No Assembly Required
Why I Quit Going to Church and How I Made it Back
by Christopher C. MacDonald
She was drawing an elaborate picture which she delivered to me with great relish. As you can see above, it has a large handprint with vibrant energy exploding out with inherent brightness and joy.
I thought to myself "Man, that looks like the "power of God or something."
"What do you call it?" I asked innocently, figuring she would say "My hand with colors" or something a four-year old would say.
"Oh...the power of God," she said nonchalant, then trotted off.
I shook my head, then said in my best Darth Vader voice, "Force is strong with this one."
Later she came up and asked, "Daddy do you ever go to church?"
She obviously knows I don't because we haven't been in months.
I did not have a fully worked out answer, and I believe that lying to children should be punishable by having them grow up to be a lawyer who has you committed to the Happy Valley Ranch a good ten years earlier than is appropriate. Either that, or Jesus' more merciful suggestion that a mobile home be cast into Lake Tahoe with your left leg conveniently attached for "hindering" a child.
Anyway, I sort of diverted the question by mentioning that we do alternative worship once a month here with the "Kenosis" folks.
Yea not a very good answer, and worse, she'll come right back to it in a week or so.
So why, after 27 years, did I stop going to church?
Frankly, I get depressed just thinking about going and hearing how great it is to be a Christian when I know good and well that those of us in the studio audience are a bloody mess. And ironically most of the focus is all about us. It's as crazy as going into a hospital emergency room and having a nurse come out and put on an elaborate variety show for an hour while you slowly bleed.
Worse still, we rarely get to see the Doctor, which, in my mind, is the only real reason to be there.
How did it come to this? Was it always like this?
Well not in my experience, and I'm sure there are many places in the world this Sunday morning where the presence of Christ is being experienced in a powerful and vibrant way.
It just isn't here in Norcal.
I have been to eight to ten of the best churches in this area. All are run by pastors who are good men with great hearts and fine minds. But the song is always the same we arrive, we go through the motions, hear a well written sermon, shake a few hands and joke a bit over coffee before driving away utterly unaffected and unchanged.
And then there is "the ache" the deep spiritual ache for the very presence of God that has somehow been extracted from our modern worship services.
This is not just my experience. It is widespread and pervasive, and it is not the "backslidden" or rebellious who have just stopping showing up on Sundays it's hard core folk like myself, or the Wademan (also an ex-pastor) people who have been on the front line in the Church for twenty-five or more years.
We're sick of it, often distraught, and generally demoralized. Worse still, we're bored to tears because there is nothing to do unless you want to help plant trees in the new garden area or help clean up after a prayer breakfast.
I've checked around and doing Church has become just one more obligation. And like a well-worn sit-com, we know what will happen every week. We know what will be talked about and railed against, and what will be suppressed and swept under the carpet. Most of all we know we are safe from real spiritual revolution because it will all be about outward conformity and not inner transformation.
The Doctor is Out
And He would move dynamically and relationally around and through that time with His people. And the Holy Spirit would draw and draw, and awe would grow in many hearts and minds until worship started to happen worship with a focal point, passion and a goal.
And afterwards, when the tears, shock and laughter stopped, we might go off and talk about our shared time with HIM, and not critique the poor pastor's inane sermon on how to be a better husband when what we really need is, all of us, to be a better BRIDE to our true husband who is Christ.
In short, I think it should express some of that child-like exuberance and spirituality which inhabited my daughter's drawing of the "power of God." Even at four, and with scant religious training (maybe because of that) she knows what the heart of the matter is.
We keep coming to a building expecting a marriage feast with the true Lover of our souls and what we get instead is a Tupperware party with no Bridegroom in sight (of sure, they mentioned that He really likes and approves of the Tupperware. They may even use it for communion.)
So we come and go week after week, sometimes with
a party favor tucked under our arm, or some practical new containers that
burp properly and help us keep our household in order.
Not me. I'd rather meet in an empty field, but have Him.
We've replaced deep biblical study groups and the "renewing of our minds" via the Word with a dizzying array of twelve-step programs to curb outward behavior and help us "recover." I'm sorry, recovery isn't enough. If you need to recover, start with those ugly chairs in the living room because with the human condition "recovery" is like putting a band-aid on cancer.
I'm not trashing the whole thing. No doubt these groups help some clear the fog that drugs, alcohol, porn, or five helpings of mocha almond fudge can produce. But that's just to get back to square one where the real issues exist.
Such as have you noticed that while most everyone in the Church is focused on their individual "issues", the larger issue of the Church following Christ has been utterly lost? People fixate on the more immediate "issues" that can be curbed so they can avoid the truly existential and spiritual ones that lay unanswered underneath.
Our "Christian" bookstores are devoid of theology and packed with pre-digested (and I'd like to suggest even some post-digested) self-help books and ridiculous fictitious novels about the Last Days that ignore the plain teaching that it will "come as a surprise."
And our vibrant and living Christ is replaced by the "unknown god" of our own understanding. In other words, we've gone back to Mars Hill like a movie in reverse. No one really takes note, even though it looks pretty funny.
The fact is the "issues", as difficult as they can be, are all temporary, and sometimes even lead to good things like humility, compassion and vulnerability. You can spend your life trying to reign in your various "issues" but your still gonna die incomplete and with some major "issue" or three smacking you around.
When we "see Him" the question will not be about our outward behavior. That was nailed to the tree with Him.
But they will say in that day:
"Did we not raise kids God's way?"
"Did we not building a spanking new church with a commemorative garden and a playground in your Name?"
"Did we not recover and cast out cigarettes, alcohol, drugs, and inordinately rich pastries out of our bodies in Your name?"
To which you already know the answer (the whole "Depart from Me You never knew ME" thingy, plus the Son of Man's potential rejoinder "and you didn't even do those things in My name you did it in the name of the Unknown God of your own understanding! Oy vey!")
The real issue for every church every Sunday (or Saturday .geez those Adventists get a clue) is whether we are coming to experience knowing, loving and worshipping Him?
What else really matters? And when do we get to do that?
When was the last time (or the first for some of you) you were excited and anticipated the glory of Christ was going to be revealed and EXPERIENCED in a worship service?
When was the last time you felt the Holy Spirit do that DEEP thing inside of you while the pastor laid out a lavish feast on the nature of God and how we are found solely in Him?
When was the last time you felt directly ravished by the love of God in Christ?
See I'm ruined because I have experienced that and it is utterly compelling. Church is not utterly compelling. Sometimes I doze. God is watered down, Jesus is largely commemorative, and then there is that other One you know, the One who is straight-jacketed in one of two ways. They either make the Holy Spirit the focal point (when the Spirit wishes primarily to exalt Christ) or they create such a tightly-laced program that He has almost nothing to work with.
Three strikes we're out. So why go?
"What about for your kids?" a woman asks. Last time my kids went to church they started filling them with nonsense and bad theology about "the devil" in a moralistic fashion that must have greatly delighted the nearest fallen angel. As far as I am concerned, most Sunday school programs are like a spiritual inoculation shot. Give them a morality that they cannot possibly live up to, join it to a cartoon god, throw in some alienation and hormones, and they'll give it all up when they hit their teens.
I hear another "brother" say "Aha! But what about "do not forsake the assembling of yourselves together as is the habit of some!?" (It's in Hebrews, I think).
Well, at first blush it seems I'm had on that one. But wait a minute! What is assembling? What's the purpose of this? I show up for an hour on a Sunday morning to passively watch a service, hear a sermon on how to make my life "better", and mumble a few simplistic praise songs.
Is that the "assembling" that is not to be forsaken?
I think not.
I think I desperately want to assemble with others to know, experience, and worship Jesus in the Holy Spirit. I want to hear more and more about Him and let's His living presence wash over me again and again and transform me from the inside out. That is exactly what I want. And I want it to be all about HIM, and not about me. I'm just too fricken boring, and makes me want to go have another drink or a cigarette, or checkout every one of my 235 cable channels and just wait for inevitable death.
In other words, I'm not interested unless we're going to do the REAL DEAL.
As far as I am concerned, without that, and until something changes or a new movement takes form, no assembly is required.
Months after I wrote this article I was contacted by a young woman named Anna in New York City who had read some articles at Razormouth.com, had read my bio, and then read the material here at Doghouse.
She enjoyed the article (and it has resonated for many). After some dialogue back and forth I think she sensed (and I hope you, the reader will too) that I love the Church and was just broken-hearted by what I was seeing and experiencing.
Since she had moved to New York from Sacramento she knew of a small fledgling church in old Roseville not far from where I live. She assured me that the theology was deep and also that they did odd "gospel" things like serve the poor, love the disenfranchised, and see the beauty and value of those marginalized by our culture.
She thought I might find a new home there, and some solace for my broken heart.
And she was correct.
I have been there about 5 months and am beginning to become a part of a simple but very spiritually rich community. Many of the issues raised in the above article (and practically every other one at Doghouse) are addressed in some way or another. The ones that are not, are talked about openly and graciously.
By the grace of God, my hiatus was short-lived. I have found a Church home were no assembly is required, but it sure is great when it happens.
And Camille, my little Jedi, loves going there on Sundays because they mostly do art.
To see more of Camille's art, click HERE
And, having seen it now, what would you say to that sweet face?
1975-1978 First Presbyterian Church,Concord
1978-1986 Warehouse Ministries, Sacramento
1986-1995 Fremont Presbyterian Church, Sacramento
1995-1996 Warehouse Christian Ministries, Sacramento
1996-1997 Calvary Chapel, Sacramento
1997-1998 Creekside Church, Roseville
1998-2001 Valley Springs Church, Roseville
How can this happen?
Program and personal agendas leapfrog all the core callings.
The "enemy of the best isn't the worst...it's the second best."
The culture reflects this ache MORE than the Church because the churches have a vested interest in covering up their failure. The culture just uses "the ache" to sell more product.
This is an understatement. WE are so depressed.
Tears from real connection
Shock because He is OTHER and knows us
Laughter because we are utterly ridiculous
Ironic that in such a mysogenist church and all it's bravado about MEN that our true calling as men is to be a BRIDE.
Ha! Own it dude or you'll never be a real man.
Imagine a bride who allowed her family to subvert, and all but eliminate, her future husband all the while feigning undying love and devotion for him?
I have my "tapes"! I have my free gift for my contribution over $25 and I have my "paver" in the courtyard for only $200!
Naked we arrive and we are found in a great sea of lostness which seems to have no land's end. Still we journey and try to drive stakes down into the sea of our experience. Somewhere along the way we bump into our true land...or He bumps into us and we hug Him and love that the existence beneath us no longer sways, dips and sloshes around us.
It is warm and sweet like a true rescue.
Then come the professional navigators to tell us that this is just the "beginning" and how they will guide us. They do this throwing away the compass and navigating by the toss and sway of every strong current. And twenty years later (or sooner) we find we are in the worst waves we have ever seen.
Now, if we are lucky (or blessed) we remember the sweet beach and its compacted hard warmth and we long for that again. If not we just sail off into perpetual sickness and madness.
Or something inbetween (which is my experience).
But either way... That beach
That was the real deal.
"In my Holy Order there's only one hope."
- Mike Roe
The "Mars Hill" reference is a bit obscure, but that's why I like it. At the center of all 12-Step programs is the appeal to some vague "Higher Power". It may be the group itself, or friends, or angels, or even Jesus.
Now when Paul came into Athens he was immediately accosted by various philosphers, most notably fat drunken hedonist Epicureans, or the Stoic philosophers who abstained. At the core of their spiritual quest was an alter that was dedicated to "The Unknown God". Might as well have been "To the Unknown Higher Power". Paul took this inscription as a starting point, not an end in and of itself.
Therein lies the difference.
I small group might become a "higher power" against alcohol or some other addiction (although the stats say 7 out of every 10 addicts will die regardless of 12-Steppin), but it will not do a damned thing on the larger issues like ultimate meaning and overcoming death.
New 12-Step group: STBDHA "Soon To Be Dead Humans Annonymnous"
"HI, My name is Mac, and I'm a soon to be dead human."
Thank you Anna.
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