This is going to seem radical. (It should.) We are now standing at a door of opportunity: it is time for us to unlearn everything the church taught us.
“Church” – the Sunday morning service, the weekly Bible study, the choir or worship band, the traditions and expectations – is a crutch and sorry replacement for spirit living. The church, as an institution of leadership, has usurped the freedom that was and is promised to each one of us. The church, as a multitude, put into place a system that supported and encouraged blind acceptance, heavy burdens, patriarchy, racism, violence, ignorance, shame, and disconnection. It is time to let all of that go.
Typically, we form our identity by compiling a series of labels for ourselves: woman, man, black, white, straight, gay, not religious, evangelical, catholic, lutheran, baptist, democrat, republican, apolitical, American, etc. The designation, “Christian,” signifies numerous behaviors and ideologies that align with political and social talking points that have nothing to do with original intent. As such, the term and the institution that supports it, is like a red herring, drawing attention and energy away from the radical and mystical original intent. No, this is not an argument for embracing fundamentalism. Rather, it is a plea to take ownership over your spirit life, asking for eyes that see and ears that hear and are not regulated by institutional correctness. This is often a subversive element – even the most so-called nontraditional churches maintain social cues that support the group mission. This is just the way of people, ask any folklorist or anthropologist. It is also not inherently wrong. What is nefarious is that this system of correctness and order replaces the genuine – and it turns down the volume on anything that would challenge that order. It distracts from the revolutionary nature of the Message – the radical and profound reality that is available for all of us.
It is time to let go of all the church taught us. It is time to take ownership of spiritual health and return to the heart and soul of the Spirit.
THE MYTH OF COMMUNITY OBLIGATION
The problem is that the church is such a significant part of the social structure, or so we thought until the COVID pandemic. People curiously wondered, what would happen if churches shut their doors? Certainly, we would have a crisis on our hands. Much relief and community support would vanish. This actually happened during the current health crisis. It revealed a void that should be fulled by other entities – and not necessarily government systems. The church does not have ownership over altruism. If anything, it revealed the dire need for more robust secular community organizations. (Before you get on me about how these exist in good quantity, please know that I recognize their value and presence. We just need more of them.) People are leaving the church. There are many houses of worship in my own town that are shells of what they once were and the those with higher attendance are not always (if at all) taking on their expected role of community support. Certainly, this is not the case for all churches, but it typically does not function in the idealized state that is expected of the ecclesial community. Places of worship are strained by the dual issues of declining attendance and the high expectation for supporting community need. Sometimes the desire to support community need does not exist at all.
We need a different way. Collective support must arise from an understanding that each member of the body (and here I mean community body – the city and your neighbors) have responsibilities to one another. This is a concept that was not always attached to religious institutions, but was a social expectation. We cannot and should not rely on government support. This must come from the people.
THE MYTH OF SOCIAL EXPERIENCE
What about the church’s role in social relationships, artistic production, and – dare I say it – entertainment? This seems to be the primary purpose of “church” regardless of denomination. There is nothing inherently wrong with having a social focus, and in fact, it can even enrich spiritual living. We need beautiful things. We need friends. We need celebrations, commemorations, and the maintaining of memory. But is this belief? Is this a relationship with the Spirit? Certainly not! The church-as-club structure is not new, and we should not ignore this function. If anything, it should be more readily acknowledged so that society (the community) can be on the lookout for the dangerous features of such social institutions: exceptionalism, segregation, or cultism. Once we acknowledge that the church holds this specific role, we can free ourselves from the beliefs that hold us back.
I know of wonderful people who are fully a part of the Christian institution. Do I think they are agents of some vast conspiracy to control society? No, not willingly. Their hearts are for the people, but at the same time, they believe in and support this institution. This is where we diverge. I firmly believe that a person’s spiritual health is, like physical health, a personal responsibility, but there is confusion on how to proceed beyond the “spiritual milk” (the kind the author of 1 Peter writes about) to the mature food of the spirit. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard a sermon veer off track at the very end – right when the “mic drop” should occur – only to relay a few lines of lip service to wrap it up in a nice little bow. Folks, now is not the time to appease the congregation who sit in cushy chairs. There is a place for spiritual comfort (let those who mourn be comforted), but it is imperative that we move past spiritual milk. What does the church gain if this happens? There is some fear that shaking things up would result in even lower attendance numbers. There may also be fear that if things get too loose, the public may no longer find a need to attend church. Think about that for a moment – if individuals mature and are able to see and experience God beyond Sunday morning, what is the purpose of attending? I am certainly not saying this would happen, but perhaps there is anxiety that it would. Or, perhaps, the structure of the institution (as is typical) does not function well with a body of people who are not dependent upon the institution, but on a different, more powerful entity?
A NEW ORDER OF WORSHIP
I believe the institution of the Christian church should be dismantled. Or, at the very least, be removed from the pedestal of power that it sits upon. It is engaging in false advertising. It makes the people believe that, through its schedule of events, liturgy, and doctrines, one can have a relationship with God. When people connect with God, it happens in spite of this institution, not because of it. It happens because God intends to have a relationship us, regardless of the barriers that exist – these doctrines that call on people to engage in ritual, reject their true nature, buy things, say things, do things… when, all that is required is a complete and total letting go of the apparatus that we hold on to. It is a letting go of the layers and layers of ideas that we plaster on to our souls that come from years of living on this earth and are often the result of generational pain. Ideas that form our identities come from the things that others say and do to us, even in infancy. It is a result of instinct and survival. We build identities. We attempt to show that we are good, intelligent, creative, independent, compassionate, worldly, patriotic, accepting… Think of any word to describe yourself. You are building identity. There is nothing essentially wrong with developing a full sense of self. What is misunderstood is this: we hold on to these labels as armor. If anything shakes the foundation to reveal fault lines in our created identity structure, we freak out. Instead of seeing these cracks for what they are – the opening and exposing of our souls to connect, soul to soul, with each other and to God – we patch, correct, and rebuild.
Relationships are a two-way street and, though God is God, there are things (gasp!) that God cannot do alone. We are a necessary element to the process, but no institution will get us there. People either rely on the church to tell them how to navigate these waters or they throw all of it away in disillusionment or apathy. For many, the church has no answers for them, so is inconsequential (except for maybe its role in politics.) Truthfully, the church has no answer for this process because it institutionalized a mystical phenomenon that happens on a timeline different than our human one. Tired explanations of scripture reject anything mystical or radical or dynamically changing. Jesus was placed in a time capsule for “safe keeping.”
The COVID pandemic and general shut down orders from state governments simultaneously revealed:
- Society’s dependence on the religious institution, exhibited in the anger over service cancelations.
- The lack of an actual need for an institutional church.
- Ways that those genuinely truth-seeking spirit communities can adapt to their authentic form.
I once watched a streaming church service at the start of stay-at-home orders where the pastor admonished viewers for not taking services seriously while at home. The expectation was that people would somehow detach themselves from the home life to “do church.” He was the image of a leader fearing loss of control over the group. It revealed that, at least in this case, church functioned as an exercise for order and alignment under the guise of spiritual awakening. There was a denial of how the Spirit works – moving everywhere and always, meeting people as they are, where they are. This was completely lost on the leader.
The pandemic is teaching us many things. We have decision to make regarding a new order of worship: reliance on an institution or personal discovery and ownership? There will be many who opt for the former. There will be misunderstanding. Taking control over one’s own spirituality also means that one must reconsider the framework of the institutional church and its lifestyle. This is not a call to reject the process of “church” outright, rather it is a call for reform. Church should be weakened. God’s power is made perfect in weakness. We, and the church institution, need to let go of the strong grip that we hold on to the concept of religion. We need to have open hands, open minds, open hearts, and certainly open souls. We need to watch and wait.
We – the people – need to take control over spiritual living. We need a spiritual anarchism.
“Anarchism” is a loaded term these days and while I do not have time to dive into its nuances right now, I do think it is important to define here for clarity. Anarchy is the absence of authority and authoritative systems. It is a rejection of a central government in favor of community and communal responsibility. Anarchism is the belief that a society should function on a voluntary and cooperative basis without recourse to force or compulsion. While it is in the news a lot lately because of political debates, the term works beautifully here. This political idea can be easily transferred to the state of religious institutions because we require an upheaval of the system that takes control out of the hands of its members and functions as the gate-keepers to God. There are requirements and expectations that funnel through religious governing bodies – both big and small – that dissolve individual agency, creativity, and result in half-hearted engagement with original beliefs. It almost certainly leads to a rejection of individual responsibility. Spiritual anarchism places the power squarely in the hands of the people, cultivating community and shared responsibility – and elevating confidence in the individual’s right and ability to have a relationship with God.
Over the last few months I had occasions for conversation with folks who find themselves in a strange limbo – no church-going, or very different church-going, or a full-on reassessment of previous habits – all while experiencing a deep, thunderous, persistent call to something higher. Some do not know what to call it. A few recognize that things are just “off.” There are those who have a specific vision for a different way that looks nothing like before.
Here is a final plea – nothing stands in the way to any of this. Listen to the call of your soul. You have no responsibility to maintain an allegiance to an institution from which you feel disconnected and you have everything you need to move forward. If you continue with the church structure, know that you can begin to break down the fortifications and question everything.
Real church is everywhere. Church without walls looks much different than church with them. There are no memberships, no hidden language or ritual, and no schedules. Church is everywhere and with everybody. What will happen when we begin living in this way? We may feel more connected to our actual neighbors. We may feel more alive in the world. We may start to feel mature in spirit.
Trust your soul.
This article speaks to the state of the Christian church only because it is familiar to me. I did not include other institutions of belief because I do not have the necessary background or authority to cover them appropriately.