist groups had more decentralized structure. I think this is a large part of why churches are so successful during persecution. You simply can’t have a centralized structure when you’re being hunted because you never know who will show up to a meeting and who can’t. Just a thought.

        As you go about planting a church, when you get to about 25 people, at least consider if it really needs to get bigger. The other option is to stay small, don’t worry about getting buildings, etc. and when the church hits critical mass, split it off into two ‘cells’. This is how a network of house gets started. Most church plants start off well, then the problems come when they move into a building and start all the programs that come with it.

  5. It seems to me that everyone has already hit the main points. I just wanted to say that this has been a great discussion, both on Facebook, and in this forum as well. It is encouraging to see honest Bible discussion on a serious topic. I wrote my response to Aaron’s comments on my own blog, if you have not already checked it out – http://shepherdsgoad.blogspot.com/2015/05/the-done-with-church-crowd-response-to.html So, I’ll save time and space here, because I was somewhat verbose there.

    • Robert, you catalyst!

      I think I’ll interact with you blog over on your site. And if that doesn’t work, I’ll just write another post. Give me a few days – crazy weekend coming up!

      Thanks for the spirit in which you’ve moderated this discussion.

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