This is quite a relevant and important book, as it explores why people are struggling in the denominational churches. It has been written for the American context, but it is still a very important topic for Australian Christians. Over the last 10 years, nearly 65 million Christians in America have moved from the mainline church to finding meaning as a Christian outside the "Church" as we know it or what we know as the mainline denominations. This is half the Christian population who have dropped out of denominations because they have had real trouble with the way the churches have moved away from the original plan God had for His people. We do not know the statistics for Australia but from my experience it must be quite high! This article will outline some of his concerns and provide some thought on how we can be in a denomination and function more as God intended or have the freedom to seek what God has for us outside these institutions. Whether we stay or go, our heart is to respond in a way that the glory of the Lord arises our of the love of us, His people, and we can proclaim together our God is real and worthy to be followed.
You might be interested to hear Wayne Jacobsen, the author, speak at an interview about the journey God has him on.
Please be very clear, the heart of this book is not for people to leave their denomination, but for the institutionalised church to listen and change to be the place that people can grow to be all He has for us as His body. Sometimes we are called to stay, other times go. For every believer they need to just follow the Shepherd.
Chapter 1 - The Secret Is Out. Do we need to be committed to a local congregation to live out a transforming relationship with Jesus, to be part of a Christian community or extend His Kingdom? Research in a book called "Church Refugees" has found that many people who have left the church have been successful in living a powerful life in Christ outside the denomination. The found many high capacity people who were deeply involved in their fellowship become stifled and took the only option to have their faith survive. They left the congregational model and found growth, fellowship and mission beyond this.
Chapter 2 - Is Church Refugees A Game Changer? The book "Church Refugees" was able to identify significant number of Christians who no longer attend services but are thriving spiritually. They found it very hard to leave but could not longer stay. The great exodus from the church can only be stemmed when we no longer feel obligated or are held back by institutional priorities.
Chapter 3 - Why Are People Leaving? Moving from a church is not a sudden decision, but it is something people wrestle with for a long time. Leaving close friends and lifetime traditions is not easy. Often they felt their passion was shared, but when identifying problems their concerns fell on deaf or unsympathetic ears. Change was impossible in the place they were at. Most people leave worn out by the machinery and the need to serve it. The work done and the fruit were not worth it. A quarter did not respect the leadership as they were dishonest, autocratic or manipulative. A fifth hungered from more authentic relationship, others wanted more of Jesus and his life than was offered and a small proportion just followed Jesus' call to move on.
Chapter 4 - Five Factors Contributing To The Decline In Church Attendance. In America as many people are living a vibrant Christian life outside a denominational church as are attending church. Many left not out of selfishness but frustration that their desire to change and follow the call of the Spirit fell on deaf ears. There are five main factors that are causing the church to decline in its effectiveness. 1. The church is no longer a place of community, but the megachurch trend has isolated people. 2. Large churches have appealed more to the casual Christian and have entertained more than promoted strong growth as Christians. 3. Our culture no longer encourages church attendance. Sundays are filled with alternative activities. 4. Church is more of an intellectual pursuit as pastors are taught in seminaries to study the Word but not to lead people to connect relationally with God. 5. There are so many alternative views as so many people are publishing their ideas. This desire of people to seek something more authentic spiritually released people to love more in the world. Instead of being bad, it may be the thing that sparks something new that will transform our country.
Chapter 5: I'm Looking For Thirty Five Million People - In America, this many people have left the religious institutions and abandoned their belief in God at the same time. They have missed that there is a God who loves them deeply and is the most endearing presence in the universe. They have not heard His voice or recognised His hand in their lives. Jesus came to reveal how to live in the Father's reality and in His power and not man's wisdom. Religious obligation is "a conformity based system that operates by fear and manipulation" and it cannot promote God's love and walking with God in the adventure He has made you for. We want God to make himself real to people and be at home in them.
Chapter 6: Your Attendance is Not Required - The fear is that today's Christianity is a human inspired and run religion which bases it's teaching on Jesus BUT misses the point of what He came to teach us. Instead we are told by leaders to obey THEM so they can have an income and security. Bureaucracy of religious systems and the use of guilt and obligation leads to stifled spiritual growth. He refers to an article called "Five Spiritual Dangers of Skipping Church". They include missing out on spiritual growth, disobeying God, telling the world God is not worthy of being worshipped, you cannot minister to people and you "skip out on a foretaste of heaven" Obligation is the reason, not the joy of being in community learning together. Should we all rejoice wherever God is working, even outside a religious institution?
Chapter 7: How Much Did Paul Get It Wrong? When Paul wrote to the early believers there were only informal networks of those who met in households. There were no mega churches, sermons, passive listeners etc. A single person did not dominate the life of the congregation. Paul wanted us to life life in a vibrant relationship with Jesus, not under law or compliance to a leader who demanded to be followed. Elders, for example, were older brothers and sisters with character who encouraged younger believers in right living and into a genuine faith. Church was "we" and not "it"and did not seek control over Christ's followers. Jesus brought in the freedom of the new creation that has been "fully crushed" by the institution called church. People rely on rituals and guidelines given by the institution, not follow the Spirit.The key question is not what I should do but how do I get to know Jesus better and allowing His love to shape me to live more freely in the world. Who has He called me to walk alongside? Worship should not be singing songs at church but living our lives in our Father's reality.
Chapter 8: Do You Need Covering? - There is much teaching in the church that we need to have spiritual covering which is interpreted as following a religious leader. This is supposed to protect you from deception and error. This raises a key question.. Does God only work through hierarchical leadership structures, and are you not following Christ if you do not follow them? It is used to exploit people and demand unquestioned obedience and paralyzes people with fear. The only covering in the Bible is when Adam and Eve sin and were hiding from God. This idea of covering actually fragments the body of Christ. True leaders equip people to know Christ and follow Him not them! No leader should come between us and God, but guide us into our relationship with Him. It is pointed out that this could even be the doctrine of demons Paul warns us to reject. What would have happened to Jesus if He would have submitted to the spiritual authority of the day.
Chapter 9: Seven Markers To Help You When You're Done - Many who leave the traditional congregations were one leaders, volunteers and major contributors, but have become weary with programs and expectations that did not support them on the spiritual journey they yearn for or develop the community they are looking for. Leaving can be disorienting and challenging, especially when your friends often do not understand. The author mentions that we should do the following: Take your time. Do not force your journey on others. Lose your need to be validated by others. Learn the beauty and rhythms of love. Watch your trust in Jesus grow and cultivate friendships with others. Let God expand your view of His church, the people not the institution. Do not leave and then create your own institution but be guided in what God has for you.
Chapter 10 - The Labels That Divide Us - The author points out that our human nature which is fallen is constantly looking for identity and safety in a group or "tribe". The labels we create separate us from other groups. Labels flatter or denigrate depending on who is speaking. Are the "dechurched" or "church refugees" outside the body of Christ and have they left the church? Or is the key whether people are following Jesus and being transformed by His love. People who really love Jesus will be able to reach over these walls we have created and see Jesus as the person who unites us NOT the walls of denomination that separate us. We are called to love each other as brother and sister and fellow saint and love in a mutual celebration of who Jesus is. That will cause His church to flourish.
Chapter 11: Drawing A Line Where Lines Don't Have To Be Drawn - Many times when people leave the church their friends from the church cut them off completely. The person leaving has done all they could to achieve what God has but they cannot in the "church" and they cannot go on like this. Their conscience does not allow them to. Religious thinking is very black and white and leaving is definitely wrong. Conflict and departure is threatening to the future of the congregation so it must be hidden or cut off completely. To re-establish a relationship you have to admit you were wrong. If you leave do it quietly and always speak of the church in a way that imparts grace to the hearer. Do not force your conclusions on others and never say you have left the institutional Church never to return as God may call you back one day. Some wise people have said they need a sabbatical or are taking a break from the activities that have exhausted them so they can focus on their relationship with Jesus. Pray for unity and do not force people to see what you see but allow the Spirit to do this in His time. They are on their own journeys. Just remember to love and do not fall back into the use of obligation in relationships.
Chapter 11: Reaching Across The Growing Divide - Whether you "go to church" or whether you worship elsewhere is not something scripture covers. This is up to the individual and both are right. Paul says it clearly in Galatians 5:6.
The key is growing in trust in our Father expressed by the love we share for others. Being in a local congregation does not save or damn you. Go if it is meaningful to your faith. Reach across what divides and do the really difficult thing .... really love those that think differently. Remember to keep your faith in Jesus, have a passion for real community with other disciples and have a desire to touch the world for Jesus. Deal with any shame, as this causes us to treat different as better or worse. We should never be threatened by people who live out their faith differently than we do.
Chapter 13: Do you have community?- If we do not have a denominational church we attend then we are in a dilemma when people ask what "church" we attend. It does not indicate how deeply they are connecting with Jesus or whether they are thriving or withering on their spiritual journey. To many people, the validity of our faith depends on where we attend "church". We struggle with the idea of belonging to a community but not having a community. We are hungering for deep, close, personal relationships that are often hard to find in an institution. Being free to be who you are and be accepted and loved is hard to find. A good definition of community is "the fruit of people connecting with others beneath the masks we often wear to negotiate society. It's real concern, real affection, and real honesty inside a growing relationship with Jesus". Wow! We find community not by looking for love but learning to love others. Community arises out of the friendship we have with God, and we develop a living network of friends and friends of friends. Friendships bring wisdom, healing, comfort and joy to our lives in Jesus.
Chapter 14: An Invitation Not An imposition - The big question is how do we stop the exodus of people from the church? Is it about more sensory worship, more interactive sessions, shorter sermons and more stories and less preaching? Having programs can lock us in to rituals, curriculum we must follow and manipulates people through obligation and guilt. God has called us to work in HIs Kingdom where God's power and love works within us. The life of God cannot be imposed. That is the role of religion. Discipleship works when there is a hungry heart, not through imposing the way people should act or think from the outside. Just coming alongside people and helping them discover how God is already at work in them. Helping people recognise and follow what He has placed in their heart. Life in Christ is a journey to discover, not a program to complete.
Chapter 15: Have We Overplayed The Sermon Card? - We have been giving the sermon the central part of our church services, but the big question is "How many sermons actually change people? As Christians we need to be aware the most effective way to grow people spiritually is not a sermon. Jesus gave very few sermons, and when he did they were not scheduled. Jesus just spoke naturally to those around them. Jesus spoke about His Father's kingdom and how they could embrace and live in this kingdom. Most transformational moments came during personal conversations. Sermons, seminars and classes can produce Christians a mile wide but only an inch deep. Sadly, many churches have a co-dependent arrangement. The pastor agrees not to say anything that makes us uncomfortable and we keep coming to the services. This keeps us returning to the church NOT going out and living the message. This is a reason why the Gospel is not spreading. Now with the internet, we can get good teaching 24/7 so this is making Sunday morning church less relevant. We need to move away from wanting to just hear a truth and apply it, and to being able to share freely in conversation about our faith in God. To be able to walk alongside people and encourage them in their faith. We need to be challenged to know Jesus and be transformed by HIm and then walk alongside others as He does the same to them. The power of the gospel is evident through transformed lives.
Chapter 16: The Conversations That Matter Most.- Often, preaching meets the needs of the speaker more than the listeners. The hardest thing is to not speak a pre-planned sermon but to ride the ups and downs of a conversation with someone and be able to flow with the unforeseen changes and difficult questions. Learning from someone works best when you have a conversation, not hear them speak to large numbers of people. Most transformations occur in conversations with small interactive groups NOT through sermons to large groups. Jesus spent most of his time in personal engagements, and when he did speak to large crowds he followed it up with a personal conversation with His disciples. There is room for both, but living, speaking and sharing the Gospel in a discussion with others is much more powerful than just watching someone speak.Speaking on stage is much easier than walking alongside someone as a brother. Being a celebrity is much more attractive than walking with people through their daily struggles and questions.
Chapter 17: The PItfalls Of Monetizing Ministry - Money, and large amounts can easily cause people to justify compromising their integrity by seeing personal gain more important than the purposes that our Father has given us. Many religious institutions have strayed from the purity and simplicity of devotion to Christ and have been seduced by the need for making a livelihood from Kingdom work. It is easy to distort the Gospel for our gains using worldly business models to become a human enterprise. We do not have a business model that supports the interacting and talking to individuals. When things are monetized, they often become twisted so the provider has greater benefits than the person it is meant to serve.
Chapter 18: The Gospel As A Gift - When money is not involved, the spirit behind programs and institutions changes. We no longer are trying to sell something but give it away as a free gift. Large institutions have more to protect and provide for the machinery. (ie:: buildings and wages) Jesus says it is impossible to serve both God and money, and when money is involved it wins out all the time. Money blinds us to the way God works and our need for it pressures us in ways we do not like. When the focus is on financing a ministry not just doing what the Gospel says then we are in real trouble from the beginning.
Chapter 19: Full Time Ministry - This is the dream of many people in giving purpose and meaning in life. Unfortunately, fundraising, managing people and program planning to keep the machinery turning is complicated and often frustrating. (Not always the case but often) Religious organisations value what worldly organisations value including size,influence, money and notoriety. Watchman Nee in the book "The Normal Christian Church LIfe" offered another way... to have God's servants look to God for provision of money by living in faith and allowing God to meet the needs of the ministry. The biggest issue is when the Gospel is our income stream we will inevitably distort it.
Chapter 20: It's Not About Changing The System. It's Letting God Change You - It is important that we do not try to go out and try to change the whole religious industry. It is about receiving information and wisdom so you can walk in the relationship with Jesus and grow in Him. God was us to discern the reason why ministries and churches operate. Are they Spirit led or are they pushing for finances to build an earthly kingdom? Are people maximizing their income through sales, exposure and huge fees for seminars to teach people their methods? Does it allow the ministry freedom to follow their heart without risking their income? Are they manipulating people to get what they want? If you are in ministry, do not be trapped into doing things to pay the bills. Do it because God is asking you and watch Him provide for you. Jesus freely gave his life away. That is the heart of real ministry. Living based on getting money for what you do has so many traps and pitfalls. Being free to follow the Lamb, not money, has much greater rewards.
Chapter 21: Waiting For Revival - There is a huge expectation in the church that a great revival is just around the corner. This revival will make the church more relevant to our world. People are expecting and hoping for a change that will address this emptiness of our current religious structures and bring something new and fresh. An issue is that while we sit around waiting, we can miss what God is doing right now. God is at work in people all around us. There is a worldwide phenomenon of people all spontaneously and simultaneously moving outside the traditional congregation to learn to live in the Father's affection and freely share it with others. God is leading people to a depth of community that is bringing growth and change in a way not seen in the religious institutions. God is bringing renewal people, not reviving systems and organisations. God is already moving in ways that are astounding. We just need to look. Revival is reaching out to the 1, not building up the 99 sheep that are already doing OK. Instead of waiting for revival or a better way to do church, just asking Him to show us what He is doing around us and how we can be involved in this. Who has He given us to love today so He can touch their live and how we can for them? This is where revival will begin.
Chapter 22: A Heart For What's True - Why is truth more important than love? We are easily caught up in defending the doctrine and have a greater passion for this than loving others. Jesus said our capacity to love would win the world not our eloquence with the truth. Truth without love actually destroys people, and does not really help them. Focusing on truth can cause people to be obnoxious. They can become angry, manipulative and judgemental. Truth has definitely not set them free. Are they gentler, more loving and kinder to the lost? It is love that brings people to the truth. Truth does not travel well outside love. Sadly, Christians have staked their identity on being right which has divided the Christian community and brought factions and division. The more insecure people are, the more they are drawn into the battle on truth. If we live by right or wrong we will inevitably condemn others to validate ourselves. As we grow in truth we should become more humble. We are only dimly able see God's reality so we hold this lightly and not seek to force it on others. In John 8:32 Jesus said "You will know the truth and the truth will set you free". If we understand this bo what truth does, but how to share it with others. It is valuable with people are set free with the truth, but disastrous when it seeks to manipulate people to do what we think best. We can love people and invite people to experience the love of God and in this love be prepared to see through deception and embrace what is true.
Chapter 23: Intentionally Relational - Our goal is to walk together in unity as the body of Christ, encouraging each other daily and sharing God's wisdom and presence to express a "fuller portrait of who He is and how He works in the world". We need to be able to share easily both in and outside the community of believers. Church life is not an obligation , but a vibrant treasure to be shared with delight. We are not competition but collaborators with each other to pull together to reflect the Spirit of the Living God not the spirit of the age. Developing community is essential, and "doing programs" can actually remove us from the ability to be community. Being a spectator is much less attractive to being a part of a real authentic community that is encouraging and supporting and fits into our daily lives. We need to stop just going to "church" and be the "Church" or the body of believers that walk together in love to grow together, build each other up and reach out to others, We are called to live relationally, not in programs, and embrace the people around us. We are called to live with an open, honest, compassionate heart towards people around us no matter where they are on their faith journey. There are some key characteristic relational people have:-
They value people - not for what they can get from them but fell ow strugglers through the difficulties of life.
They live inside their compassion - Our compassion draws us to people, but let God lead you into the relationship He wants you to have.
They live with integrity - People in our lives who demonstrate character and integrity mean the most to us. Without this, people will just know they are being used to fulfil a need in their lives.
They don't try to fix others - We are a resource for others when they are ready. Be soft for them to land by being gentle and soft. When they are defensive back off so they do not get driven away.
They learn not to take offense - People often quickly take offense and assign motives without actually understanding the person. People most closely connected to Jesus do not take offense easily. They learn to have appropriate boundaries.
They share the bandwidth - They allow others to have input and do not dominate. They are better listeners.
They lose the need to compete - When threatened by other people's success or fight to be part of a conversation we find ourselves bing more hurtful than helpful. When we trust God to make room for us we no longer have to force ourselves on others or try to outdo them.
God is calling us to live relationally, but this is done by God in an organic way that as He brings people into our lives. The need for fellowship can actually deter it. If the people around you are not hungry for relationship then find people who are. Focus on who would be blessed by your friendship. Instead of being in a group, all God's Spirit to arrange connections and live in the reality of His love each day and love those in front of you. Save space in your life for people. Be available for new friendships not based on religious performances. Pray daily about the people God wants you to connect with each day. Most community happens over meals. It takes great intention to be relational
24: Chapter 24: To The Saints Scattered - Wayne write a letter to the followers of Christ who live in the freedom from religion and instead relationship with Jesus and walking where He leads them. The road is painful and very difficult at times. Do not live in guilt which comes from the baggage of religious obligation. There is not condemnation for those in Christ Jesus. There may be loneliness at first, but allow your relationship with God to deepen an fill the place only He can fill. Do not be angry with others but finding a person you can talk to who is on the same journey might be beneficial. Do not try to fix the "church" but allow God to draw you into a deeper relationship with Him, and let love fill and motivate you to move forward in.
How to stay on course:-
1. Be Relational - Take time to change the way you think and act. Learn to let the Father enjoy your presence and for you to enjoy HIs. Let Jesus show you who you are free to love and what relationships draw you out of HIs affection and back into performance. Learn to rest in HIs love. Learn to trust in HIs desires for you and HIs purpose for you. Move from the now to the eternal. Spend time with the right people who are on a similar path to you.
2. Truth Filled - Do not throw out the illusionist but rethink where God's truth lies. Deconstruct the false messages of religion you have picked up that feed performance and destroy community. Truth often disturbs before setting us free. Hungering for the truth is the most important. Do not try to convince others.
3. Purposeful - Make intentional choices to follow His leadings, embrace HIs purpose in circumstances around you and live focused more on others than yourself. Growing in Him and flowing with HIs purpose is not accidental, but comes as you learn to live in the moment, with a growing trust in the Holy Spirit to lead and guide you. When you stop serving someone else's vision it is easier to recognise His leading. Let Him grow your capacity to love so you will have a heart for compassion for the broken and be honest with people. Be honest and do not pretend to be further down the road than you really are. Be free to love without the need to fix others or make them art of your agenda.
4. Live justly - LIfe is inherently unfair and powerful people tend to exploit others for their own gain and notoriety. Our role as kingdom people is to bind up the brokenhearted, to free the oppressed and to help the poor and downtrodden. Look out for the ones the culture exploits and be a champion for compassion and justice. Have care and concern for others and do not force people to conform to your standards and expectations.
Final Note: God is doing an amazing thing in our day. He is calling His people to a fresh relationship where we are dependent solely on Him. We are all part of the saints who have been scattered and divided by institutions, doctrines, leaders and programs, with each one saying they are the best. Be careful not to leave and then form another institution which looks down on others because they do not do or believe what you do. Do not condemn the institutions or think less of others that attend but be confident that God as the shepherd will lead HIs sheep on the path He wants for each of us. That is His business. Work always towards authentic unity and know it is His work, not yours. Follow your heart and allow others to do the same. Do not exalt yourself because God has revealed something new or different to others. Yearn for the day we will be truly one flock with one Shepherd filling the world with the life and love of Jesus.