Most Barnabas Ministry readers are going to love this book.
Jacobsen and Coleman use a fictional story of a fellow named Jake to tell a story many of us know all too well: How Christians go from loving God, wanting to share that love with fellow believers and lead still more to it, being involved and devoted in a church or movement setting, to seeing that involvement slowly but surely consume and then hijack their spirituality, finally throwing off that involvement with much pain, to finding a way to be faithful to God without all of that baggage. Without condemning institutional churches, they discuss the details along the way in a real and personal way, including the toll this experience takes on members, leaders and staff alike.
Most of us will recognize our own lives on just about every page of the book. Here's a list of some of the issues wrestles with through the story.
- Being excited about what God is doing in a church, but seeing it reach its limit
- Wanting to "fit in" to a church congregation
- The security that comes from being involved with and loyal to a church, and then the untrue or distorted stories told about you when you leave
- How a lot of things in a church organization don't really teach us true and right things about God, and in fact often teach the exact opposite
- Why accountability doesn't really help people make permanent changes
- How a focus on commitment is really just living by the Law
- How church life and one's own spirituality becomes a struggle for power and control of others
- How righteousness gets subverted "for the good of the church"
- How church institutions go from serving people to demanding to be served by the people
- The disappointment of task-based relationships
- How church life becomes a substitute for walking with God
Through the story, the authors do a great job communicating the disappointment and bewilderment Christians experience as they go through these church experiences. With a great balance of ease and clear discussion of ideas, the characters wrestle with expecting God to be bound to their religion, then having their faith deeply hurt when they realize God isn't bound by their rules and ideas. Then these characters have to actually submit to seeking and following God according to how he really is, not as churches often portray him. Along the way they must deal with the life-shattering consequences of truth, but they also learn that their new faith in God as he really is is well worth the pain and all that was given up.
The authors are not particularly down on institutional churches, nor are they promoting house churches or some other particular form of church. The point is that "it's one thing to see through things and quite another to be against them (p. 92)." As I, they know that these things often have their place and do their share of good that must be respected.
It's just that we have this tendency to want to package God up, if not "brand" him with our own cleverness and marketing. This has become more and more prevalent in recent years. One of my favorite quotes in the book speaks to this.
Every time people see God moving, someone has to build a building or start a movement. (p. 135)
Oh, the pain that has come to Christians because people thought God's work could be canned, copied and franchised by men doing such things!
This book isn't about criticizing churches or trying to change them; it is about seeing our individual frustrations with churches as a "kicking against the goads" (Acts 9:5) that God may in fact be using to lead us to a better walk with him. To those afraid to begin that walk (like characters in the book), we come to realize that "throwing off the things that hinder" (Hebrews 12:1-2) has a place in our ongoing walk with God.
The book has its drawbacks but they are minor. For example, in reacting against the excessive control and planning in many churches, one of the characters has this irritating propensity to never set up appointments with people. He says if God wants us to meet again, he will arrange it. This seems to suggest that God does not work through human planning and deliberate intent. We can see that Jesus and other people in the early church obviously had plans and intent; but they could also see that God might alter or disrupt plans from time to time as he led them. The point isn't to never make plans, but rather to realize God might want to alter our plans and to trust him as he does it.
My favorite expression of body life is where a local group of people chooses to walk together for a bit of the journey by cultivating close friendships and learning how to listen to God together...
Perhaps all of us have experienced some measure of pain as we have tried to fit God's life into institutions. For a long time most of us hung in there, hoping if we tweaked a few things it would get better. Though we could be successful in limited ways during moments of renewal, we also discovered that eventually the conformity an institution demands and the freedom people need to grow in Christ are at odds with each other. It has happened with virtually every group formed throughout the history of Christianity (article is at end of book, no page numbers).
For me, I've come to realize my church now is my Christian friends, regardless of where we spend Sunday mornings. I walk with God but I feel I'd be betraying His truth and work in my life to disregard what I've learned about these things. I can see that many Biblical characters walked uncharted courses, not charted ones. Yet, I realize institutions have benefits for some at various times of their lives. God is bigger than churches and other structures and the things they do in the process of institutionalizing. I don't want to look backward in my spiritual life but forward. Perhaps I can be there to help others when they start seeing the things I saw and start walking a similarly uncharted course. I want to break out of the mold of the institution's ways of looking at God.
For those of us on this journey, So You Don't Want to Go to Church Anymore is a welcome, encouraging companion. For those contemplating this journey, this book might help you see you are not alone and you're not crazy.