Seriously, in about a month I will have some clue what I am really trying to say with all this, and I will write a readable, succinct post that actually has meaning. This post is an admission of 25 years worth of errors, but even at that it follows no meaningful path. I can almost promise that there is nothing edifying in the next several hundred words. My apologies if this does not stop you.
Post 2 was the good stuff from the home church. That was an easy sell (to myself, anyway.) Post 3 here is going to be the bad stuff, the stuff I sincerely hope never have to deal with again.
Please have mercy should I seem to insult a brother or sister.
The brothers and sisters with whom I fellowshipped were lovely, even if we did push each other beyond the limits of our tolerance from time to time. This post will be a criticism of things that some of them still believe, and that will be hard for me. My intent is to criticize my past, not theirs, but they were there too. I can assure you that many of them strongly believe that I was the biggest problem in their church.
Without further ado:
THE big issue for me is ecstatic wordless prayer. I hope I never have to endure another hour of silence, puncuated by meaningful sighs - or failing that, that I finally begin to understand whatever everyone else was so in love with.
Charismatics speak in tongues. My little group spoke in silences. In both cases, the experience was an ecstatic one. I was raised Assemblies of God, and I recognize ecstacy when I see it.
We were taught that because the Father and Son were in fellowship in our spirits, we could center ourselves there and enter into their experience. I misunderstood this teaching from day one. I thought our founder was teaching us to silently meditate on the Lord as a precursor to expressing ourselves in intelligible praise. In fact, if I had the stomach to go back and buy his old tapes, I'm pretty sure I would find that this really is what used to say. By the time I left it was decidedly not what he was saying.
As things in that church evolved from a kind of pew-less Baptist feel to an American Quietist feel, they lost me. We started in 1990 with 15 people. We grew to 30 by 1994, and died back to 8 by 1996. By 1998 we were back up to almost 30 again. Somewhere in all that growth and death a lot was lost. The group and the leader both seemed to become much more attracted to the ecstatic.
The focus seemed wrong to me, and it seemed that the lives of the brothers bore out that appearance. Brothers that I knew to be in sharp division with another brother would sigh in wordless testimony to a deep experience they were having with the Lord. Apparently achieving spiritual union with God while in open discord with other brothers was just ugly. It drove me away. I could not trust brothers like that.
I will not lie to you. Many times I sought (and easily found) the refuge of sleep during those meetings. To be clearer, many of those brothers believed with all their hearts that I was the problem, and I leave it to the Lord to reveal the truth in the last day. I surely don't know whether my perceptions are false. I am telling things I never want to do again, not whether those brothers were right.
At any rate, I left the church because of this and the character of the leader - it turned out that he had less character than I was willing accept in a leader.
Everything else I will list in this post is stuff that the steeple church has that our home church lacked. I can live without these other things I will list. But, I cannot live with ecstatic experience outside of concrete evidence of growth, or with leaders who demonstrate an unacceptable lack of character. These two things are show stoppers.
I find myself in a steeple church now.
It is everything I wish it weren't.
So, why have I not left?
There are a number of common reasons. After 7 years of never being around anyone who rejoiced at the Name of the Lord, it was an unspeakable joy the day I got to sit in my first Christian service again. As I sat in this little church, I wept repeatedly for 3 weeks. Just to hear the Name of the Lord praised was unfathomable.
Psalm 42:4 TNIV
These things I remember
as I pour out my soul:
how I used to go to the house of God
under the protection of the Mighty One [a]
with shouts of joy and praise
among the festive throng.
I also go because I need some kind of social contact outside of work. I go to hear the Word of God. I go to sing with believers. I go because it is a joy to at least hope to use my gifts for the Lord in some way, even if it is slow going getting started.
But, like I said, these are all common reasons. I could have these needs met just as easily in a home church (and there is one just 3 miles away) as in this one. Why am I not off crusading in that home church? I could be living my dream of 1982 there. Why am I still under this steeple?
To be clear. As I sit here typing these words, I do not know the answer to that question. I am doubting myself even now, wondering whether I ought not to just go ahead and sign up over at that home church. But, I know that I don't want to. Why? In light of all I believe, why?
The steeple church offers a couple things that I think are really critical.
Stability. There is no stability in a home church. People come and go, doctrines come and go, and plans come and go. About 20 years ago, I thought that was the coolest thing ever. I wanted to get me some of that!
Today, I have not changed much, but I work with 15 people who do "change management" for a living. It is almost frightening to me how much change bothers them. I am pretty much OK with change if it is the right thing to do right now. These people, though, are not at all like that. They need to know that someone has looked at every detail. They need to have the ability to say, "No," if they don't like the change, and they need most of all for this not to happen to them too very often.
Working with these people has been a huge eye-opener for me.
I learned that the kind of church that draws me, repels them. I have learned that the majority of Christians would not survive in a highly fluid church environment for long. The church simply cannot be highly fluid. Period end of statement. It must be stable.
The next thing the steeple church has is a very open heart.
Honestly, my home church had its nose up in the air. There was a certain standard to which everyone had to rise to belong. It was a level of commitment that everyone had to reach. You had to be willing to give up a certain amount of your life, and that really sounded good on paper.
The first barricade was that you had to live in the neighborhood in which the church was started. We intentionally picked a neighborhood that had a high turn-over rate for homes, and that was reasonably priced. When the neighborhood priced itself out of our reach, we moved to another, more affordable, neighborhood.
A number of us had moved from across the country to be there, so that was easy for us. A few of us had not. The ones who were native to the city did not last long. They had extended family and friends and a whole lot of things imposing on their time that the rest of us didn't have. Pretty soon, all of us immigrants wore them out. We had nothing and no one to distract us from being with each other day in and day out. Within 2 years, all the natives were gone.
We should have known something was wrong with that, but we were young and gung-ho.
As people would visit, and decide whether to move to join us, we let them know what they were joining. You didn't move into our church unless you really, really wanted to.
We were really proud of that fact. One of the brothers was fond of repeating that, "We have a REALLY small front door, and a REALLY large back door." He meant that it was hard to get in, and very easy to get out of our church. We would fork over money to help people move away. We gave open hearts and open hands as they left, but anyone was more than free to go.
We just didn't have openness to anyone who was less than insanely committed.
It almost went without saying that none of our neighbors was going to be able to keep up with us. The odds that anyone who coincidentally lived in the neighborhood we had chosen was in love enough with the Lord to fit in with us approached zero. In consequence, we never did reach out to our neighbors meaningfully.
Jesus would not quench a smoking flax, but we would almost dowse water on a bonfire to make sure it was genuinely hot.
Again, we should have known that something was wrong with that, but elitism is not a new thing to the Christian church.
The next thing the steeple church has that we lacked is leadership.
We lived for 10 years essentially without leaders. Our founder promised us that one day elders would organically arise from within our midst in the Spirit's time, but every time one seemed to rise he was cut down in his prime. So, we lived with the entire church as the responsible party for everything.
When something went wrong, it was everyone's fault, not anyone's in particular. Those of you are leaders know that did not work. If anyone is partially responsible for anything, it means they are not responsible for anything. The hard jobs went undone. When the affair started in the church, there was no one to stand up and do something about it. It cost everyone.
We spent months deciding things that a leader or two could have decided in a week. There were just too many of us working in the stew. We allowed things to fester that a grown man should just have handled. We allowed people to hurt who should have been helped much sooner. It was a bad idea.
It also goes back to the idea of stability. When you know Fred is there and looking out for you, it makes a world of difference. You may whine about Fred as a poor leader, but him being there is a great comfort.
The next thing we lacked is smarts.
Oh, I know, that's almost redundant after everything else I've said. :-)
We had a lot of people with above average intelligence, but precious little training in the Word. Our founder was there to set us straight if we wandered into error, and he preached to us about 8 times a year, but we actually rejected the idea behind doctrine.
This was huge for me. Of all the things that kept me from fitting in, the fact that I cared about doctrine was probably highest on the list. I know there are home churches that are all about doctrine, but our was not. Ours was all about the sin of trying to systematize the beautiful story the Lord had given us. I was considered the last vestige of a dying machination because I actually knew what soteriology was.
Across a large portion of the home church movement, the college-like place you go to learn doctrine is called a Semetery. Our ignorance was viewed as virtue, but it also cost us deeply.
I have always said that doctrine is important, without being central. Knowing Jesus, and knowing each other is central. But sound doctrine makes both of those things go much better. To analogize to tennis, loving the brothers is critical. If you fail to love your brothers, you lose points, games, sets, and matches. Doctrine, though, is like style in tennis. If you hold the racket upside down you can still score points and win, but it will be really hard and you are likely to injure yourself trying it.
For example, most of us are legalists for a while. We love God and love our brothers, but we are doing it in a very painful way - painful for them and for us. Life gets much easier and much more effective when we learn how grace extends to all of life. The same is true of soteriology, eschatology, and all those other big words. If we have our heads screwed on straight, we tend to go in the right direction more easily.
Anyway, my home church failed sadly in doctrine, and several of the group suffered unnecessarily for it.
The steeple church does a lot more preaching than 8 times a year, of course. This is neither here nor there to me. I don't count this as a mark in it's favor, but I am not really against it either. Assuming the preaching is of high quality, frequent preaching is hardly a bad thing. On the other hand, I don't stay in a church for the preaching. Books do a much better job for me than a preacher.
I'm running out of things to list, but money comes to mind. I cannot say that either the home church or the steeple church has money right. Other than this one little statement, though, I will leave that subject untouched.
That's really about it, as far as I can tell. Those are the things that the steeple church I attend has over my home church.
You may note that my heart does not soar as I list these strong points of the steeple church. These things are all human necessities, rather like grocery shopping. We need stability, openness, leadership, and doctrine, but they aren't the highest peaks of romantic spirituality.
The brother who started all this angst with his tough questioning of my dreams is still living right where I was in 1997. He has not lost his romantic fervor. He still sees a glorious church living without a plan on ecstatic prayer, and being led immediately and directly by the Spirit. I can produce a number of scriptures to support his view over against my current direction, too.
It is a very frightening thing to let go of a dream I started dreaming almost 25 years ago. I am pragmatist, so I believe that I can, but it is even harder when a respected, older brother questions my need to see something physical to believe God is moving. Between the lines, I hear him asking how I could be turning back to the elemental things of hierarchicalism and Nicolaitanism. I hear the question, "Are ye so foolish? having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh?"
Are these things of the visible church not flesh?
But the plain evidence of my eyes and heart is that we need these things. When the church is built without them, she fails. The church has survived 2000 years because of these things. How should she survive without them? Should she survive without them, or are they God-ordained?
Again, I apologize for the wandering nature of these posts, and for how little of value is in them. It is helping me to say these things out loud, and I REALLY appreciate all the encouragement I have gotten in the comments. That includes the negative encouragement, too!
Post #4 hopes to draw what I think a complete church might look like. I still have no idea even where to start, so no promises.
Thanks for listening.