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There is a monumental shift taking place in the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ worldwide. Multitudes of sincere, faith-filled Christians are leaving the institutional church in search of a simpler, more relational, and interactive experience of church life. According to George Barna’s research almost ten years ago, the numbers then exceeded twenty million [Revolution (2005) pg.13]. According to the nature of this growing trend, these numbers have increased exponentially since that time.
For the most part, these believers are not leaving because they have lost their faith, but because they desire to see their faith grow and find a fuller, even more Biblical, expression. Those who are a part of this world-wide “exodus” are often found gathering under the banners of “organic…, “simple…, “house…, “missional…, and “emergent… church”, or under no banner at all except that of the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ.
In addition to this movement, there are also others who are outside of the institutional system for less noble reasons, as we shall see.
In this post I’d like to describe three main types of people who tend to be purposefully and decidedly outside of the institutional church pursuing some form of “organic” expression and experience of church life. It is important that we discern the difference between these groups, for the motivations underlying each of them are quite different, and so is the fruit that they bear.
The first kind of people are …
Rebels play by their own rules. They have a hard time submitting to a group, to leadership or to any kind of established structure. They are primarily motivated by their own interests, ambitions and agendas which are often “spiritualized” in their own minds.
Many of these are inside the institutional church, hanging around the fringes to avoid genuine commitment, or calculatedly working the system for their own advantage and advancement. They may also be bouncing from one assembly to another to keep from being accountable to any one. Some of them, however, end up leaving the system altogether, often after being confronted by the established leadership, and seek out the less structured, open, “flatter” nature of organic Christian gathering.
Some of the more agenda-driven of these rebels seek to establish a fellowship around themselves and often do so by bringing others with them from the institutions they were a part of, thus causing division and strife. They are often successful at galvanizing a group by focusing on the negative aspects of what they have come out of. They pride themselves in their spiritual liberation and even their superior “revelation”, and often make some reactive, secondary matter of teaching their distinctive focus.
These groups are built on a false foundation and are inherently imbalanced. Before long they begin to crumble. Often the rebel leadership that formed and lords over them becomes excessively controlling and legalistic in order to hold the group together. The end result can be disastrous, sometimes with lives, marriages and even whole families wrecked by them.
Other rebels outside of the system are more passive and can be simple “Lone Rangers”. If they do connect with a group, they will do so on their own terms. If they actively participate, it’s because they see an opportunity to promote themselves and to have a platform for their influence. If they remain aloof, it’s to preserve their sense of freedom and “personal sovereignty.” In either case, their independent will remains intact and their personal agenda drives them.
When rebels of either kind join a genuine organic assembly of believers, they can become like “goats” that butt and kick and muddy up the pasture with their “I will ascend” spirit. Worse yet, they can be like “wolves in sheep’s clothing” that wreak havoc and seek to devour the flock, especially the weakest among them. Often Satan uses such ones to do his work of disrupting, derailing and destroying genuine organic fellowships.
Such rebels also work to confirm in the hearts of those still within the institutional system how unspiritual and rebellious the people are who leave the “church”, and how dangerous it is to do so. The system has ingrained within its members the belief that there is only safety within the shelter of its walls and under the covering of its leadership, and so the only perspective they have concerning those outside of it is that they are treacherously rebellious. In some cases, this is absolutely true, but that is only part of the story.
There are still two other groups to consider.
Refugees are those who are running from a spiritually oppressive or repressive situation and are looking for a place of safety, healing and new life. Their primary motivation is getting out and away from what they have been involved in.
Many, if not most, look for a place of refuge right back in the system, only in a place that appears to be free of, or embody the opposite of, the negatives that they are running from. Some, however, connect with believers who are gathering outside of the religious system and find a place of refuge with them.
There are many reasons why an organic expression of the church is attractive to them…
If they are running from a controlling or abusive form of leadership, they are likely to be drawn to the non-hierarchical form of servant-leadership found in an organic expression.
If they are running from a stifling environment where their gifts and callings are repressed and lying dormant, they are likely to be drawn to the open, participatory environment of an organic gathering.
If they are running from the formal, insular nature of the institutional setting, they are likely to be drawn to the more casual, relational nature of an organic fellowship.
If they are running from the sectarian, narrow-mindedness of the denominational system, they are likely to be drawn to the non-sectarian, unity-mindedness of an organic assembly.
If they are running from the routine boredom of the liturgized, programatized “church service”, they are likely to be drawn to the more spontaneous, Spirit-led gathering of the organic ekklesia. (For more on this, see here.)
Refugees are generally sincere believers who have been hurt or disillusioned by the religious system they have been a part of. They have gotten out of it, often through much difficulty, pain and rejection, and are looking for a place where they can connect, be accepted, affirmed, healed and find a place to grow in their faith and function in the Body of Christ. Those who are able to connect with others gathering organically often find exactly what they are seeking for in an organic, relational fellowship of believers.
Due to the vast-ranging prior experiences of refugees within the religious system, however, and their primary motivation being that of running from something, they can really present a “mixed bag” of spiritual and personal issues. Many come with jaded attitudes and perceptions, wounded hearts and relational mistrust. Many times their new spiritual convictions are pendulum swung in reaction to their negative experiences, and they can tend to be gun-shy of commitment and submission to any group or form of leadership. (For more on this, see here)
Unless they have personally gone through an extended period in the “wilderness”, they have probably also brought with them a large dose of the “service (serve-us) mentality” of the institutional system. They tend to be motivated by “spiritual pragmatism“, so that if the end result of participating in an organic fellowship is a positive experience for them, they will seek it out. In doing so, they will look to the group to meet their spiritual and emotional needs and provide what they have been used to or expect from “church.” If these expectations are not sufficiently met there, they may seek to supplement their spiritual experience partially back in the system, so that they have half of their “eggs” in the organic “basket” and half in the institutional “carton.” If their experience in the organic fellowship becomes less than desirable for them personally, however, even for a short season, they will just as quickly leave. They are not motivated by spiritual conviction as much as by spiritual convenience.
The nature of relational community is vastly different from the often sterile, polished, pre-scheduled, crafted environment of organized religion, though. Although refugees are often drawn to the refreshingly unscripted spiritual life of an organic fellowship, they can quickly run aground when they hit the reality of face-to face relationship within it with other imperfect, fallen, quirky, in-process believers. The demand for spiritual authenticity, transparency, humility, patience, mercy, long-suffering and love is costly and uncomfortable. Although it is exactly what they need in order to come to a true place of healing, and to grow unto spiritual maturity, it can be a rude awakening to discover just how real and even raw it can be at times. Often refugees last but a little while in this type of relational setting and then head back to the more familiar and predictable environment of the institutional church.
Only a few make the adjustment and become a part of the third group.
A Returning Remnant
Continued here: Rebels, Refugees, and a Returning Remnant – Part 2