It might sound funny coming from someone who is a part of a house fellowship and who is seeking to establish what some would call an “organic church” or even a “simple church” in a gay bar that I still generally find myself getting thoroughly bored and even frustrated when given the opportunity to read books about the nature of church. I was recently given Frank Viola’s book “Finding Organic Church” and before I had even made it through the preface and introduction I was already looking for excuses to read something else, do something else, or just go to sleep.
It is not that I haven’t thought deeply about how we do church or what church is meant to be. I have left my ministry as the Rector of a wonderful Anglican Parish in order to follow God more fully and to do so in a more ‘organic’ way. In leaving my parish I also left my house and my income to step out of all that I knew to try and discover something I had never experienced. But on reflection, it was not simply a desire to do church better, as if that is the answer to anything, but rather to more authentically identify with Jesus, the Jesus I was rediscovering in my study of the Gospels.
For those who haven’t heard; my journey out of a more institutional form of church began after I sensed God asking me a simple question. “Is the church the same as the Kingdom?” I knew that the church is not the same as the Kingdom but I had never really taken the time to consider what exactly that might mean. My journey was not one of instant enlightenment but rather one of slowly working through the implications of God’s question to me. I knew that God’s primary call to me and presumably to all believers is to “seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness” and I also knew that Jesus had told Peter “I will build my church against which the gates of hades will not prevail.”
Whilst my journey was one that took years, it became apparent to me that for most of my Christian life I had given myself to seeking first the church rather than the Kingdom. This process had nearly burnt me out on a number of occasions, often created much frustration, encouraged me to point people to the church rather than to Jesus, and often caused more confusion, misunderstanding, and religiosity than I care to think about. It has taken me years to fully detox from all that I had taken on, believed and given myself to in the name of ‘church’. There is probably further cleansing that needs to take place. Sadly ‘church’ had become the ‘end’ rather than a means to the ‘end’. It was as if the job of a pastor is to bring people to Jesus, get them to join a church and then keep them as fully participating and giving members of that church for as long as possible. Membership of the ‘church’, hopefully for life, is what we are signing people up for. It is the goal and the end. Our safety, spiritual health and even salvation depend on this participation. The church for many, including myself, had become an idol and my identity was very dependent on its continued success and well being. Sadly the church had become a replacement for my relationship with Jesus and his people. Instead of seeking his Kingdom as my first priority trusting him to build his church, I was seeking first the church, or my conception of church, and taking on a task that was and always will be only his. No wonder my yoke was tiresome and my burden heavy.
Back to Frank Viola and his book. In the preface Frank writes, “people have consistently asked me two questions: (1) Where can I find the type of church that you write about? And (2) How does one plant an organic church?” As I contemplate these two questions I think to myself, herein lies part of the problem. The questions are the wrong questions. The focus remains where it has always been, whether for those involved in more institutional forms of church or for those seeking alternate forms. The focus remains on the church. At the possibility of being misunderstood, I am only interested in answering two alternate questions. “How do I grow in my faith and knowledge of Jesus?” and “How do I most fully express this Jesus with other believers and those who don’t know him?”
(Over the next few months I will try and flesh these questions out a little more.)