Rechurching the Church

Scanning through my FB feed this morning, I came across a link to a page announcing itself as the “Unchurching Community”. The initiative comes from a former pastor, Richard Jacobson, who left his role as a pastor in 2003, following a crisis in his faith. His doubts were not about God or the church. Rather, his crisis consisted of him “having doubts about the way we do church today.” Unchurching the church then, is an attempt to draw together all those people who, despite having not abandoned their faith, nevertheless are seeking “genuine church community outside the box” which they did not find in more traditional expressions of the local churches they have left.

They “unchurched” the church.

What I appreciate about the site is that the clear intent is to promote “constructive dialogue” about the church without resorting to “verbal fistfights.”

It is in the spirit of being constructive that I write this article and it is my genuine hope that it will cause us all to re-think the church.

My premise is straightforward enough: It’s time we re-churched the church.

Next March I commence as the Senior Pastor of what will be my fourth church and coincidently, the day of my induction also falls on my 33rd anniversary in pastoral ministry.

I have been a pastor since I was 23 years old!

I have seen and learned a lot in that time and my view of the church today, now in my 50s, has matured greatly to what it was when I first stood before that tiny congregation in rural Queensland. Back then, I saw a lot of what I believed needed “straightening out” in how people were living their Christian lives and I was the man for the job!

These people “need to mature in Christ” was my catch cry.

And I needed to as well…I just didn’t see it myself at the time.

My point is plain enough. There are always going to be deficiencies, failings and immaturity in every local church.

There have always been and always will be churches who do community poorly. And there will always be a generation of Christians who will rise up and say, “We can do better!”

And I genuinely thank God for those who are willing to step out in faith and launch into fresh expressions of the local church. After all, surely that is what we would expect from a community that claims to have at it’s centre the Risen Jesus Who has made everything new?

But allow me to make some cautionary observations.

Think carefully about what you are looking for.

When people state that they are looking for a church “where we can all do life together and live in genuine community”, I am amazed at how undefined their idea is of what this actually looks like.

Usually the conversation turns to, “Well, we want to be like the Early Church was…you know?”

And my response usually is, “Which Early Church do you want to be then?”

Corinth was filled with partisanship, spiritual pride and sexual immorality.

The churches of Galatia struggled with legalism.

The church in Ephesus had to not only battle heresy but also the sin of gossip.

These are hardly the types of churches that we would hold up as our model for “doing life together” and yet, that is precisely what they are. These people were  certainly doing life together, but it was life at its messiest and filled with shortcomings, immaturity and a distinct lack of love.

Yet Paul still called them saints, “holy, set apart ones” no less and he relentlessly called them to pursue and live a lifestyle worthy of the name.

So you want a Christian community like the Early Church? Great!

Just remember that “doing life together” is more than sitting in a circle, holding hands and singing “Kumbayah”.

Genuine Christian community is experiencing life when it is at its messiest and still loving each other.

Over a four year period in a church I was pastor of we ministered to over 200 men who had been broken by their sexual sin.

When it comes to mess – listening to the stories of men held in sexual bondage for most of their lives – it doesn’t come much messier than this. And well over 90% of them were Christians.

But out of it came genuine community. We learned to support each other, care for each other, pray for each other and hold each other accountable.

We did life together.

By all means, develop a church based on the Early Church. Just remember that it will involve a lot of mess and brokenness.

And that you do not simply “unchurch” the group when it is not living up to what your ideal is.

Remember why the church exists in the first place.

Deeper love for and fellowship with, each other is an admirable goal for all Christians.

But is not the only goal.

If you are seeking a fellowship which has as its primary aim the seeking out of other disillusioned Christians and who gather together to discuss the shortcomings of the established church, then please think again before you commit.

Fellowship is only one reason for the church.

There are also the important purposes of prayer, worship of the Risen Christ, teaching and mission. (See Acts 2:42).

The church exists for the express purpose of calling  people from every nation, tongue and tribe to join a community of people who are intent on relationship with the loving God Who created and redeemed them.

The church calls out to all people everywhere to be a part of a community that is, I believe, God’s best hope for the world in seeing people restored to wholeness through a relationship with Jesus.

To belong to a community that has as its sole purpose the care of others “who think like us and are as fed up as us” is to aim too low.

Aim high! Shoot for God’s purposes and you will find that a loving community is the natural by-product.

Love the church you’re with!

“What?” I hear you cry! “Don’t you get it? The church I belong to does not know how to do community, much less know how to love each other and you’re telling me to love them?!”

So show them.

Show them how to love and how to love each other.

Among the many distinctly uncomfortable things that Jesus said, one of them jumps right out at you: “Love your neighbour as yourself”. (You choose the reference for this one – He said it a few times!)

He even went so far as to say, “Love your enemies”. (Matthew 5:44).

“Okay Lord. Loving Mother Teresa I get…but Donald Trump? Seriously?”

Yes, seriously.

Jesus said that there are two distinct hallmarks of the servants of God:

  • They love God well.
  • They love people well. (See Matthew 22:34-40)

Loving God seems to come quite naturally to us as believers. We are overwhelmed by His grace, love and compassion for us and our hearts open up to Him in love and devotion.

But our love and devotion is severely tested by the elderly person who scowls at us for sitting in “their” seat at church or the person who makes a point of seeking out the preacher every week in order to enlighten him about the shortcomings of his particular view of eschatology!

Nevertheless, we are called to love each other and to love each other well.

Paul’s remedy for the faction ridden church at Corinth? “Love each other!” (1 Corinthians 13).

In fact, he went so far as to say that the goal of all Scriptural teaching is that we love better; God and each other. ( 1 Timothy 1:3-5).

I love good Bible exposition but if it doesn’t challenge me, or the people I serve, to love God and people more, then what is the point?

So here is my radical thought. Rather than leave the church you are in because of its perceived failure to love and do life together, why not become an agent for change there?

In other words, love the church you’re with.

Believe me, like you, I have many reasons for un-churching the church. When I left the first church I pastored, I was disappointed. I had not given up on God, the church or ministry, but it is safe to say that I felt that the responsibility for the church’s problems lay with the people.

Were they spiritually and emotionally immature? Certainly! But so was I and thankfully, through the work of God in my own heart, I came to see that more clearly and I began to grow.

Over the course of my next two ministries, in Cairns and then Perth, I came to understand what it meant to love a group of people in spite of their flaws and shortcomings.

And I discovered that they loved me, with all of my own baggage, in return!

This change in me came about because I began to apply a truth that had been taught and modelled to me by two or three outstanding men in my life.

Rolling what they all said together into one short statement, it was this: “Be careful how you treat the church because Christ loved her and gave His life for her…”

Looking back, the moment I began to live that truth out was when, with faltering steps, I started loving God’s people, His church. I see now that it was also the moment when I and my ministry, began to mature.

Imagine what could happen in our churches if each of us took the bold step of trying to love each other well? I believe it would launch a spiritual revolution in the wider community that would realise the vision Francis Schaeffer had: “When the church is just a little of what it should be, people will come.”

Love the church you’re with!

Loving well is about being emotionally mature.

How we love God and each other says as much about our emotional maturity as it does our spiritual maturity.

And it also involves healthy boundaries.

While the idea of being part of a community that “does life together” sounds idyllic, it can also have a number of pitfalls. Geri Scazzero highlights this in her book, The Emotionally Healthy Woman. Speaking from experience, she explains how she often suppressed her own feelings of being stifled by so much community with others, including her own desire for personal space and reflection. In time, she learned that healthy community does not mean that you have to know everything about everyone or do everything with them. Its okay (and necessary) to set healthy boundaries for yourself and others and because you do, it does not follow that you are not loving others well.

In fact, emotionally and spiritually healthy people know how to set wise boundaries while still loving God and people well.

So you want a church community that loves well and does life together?

Great, because so do I!

Will you join with me then, in re-churching the church?

6 thoughts on “Rechurching the Church

  1. I may not know a great deal about what a “Church should look like and I am certainly no Theologian, I was once part of something I believed in, I was a small part but I believed an integral part of building “the Kingdom”. I found that I was correct and incorrect at the same time. My “service” was pure, I genuinely believed that my service and my sacrifice was out of a pure desire to serve God to the best of my ability and I did just that with joy in my heart. The incorrectness was that I was serving someone who had set himself up as God, and the only way to truely serve God and please him was to serve and please the self proclaimed Apostle. The first time I “failed” at my service I was open to the full punishment of the “Church” disassociated, my “service” revoked and withdrawn, Citing “your service is a privilege not a right” my position within the Church was withdrawn and I had to stand and confess my “Sin” publicly in front of the entire congregation and “throw myself upon the mercy of the Church”. Humiliated at having been found human with failings I felt that I no longer had any place within the Church and subsequently left vowing never to allow myself to be used again. I believe in the Church as a place where people can receive support, encouragement, direction and yes even discipline. There is definitely a need for the church as an effective influence in the community. And it can be such an effective tool for change. I don’t have the answer or any words of wisdom for how or what “the Church should look like or how it should be connecting the community. I don’t know if anything I have siad helped or even made a difference. Just thought I would let you know from someone who has not stepped into a Church for at least 8 years that I still believe that it is necessary and needed but don’t know how or what it should be.

    1. Hi Glenn,
      thank you for your response and most of all, for your honesty. Obviously I do not know the complete circumstances of your story but I can truly say that I am genuinely sad to hear that you are no longer part of a church. (I say this without any condemnation of you at all). I can point you to Jesus though, because in Him we find the perfect model for our faith and for leadership. Know that He loves you deeply, that you are His “treasured possession” (1 Peter 2:9-10). My prayer is that this Christmas, you will be overwhelmed in a fresh, new way by His grace, love and compassion for you.
      With sincere love and blessings in Christ,
      Rob.

  2. How totally freaky that this article should cross my path just one hour after I left the ‘Unchurching Community’ Facebook group. How did that even happen?!
    The reason I left was mostly because as an Australian and this community being very much an American group I did not believe that I would get the community that was the purpose of this group, so I withdrew and left them to it.
    However, I was very much a part of that group even at the posting of your blog/article and because I had made contributions into this Facebook page which you have specifically named and addressed in your article, you have then made this personal, and I am entitled to right of reply.
    How simplistic you make the situation and how disappointing by you saying “And that you do not simply “unchurch” the group when it is not living up to what your ideal is”, that you obviously believe our decisions to leave the IC are done so carelessly and so indifferently. This just reveals that you have not bothered to find out the stories of these people or, if you have, you have not listened to them.
    And so the situation is this, you have two groups, one outside the IC gathering together to discuss the weaknesses of those in the IC, and another group inside the IC gathering together to discuss the weaknesses of those outside the IC (yes I have seen your Facebook page), but you say, “To belong to a community that has as its sole purpose the care of others “who think like us and are as fed up as us” is to aim too low”. To which of these two groups do you refer?
    With an average of 1,000,00 people per annum leaving the US churches and 2% per annum here in Australia (2011 census) and accelerating, your answer to this phenomenum (because that is what it is) is so simple, those of us outside the IC just need to meet you where you are at. We just need to lay aside all our heart level experiences and our shift in support of man-made doctrines that drove us from the IC in the first place, we just need to dismiss these things as though those things have not altered us forever and come back into the fold of the IC without any personal cost to those within the IC, without any promise or pledge on your side of doing churchlife better! By your answer the cost will be all on our side, you get off so lightly to which you maintain would be ‘love’. The fact that you have woven throughout your narrative comments that refer to your own ability to achieve higher has not escaped me.
    Let me share a story with you, I also shared it with the ‘Unchurching Community’.
    7 weeks ago I went to a small Christian weekend retreat. The speaker for the weekend was a famous Australian pastor/prophet with an extensive International ministry. During one of the lunch breaks he had a casual conversation with me in which he asked where did I go to church? I said “I didn’t go”. He then lectured me on the reasons as to why I should be atttending giving all the usual arguments, you know, with the same one sided demands for action as you have given. I replied, that I was only interested in God’s will for me. At the next session, he stood up to speak and said “I don’t know why I am saying this….(that’s prophet/pastor code for, the Holy Spirit is making me say this) and proceeded to tell a story about a man who dropped dead for not going to church.
    See here’s the thing Rob, God really loves that man, He has given him incredible kingdom power, He has chosen him and gifted him with an extensive International ministry, he travels to many nations annually, God has used him to see many come into the kingdom and many more healed, he has among his aquaintances many high profile Christian leaders and yet, this man turns to the weakest, to the least in the kingdom, a little housewife nobody and does such a despicable and ungodly thing as that, worse than that it was cowardly because he used the power of the pulpit it do it, to which I personally have no defense, all the power is on his side.
    God may use this man to fulfill kingdom purposes through him but there is no kingdom greatness in him, he lacks godly character but he perceives his gifting as God’s approval of his character and this gives him an arrogance.
    This same arrogance I also see in the IC, it comes out of a belief that they are in right standing before God because they go to church on Sunday. This arrogance continues in that they also believe that because they are in right standing before God they then have the authority to sign off on other people, they believe they get to decide if their fellow brother’s and sister’s life and walk with God is valid or not.
    Let me ask you Rob, when you single out a person by name as you did with Richard Jacobson and when you single out a community by name to publicly discuss their weaknesses through the global internet as you did with the ‘Unchurching Community’ (no matter how graciously you wrap it up)…… are they not real people? If you cut them, don’t they bleed? Does God love you more? Doesn’t God say that he advocates for the weak and those that have no power?
    When men of kingdom power treat the weak in this manner, what should God do? Does He not hear their cries for justice? Does He not answer?
    I tell you what God is doing, he is pulling them out from under this kind of leadership, He is protecting them from it’s abuses because what is the alternative, what else can God do? If He leaves them in this failing system then the only other alternative He has if He is to protect the weak, is to destroy the leadership.
    But God loves His leaders even when they fail to protect, understand or support the weak.
    And so those outside continue to love God and find new expressions of how to love and be loved.
    We will not be returning any time soon to the IC, and whilst the IC continues to demand that all the sacrifices that is needed to bring reconcilliation falls on our shoulders God will hold off sending us back in because that would be like a dog returning to it’s vomit.
    Jer 34

  3. Hi,
    (Please do not think me rude as I do not know your name)
    Thank you for taking the time to respond to my article. My purpose in writing has been to engage in what Unchurching the church describes as “constructive dialogue”. At no point have I sought to denigrate this community or Richard Jacobson. I want to respectfully suggest that you have read into my article an intent that is not there. The only thing that I mentioned about Pastor Jacobson was what he said about himself on the FB page. And my article does not discuss the weaknesses of the Unchurching community as you suggest. In fact, very little is said by way of specific reference to this community. I was/am simply presenting an alternative viewpoint which the FB page encourages. My article is not an attempt at sarcasm or to point out where I believe people are wrong. And it is certainly not a diatribe designed to tell people that they should get back to church. That will only ever be counter-productive.
    I am genuinely sorry about what happened to you at the weekend retreat. That is nothing less than an abuse of the pulpit and should never happen in church, Christian communities or weekend retreats. As a pastor, when I hear stories like this, I am very disappointed that they have occurred because they leave people disillusioned and hurt.
    And as a pastor, I am also concerned about the large numbers of people (of all ages) who are leaving the church. Not because I want numbers in my congregation but because I am fully aware that many of these people have experienced hurt, rejection and a community of believers that was less than the NT ideal. But not all of the IC is like that. and not all of the churches of the NT were ideal either. That is not an excuse to hide behind – it is simply an undeniable fact, as Paul’s NT letters to the churches makes abundantly clear.
    And I would never counsel a believer to remain in a church where there was spiritual abuse occurring among the people.
    I have heard many, many stories of heartache and hurt from people who have left the IC and it grieves me because I know that this is not God’s plan for His people, whether they remain inside the church or out of it.
    So please do not read my article as “well this is the IC, take it or leave it.”
    My sincere prayer for you and your family would be that you do find a community of God’s people where there is genuine community, love, honesty, acceptance and openness with each other. That may be found in a group of people meeting in a home or it may even be found within the IC.
    As for me, I am simply going to encourage God’s people, wherever they are, within or without the IC, to love His people, the church. (And by church, I mean the believers in Christ).
    Thanks for taking the time to feed back!
    Blessings,
    Rob.

  4. I just joined the unchurched group. I like the idea of rechurching the church, but I am not optimistic. Loving the church you are with sounds self-defeating. It does not seem right to say “love” which sounds like acceptance, and at the same time “be and agent of change.” Why should I try to change the church? Many people like it the way it is. Why should I attempt to bend it toward what I want.

    I think it may be better to unchurched to rechurch. Start over, from scratch. experiment. experience the inconvenience of love. I am going to try to think about the possibilities that may allow for the unchurched to rechurch. I’ll post what I come up with.

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