Thirteen years ago Amy and I made the decision to resign from paid ministry in the local church. During the previous decade, I had worked at three congregations (one for only a year, another for eight, and the last for a little over a year). One was a small family congregation, the second was a growing suburban congregation, and the last was a large “mega-church”.
The decision to leave professional ministry wasn’t easy. Since giving my life to Christ, I had always felt a “call to ministry”. I loved the relational work of sharing lives, learning together, and working out what it means to follow Jesus with other people. I, like most who feel strongly about such a call, assumed that following it meant paid ministry in a church, as a missionary, or in a para-church organization. However, I now felt for the first time that God was calling me out of professional ministry. I wasn’t sure what it meant, or what I would do, but I was certain that resigning was what I was supposed to do. So, in a huge leap of faith, without another job, and in major change in my previously assumed direction in life, I resigned.
After Leaving (Round One)
Fortunately, I found work and spent the next nine years working as a teacher and freelance web developer. The teaching allowed me to engage aspects of my call to relationally and intentionally influence others and the web development allowed us to narrowly pay our bills. We had three children during that time, and Amy was able to fulfill an aspect of her calling to be a mom by working at home with our children and being involved as a volunteer at their school. We also had a community of friends and a network of like-minded acquaintances with whom we engaged in a variety of activities, ranging from cookouts, Bible studies, serving others in soup kitchens, and doing ministry in apartment complexes. Amy very much missed the larger corporate worship experiences of the institutional church, but on all other levels we were experiencing a deep level of Christ-centered relationships and spiritual growth. Personally, I didn’t miss the institutional church at all, and I often felt as if much of it’s activity was a self-focused diversion of energy from the world-focused work of the kingdom.
Early in the process of living “life outside the institutional church” (around 2001), someone gave me a copy of Wayne Jacobson’s “Why I Don’t Go To Church Anymore: Living in the Relational Church—Part 6”. It was fantastic. Wayne had captured in this single article many of the feelings, thoughts, and experiences I was having regarding “church”. In 2002 I had a chance to sit down with Wayne in a small group of leaders in the Tulsa area. It was refreshing and affirming to hear him talk about his own lived-out experiences of the views he expressed in the article. He seemed to be a person of integrity, with his life lining up with his beliefs. He also made it okay to be dis-illusioned, to have lost our illusions so that we can live in reality, and to experience the grief associated with that loss. Looking back, his brief article and personal words both encouraged and shaped my lived-out understanding of church (and the way I attempted to communicate it) over the next 8 years more than I have realized. (Other more in-depth writings that shaped my thoughts and approach to life during this time were Bonhoeffer’s Life Together; Kalle Lasn’s Culture Jam; Brian Mclaren’s A New Kind of Christian; Graaf, Wann, and Naylor’s Affluenza; and Frost and Hirsch’s Shaping of Things to Come; and the Gospel of Luke.)
After Leaving (Round Two)
Recently, I’ve gone through the departure again. Having (surprisingly) returned to a position in a local congregation again in 2009, we came to a place late last year and early this spring where we felt that it was time to resign. There are a number of reasons for this decision, and again it wasn’t easy. We love the people in the congregation. They are some of the greatest people I will ever know. Perhaps I will write about our decision to resign at a later time, but for now I simply want to say that I am re-discovering something in myself that I have missed over the past four years. Currently, I’m re-reading some of those influential texts from the previous part of my journey (along with some new ones), and I would encourage anyone wondering what my thoughts are regarding church to read Jacobson’s article as a good starting point.
What I am remembering is the freedom of living in a broad view of church and ministry, that the Church is not a location, building, or single congregation. Church is not somewhere you “go”, but it is who you are and the Christ-centered relationships you have. I can’t “go to church” any more than I can “go to family”. Certainly, being with family is essential and (as Bonhoeffer points out) longed for, but family isn’t limited to or primarily seen as meetings, gatherings, or buildings (though it can include those things). Likewise, worship is not a single hour of time set aside for singing and listening to a few people talk, it’s a lifestyle of seeing what God is doing and sacrificially (and joyfully) doing the same. Christ-modeled discipleship is not primarily in classrooms, but, with reflection and intentionality, encouraging and joining with others in the midst of life and in doing the work of the kingdom. Teaching is modeling and mentoring, more than talking.
In all of this, what I’m experiencing is my own Jubilee, a time of newly gained freedom from things that bind. A freedom found in not working in a church, or simply going to church, but, with others, being the church. It’s just beginning, and I feel like a tender plant breaking through the ground. I’ve felt this way before, and I’m hoping for growth.