I am writing for those on the edge, those on the fringes or those who have already left organized religion (which I will refer to herein as the “church” regardless of denomination). If you are an active or staunch member of your church, stop reading. You will probably not like or empathize with what follows. But if you’re ready to leave, feeling lost and alone, confused or afraid because you no longer believe what you once thought you believed and can no longer stomach the status quo and predominant consciousness, please read on. I think I might be able to help you find a safe place. I think I can help you find peace. I think I can help you find a way to be “in the church but not of the church.”
First, I want you to know you are not alone. Across every denomination, millions are leaving organized religion. The reasons vary. But this is not a new thing. “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9.) That means you can learn from the wisdom of the ages. Others have been in your shoes.
Ironically, Christians unlovingly judge and hypocritically brand the unorthodox as if struggling with orthodoxy was really more sinful than the uncompassionate and dogmatic enforcement of it. Most are not willing to openly talk about their doubts for fear of being branded “unfaithful,” a “heretic,” a “doubter” or similar epithets. But some have written powerfully and vociferously, yet faithfully, offering a third way, an alternative consciousness.
Ironically, Christians unlovingly judge and hypocritically brand the unorthodox as if struggling with orthodoxy was really more sinful than the uncompassionate and dogmatic enforcement of it.
Take, for example, the brilliant Soren Kierkgaard, who published Practice in Christianity in the mid-1800s in an effort to get the Danish state church to wake up, face its own history, and practice real Christianity—not the self-righteous, stagnant, stale, platitude-plagued and organizationally self-serving purity system that deified the church at the expense of the gospel. To Kierkegaard, “this deification of the established order is the perpetual revolt, the continual mutiny against God.”
Kierkegaard exposed what Jesus of Nazareth and many others have exposed—that there is something endemic in organized religion (or perhaps, more cynically, human nature) that leads the church to elevate the “container” of the church (which is supposed to be nothing more than a conduit) over the content of the gospel; that leads the church (and its orthodox adherents) to play with the Christmas package instead of the great gospel gift inside it. Of course, the church also conflates the two—itself and the gospel—so that loyalty to one is loyalty to the other. They become synonymous. Hence, refusing to be fascinated by, beholden to and enamored with the packaging soon becomes heresy. Rejecting that is rejecting Jesus.
And that, my friend, is a huge part of the problem. For so many years you were taught that the contents and the container, the package and the gift, the scaffolding and the building—whatever analogy you want to use—were one and the same. So as you mature and start seeing flaws, blemishes, rust, decay or rot in the historical containers, doctrinal packages, ecclesiastical scaffolding and other peripheries of the church—whether it be in the form of historical narratives, purity systems, administrative policies, exclusivity claims, or priesthood and authority claims—it shakes your belief system to the point that you are now ready to throw away the container, the package, the building and everything inside of them …. Don’t do it. It is not necessary.
As you mature and start seeing flaws, blemishes, rust, decay or rot in the historical containers, doctrinal packages, ecclesiastical scaffolding and other peripheries of the church … it shakes your belief system.
You simply need to experience God in an entirely new and different way. It starts by letting go of the old paradigm that would have you believe the church’s exclusivity and authority claims are central and indispensable to your experience with God—that the church and God are synonymous.
Realize that every religion eventually becomes self-referential, self-deifying (conflating the package with the packaging) and pre-occupied with its own exclusivity claims. There are roughly 39,000 Christian denominations. And, as Quaker pastor and author Philip Gulley writes in his book If the Church Were Christian, “All denominations, whether liberal or conservative, share the conviction that they most faithfully follow Jesus. They earnestly believe Jesus imagined the church as looking just like them. When I became a Quaker, I sincerely believed Jesus had been raised in an early version of a Quaker meetinghouse.” Gulley writes, “Naturally, I was grateful I’d been born into the one true church.”
Indoctrination eclipses transformation.
Every religion has always argued that their boat is the only safe way to journey through mortality. For example, Kierkegaard, writing about the Danish state church almost two centuries ago states:
“Why,” says the established order to the single individual, “do you want to torture and torment yourself with the enormous criterion of ideality; turn to the established order, join the established order, here is the criterion. If you are a student, then you can be sure that the professor is the criterion and the truth. If you are a clergyman, then the bishop is the way and the life. If you are a clerk, then the councilor of justice is the goal. Ne quid nimis [Nothing too much]! The established order is the rational, and you are fortunate if you take the relativity assigned to you—and, for the rest, let the ministries, the council, or whatever take care of it.” “My eternal happiness?” “Yes, of course, and if there is really something wrong with you in this respect, if you cannot, when your time has come, be satisfied with being like all the others, packed and wrapped to go along in one of the big consignments that the established order dispatches to eternity under its own seal and with the address ‘Eternal Happiness,’ perfectly certain of being just as well received and just as blessed as ‘all the others,’—in short, if you cannot let yourself be satisfied with a reassuring security and guaranty as this, that the established order vouches for your eternal happiness in the hereafter—well, then, keep it to yourself.”
No matter what church you go to, you’ll eventually hear the church talking about itself, its historicity, its authority or its theology, as if it were the way, the truth and the life, instead of Jesus. Unfortunately, with all this talk about doctrine and believing the right things very little time is spent focused on transformation and “being”—about how we can become loving human beings. For example, when is the last time your church spent a month talking about how to develop empathy skills and listening skills, how to process forgiveness, how to grieve with others, or how to become emotionally intelligent? Much of church experience is like witnessing the erection of a theological Tower of Babel. Indoctrination eclipses transformation.
That’s just the nature of organizations. As Catholic Priest and Franciscan Friar Richard Rohr puts it in his book, Eager to Love, “the most common temptation for all of us is to use belonging to the right group and practicing its proper rituals as a substitute for any personal or life-changing encounter with the Divine. . . . When religion becomes mere ideology (or even mere theology!), it starts with universal theories and the rubber never hits the road again. As Pope Francis says, people all over the world are rejecting this ideological … form of religion[,]” which loves theology and tradition more than people.
The most common temptation for all of us is to use belonging to the right group and practicing its proper rituals as a substitute for any personal or life-changing encounter with the Divine.
And since every church is a conglomeration of humans you’ll eventually discover blemishes, which of course, humans, by their very nature are prone to cover up or ignore. And wherever there are blemishes you’ll find denial. So what you see is substantively no different than what Jesus saw. Kierkegaard correctly observes, the “Judaism at the time of Christ became, through the scribes and Pharisees, a complacent, self-deifying established order. The outer [rituals, rites, ordinances and traditions] and the inner [encounters with God] had become entirely commensurable, so totally that the inner had dropped out.” “It is always that way when the established order has gone so far as to deify itself. Finally custom and usage become articles of faith; everything becomes equally important, or ordinances, usage and custom become what is important…. [The] relationship with God is abolished; custom, ordinances, and the like are deified. But that kind of fear of God is nothing but contempt for God; indeed, it does not fear God, it fears people.”
It is true that much of the modern church looks and acts a lot like a composite of latter-day Pharisees, who, by the way, lack the self-awareness to see that in themselves. The zealous may go to church and do things more to impress others than to love them. The “faithful” may really act out of fear of judgment, fear of condemnation, or out of the desire to be thought of as “righteous”—which can easily be measured by participation in the rituals, rites, ordinances, purity rules, and the like—instead of acting out of love. Conformity to the measurable becomes an article of faith. Practicing externalities masquerades as transformation when, in reality, it is really only whiting the sepulcher. That’s a problem in virtually every organized religion. Wherever you have people they will try to impress or control each other (or both). The most common tools for doing so are conformity, orthodoxy or adherence to the party line and the measured rituals of the tribe.
Of course the church will be imperfect and fallible. As long as humans have anything to do with its management it’s guaranteed to be screwed up at many levels.
So realize that much of what you see and experience in church is just endemic to the human condition. It’s a recurring sociological phenomenon that many spiritually-devoted, Jesus-following disciples across many denominations have observed throughout the ages.
Of course the church will be imperfect and fallible. As long as humans have anything to do with its management it’s guaranteed to be screwed up at many levels. Yes, it would be nice if churches were less self-referential, more humble, more willing to admit their mistakes, more honest about their warts, etc. But that will never happen as long as fallible humans have anything to do with it. And you can rest assured that the fallible will be the very ones to assert a de facto infallibility.
That is why the wise ones, the sages, and the mystics offer essentially the same advice. Don’t switch churches. Don’t leave the church. Don’t try to change the church. There is another way to ease your pain and discomfort besides these “fight or flight” defense mechanisms. There is a third way, beyond the dualistic, black or white, “either/or” of fight or flight, which is a false level of consciousness. There is a liberating “Third Way” of internal transformation of the individual consciousness through orthopraxy (correct living) as opposed to orthodoxy (correct belief).
St. Francis of Assisi, a 13th century Catholic friar, deacon and teacher, is a great example of this. Though frustrated with what he saw wrong with the Catholic church, he didn’t leave, he didn’t criticize, he didn’t try to change the church. Instead, he focused on emulating Christ.
He lived his way into a new way of seeing, which allowed him to not just cope with the suffocating superstructure of the church but to thrive within it. Friar Rohr writes of St. Francis of Assisi and his followers:
“[T]he Franciscan School found a positive and faith-filled way …. to be both very traditional and very revolutionary at the same time by emphasizing practice over theory. At the heart of their orthopraxy was the practice of paying attention to different things (nature, the poor, humility, itinerancy, the outsider, mendicancy, mission instead of shoring up the home base, and the Gospels ‘without gloss,’ as Francis put it). In doing so, without fighting about creedal statements, they created a very different imaginarium (the unconscious container inside of which each group does its thinking) for many people….
They also de-emphasized other things (big churches, priesthood, liturgy as theater instead of prayer, ostentation of any kind, seeking church offices, hierarchical titles and costumes) …. But Franciscans do not usually fight bishops or diocesan clergy; we are simply concerned with different things.”
He continues, “There was nothing to condemn [St. Francis] for and much to admire in this refocusing. He was passionate about different things from what occupied the Church hierarchy; yet he ‘let sleeping dogs lie,’ as the saying goes, and did not question orthodox dogmas or liturgical practices ….”
“When you let others worry about the substructure and superstructure of things (that is, about philosophy, church protocols, and theology), you can put all of your attention on the actual structure and practice of your daily life,” writes Friar Rohr.
“When you let others worry about the substructure and superstructure of things (that is, about philosophy, church protocols, and theology), you can put all of your attention on the actual structure and practice of your daily life.”
Don’t run from the church. Don’t fight the church. Take a “Give … to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” (Mark 12:17) approach by refocusing your personal priorities on what you know to be the priorities of Jesus—love and compassion. Render to the church that which belongs to the church (participate in its rites, rituals and ordinances, honor its authority and so on) and render to God that which is God’s (give your heart to God by compassionately existing as an example and emissary of God’s grace and love). Be in the church but not of the church.
So what does this look like? What does it mean to be in the church but not of the church?
As I have stated, once a person’s eyes are opened to the organizational deficiencies, historical blunders, fractured narratives, or other deficiencies of the church, the temptation for many people is to throw the contents out with the container. Because the church has deified itself by injecting itself as the intermediary between God and man, conflating the contents and the container, people often feel angry and deceived, if not completely alienated from and abandoned by “God.” When you believe, in your mind, that it’s all a “big lie,” that often leads to much anger and resentment, especially against the hierarchy and establishment that seems to be perpetuating it.
You need to let go of your anger. What you are experiencing is really much like the anger, sadness, or disorientation you felt when you found out the truth about Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. But eventually you get over it. You mature. And you don’t stop practicing Christmas or being the Easter Bunny simply because it’s “just” a myth. No, the mature see the good in the myth of Christmas. It gives them the opportunity to be Santa Claus, which is a good thing. Instead of running from it they embrace it and perpetuate it. Likewise, being spiritually mature, and having your faith grounded and centered on Jesus and his core teaching of love and compassion, you can apply the same concept to your faith tradition or any myth or narrative system you no longer believe to be true if you look for and practice the good and focus on your core purpose, which is to love. Practice of the good is the best critique of the bad.
You can be in the church but not of the church by operating at this different level of consciousness even though the people you interact with may fully believe the myths and narratives differently than you do. But isn’t this being in the church but not of the church hypocritical or disingenuous?
When you build a blanket fort with the kids it’s okay for you to understand that you’re not really building a secret pirate cave that hides hidden treasure. Let the kids believe that.
And, by all means, don’t spoil it for them. In reality, you’re building something much bigger and greater. You’re building a loving relationship with your children. Likewise, even if you don’t believe that the church is building the kingdom of God in the same way that the orthodox do, perhaps you can participate in building something much bigger and better as you participate in a faith community that gives you the opportunity to interact with, mentor, nourish and love others. See differently. Becoming more mature means becoming as a little child, just as Jesus said.
Things don’t have to be true to be true. For example, would you refuse to watch a production of Les Misérables simply because the narrative, in fact, is not true? Would you be angry or condemn or refuse to attend the play with those who really believed that it was true? Would you be angry with those who promoted the narrative as literal truth? Or could you enjoy the production because of the overarching truth it conveys that a life devoted to love, compassion and redemption is a life well lived? Do you have the intellectual chops and the emotional maturity to say, “I’m not really sure it happened that way but I know it’s true!”
The yearning for change is an imposter, concealing that age-old demon inside all of us that hungers for control and power.
Being in the church but not of the church also means that you let go of your thirst for change. The yearning for change is an imposter, concealing that age-old demon inside all of us that hungers for control and power. The call for change and reform is often a carefully-disguised mask that tries to lend dignity to the selfish voice of the small self. The small self, the ego, the natural man, whatever you want to call it, wants to control externalities—everything out there—so it can avoid the true self, which knows it should only be concerned about what is going on in here!
Thirsting for external change is too distracting to your core purpose and transformational journey to become the embodiment of love and compassion. Ark steadying is truly exhausting. It’s like holding a light bulb and then trying to move the rest of the house. Instead, the type of change Jesus talked about is much lighter and easier. It’s change from the inside out, not the outside in. Admit it. Your desire for change is your desire for power or control. Let it go. Don’t try to change the church. Don’t fight the church. Yes, the church needs to change. But focus on changing and improving the kingdom of God within you. After all that’s where the kingdom of God really is. That type of discipleship is more disruptive than you think.
Our call is not to rage against the machine. Our call is not to kick against the pricks. Our call is to melt the universe with kindness and compassion. Our call is to practice the disruptive discipleship of love and compassion.
This is the quintessential way of being in the church but not of the church. Disruptive discipleship is the practice of subversive compassion, which will eventually revolutionize and change everything—even the established order. Love erodes structure. It corrodes by its very nature. It is the salt of the earth. It is the mustard seed, which, by the way, is a weed. And as you know, weeds soon overrun everything. That is what Jesus intended.
When we kindle within us the wildfire of compassion it will burn and purge the dross. We incinerate oligarchy through individual incarnation. That is the path of Jesus. That is the third way, or narrow way.
God could have revealed himself through an instruction manual. But instead he opted for the incarnation. He revealed himself through experiential manifestation at the lowliest level—the man Jesus. The Word became flesh. (John 1.) And disciples of Jesus are called to do the same—to reveal God through their flesh. To help others experience God when they experience them. To be living incarnations of love and compassion.
Disruptive discipleship embraces this paradigm and nudges the established order awake from its slumber. Disruptive discipleship de-homogenizes sterile purity systems through illicit kindness and being passionate about practicing compassion. It sustains those who lead the established order by loving them; yet, by practicing radical compassion, which is beyond criticism, disruptive discipleship paradoxically subverts the established order through radical refocusing.
Being in the church but not of the church means you still go. You still attend. But your internal imaginarium is very, very different. Your focus is different. Your purpose is different. For example, maybe you are not there to learn orthodoxy but to manifest a loving orthopraxy; to say hello and pat someone on the back who needs your friendship and encouragement. Maybe your purpose is to show love to your spouse. Maybe your purpose is simply to interact and fellowship while silently and secretly your kingdom of God burns within you. You are functioning at a different level of consciousness. You are a loving ember of Christ glowing within a community of others who may be functioning at a different level of consciousness and that need your light (and your love) to guide them.
Many conclude, “I can be a good Christian without going to church.” Why keep going to church if none of the peripheral stuff matters?
Many conclude, “I can be a good Christian without going to church.” Why keep going to church if none of the peripheral stuff matters? Why keep going to church if the church is not the one “true” church you had always believed it to be? I’ll tell you why. Because you can leave the church but you can never leave the gospel … and the gospel, by its very nature, demands that you be part of the church.
You can leave the church based on theology. You can leave the church based on ideology. You can leave the church based on your concerns with its history or its leadership. You can leave the church for whatever reason you want. But you can never leave the gospel mandate to love, can you? And where does that mandate to love take you?
To say, “I can be a good Christian without going to church” is like saying I can be a big leaguer without ever stepping into the ballpark or training room. It’s like saying you can keep the second great commandment to love others so long as there aren’t many people around! Ironically, perhaps the truest test of your Christianity will be your ability to endure the people, ideas and culture you encounter at church.
I know this is hard. In an ideal world, we go to church to “consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another ….” (Hebrews 10:24-25.) In reality, instead of finding encouragement at church we too often encounter a long ideological checklist of things we should do or believe to become more orthodox. Church turns into a de facto contest of who can be the most doctrinaire, the best conformist, the most loyal to the organization and so forth. Enduring church culture is often like enduring the show offs at the gym.
So, yes, attending church can be a real test of your ability to endure the arrogance of orthodoxy, the stench and hypocrisy of striving sycophants, and the collateral damage from mindless zeal … to avoid judging and to continue loving. All of this can be exacerbated by the fact that you no longer are comfortable with the party line.
Some kind of base camp is the only testing ground for actual faith, hope, or charity.
But that’s no reason to leave the church. As Friar Rohr wisely explains, “some kind of base camp is the only testing ground for actual faith, hope, or charity. We need living communities to keep us accountable, growing, and honest.”
What if you continued to attend church anyway because it gives you the opportunity to love and serve those within your faith community? Is it really all about you and your experience, anyway? Is going to church about what you take away from it or what you give while you’re there?
Stay because of the love you have for your family and friends. Your church is your community of belief. Your faith tradition may be part of your family culture. Staying because you love them and don’t want to hurt them is a legitimate—and very Christian—rationale. It follows what Paul called the law of love.
Paul taught this principal in a somewhat different context than I am speaking about here. But the principal is still helpful because it demonstrates the supremacy of love and orthopraxy over orthodoxy and gives concrete examples of how someone grounded in love can function within an organization with orthodox beliefs and priorities—in that case a purity system with “clean” and “unclean” foods.
Paul said, “I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean. If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy someone for whom Christ died.” (Romans 14:13-16.)
Someone grounded in love can function within an organization with orthodox beliefs and priorities
In other words, if you have to “fake it” by not eating bacon so that you don’t freak out a new Jewish convert (who still thinks that pork is “unclean”) then don’t eat bacon if you really love that new Jewish convert. Likewise, if you have to “fake it”—or render to the church that which belongs to the church—for your family, because you love them, according to Paul, “anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God ….” (Romans 14:18.) Once you understand the supremacy of love and realize that love—as opposed to theology, orthodoxy, doctrine, tradition, etc.—is what it’s all about, you can make it. “Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification,” says Paul, which may include enduring church for the sake of your family. (Romans 14:19.) This is being in the church but not necessarily of the church.
You see, the real work of God is building a community of love, and developing human compassion and understanding. So, Paul says, “Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All food is clean, but it is wrong for a person to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble. It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother or sister to fall.” (Romans 14:20-21.) It is wrong to speak or act in a way that you know will destroy the belief system of another. Too many people who leave the church violate this principal, don’t they? They are like that kid in fourth grade who knew the “truth” about Santa Claus and couldn’t resist the urge to spoil every other child’s Christmas by exposing the big “lie.” Don’t be that person. It’s not Christlike.
Paul’s counsel to those who choose to be in the church but not of the church in this way is this: “So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God.” (Romans 14:22.) Your consciousness is different than theirs and that’s okay. Your imaginarium is different than theirs.
So the counsel is this—if your truth has to be complicated and nuanced so that you can stay in the church, be careful not to introduce your truth to those whose minds are incapable of receiving it or, as Paul says, “So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge.” (1 Corinthians 8:11.) Exposing them to truth they are not yet ready to handle is not the way of Christ. “When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall.” (1 Corinthians 8:12-13.) Like those who will “never eat meat again” just to appease those of a weaker faith, perhaps you, too, can continue to attend church for the sake of your family or those you love. Go on and build forts with them in the basement.
A radical refocusing on the core of the gospel … is the only solution for your pain
What I am trying to say in all this is that a radical refocusing on the core of the gospel—which is revealing the love and grace of God by transforming yourself into the embodiment of his love—is the only solution for your pain; it is the only solution to your problem, whether that problem is historical, ecclesiastical, theological, authoritarian, etc. Love is a universal solvent. It’s the only thing that really matters. You know that already at a very deep level.
So let go of everything else. Let go of your anger. Let go of your desire for control and reform. Let go of judgment. Stop thinking dualistically—in terms of black and white, either/or, it’s all true or all false, etc. Take a “yes … and” approach that recognizes the need for packaging to deliver the gift and yet puts the packaging in its proper place. As you focus on the core reality of love you’ll realize that everything that troubles you, that concerns you, that keeps you awake at night … it’s all most likely at the periphery anyway. There’s no need for flight. There’s no need to fight. There’s a third way.
You can be in the church but not of the church. This will require radical centering in the core teachings of Jesus. But the beautiful thing about following Christ is that you can follow him anywhere and everywhere. The kingdom of God is within you. Stay on the edge of the inside.
What I have said may not help you. But much of what I have written is what has helped me when I have struggled with many issues I’ve encountered within my experience in church. It’s what has kept me around when my instinct has been to bolt. I’ve had to unlearn and then re-learn much. Thankfully, God has been with me on this incredible journey. He has given me new eyes and now I see differently. He has given me new ears and now I hear differently. He has given me a new mind and now I think differently.
The radical work of God going on inside of me keeps me grounded and focused on what really matters.
I go to church and I hear the same old stories. I hear the same orthodoxy. I hear the same narratives over and over. Yet it all gets filtered through my imaginarium, which can make it seem new and fresh. I am “in” the church. But the radical work of God going on inside of me keeps me grounded and focused on what really matters. It is a well of water that nourishes me in the desert. (John 4:14.) I don’t reject the church. I love the church. But I am not “of” the church. The kingdom of God is within me. My imaginarium is very different now and it helps me cope with all that goes on around the periphery.
Who are you at your core? And what is your purpose? Jesus made this quite simple and clear. The answer to either question is essentially the same. You were built to love. You were built to love in the sense that you are the object of God’s affection. (John 3:16.) You are his child. (Acts 17:29.) You were built to love in the sense that, as the offspring of He who is love (1 John 4:7-8), learning how to love others and become the personification of love is the purpose of your existence. (Matthew 22:37-40.) “For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” (Galatians 5:14.) Since God is love, to be like God is to emulate love and kindness. You can do that inside a flawed container, a broken package or a building overrun with decrepit and decaying scaffolding.
You were built to love.
Will church policy, church history, church practice, church leadership, etc. change the mandate given to you by Jesus? Should any of that change or affect your internal level of consciousness? Remember, the kingdom of God is within you. (Luke 17:21.) And you were built to love. This is your purpose. With this level of consciousness you can be in the church but not of the church.
May God bless you in your journey of transformation. May he bless you with the charity, love and patience you will need to be in the church but not of the church. May he bless you to become built to love.