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|Detoxing from Church
Beginning the Process
Back in February, as Mark Feliciano and I were praying and talking about
beginning a missional community, I emailed a guy on the other side of the
US who had already begun one of these communities. Here are a couple of
things he said in our correspondences.
"Here's a strong statement: most evangelicals, including Vineyard people,
are addicted to church culture. Take away their Sunday service, their
bible studies, prayer meetings, and five-song worship teams and they start
having withdrawals quickly. I think that it is a necessary part of this
process to have a detox time... I would suggest a time of at least a year
of not doing the 'normal' church stuff. For us, during that time of
detachment we only did a few things together – ask hard questions and eat.
Those were our corporate disciplines."
In another email he reinforced the point: "Let me reiterate from my last
email that one of the most beneficial things you might do is take a break
from all things church for a while. This may seem really
counterproductive, especially when you start having people wanting to be a
part of your community immediately. But if your aim is to get people to
begin thinking outside the bounds of cultural Christianity, some
significantly radical action is required."
When I first read these comments, I knew he was stating something
profound. What I didn't anticipate was the extent of my own addiction to
the contemporary church and the painful detox process I would experience.
What I'm coming face to face with through the process is the
non-authenticity and impotence of my own faith. Let me explain.
My Addiction To “Church”
In the Americanized church, the organization is designed to turn life and
faith into a simple prepackaged consumer product. This is what John Drane
calls the “McDonaldization of the Church.”
I need to worship. So I go to my local church, which, if it’s
cutting-edge, has a worship pastor on staff that prepares an inspiring
"worship experience" for me on a weekly basis. One local church I know
advertises its worship services on its marquee, "We worship five times,
three ways, one God." (Hello! Is it
me or does that just sound wrong?)
I also need to fellowship with my fellow Christians. So I go to my local
church to attend a programmed version of community that provides a
surface-level contact with people around some form of activity at my
convenience. If I need more fellowship, I go to a small group, usually
focused on the dynamic personality of the small group leader or on the
subject matter I feel I need to better my life. But again, this is at my
convenience and fairly optional if my schedule becomes too demanding.
I need discipleship and Christian growth. So I go to my local church to
attend Sunday services, Bible studies and small groups where someone opens
the Bible and tells me what it says and how it should apply to my life. I
also have the option of learning "practical" topics such as how to be a
parent, employee, leader, steward, etc.
I need to serve. So I go to my local church and participate in a program
where I use my time and skills in a fairly convenient manner to help
others. For the most part, it’s fairly safe. And if I'm a volunteer, my
participation is completely based on my schedule.
I need to be engaged in mission. So I go to my local church to connect to
their evangelistic ministry and their missions program. Every so often I
might volunteer to hand out sodas or serve coffee in a convenient and
semi-relational form of "reaching people" for Christ. I might also give
money to local missionaries the church supports and maybe participate in a
weekend mission trip.
I need a children's program to educate my kids. So I go to my local church
to place my children in the care of Sunday school teachers and youth
pastors who will provide the spiritual and moral foundation for their
Christian growth via an age-relevant program.
I need purpose for my life. So I go to my local church, hoping to find a
leader with a vision big enough to inspire me. Then I sacrifice my time,
energy, and money to become involved in the leader’s vision so I can build
something big for God with him. New programs. New buildings. New projects.
New groups. New
services. New converts. New church plants. New missions. More and more and
more vision to give my life a reason to exist. To make matters worse, as a
pastor on staff, all of my relationships and ministries are mediated
through my title and position in the organization. An unhealthy symbiotic
relationship occurs between myself and the organization as my life and faith becomes
synonymous with the success of the organization. If we, as leaders, can
design an organization that satisfies the consumer needs of a couple
hundred people... well, then we must be doing something right in God's
kingdom. And the more people we reach, then the better we are. So I
preach, lead worship, administrate, counsel, teach, organize, recruit,
train, write, and do practically everything as a “pastor” of an
organization. Eventually my identity becomes distorted by what I do for
the church. What’s worse, my role and effectiveness as a staff pastor
are intimately connected to my own formation and personal development.
This continues to blur the line between my personal life and faith and my
abilities as a leader of an organization.
Detoxing From “Church”
Now strip all of that away. Imagine what you would have left after you
remove from your life everything connected with the organizational church.
I mean everything. I’ve discovered the hard way that living most of my
adult life in cultural Christianity has formed my entire identity as a
Christian. And when everything in my life connected with the church is
gone, including sixteen years of professional ministry, I’m confronted
with the true raw status my personal faith.
Now I'm going to say something harsh: In order to BE the Church, we need
to leave the church. In other words, in order to truly become God's people
as he intended, we must abandon our cultural version of organizational
church. The application of this statement might vary, but it must happen.
And as we abandon the church to become the Church, we will go through a
Why such drastic measures? Involvement in an organizational
consumer-driven church blinds us to the real state of our lives. By
participating in this kind of church I can enjoy inspiring worship,
biblical exposition of Scripture, fellowship, small groups, kids programs,
service projects, missions, discipleship, books, radio broadcasts,
multimedia presentations and virtually anything else I need in my
spiritual life. In fact, I can enjoy an entirely alternative lifestyle
where Christianity is prepackaged for me – books, music, entertainment,
news reports, advice, etc. And as I consume it, it forms a façade over the
real condition of my life. The rub is when my true condition actually
bubbles to the surface and I find myself troubled, discontent or
miserable. Then the church or the pastor or the worship team has lost the
“anointing” and I must find a new organizational church that will provide
me what I need to feel better about who I am.
In this distorted perspective, I fail to recognize that the true state of
my life and faith is who I am and what I do in relation to God and his
kingdom, not who I am and what I do in relation to the church.
Moving From Being Churched To Being The Church
Detoxing from any kind of substance abuse is only a means to a much
greater end. It is the essential process toward a healthy life, free from
oppressive addiction. The same is true for one who detoxes from the
church. Remember, we must leave the church in order to BE the Church. We
must stop being churched and start being the Church.
What is the Church? It is a community of people who are each following
Christ into his divine life and love here on earth. They are learning how
to become by grace what Christ is by nature – the full and complete
emptying of self in order to participate fully in God’s kingdom so as to
be a redemptive force that recreates all aspects of life and creation
(Philippians 2:5-16; Colossians 1:19; Romans 8:19-21). The Church is a
group of Christ-followers who are sent as Jesus was sent (John 20:21). In
this way, the Church is the continuation of Christ’s incarnation on earth.
These and other biblical aspects of the Church run counter to cultural
Christianity and its addictive prepackaged consumerist version of the
church. Being the Church is about who I am and who I am becoming as I
follow Christ individually and in a community. Being the Church is
becoming like Christ so together, I and other Christ-followers may
continue his incarnation on and to the world.
A primary difference between being churched and being the Church is how I
approach the community. Being churched assumes the organizational church
is designed from the perspective that I am a consumer of religious goods
and service. Therefore, I am expected to participate in the church’s
programs chiefly to
receive and consume. It’s the organization’s responsibility to program,
coordinate and provide what I need for my spiritual satisfaction.
But being the Church requires me to take full responsibility to follow
Christ and Christ alone into his life. I can't say this enough: We are to
become by grace what Jesus is by nature. And he did not have an
organization mediating his life and faith. He had a relationship with the
Father by walking in the
Spirit, expressed through a life of spiritual disciplines. Then he invites
us to learn from him how to develop the same kind of intimate relationship
with the Father in the same way (Matthew 11:27-30).
The Christian community is then made up of Christ-followers who encourage,
challenge, pray, minister, learn, honor, love and spur each other on. But
it is not the community’s nor the community leaders’ responsibility to
program or lead others into divine life. Only Christ can do that. So while
my needs remain
the same, I must look not to an organization, but to Christ alone to lead
me into his divine life and love.
I still need to worship, but I am to worship first as an individual
follower of Christ daily. I am a priest, offering all of my life back to
God in constant prayer, joy and thankfulness (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).
Then from the overflow of my personal worship, I join in corporate worship
with others who also
worship God on a daily basis.
I still need to fellowship, but now I must actually alter my schedule and
hang out with people in real ways – over meals, over coffee, at my home or
theirs. This also means that there isn't a program or an event to generate
fellowship. I have to initiate. I have to be prepared to discuss life and
faith in real ways that encourage and build each other up. I have to be
prepared to be used by Christ to pray, listen, minister, laugh, cry,
confront, encourage, etc., all on the leading of the Spirit and not at the
cue of a leader or scheduled time in a service.
I still need discipleship and growth, but now I must walk with Christ, by
grace in the Spirit through a life of spiritual discipline. I must follow
Christ into a curriculum of spiritual disciplines that transforms my inner
world into Christ’s inner life. As such, I must study the Bible. I must
pray. I must meditate. I must take my own personal retreats. I must read.
I must educate myself. I must become theologically astute and spiritually
vibrant. I must discover God's will for my life and not some canned
version from a pastor who talks at me for 45 minutes each week. I must put
the same or more energy and time into my personal faith than I do into my
occupation, education, and entertainment.
I still need to serve, but now I must look for the opportunities in my
life. I can't enjoy the safety of a program with other Christians. I must
view my entire life as service to the people I live with and live around.
I must discover the poor and marginalized in my life and be Christ to
them. I can't just
give money to the organization to do it for me.
I still need to engage in mission, but now I must actually BE a witness of
Christ's eternal divine life to the people I live with, work with, play
with and shop with. I must actually be a living, albeit flawed, example of
divine life on earth. I must be able to say, "When you see me, you see the
Father." Then I must view my family, my neighborhood, my job, and my
entire life as my mission field. Not in the imperialistic way the church
has done evangelism and missions, but in the winsome, educated and
Spirit-led way that drew thousands to Jesus when he walked this earth. I
still need to raise my children in life and faith, but now I carry the
lion's share of the responsibility. As their parent, my faith and life
form their faith and life. I must learn to dialogue at their level. I must
lead them in prayer, in worship, in fellowship, in spiritual disciplines,
in service, in mission, in play.
I still need purpose for my life, but now I learn from Christ how to be
like him so I can live like him – completely toward God for the sake of
the world. the Proper Role of Community
Now I know having read everything so far, it is easy to conclude, “Then I
don’t need community.” That couldn’t be farther from the truth. What we
don’t need is the organizational consumer church as a provider of
religious goods and services. The consumer ethic of our surrounding
culture has infected the organizational church turning pastors into entrepreneurs and CEOs and
turning Christians into consumers.
Once we understand what it means to be the people of God and to shoulder
the personal responsibility of transformation into Christ likeness, then
we begin to realize we need authentic Christian community more than ever.
Let me explain.
In Renovation of the Heart, Dallas Willard lays out a general pattern for
personal transformation. He states:
If we are to be spiritually formed in Christ, we must have and must
implement the appropriate vision, intention, and means… If this VIM
pattern vision, intention, and means is not put in place properly
and held there, Christ simply will not be formed in us. 1. This pattern
for spiritual formation is a fine balance between the individual and the
community. First, the vision essential for transformation is a vision
of life now and forever in God’s will, partaking in the divine nature (2
Peter 1:4) and participating by our actions in what God is doing now in
our lifetime on earth. 2. This vision is given to humanity by God,
revealed to God’s covenant people, the Jews, and given fullest expression
in Jesus. As such, a personal vision for life in the kingdom comes
directly from the Living Christ, but is also mediated through God’s
covenant community, the Church.
Second, the intention for spiritual formation is brought to completion
only by a decision to fulfill or carry through with the intention. In this
case, the intention to obey the model and teachings of Jesus must be
“sealed” with an individual’s decision to actually obey Christ in all of
life. The intention and decision, which lie in the realm and
responsibility of the individual, can only be formed and sustained by a
forceful vision, which comes directly from Christ and is supplemented by
Willard makes a significant point in this area, stating:
Our belief and feelings cannot be changed by a choice. We cannot just
choose to have different beliefs or feelings. But we do have some liberty
to take in different ideas and information and to think about things in
different ways. We can choose to take in the Word of God, and when we do
that, beliefs and feelings will be steadily pulled in a godly direction.
In other words, the will is moved by insight into truth and reality, which
in turn, evokes emotion appropriate to a new state of the will. This is
how real inward change occurs. The consumer-based church does the exact
opposite, trying to motivate and inspire people to choose to believe and
do things they
really don’t believe. This approach does not result in any lasting
Finally, the vision and intention to follow and obey Christ will naturally
lead to seeking out and applying the means to that end. Scripture and
church history are replete with the appropriate means for spiritual
formation. The key is to target the aspects of our humanity – the
thoughts, feelings, will, social
relations and bodily inclinations – with the abundant individual and
corporate spiritual disciplines available to us so that we become people
who naturally and easily embody Christlikeness.4 In this way, the
statement, “Where there is a will, there is a way,” rings true for
To illustrate this process, Dallas makes an interesting statement, “Any
successful plan for spiritual formation, whether for the individual or
group, will in fact be significantly similar to the Alcoholics Anonymous
program." In AA, the participant is envisioned with the potential
new life of sobriety and
freedom from addiction that is available to him or her. The vision is then
pursued by an intention to realize it, actuated by a decision. The means
are then applied to produce the desirable state.
The program illustrates the important balance between the individual and
the community. The individual must possess the vision, supplemented by the
relational structure of the AA group. The intention and its accompanying
decision rest solely on the individual. The means are then carried out primarily by the
individual throughout his or her daily life, supported by the
relationships and structure of the local AA community. The point is that
as important as the community is, success and failure of AA in an
individual’s life rests primarily on the individual’s intention to follow
through daily. The community exists to support the individual’s pursuit of
The Christian community’s role is very similar. Willard states that God’s
plan for spiritual formation through the local Christian community is
threefold: First, create an ethos and culture that places apprenticeship
to Christ in all the minute aspects of life as central. This creates the
necessary vision to
fuel the individual’s intention. Second, immerse apprentices at all levels
of growth in the Trinitarian presence of God through the community’s
structure and life. In this way, the community’s primary purpose is to
encounter the Trinitarian presence and hold people up within it. Finally,
arrange for the inner
transformation of people in such a way that doing the words and deeds of
Christ is not the focus but the natural outcome or side effect.
This creates a community of Christ’s apprentices in which each member is
pursuing Christ, spending time with him in the course of their daily life
in order to learn how to be like him. When the community gathers, all
relationships are then mediated through Christ. Willard describes this
Christocentric community in The Divine Conspiracy
In the spiritual community there is never any immediate relationship
between human beings. Another way of saying this is that among those who
live as Jesus’ apprentices, there are no relationships that omit the
presence and action of Jesus. We never go “one on one”; all relationships
are mediated through him. I never think simply of what I am going to do with you, to you, or
for you. I think of what we, Jesus and I, are going to do with you, to
you, and for you. Likewise, I never think of what you are going to do with
me, to me, and for me, but of what will be done by you and Jesus
with me, to me, and for
In this way, Christ fills all of our needs for life and formation as we
follow him (2 Peter 1:3), not by participating in and consuming the
organizational church’s programs. As I follow the resurrected Christ with
others who are following him, he meets us and ministers to us through all
the members of the
As our understanding of being the Church changes, the role of proper
Christian community changes. We discover a need for authentic community
more than any of us realized. As a follower of Christ, I constantly need
my fellow Christ-followers. I cannot enter into Christ’s divine life and
love apart from Christ-mediated community with them. His life and love are
expressed in fully giving myself to them (Ephesians 5:1-2). Therefore, I
need to be with my fellow Christ-followers so I can serve them, love them
and pour out on them everything I am becoming in Christ for their benefit.
And they need to do that for me. Together, fully giving ourselves to each
other, we continue on into Christ likeness.
This kind of Christian community is essential to grow into Christ’s life.
Christ is formed in each of his apprentices as they engage his abundant
grace in daily living through a life of spiritual disciplines. As each
Christ-follower shoulders his or her responsibility of following Jesus
into the life he has mastered and alone can share, all are then supported
by Christ as each member brings Christ being formed in them to the
Only Christ is the source of divine life. Each member must follow Jesus
daily to learn his divine life. Each member must shoulder the
responsibility to work out his or her salvation and not expect the
community or its leaders to do it for him or her. In Christ, we can learn
together, serve together, grow together, love together, etc. But we must
first and foremost follow Christ into his life. And to do this we must
abandon the distorted and addictive version of the consumer church in
order to be free to become Christ’s Church.1.-Dallas Willard, Renovation
of the Heart: Putting On the Character of Christ, (Colorado
Springs, CO: NavPress, 2002)..