unchurching the churched

Some time ago, Joni wrote something (either on her blog or in a private discussion, I don’t recall) about being ‘unchurched.’ It seems to me that we all, as Christians, need to be unchurched. Desperately.

Of course, this might seem nonsensical, given that we all, as Christians are the Church. So some clarification of terminology is in order.

I. Definitions & Introductory

I will use the word “Church” (capitalized) to refer to the Body of Christ, universal, historic.

That is, I will be referring to all of us who devote ourselves to God as revealed in Christ, from the earliest disciple to the latest acolyte. I include followers of the Way, medieval monks, early modern separatists, and contemporary fundamentalists. I include Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Egyptian Copt. I include all of us who accept “God as Creator, Christ as Lord and Savior, and Holy Spirit as ever present with us.” I include those who believe God is creator by a literal spoken fiat and those who profess agnosticism as to God’s manner of creation; I include those who believe in inerrancy and those who embrace rather infallibility, those who sprinkle babies and those who dunk adults. All of us are the Body of Christ.

I will, in contrast, use the word “church” (uncapitalized) to refer individual communities of faith, like, e.g., the members of the first church of X on the corner of Third and Maple in your hometown. I will also use this word to refer to particular denominations or manifestations of the Church. Hence, the Coptic church, the Lutheran church, the Russian Orthodox church, the Eastern Catholic church, the Foursquare church.

I will parallel my capitalization pattern when talking about the Body of Christ (referring to the Church) and the body of Christ (referring to a church).

I will use the term “member” to refer to anyone who considers her/himself a part of a given church or of the Church. I am not limiting this term to refer to those who have gone through any formal declaration of membership.

There is a notion, already current, of a person’s being “unchurched.” This notion refers to those who do not attend any Christian services. Although this notion is in the back of my mind as I write, it is not my intended meaning.

I will, throughout this posting, be referring to some passages in scripture, though I might not cite them as I go. The passages to which I refer are found in Mark 9:38-42; Acts 2:39, 10-11, 15:1-31; I Cor. 3, 12-14; 2 Cor. 5:11-21; Gal. 2:11-4:7; 1 John 3:11-24, 4:7-21. I encourage you to read these before you read the rest of this posting, if you have the time. (The posting is—to nobody’s surprise, I’m sure—long.)

II. Principles

Unity. When the disciples approached Jesus in a huff because somebody who “wasn’t one of us” dared to preach the kingdom of heaven, he told them that “no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us.” The notion I wish to glean from this is a principle of Unity. The principle is, simply, that the disciples of Christ are known by their fruit, and if God’s kingdom is advanced, then that is enough evidence that whoever is advancing it is a member of Christ.

In the early days of the Church, there was some dispute regarding whether Gentiles should be included. Peter had a vision that he interpreted as a resounding Yes! And the counsel met to hear the news about how God was moving in non-Jewish communities. Following the principle of Unity, they determined that the Gentiles should be included, and that they should not “make it too difficult” for Gentiles to serve God, removing from them the need to follow the purity laws. Meantime, a situation arose wherein Peter, cowed by peer pressure for a time, chose to treat the Gentiles as “lesser citizens” in the kingdom. Because his behavior was public, Paul publically rebuked him. Regardless how people practice their Christian faith, we are all a part of the same community, the Body of Christ.

Diversity. In 1 Cor. 12-14, Paul is speaking to an old debate among Christ followers—who should be more important in the kingdom than whom. The answer he gives is that we all need each other, that we are all parts of the Body, and that even though we might think we don’t need that other church over there, or that this individual is unimportant and expendable, such thinking only reveals our folly. Though we each differ in function, we are all a part of one Body, and there is one Spirit that works through us all.

These two principles seem to me to be the two sides of but one coin. To quote Paul, “The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.”

Agape. The third  principle is that of self-less, generous, wishing-the-best-for, patient, kind, growing, discerning, and self-aware love. How can I say self-less and self-aware? By ‘self-less’ I mean that this love is not selfish, that this love is not about one’s own interests or desires but about the beloved’s best interests. By ‘self-aware’ I mean this: Jesus said that the one who has been forgiven much loves much, but the one who has been forgiven little loves little. I interpret this to mean that the one who realizes how much is in her that is forgiven is overwhelmed and overflows with the love that has been lavished upon her. This person is self-aware. She is aware of all the crap in her that is forgiven; she is aware of the transformative power of God’s love in her life. In contrast, the person who isn’t aware of just how much she’s been forgiven won’t have the motivation to translate that into love for God, let alone love for others through the empowering of the Spirit. Surely we are all forgiven everything, which is a lot for all of us. All of us are forgiven much. The self-aware person is the one who has an increasing understanding of just how much this muchness is. The self-aware person is therefore humbled by God’s exceedingly abundant, prodigal love.

Now it seems to me that the possibility of unity and diversity working together comes only from agape. And it seems to me that this is what Paul means by the notion of e pluribus unum (to re-appropriate the US motto).

III. The Fallacy of the Novel

We are all one. We are the Body of Christ, be we Methodist or Mennonite, Unitarian or Presbyterian, Catholic or Calvinist. And in the American church nowadays, I think we have long forgotten this. Or we have forgotten how important it is to follow the three principles that have defined the Church since her inception.

By this I mean we have chosen to emphasize the church over the Church. We have forgotten even that there is a Church, forgotten, that is, except in our most theoretical moments. In these moments, we look back on history and hail Paul, Jerome, Augustine, Knox, Tyndale, Calvin, Luther, the Wesleys, Zwingli, Bunyan, and Edwards as somehow interconnected in Christian faith, even as we see them as trail blazers, marking distinctly new, and often exclusivist, ways to express that faith. We all read C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity and embrace it as an expression of what it means to be a Christian.

But when we are less theoretical, when we are living in the mundane details, we tend to think of ourselves as members of a church (be it fellowship or denomination), and we interpret these founders as pointing the way to our own particular way of expressing our faith, and we accept Mere Christianity as how we at our church are Christians, even as we consider those other folks to be gravely mistaken and not ‘true’ Christians.

I think this church-centrism is toxic. I think it is poisoning the Body of Christ. And I think it is based on what C.S. Lewis called the “fallacy of the novel.”

In Hegelian thought, there is this notion of a constantly-advancing, constantly-improving, ever-maturing Spirit. The general idea is that the Spirit is always learning and changing through the process of synthesis. This means that some idea i comes up and it is hailed as true. Then some other idea contradictory to i comes up and fights for recognition as being true. Well, you can’t have i be true and i be false, so the battle ensues, until some compromise hits, and an advance is made to a new, better, deeper truth. You have thesis, antithesis, then eventually, synthesis. And the whole, very slow process happens over and over. The synthesis is the better place to be, and each new synthesis is a better place than the last.

That’s all very philosophical, and some fundamentalists might point to this thinking as absent from their belief set, given that they believe in premillenial dispensationalism, which holds that in fact, things are getting worse and worse as time progresses, until the return of Christ and his Millennial Reign. But they’d be missing the point.

Since the beginning of the Church, we have formed sects which emphasized a certain way of expressing our faith. And each sect has been embraced and supported by this notion that the new existence of that sect in the Church is a better thing for the Church than the existence of the Church without this sect. And as time has progressed, especially in the Protestant church, the groups have come to believe that their group is the proper way to express Christianity. There was this time when people argued about a certain point of doctrine or a certain methodology, and eventually from that rose a denomination, a synthesis, a better thing than was before.

We read the history of the Church through the filter of our own church experience, through the filter of our own church doctrines and customs. We understand Paul as if he were a Jesuit, or we read Peter as if he were an Assemblies of God preacher. We read our church doctrines into scripture; we put our denominational stamp on each verse, as if it were written in the 21st Century by one who knows all the countless creeds that cross the millennia, one who adheres to our own group’s cultural values, one who was born in the Promised Land of America.

The fallacy is that new is better, that new is right by default. And the fallacy is justified by our prejudices and scientism. Not by science, by scientism, the belief that science is the end-all, be-all definer of truth. We either accept scientism by accepting a scientific worldview as the only way to understand reality (common to many so-called ‘mainline’ Christians) or we accept it reactively by trying to show that the literalist view of scripture can be justified via science (common to many so-called ‘non-denominational’ Christians). And our prejudices will, understandably, want to say that we’re in the right group, that our group has the “Full Gospel,” or that we are the ones who have the correct translation of scripture, or that those other groups are old and “dead in their faith,” while we are living and vibrant.

But the fact of the matter is that there is no “they” in the Body of Christ. We are all one. Through all of us flows the blood of Christ, keeping us all alive in the Spirit, regardless of the time of a certain sect’s genesis—be it 70, 370, 1470, or 1970.

IV. Unchurching

To be “unchurched” as I mean it is to leave this church-centric, segregationist mindset behind for the principles of Unity, Diversity, and Agape. To be unchurched is to be reconnected with the Church. And to be reconnected with the Church is to be reconnected with the Body of Christ. And to be reconnected with the Body, is to be reconnected with the Head, who is Christ.

I believe it is crucial for the Body of Christ that we work towards our own unchurching.

I had a prof who once commented that all forms of Christianity look the same to a Buddhist. By this, he meant that the vast differences we see from within the faith are miniscule to those from without. The fact of the matter is that even though the differences may be perceived as impassible, those outside of the Church don’t get what all the bickering is about.

Consider now the Church, the Body of Christ. When a church breaks away and isolates itself as the “only” true expression of faith, it is, as a member, cutting itself off from the Body. In effect, the church is tying a tourniquet, and thinking that it is thereby redefining the Body. Whoever is on that side of the tourniquet isn’t the “true” Church. But in fact, what they do is nothing more than strangulate themselves—even as they strive to make the Gospel more “pure,” they cut off the flow of clean blood, making instead a growing toxicity that, if the flow is not soon reinstated, will kill them.

It is a long trend in certain Christian groups to call the older sects, or sects that do not agree with the group in question, “dead.” But those who cut themselves off from the blood that flows through the whole Body of Christ by declaring themselves the only ‘true’ Christians are in fact the ones who are dying. And the tell-tale symptom of this death is the loss of agape, the inability to express God’s lavish love to anyone whom God loves. By their preference of their church tradition and doctrine over the love of God that sets the boundaries of the kingdom, they have begun a self-strangulation, or, the worst possible scenario, a self-amputation.

And those without the Church watch the tourniquetted churches, and see them as they are: parts of the Church. Paul wrote that whatever happens to one part of the Body affects the whole. My sister has an eye that is, it seems, dying. She could ignore this. But the death of this body part would, eventually, poison her blood and kill her. In the same way, these members affect the whole Body of Christ. When they focus on their own doctrinal tradition at the expense of Unity, Diversity, and Agape, they infuse the gracious blood of Christ, as it still lovingly flows through them, with a subtle poison that infects the rest of the Body, harming us all, harming the ability of the Church to further the kingdom according to the teachings of Christ, our head. Sure, we stumble on, but could we not do so much more were we not blind and lame?

The unchurched (in the sense of not attending any Christian services) remain so because we are so churched. When a body part is unhealthy, it demands the majority of attention. If somebody were to approach you, and this person had a gaping wound on her leg, your attention would gravitate to that leg. And if she hobbled along, saying she was just fine, thank you, would you not wonder about her mental health? People do not wish to join the kingdom of heaven because they look at our blithe disregard for our Body’s spiritual health, and they deem us mad or woefully ignorant. And we wonder why people ridicule and avoid the Church.

V. Personal Meditation

I am in a process of unchurching. I was raised to believe that our way was the only correct way to express Christianity. We believed the truth, those had only part of it. And those others—shudder! Of course, those who had only a part of the truth were the Catholics and the Mainline Protestants, and those who were worth only a silent shudder were the gays and divorcees. Neither of these latter two were allowed to minister. But somewhere along the line, divorcees were allowed to be servants of Christ, forgiven, and living in grace, like the rest of us—even if they had the audacity to marry again, and were therefore living in adultery. And we still, with fingers crossed behind our backs, called those not quite like us in creed or tradition Christians, even if we ourselves doubted their eternal destiny.

But within our own little church, the toxicity turned the blood of Christ blue with rules defined by our own social preferences and our predispensationalist hermeneutic. There was no redeeming a homosexual. Unless, of course, s/he “repented” from the sin, never engaged in it again, was delivered from the familiar spirit, and was proven to be a true Christian by a visible and unceasing adhering to our group’s rules. To the wisdom of man, defined by “do this, don’t do that, don’t walk this way, do abstain from that.” I was fully churched, doing everything I could to be accepted into the body, the only place I knew the blood of Christ to flow.

But I was also strangulated and dying in the slow toxicity.

I spoke with my pastor at my new church this past week, and told him an overview of my walk in Christ, and about why I am now attending this mainline church instead of a church from my non-denominational heritage.  He expressed amazement at how somebody with my fundamentalist background could be sitting in his office, considering membership, and finishing a PhD in philosophy. And he asked me if I would be where I am were it not for my orientation.

My first thought was, no, absolutely not. It is the fact that I had to come to terms with how God made me that has propelled me to this radical re-examination. But then, I modified it. The answer is still no, but it is simply because whoever that straight person would be, she wouldn’t be me. I have always been gay, regardless my desperate attempts through the decades not to be, and all my experiences have been experiences of a gay woman. Of a gay Christian.

I believe that my embracing my orientation as God-designed was the catalyst towards my removing the tourniquet from my own life, and the sudden rush of clean blood intoxicated me with the love of God. And I believe that those of us who have been so revived have this marvelous opportunity to speak life and love into the dying churches of dogma and fear. We are the ones who understand how to love, for we have been forgiven much, for we have a taste of grace that we cannot keep to ourselves.

Let us not isolate ourselves in the same pattern from which we have been delivered but do what we can to unchurch those who are a part of us as we are in Christ. And let us learn how to do this as we continually unchurch ourselves by replacing the rules and ‘wisdom’ of man (couched in Christianese) with the love and foolishness of God.


3 thoughts on “unchurching the churched

  1. anita

    Whoa girl! Now this is an awesome post that I only had time to skim before heading to church (perfect, don’t you think?) but plan to read thoroughly tomorrow. I’ll return to comment more after then but for now, just wanted to say I love that you addressed this and I suspect already that it expresses much of what I’ve come to believe in the past several years…unchurching the churched…love that!

  2. Stephanie

    That was really good. I am being unchurched as well. I could relate to so much of what you said.

    The last two paragraphs really spoke to my heart and sank deep within me. ” …..sudden rush of clean blood intoxicated me with the love of God.” What a wonderful way to describe that!

    “And I believe that those of us who have been so revived have this marvelous opportunity to speak life and love into the dying churches of dogma and fear.”

    YES! YES! YES!

    Great post.

  3. joni

    So very true!!! I have said for years now that I am trying to become “unchurched” so to read you thinking the same way was really neat. 🙂

    My hangups all come from being churched. And being churched is not a relationship with Christ so much as I had thought it was. oh heck no.

    Like Anita, I only skimmed, but am coming back to truly read your thoughts. 🙂


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