Why I dropped church and joined The Church

A German Mass during WWII

A German Mass during WWII

Snark MeterrealMID.003I came of age outside of the faith. At eighteen God found me. From that day forward, and with a love that was not my own, I have not been able to help but love Jesus back, and work for the welfare of others with the overflow of that love. Yet, even with all that love, I am sorry to say, I did not love church. I liked the idea of church. I liked lots of people at church. I just didn’t like church.

At least not until I discovered the Church: The Church historic. In the Church historic; orthodox, catholic and reformed, I found something larger than I.

I came to value Christ’s bride when I wandered into an expression of it that immersed me in a different and embodied narrative: the grand story of God’s creation, fall, redemption and working toward final justice. The Church, described by the Creeds, nourished by the Sacraments, defined by the Scriptures and led by the Holy Spirit through the 3-fold ministry, is something one can stand lashed to when the storms of life come.

Don’t get me wrong, I am indebted to the church of my conversion. The godly men and women of that movement introduced me to faith, fed me on the Scriptures and challenged me to serve. Now, however, in the Church I am no longer adrift in a world that is a Jesus add-on to a life of my American culture’s creation. In the Church, I am connected to the original eleven “sent-out ones” by touch and by teaching. In the church of my conversion, “The gates of hell,” did, in effect, “prevail against it” from the close of the canon until the Reformation, or maybe the Second Great Awakening, or, for some, the coming of the evangelical explosion of the 1980s.

The Church is rooted in history, unchanging, with worship patterned after that of the earliest Christians. Lancelot Andrewes described the Church of the Great Tradition as bound by “One canon, two testaments, three creeds, four ecumenical councils over five centuries.” She clarified those creeds in the Reformation. Her lay and clergy were missionaries of the Awakenings. In this Bride the Holy Spirit is gloriously alive and balance is maintained in public worship by praying the safe, vetted words of the Church. In the Church, the old battles are not forgotten. So they do not need to be refought.

What put me off about church was that it was so like me – feeding me a steady diet of myself: my wants, my preferences, my music. It was quite “relevant.” I came to realize that I actually needed church to be UN-like me: to be transcendent. The Church is unconcerned with “relevance.” It cares not for my preferences. When I ask it to change it grins quietly and asks me to change instead. When one panics about something and accosts the clergy at the door, the chances are good the priest will say, “We have been in God’s presence in the liturgy. How about we enjoy that for a bit? Call me on Tuesday.”

The Church is maddeningly un-fearful. It is not subject to politics or fads. It does not do focus groups and market research. It is not trying to impress me, win me or woo me. Instead of bending to my whims, it seeks to conform me to the image of Christ through immersion in patterns: daily in the Scriptures, weekly in Sacramental feeding of the Thanksgiving meal of the family of God, and living out God-time in the Christian Year. As a man of flesh, these patterns marinate me in the Gospel, bringing forth flavors in my life I never imagined.

In church I could write my own wedding vows. In the Church, self-made wedding vows, narcissistic holdovers of the 70′s, are not on the table for discussion. The Church calmly says, “Our job is to be conformed to God’s will and God’s words, not our own, so we will use the vows that have withstood the test of time, thank you.”

Many genuinely love the relevant church, I am sincerely glad for them. But for the growing group for whom church-lite is wearing thin, for whom the four songs and a sermon liturgy delivered by latte-toting pastors in skinny jeans is holding up as well as a Walmart t-shirt, there is an alternative. That alternative is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. It follows a pattern that was old when Justin Martyr described it in 150 CE. It is both sacred mystery and deep discipleship. A faith in which the words and movements all tell a story. And ultimately, shape lives into the image of Jesus.

A few questions for discussion:

If you are a “relevant church” person, do you love church? Or are you giving up on it? If so, why?

Are you one of the people that goes to an expression of the Church that has a plethora of service options. (One of the Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox churches that offer services along a continuum from chanted 1700 year old liturgies to modern “relevant” models.)  If so, do people move between the offerings?

Are you in one of growing numbers of modern churches experimenting with ancient liturgies? If so, how is that going?

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50 thoughts on “Why I dropped church and joined The Church

  1. I can not attend any church. Sad , but true. I am chemically sensitive mostly to perfumes, colognes and strong deodorants. The result of going to church is my throat closes up and in an hour ( if I do not get a shot @ $110.00 , $ 261.00 on a weekend, I will end up with flu like symptoms for 14 days. One should go to church for healing, not to get sick. I knew at least 12 others in the church who had the same problem , only to a lesser degree. I know how to feed myself in the word. My life was filled with almost daily miracles while I worked and God made me to prosper. Even for my wife’s memorial service I asked the pastor to inform the congregation and he did so .

    • Harold, I am very sorry to hear that. That sounds most inconvenient and unpleasant, not just with church, but in everyday life. Does your church send you visitors? Many churches will send out Eucharistic visitors to bring communion to shut-ins.

    • I feel embarrassed to even be asking a question about this, sorry, but it makes me so curious. Does this problem not arise in any other place? Or perhaps you do not go out in public anywhere. Sorry, but this is new to me.

      • There are many places that I can not go to and many indoor events that I can not attend. I simply avoid them. My worst problem is taking a flight from one place to another. I never know what will happen and there is no getting up and leaving at 34000 feet up. At least in a building or a grocery store , I am able to leave, if necessary. the overuse of scents will definitely affect more people in the future. Many people are on the verge of this problem and do not know it. My Lord and my God are the only protection that I have, but as Paul says, ” In whatever situation I find myself , I will be content”.
        Google chemical sensitivity and you will get a greater appreciation of this problem and maybe you will be able to help a friend or a relative.
        Love Harold

  2. Having just finished Metaxas’ biography of Bonhoeffer, I find that picture of the German Mass quite intriguing….Christ in the midst of choas….

    I attend a UMC church that has some liturgical elements…but no real appreciation for the ancient church out of which it grows..Having grown up in conservative evangelicalism, I began searching for something with a more sacramental approach to Christianity and roots in the ancient church. However, it seems that there is neither know real appreciation for this, or for the centrality of Jesus in our faith.

    • Hi Kent,
      I have not read Metaxas, although he is on next summer’s list. I would imagine that, given the German church’s collaboration with the Nazi’s, that was a strange time to be clergy.

      There seems to be a growing sense that dogma without practice is ultimately unfulfilling. More and more young evangelicals are sort of playing around with liturgical elements as sort of a pot pourri grab bag of elements. Others are going to check out Catholicism, Anglicanism, and Orthodoxy.

      There is always a need to contextualize, but those of us who are evangelical in our outlook struggle with not over-contextualizing.

      You sort of hint around that the liturgy is only helpful as it points us to the reality and presence of Jesus. If it is just dead words on a page, rather than words prayed, heaven help us.

  3. Scary thing is, I read this, and I still have no idea which denomination you are talking about (and I have a PhD in theology, so you’d think I’d be able to pick it!). The reference to 3-fold ministry narrows it down to one with bishops priests and deacons, though…

    I guess, if I was convicted by the Spirit to agree with everything you said, I’d have to email you and ask which one of the churches that makes all of these claims about itself to rush out and join :-)

    • Hi Karl,

      I am an Episcopalian, by relationship. But without squinting too much I would be at home in Orthodoxy or Rome.

      I would guess you are reading on a mobile device then, since my blog sidebar identifies me as a “post-Young Life Episcopal priest.”

      If your PhD was in Church History I am pretty sure you would have picked up my family tree in a heartbeat. I did quote an archbishop of Canterbury, Lancelot Andrews, and speak of being evangelical, catholic and reformed, which are also uniquely Anglican distinctives.

      For the most part churches of the Great Tradition don’t make those claims. They just sort of quietly do them…not that they don’t vary greatly in their effectiveness, as they do in every other branch in the Christian family tree.

      • I noticed that you stated that you recognize 4 Ecumenical Councils. There were 7 Ecumenical Councils, what about the other 3? The 5th Council, Constantinople II in 553 is especially important because it mandates that Chalcedon (the 4th Council in 451) must be interpreted in conformity with the Christology taught by St. Cyril of Alexandria. Without that provision it is possible to misinterpret Chalcedon and wind up a Nestorian. That is one mistake that Calvin made when he denied the communication of attributes and the deification of the human nature of Christ.

        • Hello Fr. John. Thank you for writing. I was quoting Andrewes rather than trying to make a statement about how many EC’s Anglicans should endorse.

          Not that my opinion matters for much, but I am fine with all 7 Councils of the undivided Church. I would like to buy Calvin a beer in the age to come and ask him what a few of his other mistakes were. :-)

          • Christology is the most important doctrine, because all other doctrines are built on Christology. That is why all 7 Councils are important. They expressed the Christological doctrine of the ancient undivided Church. The communication of attributes and the deification of the human nature of Christ is important because it is the basis for our salvation as well as a Catholic Sacramental theology.

  4. I can appreciate much of what you say, however, I can’t agree with your capitalization of The Church in describing your own choice of denomination. Because that’s what it is. Frankly, I’m thankful for different clothing styles, worship styles, theological bents among true followers of Christ. I’m afraid that if we all were in one type of unified church/denomination, we’d start getting more and more powerful and God would have to disperse us – oh. Yes. It’s been done. Babel.

    I point to creation as the beginning of my “church” – the relationship between God and man. I do not point to the Reformation – that’s oh so recent history. I feel very much in touch with the Old Testament fathers, the prophets, the poets, Jesus incarnate, and the apostles in the way we worship and serve Christ in my non-liturgical, crazy, multi-ethnic, front-lines serving the poor church which resides in one of the denominations which I believe you have written off. We celebrate the sacraments according to their scriptural presentation and reminders, and savor them. We make certain that our worship songs are God-focused and not me-focused. We treasure all of Scripture and endeavor to present it all to our people of all ages. We serve the poor in innumerable ways, being located in the ‘hood. Our pastors drink coffee and their pants are rather loose, but you can’t just sling all the “latte-toting skinny jeans” clad pastors into perdition.

    Please be reminded that there is plenty of imbalance, sin, self-centeredness in every kind of “church”, from sloppy worship practices to perfectionism/phariseeism, to child abuse and worse. Thankfully, we serve a risen Saviour whose Kingdom shall never fail and includes multitudes of faithful ones from a multitude of different styles of “church”.

    Be careful. We must remember we are on holy ground when we sing the “My (or “The”, in your case) Church is better than your church” song.

    • Hi Grace,
      Thanks for taking time to comment. As a planter of an urban multi-ethnic church, I am pretty sure I would like your church a lot.

      “The Church” is not a reference to my particular denomination but to the Great Tradition of churches, in which 3/4 of the Christians on the planet today worship. What I am talking about really isn’t a matter of “style,” or “preference,” but of life formation. I am not intimating that people who worship in 4 song/sermon format don’t love Jesus, love people, aren’t sincere or any such thing. Just that there is something deeply formative about rough rocks being in the stream for a long time. I am also not saying that all liturgy is created equal. There is nothing quite so dead as someone who doesn’t believe what they are saying reciting rote words. However, there is nothing quite so alive as liturgy done prayerfully, enlivened by the Holy Spirit.

      Grace and Peace to you, Grace.

  5. This hit the nail right on the head for me. I was raised in the Southern Baptist Church with no rhyme or reason to the “Liturgy” that took place and with awful music. I was introduced to the Episcopal church and have never looked back. This year I’m celebrating 15 years as organist/choirmaster in the Episcopal Church and 12 years as confirmed.

  6. Your post makes me miss the Episcopal church all the more. This fall marks the fifteenth anniversary of my being pushed out of my church because I had the audacity to want to explore my vocation and not take ‘no answer’ for an answer. My seminary career and chaplaincy is informed by what you discuss here, but remains disconnected in significant ways since the ‘church’ seems to consider it an affront that I dare toward ministry without the proper committee stamps of approval. History takes long to unfold; I am sorry that my participation in the Church as you describe it is theoretical and solitary.

  7. My sense is that you have loaded the question by using some of the terms that you chose. Things like “orthodox” and “catholic” and “relevant” are vague enough to allow for lots of interpretation but can also be used as hot buttons. One person’s orthodoxy is another’s heresy. One person’s catholicity is another’s popish foolishness. One person’s relevance is another person’s shallow compromise with secular society. Even what we “know” about the ancient liturgies are merely speculation about what our ancestors might have done and often they are conjured as much through our romantic notions as they are through factual research. There’s nobody left to tell us that we have it all wrong. Oddly, the ancient liturgies rarely go back to the most ancient roots but to the middle ages or the Council of Trent or perhaps to liturgies of the Church Fathers (but even those have been embellished extensively over the centuries by increments). I suspect that this conversation, while interesting, can only serve to invite us to a deeper and faithful study of our subject matter with greater zeal.

    • Hi Peter, Thanks for commenting. It looks as if you might have hit the post button before finishing. I mostly used descriptions that have been used to describe the church for centuries, paralleled with descriptions that my megachurch staff friends use. I am curious to see what you were referring to.

    • Ahh, Now I see your total post. Here are a few original sources sources on the worship practices of the early church:

      1) The Didache (between 60-150CE) Has an early Eucharistic prayer…very early before the close of the NT canon. The prayer reads very hebraic.
      2) Justin Martyr’s First Apology (150CE) Has a complete order of a baptismal and eucharistic liturgy.
      3) The Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus (225CE) An elderly bishop who is upset at a bunch of young clergy for messing up the Eucharistic prayer. So he writes down a proper Eucharistic prayer as a training tool.

      “Greater zeal” and “faithful study” sound like the right answers to just about everything…especially if we add in “serve others gratefully.”

      Thanks for your thoughts, Peter.

    • I do not agree the ancient Liturgies do go back to the ancient roots of Christian worship. The most ancient descriptions of the Eucharist show that both in East and West the Eucharistic Liturgy goes back to the origins of the Church in Apostolic times. The Liturgy of the Word is a development of the Liturgy of the Synagogue. The Liturgy of the Eucharist goes back to the ancient Jewish meal of fellowship one of which was the Passover meal. That is why in both East and West, you find the same elements in the Anaphora, Canon or Prayer of Consecration. They all begin with the dialogue “Let us lift up our hearts….” or Sursum Corda followed by the Biblical Trisagion or Sanctus and continue with a thanksgiving for creation and salvation through Christ, then the Words of Institution followed by a commemoration of the sacrificial death, resurrection and second coming of Christ, the Anamnesis, followed by the invocation of the Holy Spirit on the bread and wine that they may become the Body and Blood of Christ, the Epiklesis, and concluded with intercessions for the living and the dead and concluding doxology. Every ancient Liturgy contains these elements. There may be slight differences in the order, but all these elements are there. The traditional Roman Rite had the Epiklesis before the Words of Institution, but sometime around Trent shifted it to the end of the Anaphora with a prayer asking that the offering be brought by the angels to the altar “on high.” The Roman Mass goes back to the origins of the Christian Eucharist. We find illusions to the Liturgy of the Mass in the most ancient Christian writings such as Justin Martyr, Hippolytus etc.The greatest change in the Roman Mass was when the Roman Church changed from Greek to Latin in the last part of the 3rd century. The Roman Canon is virtually unchanged from the time of Pope Damasus (366-84). Modern liturgical scholars trace the Anaphora of St. John Chrysostom used by Eastern Orthodox back to the ancient Liturgy of the Church of Antioch, which developed from the even more ancient Liturgy of St. James of Jerusalem. Significantly Cranmer’s original 1549 version of the Prayer of Consecration followed the Eastern order as did the 1928 American BCP. Thus the Liturgies used both in East and West go back to the earliest period of Christian history. They all have the same basic order and elements because they all go back to the same source, the synagogue and Jewish fellowship meal.

      Archpriest John W. Morris, PhD

      • That took my argument to a whole new level. Peter, I’ll bet you have some serious questions about “words chosen” at this point! You may need Wikipedia to make heads or tails of it all.

        • I strongly recommend Louis Bouyer, Eucharist: Theology and Spirituality of the Eucharistic Prayer, trans. Charles U. Quinn (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968)

  8. As someone else who spent many years in Young Life and Evangelical Churches your post here strikes a chord. I think I differ from you in that there are times when I truly miss those experiences. There was something very refreshing about their passion for the Gospel, and reaching those who didn’t know God.
    At least in my experience there wasn’t a longing for the reformation, so much as a desire to do the things that Jesus did. So much of His preaching and teaching was incredibly relevant. He wrapped up profound theological truths inside these silly little stories about sheep and coins and wedding virgins – experiences that related to people’s every day lives. Much of what the Church does now days – marrying, burrying, vestry, and committee meetings were not a part of Jesus’ short earthly ministry. That’s not to say they’re not important, many of them developed later as the Church was guided by the Holy Spirit, but I don’t think we can lose sight of the things Jesus did.
    As far as being transformative, I had many experiences that showed just how powerful the Gospel can change lives. Imagine 20-30 teenagers getting together at 6:30 am before school for Bible Study and to praise God. Imagine a group of teenage boys sitting down and listening to how sex is reserved for marriage and we really needed to wait – and we kept coming back.
    I’ve always thought that we need both – the Evangelical zeal that reaches the lost and the solid liturgical practices that help people go deeper, that force us to experience those parts of the Gospel we would rather avoid. It doesn’t have to be an either/or. I think I can credit both experiences as to why I have the ministry I have today, and honestly I would never trade a thing from either of them.

    • Hi Connor,
      Thank you so much for commenting. I love my YL days and wouldn’t trade them either.

      I want to have evangelical ferver in my ministry as a priest as well. I am trying to get all of our youth directors to work as volunteers in YL as I know the way it would help them to meet unchurched students, become a better leader, recruit volunteers outside of their church, grow their youth group and bless them personally. Some are beginning to work in club. Most nod and grin and then go back to what they were doing.

      Is there any chance you would let me post your comments as a followup to the original article?

  9. I find the issue isn’t about choosing between catholicity and relevance but rather about figuring out how to be both catholic and relevant. We need to be relevant in order to reach the lost and in order to help our flocks (and ourselves) navigate the world as it is. But we need to be catholic to ensure that we are calling people to tranform themselves into conformity with the Gospel rather than conforming the Gospel to their culture and their wants. Not either/or. Both/and.

    One small quibble. Lancelot Andrewes was bishop successively of Chichester, Ely and Winchester. He was never Archbishop of Canterbury.

    • Hello and thank you for pointing out my Andrewes error. The English migrating bishop thing throws me as well. I agree with both/and wholeheartedly.

      I have often wondered if our seminaries ultimate success might lie in training spiritual director/discipleship people for evangelical megachurches. Sort of a “we disappeared, but you are now the best of both worlds.”

      Your name is familiar. Did we meet at Gen Convention in Indianapolis? Were you campaigning against the Anglican Covenant?

  10. History is full of people who claim they are disregarding their current church, in order to re-discover this historic, “true”, church. The sentiment is spot-on. Current church structure should always be called into question, and reaching again for the scriptural, historic foundation of church will always make our understanding and experience of church better, even when it makes us uncomfortable.

    While I agree with the sentiment, we also have to recognize that our effort to discover and live “The Church” will always be imperfect, just as any human endeavor is, no matter how prayerful and well-intentioned we are in the endeavor.

    So while I agree with any effort to find “The Church”, I also think there must be grace to all that all expressions of church may have some validity, and may have some rooting in the Spirit — even those we find distasteful.

    • Hi Curtis,

      If you were in my office I would be high fiving you right now.

      Thanks to you (and others) for adding to the conversation what brevity left out!

      We don’t want to get stuck in one century (or decade) and hit the freeze-frame button. And we don’t want to play the superiority card…while we don’t want to play the “How much like the world can we make church.” I have an old post “why the big-box works for the over 35 but not the under 25″ getting a lot of hits today. It’s premise is that the world has changed and the megachurch will work for fewer as time goes on.

    • Hi Curtis,

      If you were in my office I would be high fiving you right now.

      Thanks to you (and others) for adding to the conversation what brevity left out!

      We don’t want to get stuck in one century (or decade) and hit the freeze-frame button. And we don’t want to play the superiority card…while we don’t want to play the “How much like the world can we make church.” I have an old post “why the big-box works for the over 35 but not the under 25″ getting a lot of hits today. It’s premise is that the world has changed and the megachurch will work for fewer as time goes on.

  11. I look at relevance and tradition differently. The tradition that we have inherited is to love God and love your neighbor and all that accompanies what it means to hold such a love. Those things have nothing to do with whether we worship with stained glass windows and organs, or with guitars and drums. Christ’s incarnation is the greatest example of ‘relevance’. God the son could have taken on any physical form (or none at all),, so why did He choose to take on human flesh if relevance is irrelevant? The church IS different. It is different in that it tells me that if I want to gain my life I must lose it, if I want to be exalted I should humble myself and if I want to gain my life I must lose it. It is just legalistic if it ascribes the same zeal on worship styles that are hundreds if not thousands of years old. My Sept 9, 2013 blog expounds on this thinking: http://thependulumeffect.blogspot.com/

    • Hi Greg,
      I would in no way seek to downgrade either the Incarnation or the Great Commandment. Those are not in question in my post. They are assumed. The question is how should Christians worship? Is that question rooted in how ALL Christians did worship? Is it rooted in how 3/4 of Christians around the globe worship? Are those patterns rooted in reasons that are good for the health of the faith? Why did the church a new worship model (church for the unchurched)? What are the fruits of that worship model? (something I touch on in lots of posts. Here is a recent one that got lots of attention: (http://thegospelside.com/2013/08/21/when-did-evangelicals-get-popes/

      In my writing I try to get people to look at uncritically held assumptions about the way we do things and about where they lead.

      If you read “this is about preferences” then you were skimming my post pretty quickly. I was not writing about preferring one style over another. I was writing about two essentially differing purposes for the church: One is church for the unchurched…one in which the Christian exists as an “inviter” for the pastor and in which the purpose of the sanctuary is an introduction to the faith. The other has the purpose of generating a faith in which every single Christian takes that faith into the world. The other has the purpose of making me kneel before the savior in the public confession of sin. Come to the Lord with outstretched hands to receive rather than “take communion.” We take nothing in grace. It is all receiving. In The Church of the Great Tradition I literally bow before the cross and at Jesus’ name, not out of legalism but out of a reminder that there is a Lord, and he is not me.

      Greg, I am looking forward to reading your post.

  12. Pingback: What Are People Talking About This Week? | DioDocs

      • The references in several posts that we have to find the Church troubles me as an Orthodox Christian. I do not believe that Christ would allow His Church to be lost. The Church is alive and well, in the East. I know that sounds triumphal, but the cause of the disunity of Christians was the abuses that Rome introduced after its schism. The Faith of the ancient undivided Church was not lost in the East. It is this Faith, the Faith handed down by the Apostles, expressed by the consensus of the Fathers, and the dogmatic decisions of the 7 Ecumenical Councils that is the basis for a sound Christianity not the latest fad in ever changing American Protestantism.

  13. Reformed is a good step, back to the New Testament, and (slightly) back to the Hebrew Bible as well, especially the psalms.
    The next step would be to re-attach to the Hebrew roots and get watered.

    • Hi Wally,
      What would that look like, in your mind? Word and Sacrament was based in synagogue and temple-so historic Christians think of themselves as drinking from a river that flows from that mountain already.

    • I suggest that you go back much further than the Protestant Reformation, back to the ancient Church. You should read the Fathers of the Church. Start with the Apostolic Fathers, Sts. Ignatius and Clement of Rome and the Apologists like Sts. Justin Martyr and Irenasus of Lyons. St. Irenaeus is especially important because he was a student of St.Polycarp who was a student of the Apostle John. His writings give us an idea of what the Apostles preached and how they organized the Church to carry on after their deaths.

  14. I’ve referenced your blog post in my sermon notes – which can be found @ St. Luke’s- Weiser FB page. I really like this blog so gonna follow you as you and I continue to follow Jesus. Blessings!

  15. Pingback: To Donald Miller and anyone else considering dumping church: The church works best when you like it least | the gospel side

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