According to http://www.unchurching.com, there are “millions” of Christians who remain Christian but have left the institutional church behind. Apparently, these Christians have finally come to see all of the hypocrisy and institutionality of the modern church and have woken up to see you don’t need all the trappings of “church” to be in a Christian community. They live out their Christianity in “organic” home-based fellowships and have eschewed all the trappings of the “institutional” church: ordained pastors, 501(c)(3) tax exemptions, membership rolls, and a building and its accompanying mortgage. The cartoons and animations created at unchurching.com encourage those who cannot bear an “institution” any longer and offers them a better way: leave “Churchianity” and enjoy real Christianity instead.
Some are relieved to find such encouragement. Some (people like me who find most of the objections presented as little more than creative sleight-of-hand) find the ideas less than helpful. While this is not reflective of a formal debate on the topic of whether or not Christians are biblically mandated to belong to a congregation with properly appointed elders and the like, I would like to challenge the more popular arguments presented at unchurching.com and by those who generally argue that Christianity and membership within an “institutional” congregation are contradictions-in-terms.
A formal disclaimer: I realize everything I am about to say carries no weight because I am a pastor of an “institutional” church. We even bothered to get ourselves a 501(c)(3) tax exemption back in the day, so some might say we are basically pawns of the government. If it helps, you might even imagine IRS agents sitting in our pews every week to make sure we say all the right things. The horror of it all! So I’m just a preserver of my way of life and have no objectivity in the matter. Or so some would believe.
But if you will allow me to continue…I will agree with the author, himself a former pastor of an “institutional” congregation, in that there are millions who are done with church. Many of them are moderates or liberals in the “institutional” church who are being picked off by snipers in secularist camps. But of the millions who are done with the church, how many of them remain Christian and actually do the hard work of continuing to meet with the saints is impossible to know. I seriously doubt that number is in the millions. It strikes me as far more likely that when people leave “institutional” churches with membership rolls, accountability and “normal” leadership in the way of elders and pastors, most of these souls will eventually lose all Christian fellowship and even the faith. Not all, but most.
I’ll further agree, in all seriousness, that there are good reasons to leave some institutional church settings. Church abuse is real. I’m not sure how common it is, but it happens and I can only imagine the disgust one would have if they were victimized by a church, or if a church defends perpetuators of evil. The evangelical church also has waves of absurd Charismania, money-grubbing charlatans, and cults of personality fill radio and television waves. So yes, there is a lot of silliness and insanity that should be left behind.
But are there still good churches worth supporting? Are there still enough faithful “institutional” churches that can serve as gathering places for Christians looking for honest and authentic community? Yes, I think there are more than enough. And they are possibly in the process of slowly dying. Encouraging Christians to leave good fellowship by mocking institutional churches won’t help anyone, either the churches who see dwindling support or the Christians who claim to be able to go it alone. These people and these churches need each other, and all unchurching.com is doing is tearing them apart by mockery and ridicule. A churchman ought to know better.
What specifically are my gripes? First, to knock the church as we often find it as being merely “institutional” or “corporate” is to simply use buzz words to capture an audience. But they convey very little. There is nothing wrong with a particular body of believers also having legal incorporation. There are good and shrewd reasons for doing this: protection, stewardship and good governance. To put it bluntly, there is not a single church I am aware of that has ever been hindered by being legally incorporated as a 501(c)(3). Sure, are some pastors too timid for fear of losing it? Yes. But none have lost it. Only Bob Jones University was threatened with losing its 501(c)(3) status when it refused to allow integrated couples to live together on campus. But as political candidates preach from church pulpits, it should be clear that no church is, at this time, in danger of of losing its tax exempt status. If they are not preaching the full gospel, it is due to cowardice, not their incorporation. As I’ve said before, so long as Scientology has its tax exempt status, we have nothing to worry about, and should be bold in our proclamation without fear of losing our 501(c)(3) status.
There are also a fair amount of word games being played. It is true that Christians often use the word “church” in a technically incorrect way. The Church is a people. The Church is God’s people. The Church is the people for whom Jesus bled and died. And yet, we often use the word to describe a building or event, as in, “Isn’t that church lovely?” or “I’m going to church this evening.” So Christians identify the church as a people, a place and an event. So what? Is there really any harm here?
And what’s the alternative? This is a normal way we use language. We do the same thing when we drop our children off at school. A “school” is a building; it is also an event, for I don’t expect my children to sit in an empty building all day, but to do “schooling” activities: working, learning, playing, etc. The same is true for a bank. It is also a word we use to denote a building and all of the “banking” activities going on. To use word usage to suggest that we “have it all wrong” about Christianity is weak.
And what is the alternative to the body of Christ meeting at a regular time in a building large enough to hold more than a few dozen people? An undirected, unorganized non-group of Christians? Is that necessarily a better option? What Christians are describing when they say they are “going to church” is an ordered and regular way of life in a building that can facilitate more people than a personal home. I fail to understand how this is some cause célèbre against Christians who belong to an “institutional” congregation.
Are house churches really the solution to the weaknesses of the institutional church? It may be part of the solution. But do we have to figuratively burn down “institutional” churches on our way out? I don’t think so. For starters, there is absolutely nothing that prohibits incorporated congregations from understanding themselves as family. I have heard as many horror stories about cult-like house churches as instition-ridden corporate churches.
Our congregation, a small, Lutheran parish, thinks of itself as a family even though we have a property, are incorporated, etc. None of us get together and say, “Wow, we make a lovely corporation,” though if you can appreciate the root of that word (“corpus” = “body”), that actually wouldn’t be a bad thing to say. It’s just not cool to associate with something that sounds like Enron, so using that word has rhetorical pejorative power.
The suggestion that the Bible only offers house churches as a model is also besides the point. Of course the early church met in houses; they had to given that their religion was illegal! But houses have limitations, for better or worse, in modern America. They have size limitations to start, so at most, are we looking at 20 person gatherings? I’m not knocking 20 believers coming together, of course, but if this is the secret for that all-elusive kingdom growth, house meetings may limit size. “Well, we can always have more houses.” Great, but you will compound other problems. Like, are trustworthy people leading these meetings? Do you expect to need theologically trained and/or certified leaders? Will there be a doctrinal statement binding these churches together? Does your neighborhood zoning allow such meetings?
And that gets to the importance of denominations and their purpose. Far from institutionalizing and corporatizing congregations, it creates helpful boundaries and offers confessional standards for both those inside and outside the congregation. Others will know what to expect by a denominational affiliation. I mean, lets say someone is a part of a home-based organic community in Cleveland, OH. And they get transferred to San Antonio, TX. How will they find another organic, home-based community? Will they have to wait until someone they know invites them to one, meanwhile ignoring all the “corporate” churches with those evil buildings in their midst?
Some other benefits to institutional and incorporated congregations I’ll only list in bullet point form:
- Outside help with church discipline, including when church leadership is in sin. (Yes, sometimes church bodies tragically protect their own. That is a great sin that cannot and will not be defended here.)
- Collections and support for missionaries.
- Collections and support for the training of leaders.
- Congregations working together for justice issues.
- Church buildings hosting community building events like weddings, funerals, scout meetings, musical concerts, theatrical productions, graduations, etc.
The truth is that there is no easy solution to the imperfections of church life. Buildings have advantages and disadvantages. Pastors can seek to lead cult-like organizations, and so too can leaders of organic, home-based communities. Having a corporate charter might intimidate pastors to restrict their preaching, but not having one may lead to less oversight. If you want to propose additional ways of Christians being in fellowship, great. But make your arguments against the Church more substantive. Mocking it for being incorporated or owning a property will appeal to some, but will doubtful build up the body more than working from within.