Rethinking the Church

Well, here I sit, wondering what I am going to write to let everyone know that I am rethinking my personal church sit-out. It’s funny because I have about three blogs ready to post that further communicate my disdain for the church.

Then, last week I read an interview with Eugene Peterson, author of The Message and someone I highly respect as a pastor, thinker and writer. It has somewhat immobilized me because in this interview he critiques pastors, the way the church manipulates people with language and marketing, and also our own approach to the Christian life. Then somewhere in the middle of the dialogue the interviewer makes this statement to Mr. Peterson:

But many Christians would look at this church and say it’s dead, merely an institutional expression of the faith.

There it is, I thought. The perfect chance for one of my heroes to give me clarity on what he thinks about the church. For once and for all I will have the definitive answer for everyone who asks me, “Why don’t you go to church anymore?” Eugene Peterson is an authority and certainly if people won’t listen to me they will listen to him. I wasn’t quite prepared for the answer:

What other church is there besides institutional? There’s nobody who doesn’t have problems with the church, because there’s sin in the church. But there’s no other place to be a Christian except the church. There’s sin in the local bank. There’s sin in the grocery stores. I really don’t understand this naïve criticism of the institution. I really don’t get it.

Frederick von Hugel said the institution of the church is like the bark on the tree. There’s no life in the bark. It’s dead wood. But it protects the life of the tree within. And the tree grows and grows and grows and grows. If you take the bark off, it’s prone to disease, dehydration, death.

So, yes, the church is dead but it protects something alive. And when you try to have a church without bark, it doesn’t last long. It disappears, gets sick, and it’s prone to all kinds of disease, heresy, and narcissism.

In my writing, I hope to recover a sense of the reality of congregation—what it is. It’s a gift of the Holy Spirit. Why are we always idealizing what the Holy Spirit doesn’t idealize? There’s no idealization of the church in the Bible—none. We’ve got two thousand years of history now. Why are we so dumb?

Did that bastard Peterson just call me naïve and dumb? Hold on there Mr. Smarty Pants, but you haven’t been what I have been through. You cannot understand my frustration with this institution. Who are you to interrupt my peaceful, non-church life and cause me to rethink the church?

Oh, I could argue with him on several points. But the part that sticks out to me is where he says the institution of the church is like a bark on a tree and it protects what’s on the inside. Without the bark, the tree becomes sick.

The church has been described as a family. So when I think of my family as an institution, as bark for protecting those within it, I can see this illustration more clearly. If my children were to step outside the family declaring they could make it on their own, they would be susceptible to all types of troubles. The family is designed to protect each other and that is what we should be doing.

Yet the “church as bark” analogy has its own problems. What if the protection it supposedly offers is weak? What if the bark (the structure) is damaged so therefore it is not designed properly for protecting or caring for those within it?

Then the final part hit me. Peterson says, “Why are we always idealizing what the Holy Spirit doesn’t idealize?” Is that what I am doing? Am I idealizing this institution? Are my unmet expectations the only thing causing me to stay away from church? Do I need to simply acquiesce to the church despite its flaws?

Like I said, I am rethinking the church.

Here’s a link to the interview with Eugene Peterson in Christianity Today. It’s good stuff!

31 thoughts on “Rethinking the Church”

  1. If there be 2 or 3 of us here, who are willing to call Jesus the Lord, then are we not fellowshipping together as members of His Body?We don’t have to darken the doorstep of an institution to enjoy the organism of the Body.

  2. I agree that Peterson’s defense of the institutional church can lead us to deny the inherent problems that have developed as Christianity has turned into a religion.“Rethinking the church” can be healthy. It’s obvious that this type of honest discussion needs to happen in order for the church to recover its purpose and direction.Having said that, however, we must also recognize that human expressions of the church will always be far from perfect. In that sense Peterson is right. It’s just that he seems to want us to ignore those imperfections and accept the mess of modern Christianity. The challenge is not having a “perfect” church, but having one of honesty and integrity. A community where we can come together with others to confront our humaness in the light of Jesus. Lloyd

  3. ZEKE: I agree Zeke with you and your feelings that the blogosphere has become a type of church. My relationships with many through the blogs and such have caught me by surprise in their level of honesty and care.The people online I have connected with have become very much like a “church” family to me. The level of intimacy is stronger online at times due to our virtual anonymity. We say things online quicker and faster online than we would anywhere else. I can be more honest at times online than ever before. But this has occurred beyond the posts and comments as we have sought each other out through email and phone calls.But you cannot supplant human interaction. I am not saying though that it has to happen in a “church”. It is imperative that each of us not forsake face-to-face human interaction with people in our everyday lives that are believers and non-believers alike.I know that isn’t what you are advocating, but the “First Church of the Blogosphere” is just another piece of the puzzle in my spiritual development. Although it has become a very, very important one, I guess I am trying to take the blogosphere church I experience (with its honesty and rawness) and take it into my real-world relationships.

  4. D: I believe all families are dysfunctional. Mine was growing up and the one in which I am the Husband/Father is now. I am incomptent and imperfect. I am certain there is a therapy couch somewhere with my kids name on it, just waiting to rant on his dad (me) and his families “dysfunctions”. Besides those extreme cases of abuse or neglect, even the worst dysfunctions of the nuclear family have been found to be better than the alternative. I think research bears this out. The purpose of family is to stick it out together and grow together, learning from each other in our mistakes and failures. I think that is what Peterson is getting at here.

  5. Why can’t we just take a buzz saw, cut the church in half and count the rings??I’m not sure what the purpose of that would be, but all that cutting would relieve a lot of frustration…🙂

  6. Yeah, actually. When Peterson sez, “when you try to have a church without bark, it doesn’t last long. It disappears, gets sick, and it’s prone to all kinds of disease, heresy, and narcissism,” it sounds to me like “I’m sorry you have problems with this, but that’s too bad, ‘cuz there’s no other way, in fact other ways are futile, selfish, or both, so you might as well live with it. “…I say, prove him wrong. Pursue an ideal. And start by identifying that ideal. C’mon, now, Steve.But then, maybe I’m just narcissistic. After all, I did just pretty much modify and repost my previous statement. But at least I quoted the article.Heh.

  7. Ok, ok. Though I might say that the family analogy falls apart, because there’s an important difference:We can choose a church.…but first we need to sort out what the church is, and what it should be.Personally, I’m with Zeke. <>This<> is church. Your lunches with Josh is church. And so on. Ideally, we should be spending every extra penny and every spare moment helping the homeless and those in need, spreading Christ’s love. Do we? No, ‘cuz we’re selfish and human, and sometimes we simply don’t have a spare moment to ourselves.Alternately, there’s the institutional church: water fountains, shopping malls, and 62-foot Jesuses. So…the question is do you accept the institutional church for the sake of protection? Maybe change it from the inside? Or do you try to do it your way, try to pursue an ideal on your own?A better question: What <>is<> the ideal church to Steve Chastain?(Forgive if this has been covered; a link in the right direction will do).

  8. Zec, let me address a few items here: first, while there can be a lot of BS on the internet, what is revealed in blog these circles is not what anyone would really want to fake. People online lie to get, for the most part, sex, fame, and sympathy. Not a lot of that around here. And not that you were referring to me in particular, but I use an alias to protect the anonymity of my family and to prevent an enemy from finding stuff online about me that could be used against me professionally. Long story, but after an experience I had a few years ago, I have learned to watch your ass. There is always someone who is enough of an asshole to want to ruin you at whatever cost.There is nothing SCP about simply attending church. You can even <>like<> it. And inevitably you will do stupid church stuff just because you’re a sinner.For the record, I have never been screwed by the church; if anything it has treated me with more respect and honor than I really deserve. But I have just become very attuned to the stupid church tendencies in myself and others in the church. It’s out there, for sure. And it’s in every one of us.You know, not everyone is ready or receptive to the message that <>there is a problem.<> Don’t hate the messenger, hate the message. Or is it Don’t hate the player, hate the game? Whatever. Point is, when we point out and ridicule stupid church behavior, we are like the guy from Bahurim that was insulting King David: how do you know God didn’t ask us to ridicule the evangelical church? See 2 Sam 16:12 to see what I mean.

  9. Yeah, I told you I could argue with him on several points. You guys are seeing the same thing I did. I offered a link to the whole article at the bottom of my original post. Sorry I didn’t do that originally. You can also get there from < HREF="" REL="nofollow">here<>. I was focusing on the concept that possibly I was “idealizing” things a bit too much. I am certain I am to a degree. Am I being dumb about it? I am certainly open to the possibility that I need to see things from a different perspective.Peterson has a ton of good stuff to say in this interview. Much to blog about from it.I love his ideas on spirituality, the misuse of language and the way we try to “advertise” salvation as a “hook” to get people into the church…he just lays into that stuff. He also takes on “bullying” pastors and the shortcuts the church takes to reach out to people.

  10. Interesting analogy. Though, I might follow it through: bark is prone to insects and parasites……you say that the institution of family is much like the church in this analogy; it protects and raises its members. However, a dysfunctional family can warp its members, particularly its children, the ones who need protection most. In the same way, a dysfunctional church might be said to be warping its members. Sometimes, the dysfunction is so bad that it’s better to take the children out of the family, and find a new home for them. …so one could say it is with the church. I’m not saying it is. But it’s possible.…and I disagree with the sentiment “there’s no other place to be a Christian except the church.” You can be a Christian at the bank, at the grocery store, or what have you. I’m not saying one should start preaching, but just be a decent person, do unto others and all that jazz. That one saying, “Preach the Gospel; and sometimes use words.” Strip it down to “love thy neighbor” and work your way out from there, if need be.…for that matter, what does he mean by “being a Christian?” Singing worship songs? Listening to a sermon? <>Attending a Life Group<>? All this institutionalized crap that’s been programmed to keep us busy and make us feel certain emotions? Is that what being a Christian’s about? I sure as hell hope not.

  11. Is what we have here really fellowship? I always considered fellowship to be more of a face-to-face thing. It might just be me, but I prefer to see the person I’m having fellowship with, to hear them speak, and hear the emotions in their voice. That isn’t possible on the internet. People can be so fake here, but they can also be so fake in church too. On the net people hide behind fake names, and it’s been my experience, usually more fake personalities. On the net you can be whoever you want. In a face-to-face situation it’s alot harder to pull that off.Also, is SCP just another attempt at building another kind of church? A church where we can cater to our own personal wants and desires, and not necessarily the wants and desires of God? Don’t get me wrong I love it, but it seems that unless you’ve been on the receiving end of a really grand screw-job by the church, you’re almost an outsider here. I’m personally speaking about myself when I say this. I go to church for worship on Sundays and to volunteer in the youth group on Wednesday nights. So I go twice a week. Does this behavior in and of itself make me an SCP or does it make me a card carrying member of an organization that is elitist in it’s views and has driven some of the people here away from it never to return?Forgive me for asking these questions or venting, but it’s been building up for some time now. My apologies if I crossed any lines with this.

  12. Ha! Well played. Though I think I may be misunderstood: while I encourage and support Steve, I’m not looking for someone to follow. …my logic here is that Steve is wondering whether he’s idealizing the institution. But, in order to assess whether the idealization is unreasonable (well, idealization is, by definition, unreasonable, if you ask me), it’d be best if we could identify it. Through this identification, we can assess whether we ought to encourage him to pursue this ideal on his own terms or merely return to the insitutional church.As for me, I don’t have an “ideal” so much as an idea. It’s actually kinda pathetic, more a Christ-flavored kinda Buddhism; I basically already summed it up in my first post. Sadly, at this point in my academic and spiritual growth, it’s all I can manage.

  13. Man, I’m with d on this one. I started a draft early this morning on just this issue, and my contention is that <>this<> is church. What we are doing in the blogosphere is <>church<>, people.I won’t try to write the post here, but there are probably four main reasons why we go to church (and more importantly, why people <>think we are supposed to<> go to church:1. To hear the Word of God2. So as to not forsake the fellowship of the believers (Heb 10:24)3. To receive encouragement4. To serve the Body of ChristSo, does Eugene mean to tell us that the only way to access these benefits is to go to x church building and participate in the Americhurch formula of Christianity? That we are just fooling ourselves if we think that sinful man came come up with something better than the stupid church bullshit that we all have been forced to endure? That sitting though 52 boring Sunday morning sermons (and another 52 boring evening sermons, for us AoG attendees) is somehow <>critical<> to our being Christian?I’m sorry, this sounds too much like fear of change masquerading as the wisdom of the ages. Go tell the Chinese house churches that you have to have institutional churches to be Christian. Over there, the institutional churches are the ones that sold out to the government. The house churches are the ones with the real creds.Look, Jesus is in all our churches. I’m just tired of all the stupid church crap. I’d love to read the Eugene article and see if he could persuade me differently, but I think that the internet is changing the church in the way that it is changing other forms of communication and human relationship. I call it the First Church of the Blogosphere. Here’s a quote from my upcoming post:<>Amidst my wanderings back-and-forth in the blogosphere, posting and commenting, emailing and podcasting, I and the friends I’ve made here have been having church. Of course, we have no physical building and for the most part we don’t see each other. Very few of us even speak by phone. But the exchanges we have are more transparent, more real, and more uplifting than the flaccid, be-happy banter that I get (and frankly give) on Sunday mornings at my church. Because of the transparency of our exchanges, I get to see the humanity of my blogosphere friends in a way that I rarely see at church. Because I myself am more transparent here than at church, I have been able to receive encouragement that is more targeted and significant than the general well-meaning platitudes I’ve received from my fellow churchmembers.And I have grown as a result. The First Church of the Blogosphere–and no, it’s not formal, there is no building, no membership rolls, no belief statement, and no paid staff or even staff at all–is diverse, dynamic, heavily pollenated, passionate and fun. It engages, challenges, and plows new ways to receive and give as human beings.<>So put up the link to the Peterson article Steve, and let’s see about what he’s saying.

  14. The church (small c) is damaged. It’s broken. Whether it’s beyond repair…I don’t know. But I believe with all my heart that there are sincere, believing people in the Church who need to be awakened to recognize the SCP in themselves, and to being the deconstruction. The question seems to be whether to do that from within or without. Or is it “every man for himself” (it hurts to ask it, but I’ve seen that attitude, too,)?Alluding to the old pick-up line, It just seems easier to wake someone up with a nudge than with a call.

  15. I’m with Zeke on this – I’ve found more “church” online than out in the “real world”. I’ve stepped out of (been called out of?) the institutional church, but I’m still living in an institutional church environment (church-run college campus). I’m having a hard time connecting with folk in the “real world”, and so the interaction, support and learning I need from a church-type fellowship has been happening online. These are my “peeps”, my “home-boys”, my connection with God and each other! It’s where I fit in and can lay my soul bare without being rejected.

  16. I just finished that interview. Hold on a sec, I think I have water in my ears… nope that’s just my brains leaking out.::puts plugs in his ears to stop the loss of intelligence::Ah, that’s better. Wow! That interview was alot to take, in one sitting. I still can’t process everything I read. So I’ve resigned myself to being confused.

  17. You can take the person out of the stupidchurch, but you can’t take the stupidchurch out of the person, eh?I’m there, too.

  18. I read the article and I loved the first half, but I think that when he started talking about reaching out, he’s a little stuck in his own tradition, as if that were THE way. But, I do love me some Eugene Peterson.

  19. You say “besides those extreme cases of abuse and neglect” as if it’s a rare thing. I’m afraid that’s where the similarity between a nuclear family and a church family breaks down. I would propose that in EVERY Christian-based-human-institution (a.k.a. “church”) there exists extreme cases of abuse and neglect. My wife and I have been visiting different churches recently, and after being fed up with being ignored by everyone my wife walked up to a random person, cold-turkey, and said “Hi, I’m Chris. How long have you been coming here?”That person was overjoyed and said that after attending for a month my wife was the first person to talk to her. I don’t think the institution of church does what it claims to do. And as for the dead wood protecting the living interior, like Zeke said, think China. Is it the state-run church or the home meetings that foster and protect Christianity there? Oddly enough, this girl we talked to turned out to be a missionary to China, just between assignments. Her usual “church” was a few people in the living room huddled around a computer with an illegally hacked internet connection. Now there’s some Christian fellowship for ya. People aren’t falling through the cracks there.It’s ok to be an idealist, Steve. Don’t apologize for wanting what’s right. This world has enough people who compromise for mediocrity.

  20. Good post. I think the church needs to help us outside of the church. As we go out and try to love our neighbors, and don’t always get love back. Let the church serve as a place to focus us back on the Word, if we got off track, or give us the team spirit, when the rest of the week we will be like lone rangers. I do agree with d also, there are times when we will be called out of the church, because the church has become bad, and unhealthy. Or maybe just turning us into weak lukewarm Christians.

  21. What struck me about the picture with your post is the artistic element to it. It contains such TEXTURE. And that too is what the Church is all about.

  22. Steve, everyone who’s <>anyone<> knows that the only perfect church is the one <>I<> started, < HREF="" REL="nofollow">The Church of the Holy Burrito!<>< /said with a wink and a smile>😉

  23. To me, the central points are that the church has a holy purpose; but it’s owned and operated by human beings. So it makes mistakes. And it should listen more, I think, to its membership, because I don’t think the Holy Spirit particularly respects bureaucratic channels.But the fact that the church makes mistakes doesn’t invalidate its mission and purpose.

  24. ZECRYPHON: You say, <>Also, is SCP just another attempt at building another kind of church? A church where we can cater to our own personal wants and desires, and not necessarily the wants and desires of God? <>Whoa Nelly! Here is something I wrote from the < HREF="" REL="nofollow">original post<> on SCP:<>I just wanted to design a place where we can sometimes laugh at ourselves, where the truth is spoken, where light is shed on the darkness and where hurting people can share their pain.<>Neither Josh or I have said anything about creating an alternative to church. Whatever you or anyone gets out of this experience is yours to own. However, in my hopes of creating a place where “truth is spoken, light is shed on the darkness and where hurting people can share their pain”… I do not see how that is the antithesis of what God might desire for people.You did not cross any lines. If anything I hope for people like yourself who regularly attend church to also come here and offer input. I do not have problem with that at all. Going to church doesn’t make you an SCP. Going to church 5 times a week doesn’t make you a SCP. Not going to church doesn’t make me better than those that do.A person like myself who hasn’t attended church in awhile can be a SCP if I think that my way is the “right way” for everyone else. The reason I made this post of “rethinking” was that I am open to learning and not being dogmatic in my anti-dogmatism. I hope we all are.

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